Born This Way? Nature, nurture, narratives, and the making of our political personalities

Jonathan Haidt.

As a nation, we’ve made great strides overcoming our differences. North vs. South, Catholic vs. Protestant, black vs. white. These divisions once brought forth extraordinary animosity. Even male vs. female had its day in the sun, for those of us old enough to remember the absurd 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Those differences have not disappeared, but the urgency and rancor has faded.

There is one difference, however, that is widening into a chasm and threatening to split the nation into two dysfunctional halves: left vs. right. Voters themselves have spread out only a bit in the last 10 years: Gallup reports a decline in the number of people calling themselves centrists or moderates (from 40 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2011), a slight rise in the number of conservatives (from 38 percent to 41 percent), and a slight rise in the number of liberals (from 19 percent to 21 percent).

But the political class, the political parties, and the media have completely changed their game since the 1980s. Politics used to be hardball: very competitive, but at the end of the day, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could meet for a drink and a private conversation. Congressmen and senators had the sense that they all belonged to a grand institution. They had enough in common, and enough friends across the aisle, that they could work together on solving the nation’s biggest challenges, from facing down the Soviets to dismantling Jim Crow.

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