Seeking Wisdom Across the Partisan Divide

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Despite their differences, most of today’s U.S. Republicans and Democrats have one thing in common: They despise those in the other party, with many expressing physical disgust for their political opposites, whom they also regard as plainly stupid.

In a recent Pew survey, partisans regarded one another as closed-minded, dishonest, and immoral. Nearly half would be upset if their child married someone from the other party, which fewer today—less than 4 percent—are doing. (Interracial marriages are now much more common than inter-political marriages.) Moreover, with young women increasingly identifying as “liberal”—today’s growing gender divide forms a barrier to heterosexuals looking for a kindred spirit to marry.

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Amid today’s mutual loathing—affective polarization, political scientists call it—two centrist social psychologist teams remind us that both sides have their virtues. In 2012, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argued that the right and left have complementary insights: Conservatives and liberals are both rooted in respectable moral values—with conservatives prioritizing loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and liberals prioritizing care for others and fairness. So before disparaging your political opposites, Haidt advises, consider their moral foundations.

Now, in 2023, Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman concur that there is wisdom on both the left and the right: “Both left and right have valid insights and helpful policies.”

Societies evolved to perform two crucial tasks, note Baumeister and Bushman: amass resources, and distribute them.

Political conservatives, such as U.S. Republicans—draw their support primarily from those who produce resources: farmers and ranchers, businesspeople and merchants, bankers and contractors, real estate developers and fossil fuel producers. Political progressives, such as U.S. Democrats, care more about redistributing resources, and draw their support from government workers, educators, entertainers, and lower income people who have most to gain from egalitarian income sharing.

For cultures to grow and their people to flourish, both resource accumulation and shared distribution are essential, Baumeister and Bushman argue. Thus, over time, flourishing democracies—including nearly all countries that the UN ranks at the high end of life quantity and quality—have valued both aims, and their governments have tended to alternate between center-right and center-left.

Even so, this leaves practical issues for debate, they add:

  • If incentives (via profits for innovation) increase resources, but also increase inequality, then where is the optimum point for redistribution (without depleting the motivation to produce)?
  • Should incentives for resource production include the right to pass hard-earned fortunes down to privileged children and grandchildren who played no part in creating them?
  • What structural changes might alleviate today’s partisan extremism? In gerrymandered congressional districts, for example, the primary election becomes the main hurdle to office—which leads to more extreme candidates who need offer no appeal to the other party. In my state, Michigan, a citizen-initiated ballot proposal ended gerrymandering by defining state and congressional districts that “shall not provide disproportionate advantage to political parties or candidates.” Other states and cities have embraced ranked-choice voting, which rewards candidates (often moderates) who appeal to a broad range of voters.

Other social psychologists critique their colleagues who see equivalent wisdom in both right and left, or who report that “bias is bipartisan.” It’s a false equivalence, notes John Jost, to assume that U.S. Republicans and Democrats equally convey misinformation, conspiracy thinking, intolerance, political violence, and dogmatism.

Even so, grant this much, say Baumeister and Bushman: Humankind has succeeded thanks to the evolution of human cultures, which have done “two things effectively: (1) amassing resources, and (2) sharing resources through the group. Back in the evolutionary past, most adults took part in both tasks but the two tasks have grown apart, and in the modern world they pull against each other. Nevertheless, both tasks are important, indeed essential, for a flourishing society.”

As a political partisan myself, Baumeister and Bushman bid me to remember: There can be wisdom across the political divide.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.) Cover image credit: Orbon Alija/E+/Getty Images

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).