Peggy Whiteneck, Freelance Writer

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Breaking News: We're All "Values Voters!"

In listening to Krista Tippett's program On Being that airs on National Public Radio, I recently caught an interview she did with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a dialogue that Tippett entitled "The Psychology of Self Righteousness." Haidt describes the genuine values held by liberals and conservatives and where they converge or diverge. He explains that both liberals and conservatives share two values: compassion and fairness. But conservatives also value authority, loyalty, and sacredness. As the interview progresses, it also becomes clear that conservatives value order and predictability. Liberals, for their part, value diversity, inclusiveness, and egalitarianism (in which one person's needs and rights are as important as anyone else's). Haidt's point throughout the interview was that all of these values have validity and that the nation needs both sets of values - liberal and conservative - to be morally and socially whole. The issue is not that individuals have to embrace all these values equally; it's that they need to recognize the importance of these two value sets to society as a whole.

Haidt notes that our deeply held value sets have driven Americans into their own enclaves in which shared values become shared lifestyle; in this mental equivalent of gated communities, no others need apply. These enclaves are moral echo chambers that simply bounce our own value sets back to us. The problem is exacerbated by groups (the so-called "values voters" coalition) that seek to claim values as their exclusive territory and to deny that people who challenge their priorities have any values at all.

Haidt's insight that values as not just a moral but a lifestyle choice makes sense of much of the contemporary craziness of U.S. political life. It explains, for instance, why we have such sharply defined "red states" and "blue states": for those who have choices, conservatives aren't normally going to relocate to California or Massachusetts; liberals, by and large, aren't going to choose to live in Oklahoma or Alabama. Consequently, we all live in enclaves where our ideas, biases, and values are consistently reinforced and where we don't have to be exposed to genuine values and perspectives that challenge our own natural inclinations. Even in social media, we can pick and choose, through various forms of unfollowing and unfriending, the values to which we'll expose ourselves and those to which we will not.

Liberals and conservatives tend to react viscerally in the negative to the values of the other side. Diversity is such a difficult value for conservatives since, as Haidt points out, values such as inclusion and diversity are inherently "divisive" precisely because they acknowledge differences in ethnic, racial, and gender identity - and, in challenging the power inequities in the status quo, threaten conservative devotion to order and predictability. On the other side, liberals' attachment to egalitarianism can make them hostile to the value of authority, which in turn can lead to liberal paralysis in advancing important social objectives. Haidt cites the example of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which fizzled out in no small part because its participants were so wedded to egalitarianism and so hostile to what they viewed as oppression by authority that they couldn't agree on a course of future action nor appoint leaders to help advance it.

For me, this analysis of values and the importance of mutual values respect also makes sense both of the visceral and profound rejection of Trump's leadership by liberals and the buyer's remorse that many conservatives are already beginning to experience about their initial decision to support him. If conservatives value order and predictability, Trump's "keep 'em guessing/govern by chaos" style is the very antithesis of those values. If conservatives value authority, they are caught in the bind of having supported someone who - as is becoming increasingly obvious with every passing week - is doubtfully competent to exercise it. If they value loyalty, they find that conflicting values such as justice strain their loyalty to the President - and that sometimes, when values conflict, we have to choose the higher value (which is very arguably justice over loyalty). If they value sacredness, they are not just offended but wounded by the growing evidence that there is little at all that Trump holds sacred. And if both sides value compassion and fairness, Trump appears to be constitutionally incapable of either.

In 2018, it will be time to stem the tide and elect a Congress more robustly capable of standing for shared American values and of meeting its obligation to impose checks and balances on executive power run amok. (This does not require electing either Democrats or Republicans; it does require electing people with a healthy moral compass who recognize they don't have all the answers and need to work across the aisle to advance a constructive national agenda.) Time for liberals to understand that you can't run a country without leadership and authority to govern, that order is a firewall against chaos. And time for conservatives to recognize that WASP isn't a values default, that black lives do matter and that both history and recent events prove this does not go without saying, and that the shared national values of justice and fairness take precedence over the power and prerogatives of individual corporations and the rich.


More Peg's Blog Posts

 · The Trouble with That Anonymous Trump-Circle Editorial
 · What "Telling It Like It Is" Really Means
 · Monuments Flap Is Not about the Monuments
 · Have We Always Been the Disunited States of America?
 · A Humble Defense of the Constitution
 · The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
 · Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services
 · Trying to Learn from the Holocaust
 · Trump's Angry White Folks
 · Whatever Happened to "Look It Up?"



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