Monday, March 26, 2012

Santorum's Latest Morality Theatrics

Rick Santorum is in the news today for lashing out at a New York Times reporter over the weekend. (Video above)

What makes this interesting to me as I start to think more systematically about the intersection of psychology and political language is the way that this and many of Santorum's previous theatrics tap into the psychology of purity that Jonathan Haidt writes about. Sanctity and degradation are one of the six moral foundations that Haidt has identified as a source of political preference. (For a good primer see his TED talk. I'm all about videos today.)

The sanctity/degradation foundation has traditionally been associated with the Right, and Santorum's outburst is a great example of how conservatives frequently appear to be repulsed by behavior they deem amoral or illegitimate. The object of revulsion can be premarital sex, abortion, or the "liberal media," but the revulsion -- and the corresponding feeling of having the moral high-ground -- is quite real, even if one can safely assume that Santorum is playing to the camera here.

While by no means condoning Santorum's outburst, it is worth considering how progressives could improve their rhetoric to take advantage of the ways our brains process sanctity. Though it is found most often among conservatives, those on the Left also tend to have strong feelings with respect to purity. In his new book, Haidt gives the example of the "spiritual left," which fetishizes cleanliness of body and nature. As Haidt puts it,

"You can see the [Sanctity] foundation's original impurity-avoidance function in New Age  grocery stores, where you'll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of 'toxins.' And you'll find the Sanctity foundation underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism, and automobiles not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollution -- a degradation of nature, and of humanity's original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism."

(From The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion)

Putting aside any quibbles we might have with Haidt's equivalence of the issues that the Left and Right care about so deeply, he's onto something here. So how should progressives think about this?

Well, the importance of feeling morally superior to one's political opponents is significant, and the sanctity/degradation foundation can be applied less through the specific issues we talk about than through the specific ways in which we talk about them. For example, a wide range of people feel repulsed by environmental degradation. However, progressives tend to talk about these issues in a detached manner. Progressive talking points on the environment usually point towards the "conclusive scientific evidence," the "likelihood that X will lead to Y," or the "well-known basis for such and such policy." Very rarely do progressive leaders engage in rhetoric akin to Santorum's outbursts. I think this is a mistake...not just because environmental issues are more important but because a lot of people who support the environment are wired to prefer people who speak the language of sanctity and purity.

What would this new environmental rhetoric look like? I'll be spelling this out over the coming weeks, but to start with we should encourage progressive politicians to reframe the debate over global warming, and the environment as a whole, as more of an "us vs. them" proposition. "We" are the American people who know, love, and care for this land of ours -- one can appeal to conservatives who like to hunt, fish, and camp this way -- and "they" are the guys in suits who sit at their desks trading oil futures, go out for $100 lunches to lobby politicians to reduce environmental protections, and strike deals with Middle Eastern despots.

More importantly, we should portray polluters as anti-business. Tax breaks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to regulations that favor "old energy" over "new energy" entrepreneurs, since solar and wind companies can't lobby the government as effectively as Shell, Exxon, and Chevron. Reframing the debate in this manner would allow progressives to demonstrate their superiority on issues of economic innovation.

To cite one recent example: thinking about it this way would have allowed the White House and its supporters to frame the Solyndra affair as an example of venture capitalism. To conservative critiques, progressives should have responded by saying, "So what if Solyndra failed? The government was engaging in a seriously pro-business role of funding innovation. Start ups and emerging companies go belly up all the time, as any businessman knows, and the Obama administration should be commended for taking risks to keep our innovation economy going. Indeed, by funding Solyndra and encouraging other forms of clean energy innovation, the Obama administration can be seen as the most forward-thinking pro-business administration in history. Why do you think that nearly all of the most successful and innovative Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are Democrats? And what is more, the losses cost the government next to nothing compared to the tax breaks conservatives give their oil company brethren."


  1. Nice one Patrick! I like the way you tie the "purity/sanctity" dimension to a progressive cause (environmentalism). It's also very important in the area of food - hence the left wing discomfort with GMOs, despite the science. Of course, it cuts the other way for other issues, like gay rights and family planning - conservatives see *those* as "icky" and that's where the right gets a lot of their power on those topics.

  2. Thanks Nils. Yes, members of both the Left and the Right have their own things they care deeply about from a purity/sanctity perspective. But the interesting thing to me is the degree to which conservative morality infuses Republican politics. Santorum is just the latest in a long line of conservative politicians who express and act on feelings of disgust. But when was the last time a Democrat expressed, let alone acted upon, feelings of repulsion? This, I think, is one of the things that needs to start changing if progressives are to recapture political discourse.

  3. I was at a GMO-labeling rally recently. If you asked if Monsanto was violating the sanctity of life (and democracy), people would have agreed. If you took photos and asked someone not at the event to analyze the emotions, I expect you would have seen a lot of sad or angry -- but not much revulsion, no lip curling. No one seemed to be seeing GMO's as viscerally icky -- GMO's didn't make them want to wash their hands, it was a separate neural response. I'd bet that you could go to a Tea Party rally -- about immigrant, taxes, guns, whatever -- and you'd photograph lip-curling disgust.

    GMOs might be an issue where 2-moral-taste progressives really should consider a disgust-oriented advertisement. But I think it's complicated, because even the leaders of the movement see it as science and don't feel visceral disgust... their ad wouldn't appeal to their base.

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