Politics is Probably Emotion

Think about it for a second.

On any given topic at any given time, the vast majority of us hover between complete apathy and complete ignorance. Thus, despite small numbers of partisans and cognoscenti, the vast majority of us are essentially just going with our gut…at best. At the same time our society and world are massively complex – and boring. The US government and Big Business learned long ago (to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace and John Oliver) that if you want to hide something nasty, wrap it in something boring. The amount of time and effort you would have to spend to really come to understand complex economic and social issues is massive. Even then, as your newly educated perspective would be way beyond most people’s, it would still be relatively lopsided or half-baked.

I’ll get to emotion here in a minuet. But before I do, let’s talk about the Undecided Voter. Democrats and Republicans can count  on 40% of the (voting) US population no matter what. That leaves about 20% of voters who are up for grabs, let’s say. There can be a variety of reasons for being an “undecided”. Elections can therefore be seen as capturing the this 20%. So how do you convince, how do you sway the Undecided?

This is where emotion comes in. Political parties know voters, at least in terms of demographics and statistics. They know what “type” of person is going to be an undecided voter. I do not want to discuss “types” of undecided voters, but let’s just say that a white male that makes six digits a year and is over 50 is not considered an undecided voter “type”. Emotion is how you are going to grab the Undecided voter. There is too much information, too much detail to attempt a coldly logical argument. Capitalism means that there can be no time for politics; no time for deliberation. Appearance; emotion; image is what counts for the harried and likely uninformed Undecided voter.

So political parties have to appeal to emotion to grab voters and money. This is why we get scare tactics because fear is our most primal, most hard-wired emotion. It is very easy for us to fear; it is easy for us to imagine pain and fear and future punishment. It’s hard to imagine hope or a future community where everyone gets to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Most political questions require a large amount of abstract thought, ethical wrangling, best-guessing. Pretty much everything that human beings are reliably terrible at. Put a rock in our hand and ask us to break open fruit; do not ask us about abstract philosophy.

This is why, if we where to magically poll every American voter on specific issues – a sort of universal, ultimate plebiscite – we would almost certainly find that Americans are quite liberal (I repeat, on specific issues taken as a whole). But, when you ask people to choose between personalities, between mindsets and between sets of “push-button issues” that is where the conservatives comes from. This is why Republicans do well; because we elect our fears and emotions via individuals, not specific policy ideas.

I think that the Republican party and the conservative mindset and rhetoric offer a potent emotional package than a liberal mindset; this explains it’s appeal to the aged, the angry and the insecure. Conservatives long to return to a fictional past of Puritan virtues and Wild West-esque moral and cultural uniformity. This impossible past allows Republicans to pander to those nostalgic for their childhood; one can go further and say that a significant portion of the rural conservative vote is in fact an example of longing for pre-capitalist society.

The Republican message thus has several major themes. First, fear of the Other or the Enemy (immigrants, terrorists, communists). Second, frustration or anger, towards a confusing, morally relative, modern existence. And lastly, nostalgia for the simple Manichean universe of the Cold War (Reagan, the 50’s) or the Wild West.

Liberals look forward to a utopian future. While this has the draw back of being highly abstract (unlike the tangibility of the Wild West, for example, with movies and museums everywhere), and contains the possibility of an impossible quest for ideological purity, it also contains elements of hope, empathy and the idea that things can, and should be better. Note that the words “hope…empathy…idea” do not trigger the same sort of emotional activation that “fear…anger…nostalgia” do. Democrats obviously employ fear and scare tactics, but the difference between being terrified about Global Warming and Islamic Terrorism is that Global Warming is a scientifically proven phenomenon, while Islamic Terrorism is a complex geo-political-economic trend which represents not just a mysterious threat, but also America’s biggest failures and disasters.

Democrats play upon a sense of social responsibility and the idea of a better, more hopeful tomorrow. It’s touchy-feely; politically correct, cloyingly sweet, slightly apologetic and limp-wristed way of seeing society. Guilt, then is a part of the Democratic emotional arsenal, as well as hope.

The big point here is that conservatives and Republicans have a message that is emotionally powerful; while Democrats struggle with their emotional appeal. The Fox News cycle of fear and anger is a proven political engine; the politics of hoping for a better tomorrow hardly motivates people to actually do anything concrete. This is what keeps Republicans elected (this an gerrymandering); in terms of policies and ideas, they are simply the Party of “No”.

How can we change this? How can we move away from emotion as a basis of democracy? Education, curtailing super-PACs, and creating new forms of democratic participation will be key. Also, I think, increasing acceptance of reasoned discussion, the fantasy of political scientists since Plato. Let’s get started.


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