Why do working-class people vote conservative?

Professor Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia is a moral psychologist, which I take it means that he investigates the psychological underpinnings of human morality. He is the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

In a talk he gave recently at the American Enterprise Institute, I heard Haidt say that during his work on the book, his own political ideology morphed from the liberal to the conservative side, which makes him even more interesting to me and perhaps even more qualified to talk about the mystery captured by the headline on this post (and I stole the headline from this piece, which ran over the last couple of days in several publications including the Guardian and Alternet).

 As a former liberal, Haidt understands pretty well the anguish of the left when it sees working-class Americans supporting Republicans, which working class voters have done in large numbers at least since Reagan. Haidt summarizes one self-serving lefty explanation this way:

The Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. “Vote for us and we’ll protect the American flag!” say the Republicans. “We’ll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we’ll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we’ll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!”

As you can infer from that set-up, Haidt considers this to be not only self-serving but self-blinding cant. Haidt offers another way to try to solve the mystery:

Here’s a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programs.

The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programs for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we’ll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That’s what families are for.

One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals. Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavors. In my research with colleagues atYourMorals.org, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate ‘taste buds’ of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral “cuisine” makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticize your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.”

In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the “cultural” issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.

Haidt concludes:

In sum, the left has a tendency to place caring for the weak, sick and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. It is admirable and necessary that some political party stands up for victims of injustice, racism or bad luck. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address – and sometimes violates – other moral needs, hopes and concerns. When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2012 - 10:51 am.


    There’s a more simple explanation: we live in Lake Woebegone.
    Surveys show that two thirds of the population believe that they either earn more than the average now, or will in the near future.
    So, they are more afraid of losing what they have (there’s also behavioral data on negative versus positive long run consequences) than they are motivated by gaining more.
    In effect, we’ve become a nation of perceived ‘haves’ protecting themselves against the ‘have nots’.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/08/2012 - 11:16 am.

    “Why do working-class people vote conservative?”

    Because liberty shouldn’t be restricted to only rich people.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/08/2012 - 11:29 am.

    Culture and identity

    I do think a lot of duping goes on, but it’s a matter of lying to the converted rather than lying to convert them. Though we can always find some people who can be deluded into thinking their going to be millionaires themselves by supporting whatever wealthy special interests want, it seemed obvious people were voting by identity and cultural identifications. Change is scary to some of us, and that tendency to fear change is just going to get stronger when some of the changes really are dislocating, like economic changes that cost people their jobs, which can mean the losses of homes and breakup of families. Even without the economic crisis of 2008 and the weak economy ever since, we were changing rapidly, and to a conservative, those changes aren’t welcome: new technology changing fundamental aspects of life, demographic changes, decreasing religiosity, stronger generational differences.

    Though I will say Haidt’s claim that he changed from liberal to conservative because of his research — I’m calling BS on that. People don’t change their personality and worldview because they do some psychological research on morality. That just screams self-serving nonsense.

  4. Submitted by Ross Williams on 06/08/2012 - 11:41 am.

    Politics of Resentment

    “For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticize your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.””

    Someone ought to have told Ezra Pound, Timothy McVeigh and Johnny Paycheck. Assuming this guy is telling the truth about his “conversion”, he was once an ideological liberal, became an ideological conservative and continues to derive his factual conclusions from his ideology rather than the other way around.

    That said, Republicans are not deluding working class people. They are simply proposing responses that appeal to fears and resentments. Many progressives dismiss those concerns as illegitimate, but they really aren’t. The problem with giving a helping hand to the downtrodden is that it often helps them to better compete with those slightly better off. If you are one of those people just slightly better off, as many working class are, you quite rightly see that “help” as a threat to your own position.

    If your kid can’t play sports because you don’t think you can afford the extra fees, you quite rightly resent the guy across the street whose kids play for free with your taxes picking up the tab. You can see that same process happening with the mortgage crisis, health insurance and retirement.

    Social Security and Medicare have largely escaped from working class resentment because they apply to everyone. Likewise unemployment insurance. The right has its own blind spot when it attacks those programs.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/08/2012 - 05:28 pm.

      Interesting analysis

      You bring up an interesting angle. We get so caught up in focussing our attention on the yawning divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” and the injustices contained therein and wondering why the people being hurt by this seem so unable to see it.

      But your thoughts on the implications of the much smaller divide between two far more contiguous populations makes a lot of sense. A lot of sense.

      Really thought-provoking analysis.

  5. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 06/08/2012 - 12:44 pm.

    It seems that the author’s research pinpoints this as the ideological divide: Conservatives have managed to distill the wide variety of interests that loosely fall into their tent into a message that is simple enough to be resistant to internal contradictions, Liberals have not.

    For instance, two conservative camps: big business and evangelical Christians, whose interests truly have nothing to do with one another, are united behind notions of freedom and traditional values. Two liberal camps: environmentalists and blue-collar unions, will be forever at odds because the California environmentalists’ values would see the West Virginia coal miner’s livelihood closed down.

    I buy the author’s take as an explanation. I buy it as a political reality. What I do not buy is that the conservative willingness to radically simplify what is in fact a very complex real world is something that is good for the health of our nation.

    Example: following the 9/11 attacks, GWB initiated two wars, one probably justified, one ruinously destructive in blood, treasure, and international standing. But in 2002/2003, both were lumped together in the realm of political and social discourse into a single thing called the War on Terror. The fact that the two had little to do with one another was a reality that was not addressed by the conservative camp – to be against one war was to be against both, and therefore pro-terrorism (at least in the rather convoluted logic of the time). Why was it not addressed? Because it was a contradiction that would have derailed the entire logic of a war that the Republican message-making masters had already deemed necessary.

    I am sure that I could come up with dozens of other examples throughout US and world history that further illustrate the point I am trying to make: whenever a simplistic viewpoint is applied to what is in fact an impossibly complex reality, problems follow.

    The simplicity and directness of the conservative message might be good politics, but it scares the hell out of me when it makes the transition into governance.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2012 - 01:25 pm.

      interesting contrast

      Your second paragraph points to an interesting difference:
      The Democrats’ divide (conservation versus jobs) has a clear bottom line where it is immediately obvious who benefits at the expense of whom, at least in the short run.
      In the long run, conservation can make good economic sense, but most individuals do not balance their budgets for the long run; they pay their bills now (if they can).

      The Republican camps (big businesses and evangelicals), while they may have little in common, do not have competing tangible interests at stake. It doesn’t cost them anything to support each other (or the same candidates).

      Structural advantage: Republicans.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/08/2012 - 12:57 pm.

    These comments indicate

    that you people have no clue what conservatism is all about. It’s not about money. It’s about freedom. And ALL people, rich, poor and in between have the same constitutional right to be free of government intrusion into our lives.

    The “envy” and “resentment” comments are particularly funny and ironic because as we all know, if someone could wave a magic wand and those emotions disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, the democrats would never win another election.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2012 - 08:12 pm.

      The constitution

      Can you tell me precisely where in the Constitution of the United States the word ‘freedom’ occurs?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/09/2012 - 08:47 am.

        The Constitution

        is the founding document that describes and defines the limited role of government. Freedom is achieved when government stays within those limits.

        Whenever government passes a law or imposes another regulation, your freedom is diminished.

        As government grows, your freedom shrinks. – Algebra 101

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/10/2012 - 10:17 am.

          First of all

          You have not answered my question.

          Second, the Constitution is mostly about the division of powers between the Federal and State governments, not on limits to those powers per se. You ought to read it some time.

          The only place ‘freedom’ shows up is in the First Amendment, and that specifies some very specific freedoms”
          “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
          Nothing there about freedom from government intrusion.

          As far as your last statement goes, the growth of government through amendments to the Constitution and mechanisms for its enforcement broadened complete rights of citizenship from white male landowners to all citizens. Tell all those people who gained citizenship through government laws and regulations, and their enforcement through government action (I suppose you think that the actions of Federal marshals in Alabama and Mississippi in the ’50’s and ’60’s were an unjust intrusion on individual freedom. Certainly many Southrun whites claimed that (and some still do).

        • Submitted by Chet Esium on 11/03/2012 - 04:19 am.

          Freedom to Breathe

          I see. So regulations to reduce sulfur emissions interfered with our freedom to have acid rain destroy our environment? Regulations to reduce emissions from automobiles interfered with our freedom to have sore throats and asthma? Regulations to provide clean, drinkable water interfere with our freedom to have cholera?

          But your comment is quite interesting. This insistence that everything a government does is bad suggests there are more dimensions that need to be explored than just different moral/value systems. I think you have to add a logic/intelligence aspect to the debate. I think you really do have to go to the point where you say: republicans have been trained by their respect for authority and their religious training to unquestioningly accept certain types of falsehoods repeated over and over from certain types of people or organizations.

  7. Submitted by Penny Pergament on 06/08/2012 - 01:02 pm.

    Why working class people vote conservative

    It would seem the professor is far more an ideologue than a scientist. I would also agree he is deluding himself if he believes he was once a card carrying liberal who has had a conversion experience. The right can confabulate anything, it is hands down there strength.

  8. Submitted by william laney on 06/08/2012 - 01:30 pm.

    So, pre-emptive war, limitations of health care and food for the poor, low wages and benefits for workers, and unregulated greed have become morally acceptable for conservatives? This is not conservative thinking. I would say that there is no more liberal interpretation of morality.

  9. Submitted by Terry Elliott on 06/08/2012 - 10:26 pm.

    A great topic!

    This has confounded liberals since FDR. Heck here we are bribing people (with their own money, but what the heck), and they still don’t vote for the Gravy Train. Come on people! Vote your self-interest!

    Terry Elliott

    • Submitted by Chet Esium on 11/03/2012 - 04:36 am.

      gravy train for the mind

      And yet, most of the issues in the current election are not about a gravy train.

      1) Romney wants to burn more coal and objects to Obama’s approach of shutting down the oldest most polluting coal-powered plants. Obama will save the country money through reduced health care costs and increased productivity. Romney will benefit a few who make money when they dump their wastes into the atmosphere.

      2) Romney wants to reduce regulations. Now, the regulations I’m most familiar with are those that reduce acid rain, ensure breathable air, and ensure drinkable water. So Romney is stating that he doesn’t care if we can breathe, drink water, or go outside during a rainstorm.

      3) Romney wants to reduce government spending. A big part of government spending is education. The reason we provide public education is to give business a large pool of highly productive labor. So Romney wants to make labor less productive and make it harder for American businesses to hire American labor. So Romney wants to make America weaker.

      4) Romeny wants government to intrude more into American lives. He wants to control what you can wear when having sex with your wife. He wants to restrict who you can choose as the close personal companion you want to be with every day for the rest of your life.

      Gravy train? Sure, point (3) contains some gravy. And the reason it contains gravy is that gravy helps create a strong middle class, and a strong middle class creates a strong America. Healthy, productive workers create strong corporate profits.

  10. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 06/11/2012 - 06:35 am.

    What is a virtue?

    It is no mystery why Jonathan Haidt is a conservative.

    The three moral concepts that Haidt identifies as more important to conservatives than liberals,
    “loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation,” are not considered by all thinking moralists to be moral at all.

    If one thinks for a moment, it is easy to see why a moralist may dispute the notion that either loyalty or authority is always a virtue, or that either betrayal or subversion is always a vice. If you belong to a corporation that cheats or inflicts harm, should you be loyal to that corporation or report their crime? If you are a German living under Nazi rule, should you obey the law or defy it to protect your Jewish neighbors from the government?

    The notion that there is a moral concept of “sanctity” separate and distinct from the indisputable virtues of care, fairness, and liberty, is also implausible if one thinks for a moment. Indeed, God himself, if we can believe the prophet Amos (see the Book of Amos, chapter 5, verses 21-24), doesn’t care much for any kind of “sanctity” that has no connection to social virtue.

    So the first thing I have to say about Haidt’s catalog of virtues is that it is at best controversial that three of them are even called virtues at all. I would go so far as to say that serious moral thinkers will prefer to leave them out of the catalog.

    Haidt seems to ascribe to the view that morality isn’t properly about thinking; it’s about feeling only. His use of the tongue as a metaphor for one’s conscience offers further evidence for this claim. And I believe this, too, is true of conservatives generally. They don’t think much about morality, because they believe that merely having moral feelings – and doing what they are told (authority), not making waves (loyalty), and obeying some God other than the God of Amos (sanctity) – is all they are required to do. Therefore, morality for them is like the palate of a picky eater who never learns to like spicy food, but who may be addicted to “comfort food” that hardens his arteries.

    Liberals, in contrast, engage both their minds and their hearts when they make moral decisions. They regard morality as a thing deeper than one’s own esthetic preference, and in the course of their education, they learn to distrust feelings that they come to recognize as prejudicial. Therefore, liberals have another virtue that conservatives like Haidt tend to leave off their list of virtues altogether: tolerance.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/10/2012 - 04:15 pm.


    Haidt is moving to the NYU School of Business, where he will work with business people at morally justifying their actions (my interpretation of his statement on his Web page: http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/).

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/15/2012 - 09:07 am.

    I’ve seen this before

    This is just another run at liberal morality or lack thereof. It’s also making the old false claim that Americans are mostly conservative, or human beings mostly conservative from a moral perspective. If you look surveys over time you almost always find that Americans are more liberal than their politicians. Haidt might have a point if it weren’t for the deceptive nature of the Republican party, and for the fact there simply are no “leftists” on the American political landscape. Many liberals I know frequently think they have no one to vote for, and democrats frequently do their own form of bait and switch. I think the reason so many liberals will for republicans on occasion is that they simply don’t see much of a difference. When you step back and look at the last 40 years, you see that we’re still dealing with the same issues that Ronald Reagan promised to resolve, and with the exception of the cold war most of those problems have gotten bigger. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in power- look at the stadium issue for instance. The other problem liberals is that they decided that politics were irrelevant, what matters is your personal choices, your resume, education, etc. etc.

    Another problem with liberals is that their assumption of innate morality often prevents them from recognizing the true nature of an adversary. Liberals tend to assume that there’s some common ground we can strive for and will settle for participation. Conservatives tend to be more black and white, they don’t want to participate, they want to dictate, and liberals in the US are spectacularly blind to that fact. I actually think Obama thought the Republicans would compromise for example. Liberals are much more prone to delusional “middlism”, i.e. the truth is in the “middle” of something.

    Yet another difference between liberals and conservatives is the alarm level. American liberals tend not to get so alarmed because they have a lot of faith our process. They assume the process will check extremism. Conservatives are always alarmed, the system is always under threat and a day away from some kind of collapse.

    As far as morality is concerned, Haidt completely misses the point. The difference between liberal and conservative morality isn’t pallet, it’s origin. Liberals tend to think that people are born with a moral compass, and the capacity for moral reasoning that can be trusted. Conservative tend to think that people need to be infused with morality, it’s needs derive from authority such as scriptures. Conservatives don’t trust human reason, they trust authority. Now whether not these differences are expressions of genetics might be an interesting question, but Haidt doesn’t seem to be asking that question

    I have a hard time accepting Haidt’s interpretation of the data because as far as I tell, guys like Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck are biggest America haters on the planet. They sit around all day bitching about our culture, entertainment, diversity, courts, elections results, and the economy. These are the guys who talk about secession, they’re not loyal to the nation, they’re loyal to idea of a nation. Haidt is clearly missing some of the nuances involved here.

    In the end it’s hard to say much about morality in American based on electoral outcomes because neither party is what it claims to be, yet these are the parties people feel like they have to vote for. It’s true that the Democrats have a much more muddled and incoherent narrative, but that’s not because they’re liberal, it’s because they afraid of being too liberal, so they end up being a party of compromise instead of a party of clear alternatives.

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