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The spirit of Dharmacracy

January 14, 2007|Jonathan Haidt | JONATHAN HAIDT is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom."

AS DEMOCRATS change the drapes on Capitol Hill and relegate Republicans to minority status, both parties would do well to look to the ancient East for advice on how opposites should -- and should not -- work together.

In Hinduism, two of the main gods are Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. They are not enemies but partners in the governance of the world, and Shiva's "destruction" is really change, as in the change of seasons or of generations. Another Eastern tradition, the Manichean religion of ancient Persia, holds that the forces of good and evil eternally battle for control of the universe, and we humans get hurt in the process.

Which of these two models is most appropriate for our two-party system?

It ought to be Hinduism. Underneath the numerous policy differences between liberals and conservatives lie a few philosophical differences, one of which is the importance of institutions. Liberals tend to be wary of institutions -- marriage, the military, religions -- because they preserve old ways of doing things. Sometimes these old ways embody hierarchical distinctions based on gender, race or class, and liberals reflexively question them. Progressives are, by definition, those who value change in the service of progress. Robert F. Kennedy spoke for Shiva when he said, "I dream things that never were and say 'why not?' "

Conservatives, on the other hand, view social order as a tenuous achievement made possible only by the respect we all pay to social institutions that regulate and constrain the actions of individuals. When institutions are weakened, chaos erupts and we are all worse off.

The conservative philosopher Irving Kristol spoke for Vishnu when he said, "Institutions which have existed over a long period of time have ... a collective wisdom incarnate in them, and the fact that we don't perfectly understand or cannot perfectly explain why they 'work' is no defect in them but merely a limitation in us."

Seen in this way, liberals and conservatives are both necessary for the health of a democracy. Institutions are important, and many work best when they command respect, even reverence. Yet institutions must not ossify and lose touch with the changing demographics, values and scientific knowledge of the societies they serve.

Unfortunately, in recent years our democracy has moved ever closer to the Manichean model. Evolution has shaped the human mind to take readily to the game of good versus evil, and once debate escalates into war, once the other side is demonized, then the ends justify the means and no tactic is beyond the pale. Electoral fraud, character assassination, lies and subversion of our constitutional system's checks and balances -- all are carried out by political players who feel no guilt for their conduct because they believe they are on the side of the angels. Our nation -- and the world -- get hurt in the process.

How can we make our two-party system more beneficial for the nation? What can we do to become more "Hindu?"

We can practice and vote for spirited civility. We can enthusiastically criticize each other's ideas (that's the spirited part), but insults, ad hominem attacks and contempt should be declared out of bounds in public discourse. Whenever we hear a politician, a talk-show host or even a friend making uncivil political remarks, we can strive to uphold norms that embarrass them into more productive behavior.

We can say such things as: "Attacking people for their ideas is petty. Please address the ideas."

This proposal may sound naive, but there is a powerful psychological mechanism supporting it. In my research on the role that emotions play in morality, I have found that acts of virtue, nobility and honor create feelings of moral elevation in those who witness them. When people feel morally elevated, they are not petty and vengeful. They want to behave in an elevated way themselves, and they admire the person who elevated them.

The last two presidential elections were elevation-free zones. Virtually all the candidates played to our fears, anger and self-interest. The next presidential candidate who elevates Americans by combining spirited civility with oratorical ability will, I predict, win in a landslide. He or she may not win the votes of committed Manicheans, but most of the country is burned out on the self-righteous and self-destructive battle of good versus evil. Let us hope that the next pair of presidential nominees -- and the current Congress -- can see our two-party system as a partnership in which both parties are necessary and neither side has a monopoly on truth or virtue.

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