What I Will Be Listening For At the Debate

Preparations are made for the Fox News GOP primary debate in Myrtle Beach, SC, on January 10, 2008 (photo credit: Teresa via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)
Preparations are made for the Fox News GOP primary debate in Myrtle Beach, SC, on January 10, 2008 (photo credit: Teresa via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Jonathan Haidt – self-confessed liberal professor of psychology, now at NYU – is the author or a really fascinating book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  What makes this book fascinating, in part, is that he argues conservatives are inherently more effective than liberals at communicating on issues with moral content.  This is so because Haidt has identified through his empirical psychological research six “moral receptors,” rather like six types of taste buds through which we experience the flavor of moral argumentation.  Conservatives are more effective at moral communications because we tend to engage all six receptors, providing a richer taste, so to speak, whereas liberals rarely invoke more than two.

I will be listening tomorrow for how well the candidates engage each of the receptors.  By the way, Carly Fiorina’s recent speech at the Reagan Library (discussed here) stands out because it is an example of a masterful job of touching each of Haidt’s receptors.

Is moral communication relevant to political debate?  Politics is nothing other than a great collective conversation about matters which are thoroughly morally-infused.  Every law is a statement of morality; government is about laws; politics is about government.

Here are the six receptors (these are not Haidt’s labels; I’ve renamed them for the sake of clarity), with examples of how they might be addressed:

1. Care for the Vulnerable

“The American Dream must be available to everyone; we will ensure no one is left behind.”

2. Cooperation/Pulling One’s Own Weight

“America is a place where hard work has always been rewarded by accomplishment.  No one should expect to get ahead without putting in the effort.”

3. The Commitment to Things Bigger than One’s Self: The Common Good, Patriotism

“The problem with our economy today is that the few are flourishing while the many suffer.  We must stimulate economic growth so as to lift up everyone.”  “Our society must be a place where families are honored, children protected, and good character nurtured.”

4. Respect for Authority (including traditions, institutions, and values)

“I revere the Constitution of the United States.  It is being degraded by an out-of-control judiciary.”  “We welcome legal immigration, and people who come to the United States must be prepared to embrace the American values of love of country, respect for the rule of law, concern for your neighbor.”

5. The Invocation of Sanctity

“Every life must be cherished, regardless of race, aged or young,born or unborn.  In America, everyone must have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential.”

6. Liberty

“We are being smothered by excessive and domineering government.”

Notice what is not on the list: equality.  Sameness or equality of outcome is not a receptor; what we revolt against is being the victim of oppression or injustice, which falls under the liberty receptor.

These days, many on the Right despair over the potency of the Left’s argumentation, and anyone experienced with political discourse knows how the Left relentlessly uses “care for the vulnerable” and “oppression (liberty).”  Yet it is we who enjoy the natural advantage.  Conservatives must do a better job of using all the weapons in our arsenal.  We, not the Left, own the poetry of America.

Steve Wagner is president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm, and a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.