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Romney, Obama and the New Culture War over Fairness

By Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership

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Romney and Obama extol profoundly different conceptions of what is just. No wonder they both think they're right.

Remember when the culture war was about obscenity in rap music, protecting the flag from match-wielding protesters and spanking in schools? Not all so-called cultural issues have faded away — gay marriage and abortion are still quite divisive — but after the 2008 financial collapse and the rise of the libertarian-influenced Tea Party, both armies in the American culture war shifted their crack brigades over to the so-called economic issues of taxes and entitlement spending. The front line in this new culture war is fairness. Both sides claim to own the territory, yet they draw the map of American morality differently.

The two major gaffes of the presidential campaign were failed attempts to rally the troops with arguments about the outrageous unfairness of the other side. President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech in Roanoke, Va., last July and Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes were political Freudian slips — careless words that resonated because they seemed to reveal deeper motives and values. The kinder, gentler Romney that we saw in the first presidential debate finally disavowed the 47% comments, but people disavow Freudian slips all the time.

So let’s take a closer look at the two speeches. They began in uncannily similar ways. Both men started off by describing their grandfathers, whose hard work, persistence and devotion to family gave their children a shot at a better life. Both men then described their wives’ fathers or grandfathers, who worked blue collar jobs but sent their children to college. So guess which man said, “At the heart of this country, its central idea is the idea that in this country, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you can make it if you try”?

Read full article as published in TIME.