MICHAEL LIFFMAN. The Real Roots of Populism

Jul 4, 2017

(If we are really to understand and respond to populism, we need to go deep into the human psyche. Perhaps Jung is as relevant as Marx to this inquiry, and those of us who are committed to social progress need to reassess our approach…)

It has been said that Australians, perversely and to our detriment, treat politics like football and football like politics. There is truth in this. Both are highly adversarial pursuits, yet we appear to have far more respect for our opponents, and a greater capacity for nuanced analysis, in sport  than we do in politics.

Our own era seems particularly characterised by dysfunctional adversarialism, and an inability to engage with other viewpoints, let alone to use reason to seek a middle ground, but even those who deplore this seem unable  to leave their own trench in search of dialogue.

Yale University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has made at least two notable contributions to our understanding of this impasse.

First, his book, helpfully entitled ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’, offers, in my view, one of the best explanations of the current  global upsurge of populism. While not denying the more common causal factors of income inequity, unemployment, and the like, he digs far deeper, into the findings of social psychology, to identify clusters of deep-seated, visceral and non-rational feelings which determine most people’s responses to social issues, and which are rarely amenable to argument or persuasion. (www.moralfoundations.org)

He proposes – indeed he provides empirical evidence for – five such innate  ‘moral foundations’. Importantly these are not theoretically derived, ethical precepts but innate dispositions, evidenced in a vast range of often inventive psychological experiments. Put simply, these paired dispositions are harm/care, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

While these dispositions exist in us all, the key to Haidt’s argument lies in his discovery that the  first two  are more highly valued than the others in that part of the population he describes as ‘WEIRD’, that is ‘western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic’. In the USA this part of the population would now typically be Democrat voters (and, yes, these do seem rather like readers of  Pearls and Irritations).  It is in the difficulty the WEIRD have in understanding, let alone respecting, the potency of the other dispositions for the rest of the population, that the root of our problem lies. Thus, to use a graphic example Haidt employs, when asked how they respond to the idea of an incestuous relationship (using birth control) between two mature consenting adults, liberals are more likely – albeit reluctantly – to accept it on the basis that no apparent harm is being done, while conservatives invoke a non-negotiable revulsion best explained by an unshakeable sense of inherent degradation and moral affront.

Part of the appeal this analysis has for me is that it is a vastly more sophisticated and scholarly iteration of a notion I have long held, namely that many of the ideas to which progressives are so committed, even if  laudably principled, ethical, and directed at creating a better society, are counter-intuitive….or, in the words of the unconvinced, ‘politically correct’. That is to say, some of our core beliefs about, for instance, feminism, diversity, or inequality, are in reality more aspirational than empirical, and do not readily accord with the experiences, observations, and inherited belief systems of a great many people. They may also not accord with reality. (It follows that to regard all of those who are unconvinced as ‘deplorables’ is unfair, and compounds the problem it seeks to remedy.)

Haidt’s notion – insightful as it is – might however be seen as something of a damp squib, as it does not provide an easy solution to the problem it diagnoses, beyond more respectful and empathic discussion with those whose  views differ from one’s own.

But Haidt has made a second, more activist, contribution through his establishment of the Heterodox Academy. Though a committed Democrat, Haidt is alarmed by what he perceives to be the group think, and unquestioning rejection of conservative ideas, that characterizes American universities, and especially the humanities and social science disciplines. (www.heterodoxacademy.org)

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March, another supporter of the Heterodox Academy, Musa al-Gharbi, questions even more fundamentally the assumed link between  higher education and diversity of thought:

‘Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”.’

The Heterodox Academy has therefore proposed a Charter that it urges universities to consider and accept, which recognizes, and puts in place concrete steps to ensure, meaningful diversity. These include  encouraging diverse viewpoints in teaching and research, rejecting the need to use ‘trigger warnings’  to protect students from ‘offensive’ or discomforting subjects of discussions , and not allowing students to veto invitations  to controversial guest speakers. An increasing number of universities, and prominent academics, are joining the Heteodox Academy, including a handful of Australian academics. The topic has just started to surface in Australia, but early indications indicate that it, too, will  meet the same combative adversarialism it seeks to challenge.


Dr Michael Liffman is Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Social Impact, and Founding Director, Asia Pacific Centre for Social Investment annd Philanthropy, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. Prior to this he was CEO of the Myer Foundation, in which role he led the creation of The Cranlana Program. He has also worked in immigration and multicultural policy.



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