Commentary: We need liberals and conservatives for a whole society

Michelle Quist

I’m running for Salt Lake County Council in District 4. That’s why I haven’t written a column in awhile. The newspaper doesn’t want to give a free platform to a candidate, which is fair.

But as a regular ‘ol member of the public, I’m free to submit an op-ed once a month. Of course, there’s no guarantee it will see print.

As I’ve been on the campaign trail, I’ve heard from many people about their frustration with today’s political climate. At one honk-n-wave, a random biker felt the need to yell as he passed us, “All politicians suck,” or something to that effect.

What I’ve learned most, though, from my recent dive into representative government, is that people really do care. They care about national politics. They care about propositions on the state ballot. They care about the Supreme Court.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is known for his TEDTalk on the moral foundations of our political choices. His talk seeks to minimize the divide between liberals and conservatives by helping people understand that values drive both sides.

Haidt identified five moral values: (1) harm/care, (2) fairness/reciprocity, (3) ingroup/loyalty, (4) authority/respect, and (5) purity/sanctity. Liberals value harm/care and fairness above the other three, and conservatives tend to honor all five.

He also noted that when there is some sort of punishment, whether it’s shame or embarrassment or gossip, people tend to cooperate more. He found that religion also leads to more cooperative, pro-social behavior.

According to Haidt, “The crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives [is that] liberals reject three of these foundations. They say no, let’s celebrate diversity, not common and group membership. They say let’s question authority. And they say keep your laws off my body. Liberals have very noble motives for doing this. Traditional authority – traditional morality – can be quite repressive, to those at the bottom, to women, to people who don’t fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.

“Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose. So as Edmund Burke, said, ‘The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights,’ which was after the chaos of the French Revolution.”

In other words, liberals and conservatives “offer a balance between change and stability.” Both have something to contribute. Like the yin and yang, we need both for a whole society.

Haidt’s theories ring true to me. We don’t need to be for or against each other. We need to listen, and work together. We can’t go charging in, saying you’re wrong and I’m right.

Challenge that instinct.

I’ve spent the last three and a half months attending county council meetings, city council meetings, community council meetings, candidate events hosted by senior centers and PTA boards and every community event in between. I’ve listened to police reports and fire reports and citizen comments.

While national politics leaves a sour taste, most people still care. And they care especially about local politics – because that’s where things can change.

At the local level, we can change how we respond to homeless residents and neighbors addicted to opioids and a broken criminal justice system by working together.

At the local level we can help our youth connect with each other, and connect with adults and professionals who can help them realize that life is better than death. That suicide isn’t worth it.

And at the local level we can address affordable housing, for seniors as well as young families, in our crowded county without losing sight of the communities that make us strong.

The season is changing, and we must change with it. It’s time to stop demonizing the other side and work together as individuals who value the moral principles that drive us all.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist, a former columnist and editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, is a Republican running for a seat on the Salt Lake County Council.