Why Moral People Vote Republican

Jonathan Haidt, the author of the excellent “The Happiness Hypothesis,” has written an essay that explores what Democrats consider a fundamental paradox of American politics: Why do working-class Americans vote Republican, when their narrow economic interests would be better served by the Democrats’ redistributionist policies.

Haidt, a self-professed liberal atheist, concludes that there are two fundamentally different approaches to building a moral society. The Millian (John Stuart Mills) approach imagines society as a social contract between individuals, invented for their mutual benefit. Here, the values of caring and fairness are paramount. The Durkheimian (Emile Durkheim) approach views society as a composed of nested and overlapping groups, where the individual is less important. Here, the values of self-control, duty, and loyalty are paramount (as opposed to self-expression, rights, and compassion for outsiders).

Haidt’s research explored these five principles:

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at www.YourMorals.org.) We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

In other words, Democrats appeal strictly to adherents of a Millian view, while leaving Durkheimians with the impression that they ignore the majority of what makes a society moral.

This ties in neatly with some of the thoughts Ben Casnocha and I have had about the secular church; specifically, that secular humanism needs a stronger foundation for expressions of self-control, duty, and loyalty than the small beer of lengthy philosophical discussion. Indeed, were the Democrats wise, they would try to create the equivalent of a secular church based on American patriotism, this providing themselves with both a moral foundation and the means to dispute the Republican monopoly on flag-waving.

Finally, while I continue to stick to my policy of avoiding political affiliations (remember, “Republicans buy shoes“) I thought I would reward my loyal readers with a peek inside my moral world, courtesy of YourMorals.org:

* * *

In the graph below, your scores on each foundation are shown in green (the 1st bar in each set of 3 bars). The scores of all liberals who have taken it on our site are shown in blue (the 2nd bar), and the scores of all conservatives are shown in red (3rd bar). Scores run from 0 (the lowest possible score, you completely reject that foundation) to 5 (the highest possible score, you very strongly endorse that foundation and build much of your morality on top of it).

14 thoughts on “Why Moral People Vote Republican

  1. Thibs

    Interesting article! I registered on that website, and took a few tests.

    For the Morality one, I actually got scores pretty close to yours:
    -Harm: 3.3
    -Fairness: 3.3
    -Loyalty: 3.3
    -Authority: 4.0
    -Purity: 3.2

    I generally consider myself a conservative and have always felt it unfair that people should believe liberals are more "moral", as I have always highly valued morality.

    If the study is correct (who knows, maybe moral conservatives are more prone to taking online tests than other conservatives ^^) I guess it turns out liberals simply brag more about their morals than conservatives. How else could the stereotypes be explained?

    Well anyways thanks for sharing all this great info. 🙂

    And a bit of fanboy action to conclude ^^: As a big fan of tests, I couldn't be happier right now, with all these sweet quizzes available from yourmorals.org! 😛


  2. Anonymous

    Sorry but I think this is all Psycho babble.

    One need not look further than the news to see what happening in the “Moral Party”

    Recently Dick Army resigned in disgrace after having been found out as the front man of a special interest group who funded a right wing non profit called “freedomworks.”

    Their agenda: to destroy democracy in action one town at a time. By busing in trailer trash to disrupt civil discourse, they undermine all of our freedoms and spread disinformation. They’re goal: protect company profits and stifle reform in a broken system.

    Recently a poll was conducted on Fox

    Does it matter whether participants at town hall meetings — both opponents or supporters — are organized or paid to attend?


    • Yes, it means the audience is less than genuine 67%
    • No, regular people need mobilization to get them to act as a whole 23%
    • Don't know whether organized effort means people aren't sincere about their views. 10%

    Insurance companies that are no doubt owned by Red China, fund think tanks, which fund non profits, which in turn hire morons to disrupt our democracy. To me they’re shameless traitors.

    Paid off FOX GOP pundits spew sensationalistic disinformation to rile unpaid TV lemmings, and then shamelessly push their books, which are all based on fear.

    World net daily (wnd.com) pushed the birther issue to the top of our nations discourse? Of course the owner reveled in the ad dollars and but appealed to an interesting sect of our culture. I think a more interesting post would be to try to understand the physiological mindset of right wing extremists, after all that’s how the party is now branded. Perhaps if you start spewing extremist garbage…your traffic will go up?

    From Buckly to Palin….

    Is Hannity, Limbugh and Coulter the new face plate for Morality?


  3. AKM

    Hi Chris,

    After reading the Happiness Hypothesis, I began to fall in the same category that you do. I'm currently in a Unitarian Church (since I am an atheist) but I feel that it does not cultivate the loyalty and discipline that I want. What institutions might provide this to me (a twenty-three year old), barring the army and some other church?

  4. Mike

    "secular humanism needs a stronger foundation for expressions of self-control, duty, and loyalty than the small beer of lengthy philosophical discussion"

    I fully agree with this, but with some caveats on what this would look like. Modern "Millian" liberals have a longstanding prejudice against authority, going back to Kant (if not further), who in an anti-authoritarian mode says "'Have courage to use your own understanding!'–that is the motto of enlightenment."

    Haidt post-modern (even a bit relativist) position is that we have a diversity of moral logics, how can we decide which is really right, so let's embrace them all. (An interesting question would be to ask what unstated moral foundation is Haidt standing on that let's him impose this moral injunction on us.)

    I don't disagree with this in general, but a crucial point should be made: The Millian individualist morality is not just different (no better or worse) than a Durkheimian one. It is also (in general) more universalizable, and this is what makes it more moral.

    If you look at the development of individual rights in the west, you should start with Grotius (who later influenced John Locke). At the time, Europe was transitioning from a single monolithic religion under a single authority, to several versions of Christianity who recognized different authorities (the Pope vs. the King of England), and were at war with each other. Grotius' goal was to develop a set of moral rules that could govern warfare that could be applied to all parties, and that meant it had to supercede any particular authority, making it more universal.

    So Kant was wrong that being an individualist who thinks for oneself is always more moral than following authority. But he was right that the Enlightenment morality of the time was more moral (because it was more universal) than the traditional European Durkheimian morality.

    And this is true today. Some white conservative Durkheimians believe in a narrow morality ("Moral Majority" notwithstanding) that privileges white people at the expense of minorities. Not that they haven't tried: they now speak of "Judeo-Christian" values, which is slightly better, but clearly not enough, and their failure to draw Hispanic support, who share their generally Durkheimian moral foundations, is the clearest example of this. The conservative base's morality is so particular to their interests, it completely alienates Hispanics, who are led to feel more closely aligned with progressive multicultural Millian liberals.

    A more universal Durkheimian morality should be our political agenda today, but both conservatives and liberals seem incapable of it. And it's difficult to see what that would even look like: loyalty to the in-group seems to require an excluded out-group, and definitions of purity vary a lot between cultures. Only a universal authority, perhaps some kind transnational global government seems feasible to me, but politically it's probably impossible.

  5. Thibs,

    The interesting thing here is that both liberals and conservatives are highly moral by their own definitions…but immoral by their adversary's definition


    Neither Democrats or Republicans have clean hands when it comes to favoring political expedience over their own (supposedly) deeply-held principles.

    The best example of this on the Democratic side is the willingness of leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem to pooh-pooh the (true) allegations of improper behavior on the part of Bill Clinton.

    But you're absolutely right that the current behavior of certain elements of the "conservative" movement are morally repugnant to many.


    What works for me is seeking out a community of like-minded folks. In some ways, the blogosphere serves this function for me.

    "There is no God but the Internet, and Google Reader is its prophet."

    There, that should be good for a few death threats.


    Excellent and thoughtful comment. I especially like the provision of historical context.

    As for the main point, I think the key to providing secular humanists with the ability to have an in-group and an out-group is to select group membership criteria that are completely driven by personal choice and in consonance with their secular humanist values.

    This is one of the main reasons why American patriotism has such strong promise as a potential religion substitute…anyone who wants to can become an American citizen, and we welcome those who do. Governor Schwarzenegger is a great example of an immigrant who is thought of almost exclusively as an American.

  6. Thibs


    You're absolutely right on that. However as you pointed out quite correctly, conservatives value morals beyond those valued by liberals. It's not like liberals value mayo and conservatives value ketchup. Its more that liberals value mayo and conservatives value mayo and ketchup. I mean, it's not like they are completely opposite systems of values.

    That can only mean that liberals consider conservatives immoral because they value, among other values, things liberals have strong aversion to (namely loyalty, authority and purity).

    Conservatives consider liberals to be immoral because they do not value as many things, because their values cover only part of the spectrum.

    What both "sides" must always keep in mind is that we all share a common "base" of values. Harm and Fairness. That's already pretty good.

    Now what I personally dislike is how conservatives are typically stereotyped as immoral people. Even in France, it seems that the media just wants conservatives to be gun-happy, frustrated, ultra-religious people with no sense of empathy or justice. And nothing could be further from the truth.

    And don't get me wrong, it's not that I would like to have recognition or anything. I just hate it when people are manipulated like that, and I would be angry all the same if liberals were as strongly stereotyped.

    This may sound cheap, but it's a matter of principle.

  7. The problem with any discussion of this sort is you have to start with non-crappy definitions. In the US, you have at least five or six major groups, and even within conservatism, you can come up with a dozen or more subgroups, many of which aren't particularly friendly to each other. On the left, you have similar sorts of divisions, if not more.

    Without careful definition, generalizations like Mike's are basically GIGO.

    It appears that many commenters in this thread are implicitly defining conservatives as blood-and-soil statists of the European Right variety, which are rather rare in the US. They definitely exist, but they're far fewer than Whig-style classical liberals (who are numbered among "conservatives" here), or libertarian-minded "leave-me-aloners".

  8. @Foobarista, actually, I explicitly defined conservatives in that way, and I think the Moral Majority, Minutemen, anti-gay marriage, pro-torture Right is a significant part of the Republican base despite it's libertarian pretentions.

    One thing that's interesting to note is that countries that are more racially homogeneous have much stronger social safety nets: Europe, Canada, Japan. From this perspective, it's easy to see what brings libertarians and conservatives together: the "freedom" granted by the constitution has historically favored the white majority. Just as history is written by the winners, freedom is defined by those with power, and this makes it easy to articulate a racist & xenophobic politics under the guise of liberty.

  9. Anonymous

    I agree with Anonymous. Democratic " Redestributive Policies?" Isn't that, " REPUBLICAN? The "Republicants," in 8 years REDISTRIBUTED a massive amount of wealth from the poor and middle class to the very rich in powerful, ie. Haliburton ( those flag waving Patriots now based in Dubai to avoid civil/criminal liability and FEDERAL TAXES), overseas tax havens ( OBAMA now going after these criminals ), ENRONS theft of California citizens energy dollars, THE ILLEGAL HOSTILE TAKEOVER OIL WAR IN IRAQ, and of course, the HENRY PAULSEN SOCIAL WELFARE to the BANKS, AIG, the INVESTMENT BANKS, the CAR COMPANIES, MUTUAL FINDS, etc. at $25 B at a time. Chris, did you get your $25B yet? Me neither.
    "MORAL," people are on both sides,as well as IMMORAL, it's just that Republicants are greedier, richer and better at RAT Fing the public. These SO CALLED CONSERVATIVE moralists are stealing, warring and polluting the planet into oblivion. Glenn Beck called OBAMA a racist. For an Asian American like you, you should be in the streets , or at least blogging about this. Rush " OXYCONTIN," LimBURGER CHEESE boy leading the REPUBLICANTS on the radio…PATHETIC. Sarah Palin? This moralist resigned because of her immoral behavior exposed while in office. Even war hero and great Senator John McCain cheated on his previous wife. An evangelical Christain leader of 30 Million followers was a meth head with a gay lover. The Congressman in charge of a commitee to protect childeren hitting on underage interns. Again..pathetic. Republicans not only DO NOT hold the upper hand in morality, the Democrats have even more, " sinning to do," to catch up. MORALITY/CHURCH & STATE should be separate, because we are ALL sinners…even St. Yeh I suspect. That being said, HARM? The REPUBLICANTS did more for polluting, bankrupting and warring our world into oblivion in a long time..Maybe since ADOLPH Hitler. FAIRNESS? Come on Chris, the Republicants are Masters at rigging the game. Fairness? They evicerated the middle class and followed no rules, laws or our Constitution. ( See Dick Cheney ) Loyalty? Yeah, they are loyal to power and the almighty buck. Authority? They do like this one. Dictators kill intellectuals and burn books. Republicants cut education budgets by Billions ( See Arnold SchwarzenGOOBER ) and call Harvard educated men like Mr. OBAMA elitists! ( You know Chris, Harvard educated guys like you! ) Purity? Lets just laugh and guffaw at this one. Write your own comment on the, " purity," of Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Paulsen, ENRON, HALIBURTON and all the institutions now getting 2% money at the discount window while Americans who are not homeless, unemployed and still payiny their bills still pay 30% to the credit card loan sharks. Anonymous II

  10. James Todd

    Incredibly thoughtful post. Custom shortened link for your use… http://tinyurl.com/morals-yeh

  11. Chris,

    The current version of the Republican Party is just about as immoral as they come. I have many conservative views, but I find the current crop of Republican leaders absolutely intolerable from every standpoint.

    It's become a party of anti-intellectual, ignorant retards who know how to do only one thing and that is spew incredible amounts of completely baseless garbage that can only be believed by a mob of people who have the cognitive capacity of an amoeba.

    To run someone like Palin for a VP is unbelievable. Also, for all the talk by intellectual conservatives that people like Limbaugh and Hannity do not represent the Republican party as a whole every time I talk to a conservative I find myself bombarded with regurgitation of the garbage people like them and Palin spit out.

  12. ranndino,

    Yes, the approach that the current leadership in the Republican Party has chosen to take has turned off a lot of conservatives, who fail to see how defending our right to torture foreigners has anything to do with true conservative principles.

    Alas, a viable alternative has not yet arisen. I long for the day when a fiscally conservative, libertarian-oriented party arises.

  13. Chris,

    The problem is really much deeper. It's heretical to say, but in truth America really doesn't have true democracy. There are just two choices that are enough to convince the majority of the population that it's the world's most incredible democracy. Yet, two choices are just one more than the Soviet Union had.

    In most countries in Europe there are many more parties in play and if you think about how people's opinions tend to differ when was the last time you were in a meeting and there were only two opinions expressed?

    Furthermore, while most Americans are convinced that there's a huge difference between Republicans and Democrats if those parties existed in the same way in Europe they would be part of the same coalition.

    As a few examples like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have shown the establishment here has no use for a third party and puts their full weight behind crushing anyone who dares to run for the #1 job as neither a Democrat or Republican.

  14. ranndino,

    My favorite comment on the two-party system is the Simpsons Halloween segment, "Citizen Kang" in which the people of America are forced to choose between two hideous space monsters because voting for a third-party candidate would be "throwing your vote away."

    It is remarkable that the US has had the same 2 parties since 1860 (with some minor insurgencies from the Progressive Party and the Socialist Party about 100 years ago), and even more remarkable that those parties have changed so much over time.

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