The Passions of Voters: Whose Morals Are They, Anyway?

The AP story on John McCain’s taking a 48-44 lead over Barack Obama included this quite: “My heart sort of runs with McCain and my mind probably tends to run toward Obama,” said David Scorup, 58, a county government official in Othello, Wash. “I think I resonate more with McCain.”

That sent me scurrying for the latest on the power of emotions to sway voters—rational analysis of candidates’ positions and records be damned. I’ve written on the ascendancy of heart over head before, starting with a review in June 2007 of Drew Westen’s book “The Political Brain” and including the Newsweek story in February on how emotions trump reason. Most of the focus has been on how different candidates inspire fear or hope (with the former being more powerful than the latter), or even on how likable they are. But in an essay for the online salon Edge, psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia looks at something that may be even more potent: voters’ gut feelings about candidates’ moral values.

“When gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare,” he writes—something every political psychologist I’ve spoken to this election year agrees with. “Feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete,” he continues. “If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.”

The Democrats, as Haidt sees it, have really blown it by thinking that morality is about fairness, equality, individual rights and other manifestations of how people treat one another and how society treats individuals. In fact, he writes, morality “is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats ‘just don’t get it,’ this is the ‘it’ to which they refer.” And nothing arouses voters’ passions more strongly than morals and, especially, the perception that the other guy's are just plain wrong.

Haidt’s alternative definition of morality is “any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.” That means favoring self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for people different from you (racism, anyone?).

Many people have a gut instinct favoring policies that do this, such as by producing social cohesion and downplaying the rights of the individual (sex? abortion?) for the good of the group (intact nuclear families?). How many is “many”? According to Haidt, “one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years [is that] they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. . . . Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions . . . they err, they alienate, and they earn the label ‘elitist’.”

The plain fact is that many voters—we’ll see on November 4 if it’s “most” voters—value loyalty and respect for authority above values that liberals (mistakenly) think are synonymous with morality, such as fairness and caring for the less fortunate. (You can test which values you hold dearest at Read Haidt’s essay, and you’ll be less puzzled about why working-class voters so often make election-day choices that go against their economic self-interest, the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” conundrum.