Sunday 24 June 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A book review, an essay and a column made me ponder recently on the whys and wherefores of our politcal preferences.

The review was written by David Cameron's former speechwriter, Ian Birrell. His target was The Righteous Minds, an essay-cum-book that offers an insight into why people vote for conservative policies, if not governments. The author, Jonathan Haidt, is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His theories are interesting, if only because they seem to answer some questions whilst posing news ones.

For Jonathan, whose essay appeared as a tie-in for the book release a few weeks after the review, those who sit on the right side of the political spectrum care as much about society as those on the left, even if sometimes some of us might think otherwise. In his opinion, this caring attitude chimes with voters who are interested in values, not programmes, especially government-backed ones. And paradoxically, conservatives have a broader and more mixed palette of ideas, as opposed to the left's single-minded approach. Whereas rightwingers can invoke family ties, personal responsibility and an entrepeneurial spirit, liberals will more likely want to extend a safety net that covers all members of society.

So far, somehow it makes sense. That would go some way to explain why Reagan and Thatcher were voted in in the midst of two difficult economic periods in the US and UK respectively. It wasn't just the promise of a get-rich-quick future, but also a return to values voters treasured more.

In his essay, Jonathan uses the analogy of taste to illustrate why voters lean towards specific flavours, albeit from a moral perspective. Our tongues respond to five classes of chemicals: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury. Although sugary foods get the thumbs-up as the most appealing of these five tastes, most of us opt for a hot, filling meal as a proper dinner.

In a similar way Haidt has identified six areas that affect our moral palate: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. According to him, liberals score highly in care/harm and liberty/oppression but are outsmarted by conservatives in matters to do with group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (and not just in a religious context).

Jonathan's theory is that in times of (economical) distress like the one we're undergoing now, people are keener on order and authority and less on nurturing governments.

The only problem with this analysis is that recent events have shown the opposite. France has just elected a left-wing president who wants to raise corporate tax to 75% for companies making more than one million euros per annum. Although Greeks have just voted a rightwing government in, conservative prime minister Mr Samaras is being forced to form a coalition with centre-left parties. And over in Spain, Mariano Rajoy is having problems spelling the word "bailout" to puzzled Spaniards. You can sense that the tide is turning in Europe, and the way it's going is more towards people wanting nurturing as well as order and authority. Especially authority that doesn't tell porkies.

Maybe Jonathan's theory suits the US political scene more. After all, this is election year and the White House incumbent, Barack Obama, faces his sternest test yet. That of the follow-up album. Any musician worth their salt will tell you that if your debut album sells well and has a couple of chart-topping singles, people (including your own fans) will watch very closely what you do with your sophomore record. Do you break away from the format that brought you success or do you stick to the same accolade-winning formula? Not that Obama's last four years have been a fun ride. He hasn't been able or willing to implement the left-of-centre agenda he promised during his bid for the presidency in 2008. And in Mitt Romney, he has a very different opponent to Mc Cain. For starters, Romney has made the core base of the Republican Party forget about his Mormonism, which shows cleverness. Let's not forget that Mormons are not viewed benignly by Republican voters. Questions about care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation are, then, pertinent. If Romney can demonstrate that he stands for individual liberties against Obama's supposed "nanny state", the latter will not able to stroll to victory as he did four years ago against the dyad McCain/Palin.

That however is on the other side of the pond. Haidt's mention of the UK brought a robust riposte from George Monbiot, eco-warrior par excellence. This is the third element of the trio I mentioned at the beginning. George disagrees with Jonathan's theory of political "taste buds" and blames the lack of support for leftwing policies (in the UK) on voters' apathy. He has got a point. Traditional Labour followers tended to come from a blue-collar background. But once Labour revamped itself and became "New Labour", many of working-class people felt betrayed and gave up on the party. They didn't, however, decamp to the Tories, but chose to stay home on election day.
BBC sitcom "Only Fools and Horses", but were Del Boy and the rest of the gang secret Tories? Photograph: Imagenet
Moreover, it seems to me that British voters are more cynical than their US counterparts. Although I lack the political insight that living in the United States would probably give me, it appears from my vantage point that American elections are as much of a personality competition as they are about policies. Already pundits are predicting a "surprise" in November. All because Romney, unlike Mc Cain, has not got "dodgy shoulders". Contrast that with British people's reaction to the coalition's budget cuts, and the political situation couldn't be more different. There have been protests, strikes (including by teachers and doctors) and government U-turns aplenty since 2010. Our prime minister might be a posh, suave, smooth-talker, but that won't save him from the chop come election day in 2015, if not before.

Jonathan's book (which I've yet to read) sounds interesting and his essay, if not totally convincing, does throw some light on our voting habits. But I think it takes more than just having a political sweet'n'sour palate, metaphorically speaking, to talk voters into pledging their allegiance to a particular party. If you don't believe me, ask the Greeks.

© 2012

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 27th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Cynicism is a good thing to have as a voter. I mean really-politicians? Who can trust them?

  2. And paradoxically, conservatives have a broader and more mixed palette of ideas, as opposed to the left's single-minded approach.

    This struck me as being possibly a fruitful area for thought and investigation. Fascinating post. Thanks for.

  3. I read that review in the Guardian, too. I wasn't convinced. I still think "it's the economy, stupid". However, if I were a Labour policy wonk I'd certainly read the book.

  4. Love the new photo! The world economy is making voters leery everywhere, not just with the Labour Party. I doubt if I'd be convinced by that essay either.

  5. Haven't popped in for a while, but so enjoyed reading your views again.

    I think politicians the world over (including here in SA) are finding voters a lot less gullible and a lot more vocal about wanting transparency and responsibility from their politicians - a good thing. The upcoming elections in US, the 2014 elections in SA (the political jostling has already started) and the next UK elections will all provide much interesting viewing!

    Judy, South Africa

  6. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  7. A great deal of Obama's danger stems from the disillusionment of his base which is totally justified. They're feeling betrayed by him but they can't support Mitt Romney so they'll likely not vote.

    At the same time there are a bunch of independents who think "well, this president didn't work so lets try the other party," not understanding that the other party's manipulations are the reason why this president didn't work.

    And in the middle you've got a disingenous media that wants to seem balanced and they do that by never challenging any politicians on either party, just accepting whatever they say as they're honourable word. It's pathetic.


  8. Thanks a bunch for your comment, Jai Joshi. I'm following the election with interest. I think Obama deserves anothe chance. And taking into account what Paul Ryan wants to do, I think Barack is the lesser of two evils.

    Greetings from London.



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