Haidt’s Analysis of Contemporary Democratic Dynamics

With the events of 2015 and 2016, it is no exaggeration to say that the traditional political order of Western democracies is being shaken to its core.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor at New York University. With more than 30,000 citations from other scholars, he is arguably the most prominent social scientist at work in the world today.

In this article, we’re going to try and explain Haidt’s take on what’s happening in Western democracies. This article will take some of the commonly accepted findings from social science for granted, so there will be a few points (such as the fruitfulness of capitalism) that are not argued in this article, but merely assumed.

Haidt’s theory can be broken into five parts.

1: Successful capitalism creates prosperity.

While capitalism is a swear word to some, most social scientists agree that successful capitalism is the best engine of growth we know. That is not to say social scientists are libertarians, though, as the catch lies in the word successful: To many social scientists, successful capitalism not just a question of economic liberty, but also of efficient regulations, government-enforced market standards, and so on.

So while other countries around the world may have had unbridled capitalism, they have generally not succeeded in achieving the same standards of affluence and success as seen in Western democracies.

2: Prosperity attracts mass migration.

Setting aside the question of refugees from war zones, extremely affluent societies such as those in the West tend to attract migrants from poorer parts of the world. Many Western writers and thinkers like to say that third-world migrants come here seeking liberty and progressive values, but very often this is an assumption that is just made completely out of the blue, citing zero evidence in favor of this claim.

In fact, according to polls, most notably from the Pew Research Center, most third-world migrants are not liberal-minded at all, but hold staunchly conservative values. So why do people assume that third-world migrants come here with a fully-formed ‘Sex and the City’ mindset? Well, to some Westerners, especially on the left-wing, if you’re not into progressivism and liberal values, you’re not a good person. So if you don’t assume that migrants subscribe to liberal values, then that’s tantamount to implying that they’re bad people. In other words, these people let ideological considerations trump empirical evidence.

Haidt suggests that migrants come to the West seeking affluence and prosperity for themselves and their families back home — not because they want to give up their traditional culture, religion, and values.

There are other social science findings that paint a similar picture. A study by the Dutch sociologist Ruud Koopmans found that a majority of Muslims in Western Europe thought Sharia law should be above man-made law, even in Europe. That is to say, that white Europeans should eventually be made to live under Sharia law as well. Koopmans also found that European Muslims thought Muslims shouldn’t have gay friends, and lists many other examples of of European Muslims subscribing to anti-liberal values.

In many cases, migrants never said they would abandon their beliefs and start favoring Western liberal values once they got here. That was an assumption thrust upon them by city-dwelling, well-educated Westerners. Which brings us to the next point.

3: Prosperity shifts the urban elites of the West to favoring hyper-tolerance.

Studies in economics have generally found that as people’s level of affluence increases, their priorities start scaling the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as well. In other words, their priorities start gravitating from “need to haves” toward ever more elusive “nice to haves.” When you’re starving, you don’t care about pollution, but when your belly is full, you start wanting to live in a clean environment. Once your environment is clean, you start bemoaning the lack of a lovely neighbourhood park, and so on.

Never before in the history of the world have there been societies as prosperous as those we see in modern Western cities. The safety and affluence they provide mean that the needs and wants of Western elites have progressed so far that they are now off the charts in a global context. One part of the urban elites’ quest for self-realization is the need to formulate an ever-more cosmopolitan, multicultural and hyper-tolerant mindset that can be brandished among one’s peers as an emblem of social status. In other words, while there may be many reasons for adopting such a mindset, having a hyper-tolerant view of politics and morality is also a way for urban liberal elites to stand out among their peers, get attention, and reap prestige from representing an especially pure instance of the shared social values of one’s community.

Jonathan Haidt is known for his analysis of political morality, which according to him can be broken into six moral foundations: Care, Fairness, Authority, Purity, In-group Loyalty, and Liberty. If you don’t know about these foundations, you should watch our videos on them, which you can do here and here.

At any rate, all six of these moral foundations have traditionally been helpful to human survival. In less-developed societies, deference to authority and loyalty to the group helps the social order attain cohesion and function. Once again Western cities are unique in a global context when viewed through the prism of moral foundations. Being so affluent and prosperous, and presenting few threats to survival and the subsistence minimum, traditional moral values like Authority, Purity, In-group Loyalty tend to go out the window in favor of a political morality based almost solely on Fairness and Care.

According to this globally and historically unique view of morality and politics urban elites are not inclined to view migrants as threats, the way more disenfranchised communities normally do. Instead, urban elites start viewing immigrants as victims, which, in turn, means that support for immigration becomes tantamount to moral goodness and that others who speak ill of immigrants must be bad people.

Under this view, immigrants are seen as suffering victims and we in the West must take responsibility for relieving their suffering. If confronted with the fact that immigrants stand out in all the bad statistics such as not getting a job, committing crimes and so on, Westerners with this kind of morality are inclined to chalk that up to white people’s discrimination and racism – it must be because the third-world immigrants were not met with sufficient nurture and fairness by the host population when they got here. To put the blame on the migrants themselves would almost be tantamount to racism.

4: Immigrants plus the hyper-tolerance of the elites triggers authoritarians.

In Haidt’s understanding of the political landscape, he distinguishes between authoritarians and status-quo conservatives.

Authoritarians are people who think society runs best when citizens submit to strong leaders, have a low tolerance for minorities and foreigners, and want to preserve and adhere to the traditional values and beliefs of their country.

In almost all Western countries, authoritarians have been kept out of big league politics since World War 2. But with the recent influx of immigrants and the largesse of the Western elites, authoritarians have been spurred to mobilize more effectively. When they see the elites of their own countries espousing the aforementioned hyper-tolerant morality where migrants are never blamed for the troubles that empirically seem to follow in their wake, Western authoritarians feel betrayed. Having nothing in common with the urban elites of their own countries, they are triggered and spurred to mobilize.

Which brings us to the final point.

5: When authoritarians succeed in attracting status quo conservatives to their cause, they end up with a democratic majority.

Authoritarians want strong leaders, ethnic coherence and the preservation of traditional values and customs. Of these three points, status quo conservatives only support the final one, namely the preservation of traditional values and customs.

But if things get bad enough and the traditional parties fail to deliver a basic sense of stability, status quo conservatives will start looking around for other parties who will. In Western Europe, the continued mass immigration from non-Western countries is wildly unpopular with the voters, yet the traditional parties have not been able or willing to stem the tide to the degree that voters want. As a consequence, new and more extreme right-wing authoritarian parties are springing up in protest and many of them succeed in attracting ordinary voters who simply want stability and respect for national customs.


So if we have understood Haidt correctly, he is saying that Western democracies are being shook up by uncontrolled migration. Since the traditional parties and candidates have not been able or willing to address this point in a way that the voters find satisfactory, authoritarian right-wing parties have sprung up. These parties arose as a protest against the left-wing, urban, affluent liberal elite of Western countries who, viewing Muslims as victims, are more inclined to blame conservatives of their own ethnicity for the problems associated with mass migration than blaming the Muslims themselves. And without the support of less affluent voters, the urban elites are not numerous enough to ensure a democratic majority. The new authoritarian impulses in Western democracies will keep growing as long as the problem isn’t dealt with. In Europe, these parties have only gotten larger with each election. In America, Trump is an early representative of this phenomenon, and even if he loses, the anti-immigration sentiment that has lent him all his traction is much bigger than him, and what he has started will not end with him.


  1. Well argued, do you have any links to more indepth articles or videos by Haidt specific to these issues?

  2. I think it’s a reasonable analysis, but one big flaw and that is the assumption that capitalism is successful.
    It appears true because of the flooding of the market with credit, but the ability of the population to pay back this credit is becoming harder. Many families are working longer and longer with both partners having to work. As problems arise for those families and also as the job market shrinks, more and more people are falling into financial trouble and becoming marginalised.
    So whilst it’s true at the one end that more conservatives are moving to the “right”, a term I dislike by the way as it doesn’t fully describe the feelings of those supposedly “right-wing”, but as we are seeing, the labour and green movements are also moving to the opposite end of the spectrum.
    This is creating division so that anger and resentment between the sides are becoming the norm and so violence is breaking out, not because of “right-wing” groups, but because of alienation of voters with each other.
    Meanwhile, the capitalistic system is reaching the breaking point, and it’s dysfunctionalities are being ignored. This is leading to fascism as the system creates more and more poverty at one end of the scale and ridiculously rich people at the other end. So with technology preventing protesting by those being marginalised, the police state is growing to suppress those who would otherwise be able to change the political landscape.
    We are facing a multifaceted crisis of environmental degradation, Global manipulation, and reduction in meaningful labour. The balance between the power of the haves and the have-nots is resulting in a politic process that is frozen and irrelevant.
    With the safety valve of people’s expression being unable to relieve the crisis, we are looking at a world where violence will increase daily as the haves (via the police state) suppress the have-nots and there is no system to reverse this continuous escalation.

  3. Very well done. You may actually have done a better job presenting this theory in a clear and concise manner than Haidt himself.

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