During last week's U.S. Supreme Court arguments over the health reform law, the most striking images of demonstrators outside the courthouse showed people with gags taped over their mouths with the word "Life" emblazoned on them. The pictures summed up the Manichaeism of American politics, which is not so much rich versus poor as it is an ideological divide between those who care about compassion and those who care about sanctity.
As someone who is on the compassion end of things, I find it befuddling that these "life" protesters were not concerned with the estimated 45,000 people in this country who die each year for lack of health insurance. They had no compunction about opposing a law that prevents insurers from denying children health insurance due to a preexisting condition, meaning that thousands of sick children can now get the care they need.
They want the Affordable Care Act struck down due to regulations over birth control. Theirs is a religiously grounded objection to the requirement that health insurance companies include birth control (not abortion, just birth control) in a package of free preventative health care.
The only "life" they care about exists in the fleeting week after fertilization and before uterine implantation, when an embryo is composed of between 50 and 150 cells, the size of the period at the end of this sentence. For comparison, the brain of a fruit fly contains about 250,000 cells. Extreme abortion opponents claim that oral contraceptives are abortifacients because they can interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg.
Herein lies the liberal/conservative divide. Compassion for the living versus sanctity for the unborn. Rationality and openness to science versus deference to religious authority.
How did Americans grow to see the moral world so starkly different even as we grew up in the same nation? Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has an answer in his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt says political views emerge from a powerful mixture of DNA character traits and experiential overlay, with genetics being the single greatest determinant. Identical twins reared apart will be more similar to each other in terms of political and religious views than they will be to their adoptive siblings or parents.
According to Haidt, the broad genetically driven traits that launch each of us on an ideological trajectory come down to this: People who are more fearful and who naturally react more acutely to threats tend to be politically conservative; people who are more open and who receive more enjoyment from new experiences tend to be politically liberal.
As a result, the moral matrix for liberals centers around compassion, fairness and liberty, Haidt says. Alternatively, conservatives are somewhat less concerned than liberals about harm to other people but are far more concerned with patriotism or loyalty, fealty to authority and sanctity — what they see as the moral foundations that tie groups together.
As I listened to the audio tape of the Supreme Court justices debating the constitutionality of the health care reform law, this very dynamic played out under the guise of constitutional analysis.
The Affordable Care Act is a compassionate expansion of the nation's safety net, guaranteeing for the first time that every American will have access to good, affordable health insurance. During oral arguments over the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the court's liberals, such as Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were clearly predisposed to upholding it. Conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were openly hostile. The posture of each had less to do with august ideas like stare decisis and precedent than with how high on their moral matrix they put societal compassion versus you're-on-your-own liberty.
Haidt says liberals have a tougher time understanding the conservative vantage point than vice versa. And I agree. That will be particularly true for me if the high court strikes down health care reform, leaving children with preexisting conditions once again without health coverage, and the "life" protesters raising a rousing cheer.