The Psychology of the Vote

When I wrote my post about women in American politics, I cited the archetype of the lone hero who rides into town, rights wrongs, and rides off alone as the driving force behind the surprising number of people, including women, who voted for Donald Trump. I still think this is a major factor in the outcome of the election, Russian tampering aside. Don’t get me wrong. I am very disturbed that the tampering occurred. Although I hesitate to say so, it doesn’t seem likely to me that it made an appreciable difference in the outcome of the election. People voted for Trump because they liked him. They liked him for reasons that go much deeper psychologically than the policies he represents.

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Really, the impetus for writing these new politically oriented posts has been my bafflement at the popularity of someone with Trump’s personality. If he were not the head of a business, he would have trouble getting hired, and once hired, could not hold on to a job. He is simply too rude and self-centered. That doesn’t go over very big in the workplace these days, if it ever did. But we just hired him. Why? Plenty has been said about Donald Trump’s personal psychology. My thoughts have gone more toward the psychology of the group that elected him. I have been reading articles and books by social psychologists to find out, and have some answers of my own. I have learned that liberals and conservatives have differing moral sensibilities and even different reaction to stimuli. Our moral sense is incredibly basic to us. That is why the opposing point of view is so hard to understand.

A book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2012) was recommended to me. It has changed my thinking – to an extent – about conservatism, but has left me puzzled about this past election. Haidt describes an emotional and biological basis to our sense of morality. He lists six moral “senses;” inborn, literally inherited capacities to feel that something is right or wrong. They are care vs. harm, liberty vs. oppression, fairness vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation. According to Haidt, liberals base their sense of ethics  upon just the first three, but conservatives value all six of them. Conservatives, however, score lower on the caring continuum than do liberals. There is also a difference between the way liberals and conservatives think of fairness. Liberals think of fairness as justice, while conservatives think in terms of proportionality – people should benefit in proportion to the effort or investment they put into an enterprise.
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These ideas do help me to understand Republican sweeps in past elections. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, for example, both stood clearly for God and Country. They were loyal Americans (as most of us, liberal and conservative, certainly are) and represented Christian family values. But Donald Trump is, at the very least, friendly to Russia, if not an out-and-out traitor; and although the list of his perversions so far as we know doesn’t include gay sex (not a perversion in my book, but I’m talking “family values” here), he is an admitted adulterer. His foul mouth shocks even me, and he has no appreciation for the sanctity of women’s bodies. He fails two out of three of the moral senses supposedly important to conservatives, loyalty and sanctity. That leaves authority, which I’ll give him, even though he admits no authority other than himself.

The emphasis on authority gives me another clue as to what goes on in the minds and hearts (yes, they have them) of those who voted for Trump. A different author, George Lakoff, makes many similar observations regarding the differing moral sense of liberals and conservatives to those made by Haidt. Lakoff is a Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at The University of California in Berkeley. Two of his books, Moral Politics (2002) and The Political Mind (2008) address the differences in moral thinking between liberals and conservatives. In the earlier book, Lakoff describes two different contexts for a moral world view – the strict father family and the nurturing parent family. In the strict father model, paternal authority is essential for preserving the safety and security of the family and for building self discipline and moral fiber in the children, assuring them a safe and successful journey through life. In the nurturing parent family, the belief is that providing nurturing support toward children, the family assures that the children will grow up with empathy toward others and the capacity to become fulfilled and happy in their own lives. To oversimplify this model, the salient value in the strict father model is authority, in the nurturing parent family it is caring.

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Reading this, Trump’s victory started to make more sense to me. People who voted for him were not attending to his policies (which he reversed several times without losing popularity), the content of what he said (other than quick sound bites), his personal life, or his past history. They picked up on his “strict father” image. What really captured my interest, though, was something Lakoff mentioned about the strict father model of morality in America: When the child grows up and leaves home, the father is no longer the authority. The young person is on his or her own and becomes their own authority. This explains the “validity” of Trump’s admitting no authority outside of himself and the popularity he has gained by trashing existing American government and institutions. “Advocates of Strict Father show such a resentment toward any moral authority seen to be illegitimately meddling in their lives. The federal government is a common target.” (p.79)

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Although Hillary Clinton did what she could to sound tough – and she is tough, Trump himself has said so at least a couple of times –  she failed the “strict father” test at least as much by being a liberal and speaking in liberal terms as by being a woman, and Donald Trump didn’t have to do much more than look angry and be successful to resonate with those who think in terms of strict father family values. I admit that I am simplifying something that is quite complex; however, I am making the point that we do not need to look toward Russian hacking or vote tampering to explain the results of the last election. I am not saying that these things didn’t happen. What I am saying is that for those of us who consider ourselves liberals, progressives, or just Democrats there is an urgent need to turn our famous empathy toward better understanding those who vote conservative. I do have one other thought about the psychological factors that went into the 2016 vote, and I will have to save that for another post.