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The righteous mind and a map to prosperity

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

In the November issue of "Governing Magazine," John Buntin had an article titled "Think," in which he discussed several books of interest to public officials, one of which was social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion." 

The quote from Buntin's article which caught my attention was "politics are largely about moral ‘tastes' rather than about whose policies are analytically stronger." Understanding intuition, not marshalling facts, is how Haidt believes public officials can better do their jobs. 

After reading the book, I believe "The Righteous Mind" is more than a little pertinent to The State Journal's multi-part series, "Map to Prosperity." This series is not just about presenting facts and data to its readership, it is about encouraging a serious discussion about how West Virginia can redefine its future so it can become a major player in the national economy in the 21st century; the focus is the role of the state government and its interaction with the business community. Positive outcomes are the goal — not a feel-good discussion with limited impact.

As a business person and four-term state senator, I found Haidt's analysis insightful and very useful in how we as a state might implement the "Map to Prosperity." Trained as an engineer, I assumed that data and logic would drive the discussion and decision making in the Legislature. As a freshman senator, I was ready to engage in exciting policy discussions where facts and clear thinking would lead the way. It took me four years to internalize that my view of the legislative process was based on faulty assumptions. 

Haidt suggests that human nature "is not just intrinsically moral, it's also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental."  

This means that politics is not just "local," as Tip O'Neill was fond of saying, it also is "personal." Haidt comments that moral reasoning is not about finding the truth; it is about finding ways to justify our own actions, our own view of the world, so to speak. Thomas Jefferson alluded to this in his classic letter to Maria Cosway, an attractive married women with whom he had become overly infatuated. In the letter he discussed his personal conflict between his heart and his head. Jefferson was able to develop masterful works of public policy such as the Declaration of Independence but was also, through the media and friends, capable of orchestrating highly moralistic and righteous attacks on his political foes to advance his own agenda. His was a time of great divisiveness — not dissimilar to current times.

Haidt is not proposing to lower the bar to righteous attacks between warring factions. Rather, he is proposing a new way to look at how to formulate serious public policy. We need to understand that most people rely on intuitions first and, only when pressed, default to strategic or analytic reasoning. Analyzing data and applying tight logic is hard work, and most people, if possible, will avoid that mental anguish. Herein lies the disconnect with the political process during my first years in the Legislature. Having been trained to rely on data and logic, I was comfortable in that arena. Only later did I understand I would be on the losing side of the argument more times than not because the people I was trying to convince were looking at the world from a very different perspective. 

Haidt refers to this as the difference between "exploratory thought" and "confirmatory thought,'' with the first being "an even-handed consideration of alternative points of view" and the latter being "a one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular point of view." When we are talking about redefining and down sizing state government, which type of logic do you think will be applied by the affected parties? Legislators ultimately respond to the will of their electorate. A significant recasting of the budget causing a reorganization of state government will impact thousands of people, both inside state government and in communities throughout the state. The question is, once we have determined how to recast the budget and reorganize state government, how then do we get the message across so it is received, understood and acted upon?

Haidt presents a "moral matrix," composed of six foundations which include care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He suggests the Democrats' moral framework largely focuses on the first three, with care and the avoidance of harm, personal liberties and fairness driving much of the framework. This can be contrasted with Republicans, who have a tendency to embrace all six of the moral foundations. Loyalty, authority and sanctity, often linked with the religious right, give some Democrats cause for concern, but these moral foundations need to be part of the equation. Haidt is not trying to divide; rather he is trying to show that we tend to align ourselves by groups, political persuasion or religious affiliation. We tend to be groupish and our intuition and moral frame of reference is often aligned with the groups with which we associate. To work together we must understand each other's view of the world. 

How does Haidt's theoretical discussion relate to the "Map to Prosperity"? If we do not keep our eye on the end game, we may have a perfectly good logic- and data-based discussion of what we, as a state, ought to do but not have a clue about how, pragmatically, to get there. We must be ever mindful of what the various groups in the discussion believe and couch our proposals in terms that can be related to and accepted by those most impacted. We will never obtain complete support of any proposed realignment, but we need a majority of votes to cross the finish line. All the key stakeholders need to be at the table with capable representatives that understand the state is facing a fiscal crisis of heretofore unseen proportion and that a realignment of state government is one of the prime paths to future economic prosperity. We need to find a way to broaden the final discussion so it makes sense intuitively as well as analytically. The Map to Prosperity will only be as good as the content and how that content is framed. It needs to broadly support and fit the moral framework of the voters who ultimately elect our legislators. The Map to Prosperity is not just about convincing state elected officials; it is about creating a public dialogue that captures the hearts as well as the minds of the electorate. This is not an easy task, but one worth pursuing. West Virginia's future may depend upon it.