Bill Moyers is back. After retiring for the second or third time, this ever-thoughtful journalist, who served as President Johnson’s press secretary, has returned - for the election year? - with a new weekly, hour-long program on PBS called “Moyers & Company.” It features Moyers’ usual long, deep conversations with guests and impassioned yet measured commentary. There is also a website - www.billmoyers.com/.
I have to admit that I found the first two episodes, starting in mid-January, which focused laser-like on what Moyers calls “crony capitalism,” wearying, although I totally share his concern with the power of money and moneyed interests in this country. My curiosity and excitement were much more piqued by a guest on the third program, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia and who has a book coming out next month called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”
What I found fascinating was Haidt’s premise that liberals and conservatives literally can’t talk to each other because they literally can’t compromise. This is because they literally see each other as evil and, therefore, compromising - or “being compromised” - with each other as evil.
Evil is an awfully strong word, but, disturbingly, it fits pretty well here. Take welfare, for instance. Conservatives are actually offended by welfare, because it violates their genuine belief in the Protestant work ethic, in earning what one has through hard, honest work. Someone getting something, especially something like a living, for nothing messes this up in an intolerable way. In addition, they see it as terribly unfair, especially when they are working hard and honestly.
On the other hand, liberals take offense at the denial of welfare, which they see as cold and heartless.
This - taking offense and seeing evil in each other - makes it all but impossible for the two sides to come together. Again, compromise is a dirty word, seen as selling out, a bad thing. (During the interview, Moyers showed a clip from a 60 Minutes interview with House speaker John Boehner shortly after the debt ceiling crisis, in which Leslie Stahl could barely get Boehner to utter the word.) It is Haidt’s hope and purpose in his new book that understanding this will lead to breaking the gridlock.
Even more striking, if not all the more disturbing, is Haidt’s notion or finding that, politics aside, a sizable majority of Americans agree with the conservative viewpoint and values. It’s not that they are stern and without compassion, but they do strongly believe in such things as authority, dedication (as in loyalty, hard work, etc.) and fairness. It is when these are taken to extremes that things get so tough.