The Economist this week explores the political divide between the North and South of the UK: the North belongs to Labour and the South to the Tories. Unfortunately, they are unable to pinpoint the reason for the divisions, saying that “even controlling for factors such as education level, housing tenure, benefit receipts, local unemployment rates and age, the political divide remains in evidence.” That is not particularly surprising since voting doesn’t tend to follow economic divisions, for whatever reason.
An interesting theory of political divisions is provided by Jonathan Haidt’s descriptive theory of morality. He suggests that there are six foundations for our emotional response to situations and ideas: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. His empirical research shows that left and right-wing people systematically differ in the weight they place on each of those foundations. For example, left-wing people are far more responsive to ideas that trigger their caring response, while right-wing people are more likely to worry about proportionality. Crucially, he claims that almost all of our responses to ideas are determined by an initial emotional response that we then rationalise. He uses his theory to explain the divisions between Republicans and Democrats in the US, but it could equally be applied in the UK.
For example, Haidt claims that most conservatives will have an emotional response triggered by the sanctity foundation, while liberals will not. The recent debate over gay marriage in the UK shows precisely that division. While liberals pointed to the importance of the liberty to marry freely, conservatives talked about the ‘sanctity of marriage’ and were morally disgusted by the idea that homosexuals could marry. Those differing emotional reactions drew the battle lines for the ensuing debate and were post-hoc rationalised in various ways by both sides.
Perhaps economists who view ideological and political divisions through a materialist lens are thinking far too narrowly. Rather than pointing to industrial policies and wealth redistribution as vote-winning tactics they should look to the emotional responses that the parties’ rhetoric evokes.