The Myth of Political Reason

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them

— David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature

A tide of right-wing populism has begun washing over western democracies in recent years, punctuated by the twin shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016. Recent elections in Europe have demonstrated that this political phenomenon has not yet crested, with right-wing populists achieving record voter turnout and/or parliamentary representation in Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Italy in 2017 and 2018. Much of the populist rhetoric of the political figures of these countries has been nativist in nature and has flayed the political establishment for supposedly ushering in the multitude of profound societal changes generating the very cultural and economic anxieties manipulated by these populist politicians for political gain.

Fear has long been known as a potent emotion, and much of the nativist rhetoric of the current crop of populist politicians is designed to cultivate fear of the outsider and of immigrants within their own borders. This rhetoric is often, however, neither based in reality, nor able to withstand the rigours of reasoned argumentation. This expression of irrational fear is also not the only emotional response manifested in this way without a sound basis in reality. It is in the interests of politicians to evoke as many emotions that further their political goals as possible, and the methods utilised by the current crop of right-wing populists for doing-so and the reason for their efficacy need to be understood, lest the current-day political domain in western democracies remain a lopsided battlefield, continually exploited to great effect by one side of the political spectrum, while the other languishes in opposition. This is an urgent undertaking, as the politics of fear and division have resulted in some of the darkest chapters in modern human history and this current trend must therefore be arrested.

Turning to the realms of cognitive linguistics and moral psychology provides an avenue to such an understanding. George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have collated much of the research in their respective fields to produce comprehensive depictions of the moral underpinnings of political cognition. Lakoff, by leaning on cognitive linguists’ understanding of the nature of moral reasoning as metaphorical reasoning, creates two central conceptual metaphors for liberal and conservative morality in the US. The Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models, relying on the nation as family metaphor and two well established culturally elaborated models of the family embodies a hierarchy of moral priorities that seeks to explain the diverse grouping of political positions of conservatives and liberals respectively. Key moral priorities for conservatives include strength, authority, discipline, competition and purity, while for liberals those priorities include nurturance, empathy, self-development and fairness.

Jonathan Haidt, by synthesising modularity theory — in which “learning modules” present at birth function to generate a host of further specific modules as a child develops — with decades of findings from social psychology, formulates his own Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). MFT asserts that each individual has a particular moral “matrix” consisting of relatively strong or weak representation of fundamental moral foundations that include, but may not be limited to, Care/Harm Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Authority/Subversion, Loyalty/Betrayal, and Sanctity/Degradation. Haidt and his colleagues then tested over 100,000 individuals to delineate the relative prominence of these foundations within their moral matrices and the results were definitive; the moral matrices of individuals change predictably as one moves across the political spectrum from most conservative to most liberal.

Figure 1. Scores on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire from 132,000 responses (Haidt, 2012)

There is considerable overlap in the conceptualisation by both authors of the key moral priorities found within the minds of conservatives and liberals, none more-so than notions of care/empathy/nurturance and fairness for liberals and authority and sanctity/purity for conservatives. Compellingly, these priorities were derived by each author via distinctly different methodologies and came from entirely different theoretical standpoints. This moral overlap provides a blueprint for political operatives to cater their communications with these priorities in mind and suggests a pathway to targeting moderates from opposing sides of politics.

A critical takeaway from the works of these authors is that reasoning is not the primary factor behind political cognition. Far from it, as the moral architecture found in one’s mind lies below the realm of consciousness but exacts a fundamental influence on one’s political leaning. Emotional responses often manifest from inputs engaging with the elements of an individual’s moral matrix. This is highlighted by the work of Drew Westen, who has spent many years investigating the effects of political natured inputs on the brain. Westen shows with the use of fMRI scans the tendency of the emotional centres of the brain to instantaneously light up when presented with partisan political material, with ideologically conflicting material eliciting strong negative responses until the process of motivated reasoning allows individuals to settle on an ideologically satisfying position. At this point, neural circuits associated with positive emotions are activated. Westen’s key finding is that the political brain is emotional, not rational and dispassionate, but by interpreting Lakoff and Haidt’s findings, we can move one step further and link many of these emotional responses to the underlying moral architecture operating below one’s level of consciousness.

If we accept this notion of the passionate brain, language quickly arises as a critical tool with which to effectively engage with it. Framing political issues with the use of language that strikes at the moral foundations contained within an individual’s moral matrix can be highly effective. Considering the moral priorities of conservatives and crafting the language in political communications accordingly is a way for traditionally liberal issues to increase their conservative appeal. Ensuring the bulk of communications, however, are embodying liberal moral priorities is a way to energise the liberal base and generate the necessary electoral turnout in countries without compulsory voting like the USA. Using emotionally evocative music, sound effects, and visuals in political communications is another critical component in availing the passionate brain and should be considered in the design of all mediums.

If one considers that the conservative and liberal moral priorities discerned by Lakoff and Haidt are not static and immovable, then one must seek to understand the forces that cause them to shift over time. In the current age of reflexive modernity, whereby the individualisation of western societies continues to insidiously erode the communitarian ideals that have formed a fundamental tenet to liberal ideology, it is prudent to ask whether this process is affecting one side of the political spectrum more profoundly than the other. The identification by Haidt of the family as the primary conservative social unit suggests that perhaps the conservative side of politics may be less susceptible to this process of individualisation. The left has historically placed great import on the ideals of communitarianism, however the emphasis on individual liberties and self-actualisation may be acting as a catalyst for the diminishment of the standing of such ideals, perhaps even unconsciously. The discordance between notions of individualism and communitarianism that appear to be simultaneously occupying space within the liberal moral architecture may prove to be a critical threat to the ability of liberal political parties to formulate coherent and effective campaigns. Further research should be conducted in this area, as if this process is indeed disproportionately affecting the liberal side of politics, long-term strategies to arrest it need to be developed.

As the degree of division and tribalism increases across many western democracies in this current age, it is imperative to find ways to bridge this divide for the sake of maintaining social cohesion and avoiding conflict. Part of the solution is to create avenues for discussion, where people from across the political spectrum are invited to express their ideas and the moral reasoning behind them to others from differing ideological vantage points. This exposure to ideas that differ from one’s own in a constructive setting is healthy for democracy and should be encouraged wherever possible. New forums for these kinds of conversations are emerging such as podcasts, YouTube channels and festivals of ideas like The New Yorker Festival and Politicon. However, the mere existence of these new forums will not be sufficient to safeguard our societies from the kinds of tribalistic tendencies on display in recent years. What is critically needed in addition to this is a concerted effort from those in society to understand the morality of those that do not share our worldview. Recognition that there is indeed more than one matrix and that having a different set of morals to one’s own does not make those morals invalid is key to mollifying the vitriolic disdain between opposing sides of the political spectrum that has typified political discourse in recent years, particularly in the USA. A widespread understanding of not only the legitimate differences in others’ moral matrix, but also of their potential to provide a useful societal counterweight to one’s own set of morals, has the potential to contribute to the abatement of hostility that plagues our current political landscapes.

Economist, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst. Pondering the path to a socio-ecological transformation.

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Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson

Economist, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst. Pondering the path to a socio-ecological transformation.

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