Surviving November Pt 4: Partisan Narratives, Universal Sympathies and Keith Richards’ Choirmaster

Just in the nick of time, the final installment of our series on Jonathan Haidt’s […]

David Zahl / 11.5.12

Just in the nick of time, the final installment of our series on Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. To read part one, go here

Living in a “swing battleground state” (VA), I’ve had the distinct privilege of witnessing the escalation of hostilities this fall. And escalated they have! From the ads on TV to the volunteers at the door, the signs on the street to the telemarketers on the phone, it’s been tough to find a hiding place. Apparently even Walking Dead viewers are on the fence this November (Arrow viewers, not so much). Of course, there’s a place in an election season–an important one–for indignation and culpability, anger and blame, etc. The permanence of the logs in our own eyes does not somehow invalidate the specks in eyes of others, as it were. But it’s not the vocal dissatisfaction and criticism that gets me down; it’s the thinly veiled contempt, the very real suspicion that certain people are wearing horns, the sense that if one of the candidates got hit by a bus, some people would be genuinely happy about it. And it’s just as pronounced on talk radio as it is on This is nothing new of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exacerbated by filter bubbles and media fear-mongering and whatnot. What I’m talking about here is not “the issues” themselves as much as what’s driving the emotions that make it so difficult to discuss those issues.

So why do we all hate each other so much? What is at the root of the partisan mindset? When did we become so insanely tribal? Fortunately, there’s a chapter in The Righteous Mind (number 12 to be exact) entitled “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” that more or less seeks to answer these questions directly. The research contained therein burrows deep into the heart of human nature and could not be more relevant to us here.

But first, bear with me for two sentences: Haidt breaks down our moral intuitions into six innate “foundations”: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. He compares them to taste receptors in the tongue, and the fancy term is Moral Foundations Theory. Regardless of whether you buy those categories–and they’re far less cut and dry than they might appear (worth reading the book to find out more)–I don’t know how you could disagree with the assessment that the American political landscape has become increasingly polarized. Of course, Haidt says all this a lot better than me:

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves, and these “life narratives” are [psychologist Dan] McAdams’s third level of personality… These narratives are not necessarily true stories–they are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future. But even though life narratives are to some degree post hoc fabrications, they still influence people’s behavior, relationships, and mental health.

Life narratives are saturated with morality. In one study, McAdams used Moral Foundation Theory to analyze narratives he collected from liberal and conservative Christians. He found the same patterns in these stories that my colleagues and I had found using questionnaires at

When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feelings about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.

Life narratives provide a bridge between developing adolescent self and an adult political identity. Here, for example, is how Keith Richards describes a turning point in his life in his recent autobiography. Richards, the famously sensation-seeking and nonconforming guitarist of the Rolling Stones, was once a marginally well-behaved member of his school choir. The choir won competitions with other schools, so the choir master got Richards and his friends excused from many classes so that they could travel to ever larger choral events. But when the boys reached puberty and their voices changed, the choir master dumped them. They were then informed that they would have to repeat a full year in school to make up for their missed classes, and the choir master didn’t lift a finger to defend them.

It was a “kick in the guts,” Richards says. It transformed him in ways with obvious political ramifications:

The moment that happened, Spike, Terry and I, we became terrorists. I was so mad, I had a burning desire for revenge. I had reason then to bring down this country and everything it stood far. I spent the next three years trying to [mess] them up. If you want to breed a rebel, that’s the way to do it… It still hasn’t gone out, the fire. That’s when I started to look at the world in a different way, not their way anymore. That’s when I realized that there’s bigger bullies than just bullies. There’s them, the authorities. And a slow-burning fuse was lit.

Richards may have been predisposed by his personality to become a liberal, but his politics were not predestined. Had his teachers treated him differently–or had he simply interpreted events differently when creating early drafts of his narrative–he could have ended up in a more conventional job surrounded by conservative colleagues and sharing their moral matrix. But once Richards came to understand himself as a crusader against abusive authority, there was no way he was ever going to vote for the British Conservative Party. His own life narrative just fit too well with the stories that all parties on the left tell in one form or another.

At our 2012 Spring Conference, Aaron Zimmerman talked about this same dynamic with piercing insight. The idea that human beings invariably conceive of their lives as some kind of narrative, usually one of progress and improvement or redemption (but sometimes one of shame and self-loathing). That we are story addicts and the stories we tell about ourselves–which essentially function as a Law of who we believe we must be or become–often prevent us from seeing reality for what it is. They keep our eyes fixed firmly on our own navels, rather than on God, who is more concerned with who we actually are than with who we insist (to others and to Him) that we must be.

For example, if your “life narrative” involves you having long since conquered your impatience with a sibling, when you blow up at them over Thanksgiving, you’ll have to rationalize or deny the explosion to keep that narrative intact. Or religiously speaking, when we’ve set our testimony in stone and maybe even built our faith upon some form of improved behavior, we have a hard time making sense of any feelings or actions that don’t fit with it. The development of double lives is almost a foregone conclusion. Haidt is simply saying that these personal narratives inevitably have a moral and therefore political dimension, i.e. that micro narratives very quickly turn into macro ones. The nature of that dimension varies along experiential (and intellectual) lines, but its existence–in some form–does not.

“[The liberal and conservative] narratives are as opposed as could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical… Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy and may therefore be less moved by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognize that it is awful to be kept in chains…

But when liberals try to understand the [conservative] narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity, I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.”


“[In one study we attempted to compare] people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. [But they didn’t].

If you don’t see that [conservatives are] pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go so far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic–who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living–to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.”


Again, the point of this post is not somehow to argue that one partisan mindset is better than another (seriously!). The point is simply that the roots of each are tapping into a wellspring as universal as it is subterranean. We are all actively identified with narratives that we have a large stake in being true–even/especially those of us who talk day in and day out about (our) narratives in such terms. The Law is written on the heart; we are hardwired for it. And we know from experience that when these narratives are threatened, be it emotionally, financially, cosmetically, spiritually, etc–when they are shown to be nothing more or less than stories (idols)–we react, and often violently. A Pharisee will do anything he or she can to hold onto their story of spiritual-religious progress, to the point of executing the One who opposes it. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these findings paint a picture of human beings as both more limited in agency and ingrained with religiosity than the ideologies themselves would. Haidt probably wouldn’t put it that way, but who knows, maybe he would:

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects… If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.”

Make no mistake: come Wednesday the emotional fallout will be immense. Many a narrative will be under assault. Sacred spaces will have been desecrated. Blood and blame will run high, and millions will project messianic importance onto some poor guy who cannot possibly bear the weight. TLC will be in short supply (as if there wasn’t already enough of a premium on grace in public life). But nothing about the human propensity for misguided worship and narrative-construction will have changed. Nothing will have changed about the amount of narrative condemnation under which we are all living, which is 100%. Fortunately, neither will have anything changed about the Narrative-That-Isn’t-a-Narrative, the old, old story that doesn’t play in any demographic (never has and never will), the one that no one would have made up to garner favor or get votes, the ole’ wooden cross that can’t be spun no matter how hard it’s pushed. I’m referring to the only story worth retelling: the one about the suffering servant who gave up his power for the sake of inveterate storytellers who are blinded by their morality and bound by their self-justifying DNA.

Now take it away, Wilco: