The USA Versus the World

How liberals and conservatives psychologically define their ingroups

Posted May 01, 2017

TheDigitalWay / Pixabay
Source: TheDigitalWay / Pixabay

When a large-scale disagreement takes place, this is usually a signal that people are seeing things in radically different ways from one another. If you are paying attention at all to modern political situations, then you know full well that large-scale disagreements are all over the map.

In a great intellectual discussion about the evolutionary origins of liberalism and conservatism, Jonathan Haidt paints a powerful portrait of the primary psychological differences between liberalism and conservatism. In a nutshell, he basically argues that a conservative mindset is one that focuses on the nation as the ultimate ingroup. From this perspective, a conservative American sees him or herself as an American first and foremost. This nationalism goes hand-in-hand with conservatism. And for good reasons. As Haidt sees it, there are all kinds of conditions that make conservatism relatively adaptive. Under conditions of war or global resource scarcity, for instance, making sure that your nation is safe and secure becomes vital. Thus, America First.

Liberalism is something of a luxury. A core element of the psychology of liberalism is that one tends to define his or her ingroup in a global, pan-national manner. From this point of view, taking steps to help reduce poverty in a nation half-way across the world is every bit as essential as is taking steps to help reduce poverty right here in the old USA. With this reasoning, many liberals identify as humanists - underscoring their focus on what’s best for humans writ large, as opposed to what’s best for one’s compatriots more specifically. When the world is safe and people have opportunities and resources available, liberalism emerges as an adaptive approach to life.

Nationalists versus Humanists

From this Haidt-ian portrait of liberalism and conservatism, then, we may do well to think about these ideologies as nationalism versus humanism. And if you think about it, it’s not too hard to see how these perspectives can quickly become at odds with one another. Below are several issues where you can quickly see a disparity between a nationalist versus a humanist approach.


Nationalist Approach: We must curtail immigration - this is OUR nation. Immigrants pose threats to our jobs and to security.

Humanist Approach: We need to be open toward immigration - after all most of us are relatively recent descendants of immigrants. And it is up to all of us to help people from all corners of the world.



Nationalist Approach: Education needs to focus on what is best for America first. Education on topics that have the capacity to impede our industry, such as education about climate change, should have little place in our schools. Our schools should prepare Americans to help advance the goals of our nation.

Humanist Approach: Education needs to be open and multi-faceted, including various perspectives on all kinds of topics - even if the perspectives do not necessarily advance a nationalist perspective. And American educational institutions should be open to students from around the world.


National Security

Nationalist Approach: National security is a top priority, and we must invest resources heavily into this area. Threats to our nation are threats to our way of living and to our future.

Humanist Approach: National security is important, but it is no more important than are other forms of security or than the security that exists in nations around the world.



Nationalist Approach: We need to adopt policies that work to advance the businesses of our nation - advancing our industry is the same as advancing our nation. Nationalists see intensive competition among nations - and from a nationalist perspective, it is very important that our businesses are out-competing businesses from other parts of the world.

Humanist Approach: Businesses are secondary to people. Humanists, by definition, focus on humans - and humanists see businesses as essentially in service to humans at multiple levels. To humanists, a focus on the businesses of one's nation takes away from the focus on humans from across the globe.


Federal Investments

Nationalist Approach: A nationalist sees federal monies as designed for the benefit of our nation. Thus, investments into the future of the nation are primary - often with a focus on having our nation out-compete other nations.

Humanist Approach: A humanist agrees that federal investments should be for the benefit of the nation - but believes that these should also be for the benefit of the world in a broader sense. Investments in other nations that help reduce global warming, for instance, benefit everyone in the long term - and this is the way that a humanist thinks about optimal investing.



Nationalist Approach: Tax plans that benefit the nation and that help our nation emerge as superior to other nations should be endorsed. This is the America First principle. Tax plans that unfetter businesses in various ways are seen as exactly the kind of plans that primarily advance the goals of the nation.

Humanist Approach: Tax plans that benefit individuals in the most fair and effective manner should be adopted. Taxing those at the upper income ranges will provide more benefits to a larger number of individuals and, thus, should be seen as more appropriate from a humanist perspective.

Importantly, the examples provided here are really just a glimpse of the possible examples that could be included. The main point of these examples is to show how differently the nationalist approach (which maps onto conservatism) and the humanist approach (which maps onto liberalism) really are. And how these different perspectives color so much of how modern Americans view political issues.

Bottom Line

If you’re like me, you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out how people in a post-2016-election world are seeing things in such dramatically different ways. It is literally as if there are two fully discrete Americas out there now. And people are willing to take extraordinary measures to help advance the agenda of their particular America.

I will tell you, I have my own (very strong) political opinions. But this said, I fully believe that at the end of the day, we are all in this together and that it is only through open, conciliatory dialog that we have any hope of repairing our nation. To my mind, Jonathan Haidt’s thinking of how conservatism and liberalism map onto nationalist and humanist psychologies helps me to at least understand what is going on. And, of course, understanding is step one to solving any problem. Here is to the reparation - to the rebuilding of the United States of America.