Gwynn Guilford: The Epic Battle Between Clinton and Trump is a Modern Day Morality Play

Link to Gwynn Guilford’s Quartz column “The epic battle between Clinton and Trump is a modern day morality play”

I am an admirer of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral intutions, laid out in his book The Righteous Mind. I applied it a while back to the measurement of national well-being in “Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough.” Gwynn Guilford applied it in a trenchant July 31, 2016 Quartz column “The epic battle between Clinton and Trump is a modern day morality play” that is worth revisiting now that Labor Day is past and the general election campaign has begun in earnest. 

Here are some key passages in Gwynn’s column:

1. Hunkered down in their ideological corners, Clinton and Trump could have been talking about two wholly different countries.

And in a way, they were. Their convention themes described visions of the American moral order that light up the brains of different types of voters, appealing to discrete layers of the US electorate. Both candidates went for intensity over breadth. However, of the two, Trump exhibited a much deeper and more strategic understanding of human nature, as he had throughout the primaries.

2. In his book, Righteous Mind, Haidt shows how our responses to political debate are almost pure intuition; quick-firing moral reflexes that our brains overlay with rationales after the fact.

The other vital insight involves what Haidt describes as six types of intuitions—or, as he calls them, moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/tyranny, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. These combine to form the unconscious attitudes that animate each of us, to form our sense of morality.

This doesn’t tend to happen in a vacuum; different swaths of American society construct morality with radically different proportions of these. Urban liberal communities that thrive on commerce tend to respond strongly to only the first two of these, care/harm and fairness/cheating (and, to some extent, liberty/tyranny). Democratic voters, therefore, generally prioritize openness and tolerance and tend to be suspicious of authority. Conservative morality, which stems more from agrarian roots, typically engages all of the moral foundations, but with a heavy emphasis on the latter three of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

3. [Clinton] championed equality—protecting people’s “rights” got 12 specific mentions—pushing down hard on the “fairness” moral foundation.

4. Clinton also played to the other biggie of liberal morality, caring for the suffering, oppressed, and downtrodden.

5. [Clinton] showed a deference to authority in praising the military, the president and vice president, and police officers. (Convention speakers like Khizr Khan, the father of a slain Muslim US solider, bolstered this theme even more.)

6. Though pundits largely expected Trump to use the convention to broaden his appeal to voters, the event was instead a sweeping tableau of America’s descent into immorality. Each night was themed around Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again” (subbing in “safe,” “work,” “first,” and “one” for “great”). Throughout the convention, Trump proxies railed against Clinton’s supposed betrayal of America in her handling of the Benghazi embassy attack, while the tragic deaths of people killed by unauthorized immigrants was cited to illustrate the mortal threats citizens now face. Another pet theme was how the undermining of police by subversive groups (the implication, usually, being Black Lives Matter activists) is letting crime and chaos flourish. Meanwhile, political correctness forbids reasonable people from criticizing the ethnic and religious groups who are killing Americans. Tolerance has made America unsafe, unpatriotic, and (obviously) un-great.

7. As many have observed, the facts backing up Trump’s narratives are pretty thin on the ground. However, to people whose sense of morality is grounded heavily in respect for authority and loyalty to a certain in-group, Trump’s diagnosis makes intuitive sense. Anyone baffled that Trump’s supporters ignore the spuriousness of his arguments are very likely people whose moral configurations don’t incline them to favor authority and loyalty much in the first place.

Gwynn goes on to speculate about strategies that might help Hillary Clinton by tapping into a wider range of moral intuitions.

As a Utilitarian, my own moral intuitions center around the care/harm axis. But whatever one’s own primary intuitions, anyone who wants to use persuasion to help make the world a better place needs to understand and appeal to the full range of moral intuitions. As I wrote in “Nationalists vs. Cosmopolitans: Social Scientists Need to Learn from Their Brexit Blunder,” it is clear that many people do not have this understanding. Reading The Righteous Mindis a good start. Then follow that up by reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, where George Lakoff argues that the leftwing has a “nurturant parent” morality while conservatives have a “strict father” morality. (If the phrase “strict father” sounds bad to you, you probably don’t lean toward a strict father morality.)

On the care/harm axis that is primary for me, with loyalty to all of humanity rather than only a subset of humanity, the welfare of immigrants seems to me a central concern. As I tweeted yesterday, 

Preventing people from escaping poverty by preventing them from immigrating to the US is one of the cruelest things we do.

But in the interests of more open immigration, I have on various occasions also appealed to 

In any worthy cause–and if ever there were a worthy cause, this is one–it is important to make arguments that speak to all parts of the brain. We sell short the things we believe in if we do not try to make that kind of well-rounded argument for them.