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Why is it that the so-called "values voter," the core of the Republican base, is so eager to vote for candidates that will do (and have done) horrible things to their economic stability and civil rights? This is one of those things that confounds most liberals (me included, until very recently). Why is it that the Republican base keeps electing people who do dirt to them? Why is it that the Republican base gets worked up about things like Obama occasionally not wearing a flag pin, or rumors that he's a Muslim, or that he wants to replace the national anthem with "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" (as my conservative father-in-law claimed in an easily-debunkable email forward this morning)? Why is it that these seeming non-issues, these values-based dogwhistles, get them so upset and ready to vote for someone who will trash their civil rights and their economic prospects? And why is it, when we try to talk to them about these issues, they bring up what seem to us completely irrelevant arguments about values?

Why do values matter so much to the "Values Voter"?

Come with me over the fold for an explanation of why the GOP base consistently votes its ideals over its needs.

After reading an article or two by Jonathan Haidt, I think I may have part of the answer - the part that Haidt didn't seem to address. His excellent article, "What Makes People Vote Republican?" explains the disconnect between the liberal and conservative evaluations of morality based on five dimensions: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity, and authority/respect. According to his research, liberals only take the first two dimensions into account when deciding a moral question, asking "does it harm someone? is it fair?"

Conservatives, on the other hand, also ask "does it keep my group cohesive? does it disgust me? does it undermine authority or lead to disrespect?" In an article Haidt co-published with Jesse Graham in the sociological journal Social Justice Research, this analogy is given as an example of the disconnect between liberals and conservatives:

Suppose your next-door neighbor puts up a large sign in her front yard that says "Cable television will destroy society." You ask her to explain the sign, and she replies, "Cables are an affront to the god Thoth. They radiate
theta waves, which make people sterile." You ask her to explain how a low voltage, electrically-shielded coaxial cable can make anyone sterile, but she changes the subject. The DSM-IV defines a delusion as "a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary" (APA, DSM-IV, 1994, p.765). Your neighbor is clearly delusional and possibly schizophrenic. She is responding to forces, threats, and agents that simply do not exist.

But now suppose another neighbor puts up a large sign in his front yard that says "Gay marriage will destroy society."  You ask him to explain the sign, and he replies,   "Homosexuality is an abomination to God. Gay marriage will undermine marriage, the institution upon which our society rests."   You ask him to explain how allowing two people to marry who are in love and of the same sex will harm other marriages, but he changes the subject. Because your neighbor is not alone in his beliefs, he does not meet the DSM-IV criteria for delusion. However, you might well consider your homophobic neighbor almost as delusional, and probably more offensive, than your cable-fearing neighbor. He, too, seems to be responding to forces, threats, and agents that do not exist, only in this case his widely shared beliefs have real victims: the millions of men and women who are prohibited from marrying the people they love, and who are treated unjustly in matters of family law and social prestige. If only there were some way to break through your neighbor s delusions—some moral equivalent of Thorazine— which would help him see the facts as you see them. [...]

Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals
hear talk about theta waves.

(Haidt and Graham 2007)

All well and good. This certainly explains why liberals and conservatives get so frustrated when we try to talk to one another about justice - they say "values," and we hear "theta waves." But there is another issue that Haidt does not address, although he and Graham touch on it just briefly, and that is the issue of group identity. I think this is the missing piece that explains why the crusaders against what liberals would call "justice" are so active and so vehement in their opposition to things like gay rights - and why our rejection of their values and our calls for change can drive them absolutely wild.

As an example of a values-voter stance which liberals would consider a basic fairness/reciprocity issue, but which conservatives insist is a moral one, what generally happens when we, as liberals, try to talk to social conservatives about marriage equality? We frame it as a civil-rights issue, and to us, this framing makes perfect sense. But in response, we get back arguments that seem to make no sense:

"Gay marriage? Might as well let people marry children, or their sisters, or animals!"

"Gay marriage will be the downfall of civilized society!"

And so forth. When viewed from a harm/care or fairness/reciprocity perspective, these responses seem like a selfish dog-in-the-manger attitude at best, and paranoid babbling about theta waves at worst. But when we examine them from two of the three moral dimensions that liberals have no use for, an element of sense emerges. The dimensions that Haidt proposes actually dovetail, and when we connect the dots, we can see why conservatives are afraid of the changes we're proposing.

For example, under the purity/sanctity dimension of morality, most conservatives have long been conditioned to consider homosexual people disgusting. This is a reaction that is so deep that it's no longer questioned; the conditioning has taken over several generations and, similar to the pork prohibition which Jews and Muslims share, can and does produce physical feelings of disgust in those conditioned. In addition, homosexuality has been associated with other disgusting things like pedophilia and bestiality.

This association may not have been deliberate. In fact, it may have occurred precisely because all three of these things carry an overtone of disgust to people who have been conditioned to find them so. By that measure, they are all equally bad things; they produce the same reactions.

But why should homosexuality be considered disgusting in the first place? Why was this conditioning started? Well, part of the reason may be, as Quentin Crisp said in an interview on The Celluloid Closet:

"Mainstream people dislike homosexuality because they can't help concentrating on what homosexual [people] do to one another. And when you contemplate what people do, you think of yourself doing it. And they don't like that. That's the famous joke: I don't like peas, and I'm glad I don't like them, because if I liked them I would eat them and I hate them."

I know that many gay men have a similar revulsion at the idea of having sex with a woman, and many lesbian women can't imagine having sex with a man without feelings of disgust, so in this case, the ingrained disgust that conservatives feel about homosexuality is probably not that surprising.

So with the purity/sanctity dimension, we have the problem that conservatives, either by nature or by conditioning or both, find homosexuality to be impure in a very basic way. It creates feelings of disgust to think about it (perhaps for the reasons Crisp described).

Even so, there are plenty of things that are disgusting which still aren't illegal. Why is it that homosexuality should be targeted, while eating roadkill (also disgusting) is not?  If we view this only from purity/sanctity, we might be able to get a visceral sense of why it's considered disgusting, but why should that automatically lead to legislation to prevent it?

Now let's turn to the other dimension that makes this opposition make sense. Under the ingroup/loyalty dimension, the ingroup is the most important thing. "My group above all others," says this dimension. "Protect my group."

People belong to many groups. Most of the time, when we think of groups, we think of the things that the law says we have to avoid discrimination about: sex, race, age. These are aspects that we don't choose. But we also belong to many groups that we choose to belong to: religious groups, political parties, and groups which are categorized by individual relationships. One of these groups is "married people."

We don't usually think of married people as a group sharing a common identity, but they are. And, to add to the complexity of this problem, many people who are not married aspire to that status. So any move to change the definition of marriage is not just seen as semantics. It's a change to what their identity means, and to who the people in their ingroup are.

When we combine these two factors of purity/sanctity and ingroup/loyalty, we can see the issue that emerges. Changing the definition of marriage to allow gay people to get married means that the definition of the ingroup "married people" is now changed to include a group that conservatives find disgusting. It means that when they say "I'm married," they now have to qualify it: "to an opposite-sex partner," because otherwise they might be suspected of being something that they find disgusting.

(If this is hard for you to swallow, try to imagine having a group you find disgusting - and everyone has at least one - associated that intimately and directly with the definition of an ingroup that you are part of, that you feel is part of your personal identity. Imagine having people say "Oh, you're one of THOSE people" when you introduce yourself as a member of that ingroup.)

While I'm still not saying it's all right to deny people civil rights based on these moral concerns, I am saying that this should explain why conservatives try to. And when they say that their way of life is being attacked, this is what they mean. The definition of who they are, of their identity, would have to change, and it would have to change to include people that they just can't tolerate being associated with. It's not just a question of semantics. It's a question of fundamental identity.

And so, they will fight it because to them, a change in the definition of marriage is an attempt to destroy their identity. That's why it matters so much to them - not just because they might have to share the identity, but because of what sharing that identity with gay people would mean to outsiders looking in. And, what's worse, if the new definition becomes accepted to those outsiders, it could eventually mean that their chosen ingroup experiences dissolution, or even reformation into something which excludes the person who's opposing the change in definition.

This should explain why people vote their values, even if it completely screws them on an economic or civil-rights level. They are voting in their own self-interest. It's just not the same area that we would consider self-interest. The GOP offers them legislation that will protect their fundamental identities. It promises them legislation that will keep their ingroups protected from things they find disgusting. It promises them stability and exclusivity for their ingroups.

Compared to that, our insistence on fairness and reciprocity simply doesn't stand a chance. We must learn to speak the language of the values voters. Obama is already doing this. We need to do it, too.

Originally posted to Killer of Sacred Cows on Wed Sep 24, 2008 at 11:41 AM PDT.

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