Let’s say your intuition is correct. You feel the leading candidates for the Presidency—Republican and Democrat—are taking the country in the wrong direction. It’s less about policy, more about their persona. How could both parties come to see the light?
Americans’ two major political parties are falling into disfavor. The leading candidates aren’t helping. Polls indicate the majority of Americans feel the leading candidates are arrogant. David Brooks writes, “Trump is a solipsistic branding genius whose ‘policies’ have no contact with Planet Earth and who would be incapable of organizing a coalition, domestic or foreign. Cruz is universally off-putting, always been good at tearing things down but incompetent when it comes to putting things together.”1
The Democrats’ leading candidates are no better. Clinton is a thin-skinned politician who demonizes opponents, invariably connecting them to vast imagined right-wing conspiracies. Sanders denigrates anyone who’s wealthy, flying the colors of an unabashed socialist.
Every candidate evinces righteousness. Nothing wrong with that, except an obsession with righteousness leads inevitably to self-righteousness, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Self-righteous folks feel they’re pursuing a moral cause, but in so doing, they invariably become smug. Haight puts it this way: Morality binds and blinds. There is however a way to overcome blindness.
Howard Margolis, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, says we operate by two very different kinds of cognition: “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” “Seeing-that” is intuitive. Our brains automatically match perceptions with patterns. For instance, if your pattern is “all Democrats are bad,” your perceptions of Clinton and Sanders will be negative. In terms of cognition, intuitions come first.
Reasoning is second. “Reasoning-why’ is the process by which we describe how we think we reached a judgment. But Haight says when we reason, “we’re looking for reasons why somebody else ought to join us.” We reason to support our intuitions. We’re dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm our initial judgments. That’s why you can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned their way into.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Two millennia ago, a man named Saul was blinded by the light. He was on his way to Damascus, breathing out murderous threats against Jesus’s disciples. As he neared Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. It was Jesus, the very person Saul was persecuting. Jesus told him to get up and go into the city to be told what to do. Saul obeyed. What made him change his mind?
Saul, later known as the Apostle Paul, writer of much of the New Testament, claimed to have lived his entire life with a clear conscience. Just as there are two different kinds of cognition, there are two different kinds of conscience—clear and corrupted. Conscience is the human capacity to be self-aware, to sense when our capacity for reason is not doing us a favor but is instead rationalizing our beliefs. People of clear conscience might initially be blinded by the light, but they quickly adjust. They want truth above all else.
The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote: “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” (7:16). Excessively righteous people ruin themselves. They ruin political parties. As a country, we can do better; but only if people of good conscience say Enough. Otherwise, the intuition that both parties are taking the country in the wrong direction will be prophetic.
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1 David Brooks, “Time for a Republican Conspiracy.” The New York Times, January 16, 2016.
2 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 50-52