The Alcove

Are Moral Viewpoints To Blame for Gridlock?

Pacific Standard reports on new research finding that moralized opinions drive opposition to compromise. What does this mean for political dysfunction?

By Nathan Pippenger

New research finds that moralized attitudes about an issue make people far less inclined to compromise. Over at Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs expresses surprise: while the same study predictably found a link between extreme opinions and unwillingness to seek out a middle ground, it also found—“less obviously”—that a resistance to compromise is also connected to “whether one believes the issue is related to fundamental principles of right and wrong.” Pondering these findings in light of recent gridlock, Jacobs writes: “The results suggest that if we’re ever going to get back to a compromising mode, we’re going to have to learn more about how moral convictions arise, and whether and how they can be modified.”

Personally, I was less surprised by these findings, but that’s partly because new political science research seems constantly to be undermining the dominant narratives of how political opinion relates to “moderation” and “extremism.” I, for one, find this a welcome development. It’s common to cast extremists as villainous and morality-based voters as virtuous, and to blame the former group for gumming up national politics and blocking the progress that all the right-thinking members of the latter group desire. (This is an absolutely unshakeable conviction of the professional centrist class—inveterate moralizers who see themselves as moral leaders stymied by unreasonable extremists on issues like the federal budget.)

New research, however, is upending this narrative. For instance, as David Broockman and Doug Ahler have found, the oft pined-for voters we call “moderate” don’t actually hold middle-of-the-road opinions; they’re just labeled that way because they hold a grab bag of left- and right-wing views, any one of which might be quite extreme. That explains the surprising interest shown by such voters in figures like Donald Trump: they too blend (for instance) a harsh position on immigration with an unusually liberal one (for Republicans) on taxes. If any group of voters this campaign season can claim to have No Labels, it’s this crowd—but these are not exactly the reasonable saviors that the post-partisan types had in mind.

Moderate voters, then, seem ill-suited to rescue us from political dysfunction. But is there more hope in, as Jacobs puts it, “modifying” the convictions of implacable moral voters? He writes:

One can easily see how [a more nuanced moral] framing could influence attitudes on, say, illegal immigration. Conservatives who see it as a moral issue (it conflicts with their sense of in-group loyalty and the sanctity of the rule of law) could conceivably soften their opposition if they were encouraged to consider the actual effects of deportation (families torn apart, etc.).

So looking at how issues resonate at a moral level provides a more nuanced understanding of our differences, and suggests possible new approaches to healing them. Given the current gridlock, creative approaches are certainly needed, and this is a promising one.

I take the point but have to reserve some skepticism. First, Republican intransigence is the chief cause of gridlock—and among its many causes, hostility to President Obama, gerrymandered districts, and structural incentives all seem to outweigh moral framing. Take immigration as an example: the mainstream reform proposals all pay respect to conservative moral sensibility, responding through various policy mechanisms to their wounded sense of in-group loyalty and emphasis on the rule of law. But English-language and national history requirements, the payment of back taxes and a penalty, and not being allowed to “skip the line” for citizenship have all failed to persuade intractable Republicans in Congress. And for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that Donald Trump promises to deport, family separation is the relevant moral fact. To understand that isn’t to adopt the “liberal” moral frame, as if it were merely another perspective. This is the reality that structures the entire issue.

There’s a second point. What if, as the political philosopher Michael Sandel likes to argue, our real problem is not too much morality in public debate, but too little? Every day, we’re treated to “how will it play?” analyses of issues like Medicaid expansion, drone warfare, and climate change. It’s not as though our blasé conversations about denying healthcare to the poor, perpetuating open-ended wars, or ruining the environment are suffering from a surfeit of morality. More promising, I think, is Jacobs’s suggestion that we cultivate “a more nuanced understanding of our differences”—instead of trying to sever morality from politics, it would be better to cultivate a wider perspective and encourage people to see moral implications where they’re now ignored.

This might, in the long run, even benefit liberals (who, hopefully, are starting to outgrow their skittishness about moral language and their tendency to portray every policy idea as disinterested technocratic tinkering). There are compelling moral arguments to be made about a far wider array of issues than we normally recognize. Perhaps it might raise the stakes of our debates, but that’s not always a bad thing. And besides—it’s not as if a more self-consciously moral conversation could somehow create more gridlock than we have now.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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