By Comson Cao
In our increasingly polarized society, it’s common to hear stories about politics killing friendships, relationships, and the cheerful mood at family dinners. Why is this the case? Why is it that people can put aside their differences on all sorts of other matters, but politics seems to be a persistent dividing line? As one might expect, the answers are complicated and nuanced, but they nonetheless provide useful insight towards understanding each side of the political spectrum.
A worthwhile question might be “Which side is at fault?” It would be tempting to simply dismiss this question and take the moderate stance that both sides contribute equally to the divide. But is this really the case? The findings from an American Perspectives Survey gathered in May of 2021 titled “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss” reveals that Republicans are more likely to have Democrat friends than vice versa, with 53% of the Republicans surveyed claiming to have at least some Democrat friends compared to 32% of Democrats claiming to have at least some Republican friends. Additionally, Democrats are twice as likely to report having ended a friendship over a political disagreement compared to Republicans (20% vs. 10%, respectively). We also know that in colleges, conservatives feel a greater amount of pressure to self-censor, with 83% of people surveyed who identify as ‘strong conservatives’ agreeing with the statement “the political climate prevents me from saying what I believe.” Only 25% of those who identify as ‘strong liberals’ say the same, according to the 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey conducted by the CATO Institute. From these, it seems that the two sides aren’t equally at fault here, as liberals are on average more intolerant of differing political views than conservatives.
However, instead of just pointing fingers to levy the blame on one side or the other, it’s far more helpful to know why such disparities in ideological tolerance exist between liberals and conservatives. One possible explanation is that liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. This “Moral Foundations” theory was developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt argues that human beings possess six moral foundations, three of which are “binding,” and the others “individualizing.” The binding foundations (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation) are concerned with the well-being of the group, whereas the individualizing foundations (care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating) are concerned with the well-being of the individual. On average, conservatives value six foundations equally, whereas liberals value the individualizing foundations significantly more than the binding foundations. The differences are shown below:
This would therefore create a problem known as ‘asymmetrical empathy’ whereby conservatives empathize with the concerns of liberals more than liberals with conservatives, given the stark differences in their moral matrices. Liberals often do not understand why conservatives value loyalty to the group, obedience to authority, and sanctity, and therefore perceive conservatives as cold-hearted or ill-intentioned. This would be consistent with a 2012 study by Jesse Graham which found that liberals and conservatives caricaturize each other’s concerns and beliefs, but liberals do so to a much greater extent than conservatives.
Another significant question would be about the differences in mental health between liberals and conservatives. Researcher Philippe Lemoine used the data from Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex survey and found that those on the left are far more neurotic than those on the right as they are much more likely to have been diagnosed with a mental disorder compared to those on the right. Neuroticism is one of the traits in the “Big Five” model of personality, along with openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness, all of which are, to some degree, heritable. Being high in neuroticism means that you’re more likely to experience strong negative feelings and view the world as dangerous and unpredictable. This will push you to adopt a survival mentality. Because of this, a highly neurotic person will view political dissent not as mere disagreement, but as an existential threat. This is congruent with a 2021 study by Siqi Wu and Paul Resnick, which suggests that conservatives are far more willing to engage in discussions with liberals than vice versa.
Now, one objection you could raise is that the differences in mental health between left and right are based on self-report. Yet even when Soyoung Kwon measured it using symptom-based scales of distress, this pattern still emerged. Furthermore, the mere criticism of self-report is insufficient in explaining the sheer magnitude of the disparity. It’s unlikely that self-reporting bias explains the entirety of the 170% difference at the extremes. From this, one could cautiously argue that the psychometric differences between liberals and conservatives explain not only the views they hold but also the differences in their attitudes towards each other.
Politics can be understood as not merely competing systems of economic and social theories, but also the manifestations of fundamentally different moral frameworks. The moral lens which you hold, regardless of how it was formed, will compel you towards a particular stance. These differences which drive the political tribalism on the left and the right are ultimately just that: moral impositions on society that one wishes to achieve. That reality doesn’t change, regardless of whether one can justify their views. It’s trying to understand the mentality of both sides of the political spectrum and why we are so divided in the first place, as knowing what lies beneath all the shouting will allow for a better mutual understanding, on both sides.