Post-Election and Leaning Left:
It’s Not the End of the World, Folks

I used to argue with my Dad that people are basically good. I was raised in a politically conservative household, and my Dad – as he would say – pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made it financially the hard way: He worked for it. A self-made man who labored from adolescence on and worked hard until he made it with determination and drive.

So here we are: A nation divided into camps and “identity politics.” And I’ve caught myself not being immune to that sort of thinking. A case in point: David and I usually take a walk around our suburban neighborhood each morning after breakfast. This month we have been counting Biden versus Trump signs out in front yards. (See lead photo and first two photos below.) The signs ran two-to-one in Biden’s favor, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into voter behavior, right? But still we found those odds encouraging. One morning, taking our usual route around the “hood,” we were surprised to find Trump signs in both the side and front yards of a neighbor we have grown to like ... a nice, older guy who offers us roses from his rose bush in season. All of a sudden I recoiled, saying “well that’s it for him! I used to like that guy and look at his politics!” But then, a few days after that, I had a talk with myself, realizing he was still a nice guy whose political leanings were just different than mine. And so I tried hard to catch myself before making any more personal judgments about our neighbor and have been working on it since ... reminding myself that the remnants of my family who still live in Indiana, as well as my oldest childhood friend, are all Trump supporters. And I do love them all dearly.

So what to make of our divided country? I think most folks agree that President Trump hammered away at the values that divide us, using our cultural identities and tribal loyalties as a wedge that has forced us into camps, contributing in some cases to violence and social unrest. But as Biden has said more than once this past weekend, “We are so much better than this. ... It’s not who we are.” But is that true? Despite the mayhem and much evidence to the contrary, is it true that most folks are basically good – is that true in your and my experience? In what’s reflected in newspaper stories across the political landscape?

In my last book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating our Stories Over a Lifetime, I touched on an area of research in psychology – principally the work of Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, and expanded upon by Dan McAdams and his research team. In the interest of space, I’m going to oversimplify a bit to make a point that might be helpful here.

Haidt and colleagues persuasively argue that all of us inherit intuitions – some of them moral in nature. In one article, Haidt and Joseph write that “moral intuitions are a subclass of intuition in which feelings of approval or disapproval pop into awareness as we see or hear about something someone did, or as we consider choices for ourselves.” For example, we hear of someone cheating a guy out of a day’s wage, and without really thinking about it our gut feeling is that that’s unfair. Somebody lies to a friend or spouse and we immediately think that’s disloyal and hence immoral. We see someone club a little dog almost to death and feel that it’s so wrong to harm the innocent animal.

According to these researchers, most of us inherit such intuitions as caring for others, a sense of fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and what they refer to as “purity” (e.g. disgust with filth, incest, etc). Political conservatives and liberals tend to focus on some intuitions more than others. McAdams and colleagues (see last photo below) report that “relative to liberals, conservatives express especially strong feelings for authority, group allegiance, and purity. By contrast, liberals tend to downplay the significance of authority, group allegiance, and purity, but experience strong moral feelings in response to harm [of others] and fairness. They are especially moved by suffering and by injustice.”

Of course, most of us tend to act out of the moral values we hold. And it’s in the resulting behavior – whether it’s at the voting booth or on the street – where we express what it is we hold dear. And so, to give most folks their due, we all respond to different moral imperatives. And our response – what we actually do – is shaped by culture and by our personal experience over a lifetime.

David Brooks wrote an interesting and insightful piece in The New York Times about a week ago titled, “Democrats have won the war of ideas.” At first, this title seems to fly in the face of the cultural wars and political divides on display around us. But he reminds us that not only are we in a crisis caused by the pandemic and the resulting economic chaos of our time, but also in times of social crises in our history – the great recession of 2008, World War II, the Great Depression – government tends to expand to meet the human crisis. Brooks writes:

Over the last 100 years, Americans have engaged in a long debate about the role of markets and the welfare state. Republicans favored a limited government, fearing that a large nanny state would sap American dynamism and erode personal freedom. Democrats favored a larger state, arguing that giving people basic economic security would enable them to take more risk and lead dignified lives.

That debate ebbed and flowed over the years, but 2020 has turned out to be a pivotal year in the struggle, and it looks now as if we can declare a winner. The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.

... COVID-19 has pushed voters to the left. ... The 2020 shift to the left follows years of leftward drift. In 2015 a majority of Americans believed that “government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.” Now only 39 percent believe that.

Brooks does point out that most folks do see themselves as moderates. As a nation, we still have a strong basic faith in democratic capitalism and a dislike of any program that smacks of socialism or proposals that concentrate too much power in Washington. He concludes that the majority of us want a much stronger social safety net to protect folks from the hazards of life – poverty, sickness, joblessneess (those moral intuitions of care and fairness) – but want reform in areas where government “has been captured by insider manipulation: housing, finance and health care (moral intuitions of fairness and care). So Brooks concludes that the liberal welfare state has won, a “robust capitalist economy combined with generous social support.”

I don’t know how to end this blog, or exactly where we go from here. But only on a note of hope that the transition time that looms before us will be a peaceful one – and we will heed our better angels and moral intuitions along the way.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.