Recent studies reveal a strange truth about the nature of our societal divisions.

I got an email a few weeks ago from the Washington State Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission (NCQAC). As a Registered Nurse, I’m used to receiving occasional emails from them about various regulatory and public health matters. However, this email was different: “COVID-19  Information.” This appeared to be worth my click.

What followed was an official COVID “myth-buster” from the Washington DOH. For the most part, it was fairly benign, busting various myths such as “I should probably stock up on some more groceries” and “These wipes are flushable.” However, the second-to-last myth-bust stood out from the others.

The “Myth” was fine, if somewhat out-of-place for an email to the state’s nurses: “Myth: We’re going back to normal after this.” Most of the answer was also fine, centering around the acknowledgment that we won’t go back to “normal” again in the same way. The author went on to speculate regarding the possible ways in which our society might change.

“Maybe we’ll hug our people tighter, maybe we’ll savor our time together more.”

Yeah, maybe it will increase our appreciation for each other. No problem here. Sure thing.

“Maybe we’ll help to keep the air clean by working at home more often.”

Well, Washington already has very clean air . . . but working from home is a good thing. I don’t have an issue with this.

But then the other shoe dropped:

“Maybe we’ll decide it’s important for everyone to be able to get health care when they need it.”

Uh-huh, because right now, “we” don’t believe it’s important for people to be able to get health care when they need it. Sure.

The author’s subtext reads like a disapproving mother scolding her stubborn children. It is obvious who the author is talking about: Those evil conservatives, holding society back with their desire to maniacally withhold healthcare from poor people. What a perception to have about an entire side of the political spectrum, putting aside the fact that the biggest issue in our health care system is cost, not (as much) access or outcomes (more on that in a future post). And shouldn’t an official governmental regulatory body be above partisan political jabs?

In reality, the author almost certainly does not see herself (assuming the author is female) as a political partisan trying to prejudice the opinions of Washington nurses. Rather, she is falling prey to a filter bubble that cuts her off from a nuanced understanding of conservative political thought. This is increasingly the case for members of both sides of the political spectrum. But you already know that – there has been plenty of media attention on this reality over the last several years. What you might not know is that one aspect of this increasing polarization is unbalanced in its distribution.

You would think that increasing polarization would lead to an equal and mutual lack of understanding of divergent political views. A study by Dr. Jonathan Haidt (written about in his remarkable book “The Righteous Mind”), suggests this is not the case. In the study, participants were challenged to guess how a person of a differing political viewpoint would rate (agree vs disagree) a given moral statement, examples including, “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society.” Liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree with these statements.

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.”

(Pg 334 of “The Righteous Mind”)

Bear in mind that Haidt and his co-authors are political liberals themselves. You can listen to Haidt argue with Ben Shapiro about Obama’s legacy if you need confirmation.  

[There are many books to be written about Haidt’s contribution to the political landscape, particularly regarding his Moral Foundations Theory, but suffice it to say that Liberals base their moral decisions based on Care and Fairness, whereas Conservatives base theirs evenly across Care, Fairness, Purity/Sanctity, Authority (Respect for), and Loyalty (to one’s group).]

This liberal blind spot is a product of many overlapping factors, but none more so than their domination of our education and media spheres. Studies repeatedly show that liberals vastly outnumber conservatives in higher education, in some departments by ratios as high as 20:1 in Journalism and 11.5:1 overall.  Similar ratios prevail for primary and secondary education. This unavoidably creates a scenario wherein children growing up in liberal families today might never encounter a single cogent conservative argument for the entirety of their education. So while the kids in conservative families are repeatedly exposed to both sides, liberal kids are not.

Similar figures pervade regarding the political leanings of current journalists. As few as seven percent of journalists identify as Republicans, compared to sixty percent or more who lean Democrat.

All of these factors combine to create a situation where left-leaning thought is automatically equated to “normal” opinion – an infuriating position for a moderate conservative to be in when he or she self-censors for fear of being labeled and shamed for a relatively benign opinion. I recall a situation back in 2016 wherein a leader of a scholarship program I had participated in during college, upon learning that my then-girlfriend was doing an internship with Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, narrowed her gaze and muttered with disgust ” . . . she’s a republican.”

What in the world? Did this person really think that her public scholarship program only sponsored left-leaning students? Apparently so, as I demurred “Well, uh, I mean we’re all pretty moderate . . .” and scurried away to end the tension.

My purpose in writing all of this isn’t to cast myself as a victim. I am far from victimized here, or in any other area of my life. Regardless, I think a path toward a society that prospers and remains united for another hundred years requires a dialogue set on equal footing. Both sides have their crazy radicals to police, but it is clear that the left has some unique work to do in regard to understanding moral foundations, especially considering their unique domination of academic and media spheres.

Now, perhaps I’m not the best mouthpiece for this message. As a conservative, a message from me is unlikely to be heard in quite the same way as it would from a good-faith liberal – who do, of course, exist. So, if you’re a left-leaning friend or co-worker of mine bristling at the idea that the party opposing Donald J Trump has the real soul-searching to do, I’d encourage you to ignore me, and go read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.” Seriously, if you’re interested, I will buy you a copy. I’ve already bought like 15 copies of this book for other people.

8 thoughts on “Conservatives Understand Liberals (But Not Vice-Versa)

  1. Can I just say that I’m amazed this book keeps coming up! As a liberal I quite agree that we need some soul searching but I think building relationships is the key!

    • Richard Sybrandy says:

      Hi, this is Nate’s dad. I so agree with you about relationships. I was raised in a very politically and religiously conservative home, and it was not until I developed close relationships with “honest liberals” (the ones that actually listen and discuss rather than those ideologically possessed slogan throwers) that I grew to truly understand not only their foundations of thought, but my own as well.

  2. Kelly Beane says:

    So proud of you for stepping out, and how thoughtful your arguments are. As a conservative turned liberal (I guess?) I am in a somewhat unique position. I saw (and continue to see) so much “liberals are from satan” defense mechanisms from those in my conservative circles, that it was easy for me to assume that it was conservatives that were dug into their trenches and unable to see anything but their views. Now that I am in more liberal circles, I am disheartened to see the same trenches. Even so, I’m not sure if it’s helpful to judge one trench deeper than the other, even if it may be true. I know your heart is to bring both sides out of their defended holes so they can look each other in the eyes, and see another human looking back. And to that end, I am right there with you.

  3. Amber Robertson says:

    Hey! It’s been a long time but I found myself looking forward to reading your educated and well laid out Facebook posts about everything from politics to the virus, and this is even better! I can’t wait to try out that book, and share a copy with my husband. Keep up the awesome and informed writing 👍🏼

  4. Dominic Heiden says:

    Wow. Great job Nathan. It is so refreshing to have your perspective be easily readable but still be incredibly insightful, well-sourced, and logical. I am very excited for your blog! Thank you for using your talents to address issues like this.

  5. As a liberal, there are 3 major characteristics of conservatives that we believe exist and they are that conservatives are A) authoritarians/more susceptible to authoritarianism, B) believe that laws are not meant to improve the standard of living for the public but are instead meant to sanction ways of life and provide punishments for veering off that course, and C) prefer the law PRESENT us as a certain way rather than fix our problems.

    A:
    [There are many books to be written about Haidt’s contribution to the political landscape, particularly regarding his Moral Foundations Theory, but suffice it to say that Liberals base their moral decisions based on Care and Fairness, whereas Conservatives base theirs evenly across Care, Fairness, Purity/Sanctity, Authority (Respect for), and Loyalty (to one’s group).

    There are books written on Authoritarianism that highlights it as being a predominately right wing phenomenon. The Authoritarian Dynamic by Karen Stenner, highlights that one can access another’s predisposition to authoritarianism by evaluating whether a person prefers that their child is respectful rather than independent, well mannered rather than curious, well behaved rather than considerate, and obedient rather than self reliant. They also tend to prefer sameness and unity. As you pointed out, Conservatives base their moral decisions evenly across five areas (Care, Fairness, Purity, Authority, and Loyalty). The last three give conservatives are higher predisposition to authoritarianism as it makes Conservatives more in favor of having loyalty and obedience to a group of very similar individuals

    B: For Conservatives, there seems to be the idea that we cannot regulate evil. Criminals do not follow the law, after all. Take gun control (I know not every Conservative is against gun control), the argument repeatedly is that a person can still find ways to arm themselves outside of the legal parameters. Liberals are not arguing that those criminals would be unable to find ways to commit crimes, rather that we would have LESS gun crimes with more regulation. And in response to tragic shootings, Liberals often move to legislate (to address the problem), but Conservatives usually respond to that by saying that Liberals are politicizing a tragedy. I could be wrong on this (and the whole post), but that juxtaposition seems to suggest that for Conservatives, attempting to regulate evil is mere politics whereas Liberals see it as making gains to the public’s standard of living. When mass shootings occur, Liberals look towards legislation to prevent the next shooting, while Conservatives tend to focus on punishing the shooters.

    C:
    I think that both liberals and conservatives want there to be less abortions in America. Liberals have been pushing to decrease abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies. To do that, they’ve drafted legislation to increase access to contraceptives and to increase sexual education in primary schools. Conservatives largely have fought against those measures and instead of opted for decreasing access to abortions and pushing for abstinence messaging. The Conservative approach has shown to be less effective than the liberal approach in that area, but Conservatives tend to reject the liberal approach due to what appears to be an idea that regardless of whether the liberal approach works or not, it is the wrong approach.

    Conservatives don’t seem to want to universal healthcare. The plans that Republicans have pushed repeatedly during this administration increase the amount of uninsured people and push back against covering pre-existing conditions. The response is often that we cannot afford universal coverage. At the same time, Republicans in congress pushed against bills to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Similarly, when Liberals suggest raising taxes on our higher earners (we had 607 people in America worth a combined net worth of $2.9 trillion in 2016 and removing the profit motive from our healthcare, Conservatives reject it. Together, the impression is that Conservatives value capitalism over the well being of others.

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