Jonathan Haidt: What the Tea Partiers really want is karma

| December 14, 2010 | 7 Replies

Jonathan Haidt is convinced he understands the thing that spurs on Tea Partiers: karma. He argued his position in an October 16, 2010 article appearing in the Wall Street Journal. Haidt based his conclusion on various surveys designed to tease out the differences and similarities among different types of voters.

Those surveys show that American voters across the board love “liberty.” This is a problem for progressives because it doesn’t distinguish them from Tea Partiers. We struggle to distinguish Tea Partiers in other ways, then, claiming that they are more racist, greedier or more gullible. Jonathan Haidt is not convinced.

[Karma is] the Sanskrit word for deed or action, and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.

The idea of karma comports with a common human desire that moral bank accounts should be balanced. In the eyes of Tea Partiers, this desire to see a balancing of moral bank accounts is sharply frustrated by government policies that allow bad deeds (e.g., the failure to work hard) to go unpunished. The main problem is that social safety nets get in the way of karma. In the language of evolutionary psychology, Tea Partiers have highly sensitive cheater detectors. They believe that most welfare programs reduce incentives for working getting married, especially among the poor. Another example raised by Haidt is that birth control and abortion separate “irresponsible” sex from its natural consequences (babies). Another example concerns liberal approaches to criminal justice, which allow too many criminals to get away with crime.

Image by edayi at dreamstime.com (with permission)

Tea Partiers “want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility payoff and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin.” Haidt contrasts Tea Partiers to liberals, who don’t like the idea of karma, because it allows “differences in talent and effort to result in unequal outcomes.”

Haidt also points out a fault line that underlies conservative politics. Tea Partiers starkly part ways with libertarian and pro-business conservatives, such as those run by Dick Armey, who support bailouts of big banks.

“Now jump ahead to today’s ongoing financial and economic crisis. Those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President. Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us where is punishment for the wicked?”

Further complicating things, Libertarians and pro-business types are more similar to liberals than to Tea Partiers on the three “binding foundations” (of Haidt’s five foundations of morality): group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual sanctity. And see here for more on Haidt’s five moral foundations.

Haidt did not discuss social Darwinism in his article, but it seems to be the elephant in the room. It’s one thing to say in the abstract (as Tea Partiers say) that we need to let the chips fall where they might, but what do you do about the tragedies? Nothing? Tea Partiers tend to be evasive about what they should do about homeless people and sick people who don’t have insurance. Tea Party rhetoric suggests (wrong-headedly in my opinion) that everything always comes out for the best in the end, without intervention of government. Everything will be as it should thanks to free market fundamentalism. That is what we are hearing from a mostly older bunch of folks who are happily benefitting from social security and Medicare while ranting about government programs.

I think that Jonathan Haidt has made a good point regarding Tea Party pursuit of karma, but I think that the full picture also requires the recognition of Tea Party hard-heartedness and hypocrisy.

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Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Rich Paxson says:

    Erich, thanks for your post about the Tea Party referencing Jonathan Haidt's recent WSJ article. The concept of "karma" as a driving force behind the Tea Party movement was a piece that I needed to fill-in one of those holes in my mental 'Tea Party Puzzle.'

    I clicked on Dangerous Intersection's 'Haidt' tag finding quite a few links. I first encountered Jonathan Haidt's work during the 2008 election in an article where he cited his five bases of "intuitive ethics." Haidt's website at the University of Virginia has a clear statement of these five foundations here: http://bit.ly/hI2nP1

    Your final paragraph in the above post refered to "Tea Party hard-heartedness and hypocrisy." This led me to thoughts about how to 'get around it.' That is, when people behave in hard-hearted, hypocritical, holier-than-thou ways, then how do you 'get-around-it'?

    A lot of the value of Haidt's work for me lies in the concepts it gives me for hearing what people who value tea party karma, for example, may be thinking underneath all the surface sloganeering that I find as obstacles to what I think are 'better ideas.' When I remember the five foundations of "intuitive ethics," then I find a basis for relating to, and perhaps even relateing with, that initially disliked 'other' person.

    The hard part is the next step, which is to focus on what the person is saying, I try to listen reflectively, that is, hearing then reflecting back in conversation those 'other' ideas, and when possible the feelings underneath the ideas.

    As I read your post this morning about using Jonathan Haidt's ideas to understand people who value the Tea Party, I thought of Mark Tiedemann's excellent post on Bullying here at DI. ( http://bit.ly/h36sOr ) Is the 'tea partier' a Bully or a victim? In the tea partier's mind, I think it's probably most often victim. In the minds of other people the tea partier is may be the political bully let loose on the block.

    But, it's when bully or victim, often both, focuses on the 'hated other' as a means of bolstering their sense of individual self-worth that problems arise for all: bully, school-yard victim, liberal, libertarian or tea partier. Trying to feel righteous, or powerful, or accepted through demonizing, or in any way intentionally excluding 'the other,' creates situations where each antagonist sees 'the other' as obstacle to achieving their desired outcome. This conflict, never lying very far below the surface, leads all too often to patterns of escalating violence.

    I'll end with a practical, if at least to me ironic, observation. How do you pronounce Jonathan Haidt's last name? Not "hate," it's "height!" This guidance came from Nicholas Wade, whose 2007 article: "Is 'Do Unto Others' Written Into Our Genes?" was published by the New York Times. http://nyti.ms/gmQ5gO

  2. x0x says:

    "Haidt contrasts Tea Partiers to liberals, who don’t like the idea of karma, because it allows “differences in talent and effort to result in unequal outcomes.”"

    I take exception to this… I don't think there's anybody alive, including the most dastardly mustache twirling uber-socialist, who's goal in life is to ensure equal outcomes for everyone. Liberals want equality of opportunity, not outcomes. This is a rhetorical frame of the right.

    Most reasonable people don't believe in the second half of that statement either, that "talent and effort" are the sole contributors to one's success or lack thereof. You'll find right wingers who will *say* that, but barring true randroids, none that really believe it if you scratch beyond the surface.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      x0x: I know many members of unions who think that one is entitled to one's salary based on one's job title (and sometimes by the number of years worked) and that the quality of one's work is irrelevant as long as one does the the minimum–enough that you don't get fired. I once worked with the state as an Assistant Attorney General, where pay and raises were determined solely by how many years you worked there. Strict performance was never rewarded, even though there was massive disparity of performance.

      I disagree with your characterization of all right wingers too. I've talked to many conservative folks who are social darwinists through and through. If you can't scrape out a living, tough shit. At least that is there approach to policy in the abstract. I do agree with you that many of these people wouldn't allow a neighborhood child starve to death.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I want to add my 2 cents worth.

    The concept of karma appeals to many in the working class as they misinterpret the aggregate effects of competition. An employer who consistently cheats and mistreats the employees is often rewarded with an inept, unskilled, unqualified and often resentful workforce as the better employees will seek work for a better employer. Likewise, the better employers are ofter rewarded by having a better quality workforce.

    This also applies in business-customer relationships. It is much easier to believe in karma, than to acknowledge the success, or lack thereof to be the fruits of their own attitudes.

    We live in a time when the idea of capitalism has been elevated to a religion. But capitalism, in its purer forms doesn't reward people for their hard work with success. It rewards people less for what they contribute to the economy and more for what they own and control.

    This is in the very definition of capitalism. Many of the TEA party-ers I've met have been so instilled with the fear of all things non-capitalist, that they are not rational when it comes to looking at social and economic problems we currently have. They have fallen prey to the dis information that promotes a system that redistributes wealth from the poor to the ultra wealthy.

    The conservative/liberal labels are also screwy and skewed in this country.

    The socially conservative party, the Republicans, are the fiscal liberals, while the socially liberal party, the Democrats are the fiscal conservatives.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus, nicely captured definition: "Capitalism, in its purer forms doesn’t reward people for their hard work with success. It rewards people less for what they contribute to the economy and more for what they own and control."

  5. Olympus Mons says:

    It's so often forgotten that Haidt proves that conservatives and "tea parties" also score high on the first 2 pilars (just like Liberals) but liberals do score very low on the rest of the pilars…

    So tea parties do understand liberals, but is the liberal "equiped" to understand the conservative?

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