How Do We Reclaim Civility in Politics?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When was the last time you experienced civility in politics? How can it be achieved?

When we find ourselves at odds with someone politically, it is likely that we have different moral matrices. To find common ground—or at least achieve respectful interaction—we would do well to identify which of the six moral foundations are at the heart of the issue. This can help us practice empathy, which in turn can help us achieve civility in politics.

Read more to learn the key to finding civility in politics these days.

Rapid Polarization

Despite their benefits, our moral frameworks are increasingly making us more blind to how others understand the world. Unfortunately a side effect of this is a decline in respect and civility in politics.

Largely because of gaps in moral foundations, there’s significant evidence that America is polarizing rapidly, with the gap widening between political opinions on the left and the right.

For example, liberals and conservatives in America have different foundational stories about the country:

  • Liberals argue that there used to be dictatorial, oppressive regimes that governed the world, which virtuous people through time and effort overthrew. They then founded democracies and started fighting for equal rights for all, creating laws and government programs that could lift all boats.
  • Conservatives since the Reagan era say that America used to be a beacon of liberty, but liberals have attempted to ruin it by creating bureaucracy and tax burdens that stunt growth while also opposing faith and God. They took money from good, hard-working people and gave it to lazy people living on welfare while lionizing evil promiscuity and a “gay lifestyle.”

There is significant value to the liberal understanding—it promotes a narrative of heroic triumph over the powerful through the weak banding together. In doing so it often is in a better position to secure rights and material gains for the less fortunate in society.

Nevertheless, liberals have more trouble understanding the concept of moral capital, defined as the resources that are necessary to sustain and grow a moral community. Conservatives argue that people need outside constraints to behave properly and thrive. Without them, people will cheat, and social capital, or trust, will begin to decline. Moral capital is what promotes these constraints. If we don’t promote constraints like laws, traditions, and religions, society will come apart at the seams. 

A lot of left-wing policies fail because they don’t seriously consider these constraints and the quick changes to them that their legislation brings. As a nation, we must find a way to understand moral capital while also promoting ideas and laws that benefit all sectors of society. This will happen only if we can productively talk across party lines and achieve some civility in politics.

Finding Civility in Politics

Haidt offers three recommendations for improving bipartisan collaboration in government: 

  1. Change how we run primary elections.
  2. Change how we draw electoral districts.
  3. Change how candidates can raise money. 

However, Haidt primarily focuses on how individuals who disagree can find common ground and civility in politics. We live in more polarized areas than we used to—in 1976, only around a quarter of Americans lived in a county that voted overwhelmingly (by a margin of 20% or over) for one presidential candidate. By 2008, that number was almost half. These counties maintain distinct cultural differences. In the 2008 election, 89% of counties with a Whole Foods voted for Obama, while 62% of counties with a Cracker Barrel voted for McCain. 

It’s easier to live with people who share our moral matrices, and as we’ve discovered people with the same moral matrices regularly have the same political beliefs. Even if we can’t find like-minded people in our communities, we can now easily find them online. We think increasingly that the other group is blind when talking about politics, but truthfully, everyone is blind when discussing “sacred objects” like political candidates or policies. If we can remember our own blindness, though, we may be less inclined to judge the blindness of others. When you disagree with someone else on a moral or political issue, first consider which of the six moral foundations are at the heart of the issue. Then, try to practice empathy. If you have a friendly interaction with someone with different moral matrices, you’re much more likely to understand them better. You might not always change your mind, but you will respect their opinion more.

The key to achieving civility in politics lies in identifying which moral foundations are at the heart of the issue—and exercising empathy accordingly.

How Do We Reclaim Civility in Politics?

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  • Why we all can't get along
  • How our divergent moralities evolved
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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