The Anchoress today linked to a column by Dick Meyer, Is This Column Futile?, in which Meyer reports on recent research purporting to show that political partisans are so emotionally invested in their politics that they lose the ability to reason. Although I cannot comment on the original research (there is no link to it in the article) I can suggest some points for consideration:
When 30 self-described partisans were presented with contradictory quotes about the candidates (President Bush supporting, then denouncing Ken Lay; Sen. John Kerry supporting, then denouncing a Social Security overhaul), it was the portions of the brain that process emotion, not rational thinking, that became active. "The thinking caps went off and the feeling caps went on," is how Westen put it to me.
Normally, Westen says, a brain faced with contradictory information will fire up the zones where reason or rational thought happens. The 30 partisans in this study were presented with contradictory quotes from Bush and Kerry, but also from Hank Aaron, Tom Hanks and the writer William Styron. They processed the information about the non-politicians with the reasoning centers of the brain. It was politics that short-circuited them. ("This is your brain; this is your brain on politics.")
Meyer is pessimistic, though tries to find some light in the darkness:
This is not evidence that America is becoming more polarized or that we are fighting a culture war. While it may be evidence that the numbers of extremists are increasing slightly, and that their extremism and intolerance is increasing, it is not evidence that the huge, moderate middle — that part of the population able to process political information with cold reason — is substantially shrinking or becoming more bitterly divided and less tolerant.
Three points: First of all, there is really nothing new in this report; second, it is probably an oversimplification which fails to shed much like on the ways in which deeply held beliefs and feelings affect our reasoning capacity; and third, a short review of multiple determination and compromise formation might be in order.
The Anchoress does an excellent job pointing out some limitations of the studies reported:
I’d like to see a study that compares these reactions to reactions concerning religious beliefs. I believe you would see very similar chemical reactions in the brain - both politics and religion come down to what you “believe” and that’s what brings in the emotional, whacked-out and unreasonable result. For more and more people in this country politics and religion have become enormously commingled. And I’m not only talking about Evangelical Christians on the right. The secular humanists have their own “religion” as do those who worship at the altar of “political correctness” which clearly has its own list of commandments and sins. Our very polarized, very fragmented society encourages this, largely (sadly) because our education system has spent so much time vaunting “self-esteem” that people have become very protective of whatever belief they’ve decided to hang their hat on; what I think must be right, must be valuable, must have worth, because I am special! And because I am so special, I do not have to be reasonable.
She also reviews some recent history where politics became increasingly politicized and simultaneously took on characteristics of religious faith:
It is destructive. It is doing terrible things to our country, all of this, because it is obscuring reason and creating a very, very narrow sliver of space in which politicians may operate - which serves the electorate not at all. And it’s creating these scientific reports that appear - on the surface - to mean and measure something. In fact, the report misses the point. It’s not about politics. It’s about what you believe - and these days that means if it’s about politics, it’s about faith. [Emphasis mine-SW]
I wrote about Political Deification ideas quite some time ago. In that post from a year ago (which is several generations in internet time) I suggested that the replacement of reasoned positions with positions based on beliefs, usually beliefs that arose from Utopian roots, was a response to increasing insecurity and anxiety. In point of fact, our ancestors evolved in a world (or, if you believe in creationism, were created to live in a world) in which life was fleeting and fragile, when mysterious and terrifying dangers occurred with regularity and in which it was necessary for our minds to continue functioning in the face of such danger to believe in a higher power which would protect us and succor us. Our minds retain that base line organization and retain the need to believe in an organizing principle which can protect us from feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and terror:
We are better equipped than our distant cave dwelling ancestors to understand the world, but on an individual level, we remain surrounded by monsters and magic. Fate can separate us from our loved ones in an instant and we have no mommy or daddy who will hug us and tell us everything will be all right (which our children might believe; even if someone tries to reassure us, we can not even comfort ourselves with the reassurance because we know better.) The only way we can keep our irrational (and sometimes rational) fears from destabilizing our minds is to find something more powerful than ourselves to believe in; we need God, and in the absence of God, we will invent the equivalent to protect us.
Once a set of beliefs becomes integrated in this way, anything which threatens the set of beliefs feels like it threatens the believer's well-being. In this way, cartoons can be experienced as mortal threats; the murder of unborn babies can take on existential dimensions requiring a violent response; an opposing politician can become the embodiment of Hitler; in all these cases, an emotional reaction based on imagined dangers to the self mobilizes a dangerous response.
The Anchoress offers her prescription for a way out of this increasingly polarized environment. If we are lucky enough to find some less polarizing politicians, perhaps our next election cycle will be less about life-and-death, and more about electing people who are best prepared (or at least slightly better prepared) than their opponents, to run the country. She looks for help from a source that is likely to disappoint her:
If the press would do its job, political demagoguery would be more difficult to get away with - emotions will eventually, slowly, drain from the political fever swamps and we might once again see reason, debate and substance brought to the fore of our political dialogues.
Back to Meyer, a member of said press:
It seems obvious that the people who hang around blogs, talk radio, cable shout shows and the Congress of the United States are both extreme and emotional. Now we can see it on MRIs.
If anything, that should be motivation for everyone to double check their instant reactions — and alleged arguments — to anything political.
But market research tends to suggest that anyone reading these words right now is more politically engaged than most. So to the extent this column tries to point out contradictions, dishonesty and hogwash in politics and rhetoric, it is probably a waste of time.
I am, it appears, hitting my ventromedial prefrontal cortex against the wall.
Here is our dilemma: People who are engaged politically tend to have an emotional investment in their beliefs. (Otherwise, we would be writing about the apathy of our fellow citizens.) Powerful emotions, motivated by anxiety and anxious times, interfere with our highest cognitive functions, including the ability to reason.
Politicians know that emotional ads work; reporters know that questioning the core beliefs of their demographic often leads to unemployment; political consultants know that offering complex, nuanced plans for policy changes is a sure way to lose business.
Which raises the question: Is there any way to square the circle?
Fortunately, as any competent Psychotherapist can tell you, the first step in changing is to recognize a problem. If you know that your initial reaction to a statement is emotional, it is incumbent upon you to take the time to re-examine your own prejudices. Some can never do this kind of self-examination, but others will and can and have.
Further, we have an excellent chance to examine our prejudices in the light of day before the next election. While both extremes are problematic, it has been clear for quite some time that the right-wing extremists tend to be marginal in the Republican party. (I would be delighted if anyone can send me a reasoned argument showing me how I am wrong rather than the typical invective more common from the left; as a general rule, "Bush Lied" is not an argument.) Unfortunately, the core of the Democratic party is ruled by just such emotion. Here is my suggestion. Let us have all political bloggers, left and right, join together in requesting (if you prefer to demand it, feel free) that all candidates for the House of Representatives and Senate for the 2006 elections publicly declare and debate the proposition that George Bush should or should not be impeached. Let us settle this once and for all. Clearly, the Democratic base wants this. If Bush is indeed a fascist, if he lied and broke the law, if he is attacking our civil liberties, then his impeachment is an obvious remedy. Let us have those pressing for impeachment make their best case and leave it to the great bulk of moderate Americans to decide whether or not the partisans can make the case. If they win, so be it; if the Democrats lose, they can then reasonably be asked to re-think their fundamental positions and rejoin the political process as a responsible opposition party. With any luck, this question can be settled before the posturing for the 2008 elections goes into full swing.
Dick Meyer is in an excellent position to advance this position. All he needs to do is assist his fellow journalists in pressing the candidates on the question, and then reporting on the results. Since most newsrooms tend to be overtly Democratic, our MSM is uniquely qualified to assist in restoring civility to our polity. An open battle in the court of public opinion is the best way to detoxify our current political irrationality.