The Clinton-Sanders Divide and Moral Foundation Theory

I am fond of Moral Foundation Theory. It isn’t a perfect explanation for everything that people think, but it explains a lot.

Moral Foundation Theory was developed by social psychologists to explain how people arrive at moral judgments. In brief, few if any of us simply think what we’re told to think by religion or by our cultures. Well, we do in a way, but it’s more complicated than we might think. Instead, our moral judgments arise from deeply subconscious intuitive orientations, and the social psychologists believe we are born pre-wired with these orientations.

Life experiences and cultural conditioning determine how our orientations develop. But someone who is pre-wired to be a prude, for example, is unlikely to completely escape being a prude no matter how he is raised. Judgments happen when we get emotional cues from the subconscious, and then we seize upon a narrative or some explanation for why we think the way we do.

When applied to politics, the Moral Foundations people list six orientations:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

A longer explanation:

1. Care/Harm — Being kind, gentle and nurturing and protecting people from harm.

2. Fairness/Cheating — Treating people with equality and justly, in proportion to their actions.

3. Liberty/Oppression — Giving people freedom and protecting them from tyranny.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal — Being patriotic, self-sacrificing and loyal to one’s group, family and nation.

5. Authority/Subversion — Respecting leadership, tradition and legitimate authority.

6. Sanctity/Degradation — Living in an elevated, noble way and avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions.

As the chart suggests, if your wiring causes you to value care and fairness over authority and sanctity, you are a liberal. Vice versa, you are a conservative.

Conservatives and centrists tend to value loyalty much more than liberals, and I’ve noticed that loyalty comes up a lot in arguments Clinton supporters make for their candidate. It’s very important to them to be loyal to the Democratic Party, and they are upset that Sanders is “not a real Democrat” but an independent who caucuses with Democrats. I hear this over and over again. Per Moral Foundations Theory, this pegs them as centrists if not conservatives.

They even argue that closed primaries are a better indicator of who should be nominated, because we shouldn’t be allowing independents to choose the Dem nominee.  The notion that we should nominate the candidate with the least appeal to independents rather flies in the face of common sense, to me, but I hear that one all the time.

Note also that Loyalty/betrayal rather quickly segues into Authority/subversion. We’re wading pretty deeply into conservative orientation at this point.

To Sanders supporters, this is a stupid argument. Who gives a hoo-haw whether Sanders is a “real Democrat”? The Democratic Party is a big part of the problem, anyway. Again, this is a common orientation for a liberal, who doesn’t place a high value on group loyalty for its own sake.

Sanders supporters are quick to accuse the Clinton camp of cheating. Given the messiness of many of the primaries and caucuses, this would be expected of liberals, who place a very high value on fairness and not cheating. They sometimes do go overboard, IMO, such as in the current flap over election, um, irregularities in Arizona. Everything I’ve read about it traces the problem to some incompetent Republican appointees; I haven’t seen anything that connects the problem to the Clinton campaign.

But then there were the PUMAs, die-hard Clinton supporters from 2008, who also charged the Obama campaign of stealing votes from Clinton. They were a fascinating crew. This article is from 2015:

The PUMAs–which, depending on the temperament of the person asked, stood for People United Means Action or, more likely, Party Unity My Ass–were a group of disillusioned, mostly Democratic voters who protested the nomination of then-Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic Party nominee in 2008. In their view, party leadership machinations (remember the “super delegates?”) robbed Clinton of the nomination.

In the weeks between Obama surpassing the delegate threshold and his formal nomination at the convention, these PUMAs appeared dozens of times on cable news to defend Clinton and to promise mischief at the nominating convention and in the general election. Their anger epitomized a wider unrest that has been mostly forgotten as Obama went on to win two general elections: In the days before the convention, only 47 percent of Clinton supporters said they were certain to vote for Obama.

I get a kick out of posting this whenever some Clintonista lectures Sanders supporters on how they are stupid if they won’t vote for Clinton in November. See above about more than half of Clinton supporters thinking about not voting for Obama. Somehow, he won anyway.

The PUMAs believe they were being cheated, but Obama supporters saw Clinton as the chief cheater. Remember the flap over the Michigan and Florida delegates? If not, see this article from 2008 that explains it pretty well. Very simply, Clinton attempted to skirt rules to claim delegates from Florida and Michigan who were not rightfully hers. Here are more articles touching on this controversy from the Maha Archives from 2008 that are fun to read in retrospect:

“Win, Lose, Draw,” January 16, 2008

“Over the Line,” January 25, 2008

“Just Say No,” May 22, 2008

“He Said No,” May 22, 2008

“Votes on the Votes,” May 31, 2008

“The Last Dog,” June 1, 2008

While the PUMAs believed they were being cheated, they were blind to the outrageous cheating that Clinton herself attempted in order to claim the nomination in 2008. In their own minds, apparently, whatever Hillary Clinton was justified … because why? She was the leader? Kind of a mash-up of Fairness/cheating and Loyalty/betrayal. I’d like to think most Obama supporters would not have been so blind if he had attempted such a thing.  Of course, he did not, so we will never know.

Anyway, I offer the hypothesis that the biggest cause of the divide is that Clinton supporters tend to be centrists and Sanders supporters, for the most part, are genuine lefties. So we’re all operating out of entirely different moral foundations. I see a lot of stupidity in both camps; some of the denser Sanders supporters tend to dredge up old, discredited right-wing smears of Clinton, for example, which of course is both stupid and counterproductive.

But it’s fascinating to me that Clinton supporters refuse to acknowledge issues from her actual policy speeches and record that ought to give any liberal pause. The AIPAC speech comes to mind, for example. And they won’t look at it; they won’t acknowledge there might be a problem. Perhaps that would be disloyal.

17 thoughts on “The Clinton-Sanders Divide and Moral Foundation Theory

  1. “While the PUMAs believed they were being cheated, they were blind to the outrageous cheating that Clinton herself attempted in order to claim the nomination in 2008”

    IOKIYAP! Great post maha. I was kind of a right-winger until I reached my 30’s I never understood why I always assumed it was just because I was raised in a very segregated city and I was part of the small white minority. Everyone from my tribe pretty much was a right winger if you know what I mean. So the whole “social psychologists believe we are born pre-wired with these orientations” gives me pause, maybe I’m not really a liberal after all! I agree though many of the Clinton folks do act like warmed over conservatives, maybe not from a policy perspective but from a “were entitled to the nomination” perspective, sort of like Ann Romney’s “it’s our turn”. Lawrence O’Donnell had Thom Hartman and Nina Turner on his show last night they both explained perfectly that: yes Sander supporters will vote for Clinton, if she earns their vote!

  2. I know how important this election is, but I’m not as emotionally invested as I was in 2008. Which isn’t to say that I won’t help GOTV later on, because I will.

    I should be more enthused.
    Hillary is, like Obama, a first; but so is Bernie.
    She, for being the first woman to come this close (again) to being the Democratic nominee. Bernie, for being the first Jew – and Democratic Socialist – to come this far.

    I like both of them, but I also see their flaws.
    And either of them would be a thousand times more capable than any of the GOP candidates – even Kasich.

    So, I’ll wait, vote for Bernie in NY’s primary, and then support whoever is our nominee.

  3. I think I’m pretty left.
    I like Sanders’s policy orientation better than Clinton’s, and by a long chalk.

    Nevertheless, I’m a firm vote for Clinton.
    The President must run the country, and deal with complex problems and a recalcitrant Congress, and must be the President of all Americans, of all genders and pigmentations, including the substantial fraction of the populace who voted for someone else.

    I look at that job description, and I can’t see Sanders.

    IMHO, neither of them can fill Obama’s shoes, but Clinton comes closer.

    • Joel — Competence is grand, but I fear Clinton will competently march us in the wrong direction. Especially in foreign policy.

  4. some of the denser Sanders supporters tend to dredge up old, discredited right-wing smears of Clinton, for example, which of course is both stupid and counterproductive.

    Yeah, but it’s fun. What’s life if you can’t have fun?

  5. I can’t see that Sanders has a foreign policy at all.

    And I’m willing to overlook quite a bit in order to see the first woman President inaugurated. It’s my bet that enough women will come out for that historic victory that the Dems will re-take the Senate on her coattails, and maybe make gains in the House.

    A majority of voters are women.
    Soon a majority of the nation will be people of color.

    We could do a lot worse than to valorize and engage women of color as committed Democratic voters. That cross-tab is the future of electoral politics in the US.

    Don’t get me wrong; I despise Clinton’s hawkishness, but I think that part of it is compensation (she must appear twice as tough as a man in order not to appear weak because sexism) and part of it was recorded while much of the nation, including Dem voters, was consumed in a paroxysm of lust for vengeance in the wake of 9/11.
    I may be mistaken, but I don’t think that today’s Democratic Party will make it easy for her to start a new war — and I give Sen Sanders a lot of credit for amplifying the liberal voice within the party to its current volume.

  6. Being a grind is not actually the same as competence, and Hillary seems to be afflicted with both poor judgement and a general disinclination to learn from her mistakes. If you observed her healthcare initiative in the 90’s, as I did, it’s hard to buy the “competence” talking point in terms of either policymaking or politics.

    By the way, although the Clintons have been fortunate in the character of their enemies, some of those old right-wing complaints were more disregarded than discredited. Along that line, the most interesting thing about her current email-gate troubles isn’t the legalities, but the source of the whole business — Hillary’s stubborn determination to use her personal Blackberry and private email account for both personal and government communications. Possible motivations include secrecy/subversion of oversight, ego/status games, reluctance to change her habits or learn new routines, “rules don’t apply to me” entitlement and just plain sloppiness. Any way you slice it, nothing reflects well on her judgement and failure to indict her doesn’t mitigate that.

    The whole “experience/competence” talking point is ludicrous anyway. Iraq/AUMF is just the most egregious counterpoint in a long list.

  7. “I fear Clinton will competently march us in the wrong direction”

    Key words, competently , march and wrong. Hillary has all but lost my vote, she is a defense department stooge. Is she worse than a Republican, she sounds just as bad to me? She will keep pissing away more and more money on bullets and war. She chides Trump for outright Islamophobia but she’ll put billions toward the cause:From her AIPAC speech: “The United States should provide Israel with the most sophisticated defense technology so it can deter and stop any threats. That includes bolstering Israeli missile defenses with new systems like the Arrow Three and David’s Sling. And we should work together to develop better tunnel detection, technology to prevent armed smuggling, kidnapping and terrorist attacks.” Yes lets build Davids sling whatever the fuck that costs, and yes lets keep those miscreant Palestinians out of them dirty tunnels. Swap Mexican for Arab, how is she any different than Trump?

  8. “I can’t see that Sanders has a foreign policy at all”

    Right that’s the point. He has one but you can’t see it or maybe you don’t recognize it. You’ve mistaken foreign policy for some bullshit game that ends with death, profits and eternal debt. Bernie has what he needs to put an end to this charade, what are gonna do call him an anti-Semite!

  9. My initital reaction here was, oh jeezus, it’s like the damn Meyer Briggs personality test. But never mind that.

    Let’s actually look at the graph that Maha provided.

    Look at the way that the “very liberal” set ranks very low on the loyalty characteristic. Could it be that this is actually not an admirable trait?

    Could it be that the very low loyalty score of very liberal folks is connected to the fact that at least some of those folks–the young very liberal people, the core Sanders supporters–are notorious for failing to vote in midterm elections? You know, the elections in which the Democrats get their ass handed to them on a plate. The elections in which the GOP seizes control of Congress.

    Bernie Sanders himself is a good example IMHO of a leftist with a low loyalty score (in the context of the present discussion). Do you see him raising funds or campaigning on behalf of anyone but himself? I don’t think so. But you do see Hillary Clinton doing that. And no surprise, the fact that she’s getting her hands dirty with that sort of politicking is one of those things that drives a lot of Sanders supporters crazy.

    I live with a 25 year old who is a fanatic Sanders supporter. She’s also a complete sucker for Clinton Derangement Syndrome. The Arizona primary mess, brought to you by the GOP, was actually Clinton’s fault. And on and on and on. But if only we elect Bernie Sanders president, she says, then The Revolution will be upon us.

    This 25 year old was eligible to vote in both the 2010 and 2014 elections, when the Democrats got their asses kicked. She didn’t bother to vote in either of those elections.

    I’m an old geezer whose politics have always been on the left. I’ll vote for Sanders in my state’s primary later this spring. I’ll also vote Democratic in November if Clinton is the nominee, because dammit, there are only two teams worth considering, and Team Republican is vile and disgusting. Team Democrat manages to embody at least some of my values.

    • Joel — Moral Foundation Theory has been around since the 1990s; it wasn’t something just invented to explain this election. A really good book explaining it is _The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion_ by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, published in 2012. Note that Haidt says stuff occasionally that I think is stupid, but it’s still a good book, and the proposition has been put through pretty rigorous testing.

  10. In response to uncledad, uh, there is a lot to dislike about Clinton at AIPAC, but getting worked up about missile defenses? If memory serves me right, back at the time of Bush I and our first invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein started lobbing missiles at Israel. Maybe missile defenses are important.

  11. “our first invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein started lobbing missiles at Israel”

    So whats your point? I’m all for Israel having missile defense or whatever defense they want, as long as they pay for it and use it in accordance with conventional global norms! What I’m not for is the American taxpayers funding the defense of an Apartheid State!

  12. Maha–thanks for the replies. Yes, I do realize that HRC’s fundraising for downticket candidates is not a pure as the snow business. But that’s part of my point. Damn near nothing about politics fits that description, yet many folks on the left end of the spectrum act as if it ought to be or else they’re taking their toys and leaving. And I definitely think that loyalty is a highly under-rated characteristic that has little to do with autghoritarian tendencies.

    • Joel — I think loyalty has to be mutual. What I’m seeing surrounding Clinton smacks of cult of personality to me, and the argument that we must be loyal to the Democratic Party because it’s the Democratic Party doesn’t work. If I saw evidence that the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party really were wholeheartedly “fighting for me,” and not just fighting for me to the extent that it must to keep up appearances and/or pander for my vote, I’d feel a lot more loyal to it.

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