This is the one that really matters. That is how tonight’s vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan has been hyped.
Mr. Biden, the “mayor of Gaffe Town,” will take the stage and attempt to restore some of the momentum the Obama campaign lost after Romney’s strong debate performance. Mr. Ryan, who Karl Rove referred to as a “budget wizard,” will take the stage and attempt to capitalize on that momentum and help Romney surge into the lead. However, much like the presidential debates, the chances that tonight’s vice presidential debate will have a major impact on the 2012 race are small. As Gallup notes, “[n]one of the vice presidential debates occurring from 1976 to 2008 appears to have meaningfully altered voter preferences.”
This should not, however, deter you from tuning in. For one thing, although Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are both veterans of the legislature, their value to their party’s ticket differs significantly. In 2008, Barack Obama tapped Biden because he filled a gap in Obama’s resume; namely, Biden brought to the ticket the foreign policy and national security expertise he earned as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similarly, Mitt Romney tapped Ryan because he filled a gap in Romney’s resume; namely, ideological consistency and domestic policy expertise (particularly with regard to budgetary concerns). Given their experiential differences, it would not be surprising too see Ryan as the star in the area of domestic policy whereas Biden steals the show on questions related to foreign policy.
But the more interesting aspect of tonight’s debate is the participant’s tendency to abdicate their party’s preferred method of talking to voters by making strong emotional appeals. As Jason Linkins noted earlier, “Most Democrats shy away from using stark, moral tones in their case-making, but Biden’s not one of them – when he discusses issues, he invests them with emotion, sometimes at the expense of nuance. Ryan, on the other hand, prefers a long wonky stroll in the weeds, to an emotional appeal.” The kinds of emotional appeals Biden and Ryan make, however, will differ significantly.
If you follow political commentary, you know the standard stereotype of what liberals think of conservatives: “cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.” And the standard stereotype of what conservatives think of liberals: irreligious, untraditional, arrogant, big-government bed-wetters. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that our political differences are not simply the product of contrasting philosophies or money and special interests. Rather, it is becoming increasingly clear that those who opt for conservatism and those who opt for liberalism differ on a number of psychological traits and tend to process information in divergent ways.
Consider, for example, the following scenario courtesy of Jonathan Haidt:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?
This scenario is designed to elicit the most common moral objections to incest, and most people respond that it is absolutely morally wrong. But when these people are asked why they think it is morally wrong, they find it harder than they thought to come up with an adequate justification. As Haidt notes, “They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control. They argue that Julie and Mark will be hurt, perhaps emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them.” After a while, people eventually abandon reasoning and blurt out something like, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know its wrong.” From this, Haidt concluded that our moral emotions evolved to help us survive and reproduce.
In a similar study, Haidt proposed that the foundations of our sense of right and wrong rest within five innate and universally available psychological systems: (1) Harm/Care (a sense of sympathy and empathy for others); (2) Fairness/Reciprocity (genuine feelings of right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust); (3) In-Group/Loyalty (reflected by a tribal mentality, patriotism, and self-sacrifice); (4) Authority/Respect (deference to leadership, seniority, and tradition); and (5) Purity/Sanctity (disgust for contamination, righteousness).
Based on surveys of the moral opinions of 118,240 people from more than a dozen countries, Haidt observed a statistically significant difference between liberals and conservatives in response to 15 questions about which considerations are relevant to deciding “whether something is right or wrong.”
Individuals who identified as liberal gave the highest relevance ratings to questions related to Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations and gave the lowest ratings to questions about In-Group/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity foundations. In other words, liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, and flaunt tradition to care for the oppressed. Consistent with this commitment, as George Lakoff has noted, the following words and phrases are often used over and over again in liberal discourse: social forces, social responsibility, free expression, human rights, equal rights, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, basic human dignity, oppression, diversity, deprivation, alienation, big corporations, corporate welfare, ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, pollution, etc.
In contrast to liberals, Haid’ts research found that the more conservative the participant, the more the first two decrease in relevance (Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity) and the last three increase (In-Group/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity). In other words, conservatives emphasize institutions, celebrate tradition, and value order, even at the cost of some at the bottom falling through the cracks. Similar to liberal discourse, conservative discourse often reflects these underlying values, emphasizing the following words and phrases repeatedly (again Lakoff): character, virtue, discipline, tough it out, get tough, tough love, strong, self-reliance, personal responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard work, enterprise, property rights, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, human nature, traditional, common sense, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, lifestyle, etc.
Haidt’s research illustrates that, rather than reflecting contrasting philosophies, conservatives and liberals emphasize different moral values. As Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take the stage tonight, America will be regaled with emotional appeals. But it is the disparate strings of emotions that both Biden and Ryan will tug on that makes this debate so interesting. Pay attention tonight, because what Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan say will highlight the liberal and conservative divide.