Remember the movie Cool Hand Luke, where the prison warden tells Paul Newman and his fellow prisoners, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”? Well, I’m going to go out on a politically incorrect limb and argue that when it comes to the Tea Party movement, what we have here is a failure to keep up with current knowledge about human behavior—especially when it comes to politics. It’s time to introduce some fresh, strong coffee where tea is being served.
During the past two decades, a groundswell of research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to turn our long-held views about human character on their head. In 1999, in a groundbreaking book titled Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it like this: “We’re not who we thought we were. What we do is not what we thought we were doing.” But if that’s the case, then who are we? Keep this question in mind as you read.
Unfortunately the aggregate of innovative research has yet to become conventional wisdom, but it is rapidly approaching a critical mass that, in my view, will someday result in a paradigm shift in the way we think about human character and the whole concept of virtue and morality. Lakoff and Johnson explain that reason is not a disembodied experience as it seems, but is instead shaped by the body. For a telling example, a University of Amsterdam study revealed that people are apt to lean forward when thinking about the future and lean backward when thinking about the past. Reason, as Lakoff and Johnson make clear, is largely an unconscious function that arises from bodily experience. It is not at all dispassionate, but is instead emotionally engaged; it does not use a literal methodology of discerning truth but rather relies on metaphor.
We understand one thing from having understood another, imprecisely, so to speak. It turns out that emotion is an essential ingredient of reasoning. For an analogy, consider that a two-cycle chainsaw engine requires a precise mixture of both oil and gasoline to operate. Similarly, humans require a precise mixture of reason and emotion to function well, and yet we depend upon, and in fact routinely operate with, wildly different mixture ratios of the kind that could ruin a good chainsaw.
Since the period known as the Enlightenment, we Homo sapiens have, for the most part, imagined ourselves to be reasonable, rational creatures, who assess situations analytically, think computationally, and act pragmatically. Moreover, we were taught to believe that our character as individuals is like a container of virtues whose integrity depends on those virtues being used consistently. This is how most of us were raised to think of ourselves and others. Current research, however, shows that when we actually examine the way we behave, this view is nonsense. We are far more influenced by emotions than we ever imagined possible, and we often mistake strong emotion for reason simply because it feels so right and so urgent that we do so. It turns out that the consistency of our penchant for virtuous behavior depends far more on the context of the circumstances at hand than any other consideration.
In Experiments in Ethics, for example, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about how seminary students who were told they were running late were much less likely to stop and aid someone in actual need of a Good Samaritan. He cites experiments where individuals are more likely to get change for a dollar from strangers if they ask for it standing outside of a bakery with fragrant aromas. People who dropped papers outside a phone booth were more likely to get help picking them up if the person in a position to help had just found a coin left by someone in the coin slot. Elsewhere I’ve read studies showing that judges in criminal court will impose stricter sentences if they are in some way reminded of their own impending death while they are deliberating; they are more likely to be persuaded to go with the majority if they are on a panel of judges. Recent research at Yale suggests that the temperature of our coffee can influence our estimations about the personal warmth of individuals. Studies at Stanford University, meanwhile, show that African Americans with stereotypically darker than average skin color are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty in capital murder cases.
During the past decade we’ve seen too many examples of this kind of behavioral experiment to list. Some seem silly, but the lessons are both simple and profound: change the context, gender, or race of the individuals involved, and you can expect changes in behavior that defy our ideals about possessing and applying virtue and unbiased judgment. It’s disturbing that changes in context can be so banal and still be relevant. Knowing that when circumstances are contrived and slightly altered our behavior is largely predictable is at best disappointing. The evidence suggests that we are much more reflexive than reflective when it comes to morality, and this in turn means that most of the discussions we have about human character are unproductive. In other words, we have been arguing for generations about a subject we haven’t understood well enough to discuss intelligently.
Likewise, we have been taught to deplore bias, unaware that it’s a survival mechanism. Without our propensity for bias, our species would very likely have perished long ago. We need to understand how bias works to have any hope of addressing it rationally. In America these days, we find it disturbing when little boys and girls of any race are given pictures of black faces and white faces and subsequently show a preference for the white faces, associating them with more positive attributes than the black faces. Yes, this is disturbing, but it is also extremely instructive. What brain science reveals is that our pattern-matching brains are ever on the alert for pegging reality for the sake of our continued well-being.
We are equipped with an unconscious cerebral feature that acts sort of like our personal accountant; it’s a reality checker, so to speak. The accountant takes in lots of information, everything really, and keeps a hard tally, albeit one that exists in large part beneath consciousness. This part of our gray matter is what Shankar Vedantam describes in his fascinating book The Hidden Brain, as an “unconscious bias” whose job is to enable us to “leap to conclusions.” If most of the people one sees on television are white, and most of the people in power are white too, then the accountant knows that this is the case. She takes in everything, but she keeps quiet about it, until a situation arises that requires an intuitive nudge. It’s her job to look out for us. Her conscious counterpart is politically biased left or right, to be sure, and her take on realty is dependent upon a complex set of spatially entangled metaphors that Lakoff and Johnson describe brilliantly. But it’s also her job to see that we are not surprised by situations that will find us unable to act in accordance with the way things actually are, instead of as we wish the world to be. Thus, the underlying urge to conform sometimes overpowers what we consciously understand is the right thing to do.
Not only does our accountant notice the big things that occur around us, she also is hypervigilant for the subtle looks and expressions that betray what others are really feeling but are not saying. She senses the bias in others with astounding perceptual ability, but she usually keeps what she learns to herself. She’ll speak to us of it only when she thinks it’s necessary, not in words, but in intuitive feelings or in dispositional nudges that tend to feel very much like common sense. The evidence that we are so heavily influenced by many things we’re unaware of is everywhere, says Vedantam, and society pays an enormous price for our inattention to matters of such great importance.
The deep diligence of personal accountants at large in a society that’s far out of kilter in terms of economic inequality is why affirmative action is still necessary to bring about levels of equity that do not reflect advantages for one race over another. Until the reality of bias negatively affecting African Americans and other minorities ceases to exist, something has to be done to keep the unconscious accountant from forcing the reality of conditions into alignment with the way she perceives they are supposed to be. She’s not mad at anybody; she’s just doing her job in accordance with her wiring. She will act when she thinks she needs to by metaphorically kicking a decision maker under the table, steering someone toward the resume of the white applicant, for example, without letting on to the person’s conscious mind that that is indeed what is happening. She is so good at this sort of thing that we will rarely ever need to consciously acknowledge the piece of data, no matter how flimsy or insignificant it might be, that she brings to our mind to provide a convincing rationale for showing racial preference. Vedantam says, “The hidden brain is insidious not because it whacks us on the back of the head but because it places the tiniest of fingers on our inner scales.”
In spite of the fact that this unconscious but consistent discrimination is statistically provable beyond doubt, it’s very nearly impossible to get the people doing the discriminating to believe that they are, indeed, guilty of it. No real malice is necessarily involved in this kind of discrimination. Declarations that one is unbiased are more often than not sincerely felt, but they come from people generally unaware that they have an unconscious accountant working 24/7 on their behalf. That’s how our brains help to ensure our survival; it’s the software that comes with the hardware of experience, programmed through thousands of generations when the times were often met by plague and scarcity, and when differences represented the cutoff point for dividing bounty. For millennia, differences raised suspicion, and our still-active but primitive detection apparatus is expert at discerning them.
There is much discussion about celebrating our differences, but I will argue that most of our subconscious accountants don’t buy it, even when we think that we do, especially when resources of any kind become scarce or hard to come by. As notable differences increase exponentially, our hostilities escalate over the possibility of having to share our largesse with those who we are inclined to suspect don’t deserve it because they are not in our group. And while we may not consciously seem to care much about these kinds of issues, our accountants, under the right conditions, are prepared to make a big fuss about it through skyrocketing anxiety, especially if we are goaded by members of our own group to fear that we are not getting our share of whatever it is that is to be had.
Up to now I have been addressing the issue of racial bias as an unconscious artifact, as something that Americans are trying to get beyond. But there is another aspect of bias in which the “tiniest of fingers on our inner scales” won’t apply. This is consciousness: the flip side of the unconscious mind and what we generally refer to as conviction. When strong conviction takes the place of reason, it can easily turn politics into hatred. To be effective and just, political discourse requires affection for and an adherence to the better argument, but when the engagement is emotionally driven, it defaults easily into baseless assertions and goes downhill from there.
Conviction and expectation frequently switch roles, fueling and warping judgment by upping the ante of sentiment, and overriding one’s ability to reason. Moreover, if the conviction is powerful enough, it’s likely that the conscious and unconscious minds will be united in agreement; hatred relies on both. Not many years ago, for example, there existed a cultural bias so ubiquitous and so powerful that most homosexuals were homophobic. What does this tell us? Our culturally learned expectations can be so dominant in influencing us that, in effect, we see what we expect to see, taste what we expect to taste, and feel what we expect to feel. In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer explains that this sense of anticipation is what drives the placebo effect. Further still, it’s what turns abused children into child abusers.
I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the 1940s and ’50s, a time when my metaphor of unconscious accountants appears pathetically naive. Make no mistake, there are still deep pockets in the United States where overt racism is alive and well and where there need be no pretentiousness about whether bias is conscious or subconscious. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander’s research shows in her book The New Jim Crow, many of our claims about overcoming racism are more apparent than real because correctional department statistics tell us otherwise.
Fortunately, though, many of us have set our unconscious accounts straight about racial injustice and lingering inequality. I know from personal experience that this is possible with hard work and rigorous thought, but it’s nearly impossible without serious introspection and a bold look at the reality of the way we act, not how we think we act, with regard to perceptions of otherness. In other words, we must remain alert. Vedantam puts it this way: “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention.”
Now, the fact that we have noble theories, expectations, and aspirations about human character is not a bad thing. In fact, more than being an admirable trait, it’s also something we must aim to achieve with greater success in the future. But, unless and until we fully understand the theories about how our actual behavior does or does not square with what we say, we have little chance of living up to our ideals. We need to recognize how changes in context affect our decision-making processes. We need to fully understand and appreciate the differences between reasoning and relating.
When we relate to another person, we achieve a bond of association that may in the future be considered more important than any other issue that tries to get in the way. In the context of disagreements about political matters, I use the term relating to describe how those engaged in the argument deflect opposing ideas from others by aligning with the views of their own respective group as a distraction. Reasoning, a more rational faculty, is computational but also something we feel viscerally. Reasoning can quickly turn into a posture of relating, however, when our hot-button emotions are triggered. When this happens, we shift from thinking with our critical reasoning abilities to an overwhelming experience of feeling wherein our group identity stands in for our reasoning processes, and a flood of emotion acts as a protector or defender of our identity. This cripples our ability to negotiate political differences objectively because it so often occurs without our awareness and it keeps us from listening to any views except our own. Simply put, embodied reason, because it is embodied, can, when push comes to shove, morph into relating, and if we are not hyperaware of this tendency, we cannot guard against it.
The premise of reasoning versus relating is easier to understand when you realize that there is also a physical component to relating. Think back to the last time you were in a group meeting and you noticed people sitting around the table mimicking one another’s body language. Reasoning and relating would seem to be two extremes of one process that can turn instantly into becoming one or the other with the swiftness of an on/off switch.
We need to fully realize how our inherent tendencies for tribal relating are exacerbated by our idealized aspirations for democracy, because sharing power through reasoned mediation goes against the grain of our behavioral inclinations. These conflicting forces are further complicated by the fact that very successful celebrities, ministers, and politicians have the kind of charisma that inspires relating over reasoning; they are continuously stirring the pot of public opinion, often simply to gain their own personal advantage.
Relating in and of itself is not something to avoid. This is, after all, in large part, the biological software that enables us to bond and form family and kin-like associations. The dangerous aspect of relating, however, is when it becomes a complete substitute for thought. Unfortunately, this happens easily and often, and when it does, it robs democracy of the very reasoning ability democracy requires to sustain itself. Democracy depends upon accepting the better argument; it cannot be sustained when driven by baseless assertions and accusations, or it will ultimately lead to fascism. Further, the phenomenon of relating explains why there are so many people among us who think themselves exempt from the rules that the rest of us are required to follow; they become accustomed to being related to instead of being held accountable for their shortcomings. The result is arrogance. The fact that Ronald Reagan was often referred to as the Teflon president was precisely because so many people identified with him.
Relating instead of reasoning is something neuroscience shows that we do when we encounter hot-button political issues and the discussion gets out of hand emotionally. Reasoning speaks for itself only if we realize how fragile it can be and how easily it can turn into relating. But when we relate, in effect, we deflect arguments counter to our own or ignore them altogether with a flood of emotion that feels exactly like reason because it is so powerful. Then we offer a passionate emotional response that is more of a reaction than an argument. When we relate to others politically, it’s not a stretch to say that we experience both a conscious and often deeply subconscious connection to them; it’s as though we view them as literally being one of us or, in the primeval sense, in our tribe. It’s as if our internal but unconscious accountants agree about the nature of reality. We’re bias buddies, so to speak.
When both religion and politics are shared among individuals, the connection deepens even further. Brain scans reveal that we humans relate to the idea of God precisely as we would to another individual, which has profound implications for society at large that beg further psychological exploration. Thus, relating is a very complex issue, but it is not so complicated that we can’t benefit from a better understanding of our predispositions for human relations. Say what you will about my brother, he is still my brother. The same kind of connected affiliation applies to members of the groups with which we identify, usually, but not always, to a lesser degree of attachment than with a sibling or family member. In any case, relating is relating is relating.
Perhaps it’s partly because I live in Wasilla, Alaska, and partly because I’ve been an advocate for vigorous self-education for more than two decades, that I cringe with embarrassment when Sarah Palin spews forth Tea Party rhetoric in a public forum. But I understand why the people who relate to her don’t care about the accuracy, coherence, or the veracity of her claims. She is, after all, perceived as one of them, which is why her supporters are often oblivious to the validity of criticism of her. Their connection is instinctive; their subconscious accountants are soul mates, although I suspect their accountants frequently break through and communicate directly to their conscious awareness because strong feelings of righteousness have a way of forcing to the surface notions of superiority over others. The racist attitude of many Tea Partiers is readily apparent. Palin’s particular position on this or that issue doesn’t matter much, however, because the people who relate to her expect that in any given circumstance she will act as they would act.
When relating takes precedent over reasoning, democracy loses out to tribalism, and fundamentalism of any flavor is a clear declaration of the latter. Further, since charismatic individuals learn quickly that their constituents will not hold them accountable because of the relating factor, many of them self-destruct as they take their feeling of exemption from personal responsibility too seriously. Examples abound.
Both liberals and conservatives choose relating over reasoning at times, but research shows that conservatives place much more value on in-group loyalty than liberals do. There is plenty of research data to back up this assertion; one doesn’t have to resort to anecdotal evidence of flag waving and lapel pens, although it’s hard not to notice such behavior. The Tea activists show special concern for fiscal responsibility, national security, personal freedom, and upholding the Constitution. These are valid concerns. But the party is nine years late. Hypocrisy is best served cold. Where was the outrage when the GOP ballooned the national debt into the stratosphere (taking pork while railing against it), when it advocated attacking a foreign country under false pretenses, violated the Constitution both in spirit and the letter of the law, and posed the biggest threat to the individual freedom of American citizens in a century? Where was the outrage when the Bush Administration let Wall Street lobbyists write the legislation that deregulated the world of high finance, effectively privatizing profits and socializing risk? Where was the outrage about the breach in national security that Ron Suskind writes about in The One Percent Doctrine, when in August of 2001, a CIA briefer flew to Texas to warn George W. Bush personally about a possible al-Qaeda attack on America, only to be told by a flippant Bush, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” Too bad Bush didn’t cover ours, but he didn’t have to cover his own because the Tea Partiers of the future related to him as one of them.
Inherent in the ethos of over-relating is the ratcheting up of nationalism, which often manifests in a willingness to take up arms against someone—anyone convenient. Iraq turned out to be convenient for Bush because it let him show loyalty to his constituents and up the ante of bravado set by his own father, who took Saddam Hussein on but didn’t take him out.
Now, after one year of Obama’s presidency, the spending his administration has done in an attempt to get us out of this mess is said by the Tea Partiers to be the road to ruin and the end of freedom. It’s time for these folks to reach for a strong cup of java. Lots of us across the liberal-conservative span of politics don’t approve of the way the bailouts were handled, but we can understand the urgency to act and the danger of not doing so. Most of the people who would become Tea Partiers, however, gave Bush a pass on everything that is now all of a sudden DEFCON 1 important because they identified with him. Now that a political party is in power that they can’t relate to, the blame for the whole mess of the previous eight years is president Obama’s by default and with a vengeance. Sorry, but a generous serving of fresh roast is called for here.
I can identify with the Tea Partiers in a way that I suspect most of you reading this piece can’t. Three decades ago (before I began my own serious efforts of becoming self-educated), I would very likely have been a Tea Partier myself. I can still recall what it was like to reach adulthood without enough knowledge to think independently and overcome the bigotry and racism ubiquitous in the communities I grew up in. This is why I know firsthand that Tea Partiers represent the epitome of relating instead of reasoning. Watching and listening to most of them, I can see from their inability to articulate their concerns that they rarely do their homework, as I rarely did in those days, and that much of their anger stems from their incapacity to cope with lives far more complex than their education has prepared them to deal with. For critical thought they substitute what they hear from sources that confirm their worst fears. Right-wing radio-talk show hosts make a good living—an easy living—because it takes little effort to attract a following by scaring people with notions of otherness, when so many people are already fearful because of economic stress. So, it’s not surprising to hear the Tea Partiers described as the “mad as hell” people who are “not going to take it anymore.”
It has been widely reported by media pollsters that the majority of Tea Partiers think their taxes went up during the first year of the Obama Administration, when in reality, for 95 percent of Americans, taxes were lowered. A frequent observation is that Tea Partiers react negatively when their beliefs are threatened, but it’s more accurate to suggest that their angst occurs when they fear their identity is at risk. Their beliefs, after all, are interchangeable with their sense of identity—that’s the essence of relating. There are indeed some knowledgeable individuals in this group who do adhere to their ideological principles. But, for the most part, the Tea Partiers represent what might best be characterized as an anti-intellectual movement made up of people with too little knowledge of the issues that bedevil them to have any sense of objectivity about what they are angry about. It is far easier to substitute anger for knowledge, and there is also much to be angry about, regardless of which political party is in power. In a very real sense, our worldviews are like investments: the more stock we have in them, the more defensive we become of them when they are threatened. And when worldviews rest on baseless foundations, there is little choice but to substitute anger for articulation.
In his book Going to Extremes, Cass R. Sunstein argues that extremists can be very rational, but if they lack the knowledge necessary to have a rational discussion, and if what they do know is wrong, then their emotions will distort the issues at hand beyond redemption. And thus, in such circumstances the ill-informed rely on one another to validate what they think they already know while their group enthusiasm intensifies their self-induced angst.
The quality of any democracy is completely dependent upon the education of its citizenry, and most of the Tea Partiers have little to offer us but their rage. Moreover, to the degree that this group is goaded and financed by special interest organizations to act out their umbrage, this movement amounts to orchestrated ignorance reminiscent of the Swift Boaters in the 2004 election. That we let this happen shames us all because these people I’m calling Tea Partiers are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors. These are the people that in wartime we share foxholes with, without an iota of concern about their politics.
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently likened the political-right Tea Party movement to the activism of the left in the ’60s. Sorry, but a movement to stop a needless war is not on a parallel with angst orchestrated by fear mongers. Brooks can be an astute observer, but he often over-relates. In a later column called “The Emotion of Reform,” Brooks says there is something morally impressive about the passion of Democrats for health reform, but then he finds it interesting, if not somewhat puzzling, that they do not have similar zeal for aiding small business or addressing the deficit. I’m not surprised that he’s taken aback, but I do find it disappointing. Healthcare is, after all, for many people a life and death issue. And yet, practically every Sunday morning, on shows like This Week and Meet the Press, television pundits, who obviously don’t have problems with their own ability to afford medical insurance, fault the Obama administration for not focusing exclusively on creating jobs. Of course, this is all well and good, unless the absence of affordable healthcare means you can’t continue to live.
The ease with which the privileged use a stiff upper lip to dismiss millions of people without medical insurance coverage is breathtaking. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan frequently gushes about this problem as if it’s a trivial issue. She keeps making the point that the only thing the Obama administration should be concerned with is the economy. That she can write so eloquently about American ideals and yet be so dismissive of the plight of all the citizens without health insurance is morally stupefying. There are good reasons for people to be passionate about healthcare. It’s an issue one can relate to and reason about at the same time without worrying about being irrelevant or inappropriate. Passion and reason can go together—that’s how human beings arrived at the notion of justice to begin with. But let’s not let reality corrupt the view. The past decade is worth another look.
In 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 Americans, and we began a $3 trillion- dollar war effort with no real end in sight. The Bush tax cuts that followed added another trillion dollars to the deficit. Then in 2007, greedy, incompetent, and criminally negligent capitalists dropped a couple more trillion in the subprime fiasco. Add that up and then consider that, according to Reuters, every month more than 3,000 Americans die quietly for a lack of affordable medical insurance. Yet when our citizens ask for help, the GOP responds by whining that we can’t afford it. Such a rejoinder is despicable, ethically indefensible, and egregiously un-American to anyone with the common decency to think it through.
In one respect, however, conservatives do have a lot to boast about. With the aid of talk radio in particular, they have accomplished the greatest single political feat in the past century. It’s more than a feat, it’s a coup worthy of great honors for effectiveness, and it simply amounts to this: they’ve turned economically marginal citizens into government haters, goading them into being vehemently against their only real means of protecting themselves from the abuses of a plutocracy. This is political jujitsu, disguising an opponent’s strength, not only as a weakness but as something to be despised. It’s relating dressed up as reason, but without foundation.
How is it possible to hate the very thing that your life depends on—that which our service men and women have fought and died for—and to still act as if democracy is something apart from and anathema to government? America was founded upon the idea that our rule is of, by, and for the people, that the size of our government is less important than its effectiveness, that to be effective it requires actively engaged citizens who will hold government to account with more intellectual vigor than spurious contempt. Henry David Thoreau was for small government, but he was more about better government through superior citizenship than he was an enemy of the system that made America possible. The cry for small government has become a mindless mantra by the same people who advocate vociferously for the world’s largest military, without noting the inherent oxymoronic contradiction in that objective and notwithstanding the fact that the military-industrial complex has become the tail that wags the dog.
Government bureaucracy is annoying precisely because of the gap of political agreement about what government is supposed to do. But government has no lock on bureaucracy, and it’s easier to hold government accountable than private corporations. Without a means of democratic intervention on their behalf, individuals up against the power of corporations and their legions of lobbyists are powerless. If you find this hard to believe, ask anyone whose health insurance has been canceled for arbitrary reasons when they needed it most.
Scaring vulnerable people is easy, as the GOP’s recent PowerPoint presentation in Florida demonstrates: make your constituents fearful of what you fear, and you won’t have to deal with it. Make the public fearful of President Obama, with posters portraying him as the Joker and a socialist, and there is no need for the GOP’s chief financial contributors to worry about forthcoming legislation reforming Wall Street. Scare the public sufficiently, and the connected rich can rest easy. Thus, the Tea Partiers bite the stick, instead of the hand that holds it.
We have some of the finest universities and research facilities in the world, with legions of dedicated scientists and independent scholars striving to make better sense of human behavior. The authors cited in this essay are clear examples. And yet, with all of this compelling data coupled with the telecommunication technology of wizards, there is still no mechanism in place to bring this knowledge to the forefront of our political establishment. Would that we could use this knowledge to further our political interests as a nation dependent upon adopting the better argument, the better plan, regardless of who presents it, and stifle the childish behavior we witness daily in both houses of Congress.
When we invent a better machine, we build it and make it available to anyone who can put it to use. But when we accumulate a mountain of data based upon volumes of research that sheds new light on our human frailties and how our minds really operate, we have to be completely overwhelmed and practically drowned by it in order to take it seriously and put it to wide use. Or, as the line from Cool Hand Luke might go, “What we have here is a failure to educate.” Thus we stumble along, relating more often than reasoning.
If one political party can abandon reasoning in favor of relating and can effectively demonize the other in the eyes of their constituents, then rational argument is not even deemed necessary to resolve their differences; relating is the only thing required. All they have to do, for example, is to refer to the others as liberals, which will be taken as enough said and which lets them off the hook for further thinking. This is politically convenient; it saves appreciable time in examining arguments, because all one has to do to dismiss an argument about any subject is to consider the source.
Moreover, when relating is enmeshed deeply in intellectual political ideology, the result can move the unconscious accountants operating among conservative Supreme Court justices. This is what happened with the Bush v. Gore ruling in 2000, and in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission campaign finance decision of January 2010, which freed corporations to spend unlimited funds in political campaigns under the pretense of free speech. The justices appointed by George W. Bush thereby became the very thing they said they would never be: judicial activists. Don’t just take my word for this; put on a pot of Folgers and compare the actions these Supreme Court justices took with what they are on the record as having said in their confirmation hearings. Relating is relating, and activism is activism, period.
There are two apparent ways to overcome our propensity for relating and return to objective efforts to help restore the kind of democracy that offers a well-reasoned future. Unfortunately, the first usually occurs when we are threatened by a common enemy, as in all-out war. The second is far more desirable but decidedly harder to achieve because it requires flooding our unconscious accountants with thoughtfulness about the realities of human behavior. It calls for us to come together as citizens who care more about the future than we do about who is right or wrong, or about whose methodology we use to get there. It requires politicians who care more about the country’s future than their own political careers: the late William Proxmire comes to mind as an example. To achieve this kind of reasoning, we have to put relating aside, along with the detectable and deplorable hypocrisy that comes with justifying our primitive inclinations, and opt for the better argument.
If our current economic situation seems hopeless, consider this: In a recent Newsweek article titled “Defusing the Debt Bomb,” Fareed Zakaria argues that if we were to follow the example of more than 100 other countries and adopt a value-added or national sales tax of 25 percent, as others have done without slowing their economic growth, we could balance the federal budget, pay for healthcare, cut the top tax rate to 25 percent, and eliminate the income tax for all households earning less than $100,000 per year, which means it would happen for 90 percent of us. The only thing standing in the way of putting the American economy back on track to prosperity is a lack of political backbone on the part of our representatives to demonstrate a willingness to act like adults, stop with the scare tactics, and put the people’s interest above their own.
Liberals and conservatives are, generally speaking, decent people; neither side is the incarnation of evil, as is so often argued by the other, even though it is not undemocratic to call either side out for being wrong about something when they are wide of the mark. Stated in the simplest terms, the fundamental divide occurs where each side thinks the other is concerned about the wrong issues and in the wrong hierarchal order of importance. The friction from this partition creates a surplus of disrespect that festers as contempt. At the deepest level, it is driven and fueled by what I characterize in September University as an existential triad: fear of death, fear of the other, and a lack of curiosity. These three issues are so interrelated that it’s often difficult to tell which one of them is at the heart of our angst, but they make great weapons for political strategists who know how to use them.
Nothing we learn is going to fully close the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. But the time both sides waste relating instead of reasoning, especially in our two houses of Congress, does our system of government a great disservice. How to settle our differences and put them in perspective brings us back to the question posed at the beginning of this piece: Who are we, ill-informed consumers or serious Citizens?
My own life experience tells me that we can learn to override our inner accountants and that we should engage in political dialog with opponents only when all sides can agree to yield to the better argument. We are capable of becoming mindful about how situational context influences our decisions in ways that run contrary to our idealized notions of who we are, what we stand for, and how we expect ourselves to behave, regardless of the variance in circumstances we encounter. If we’re aware of our tendency to make fickle, circumstance-dependent decisions, we can apply an override here as well. With concentrated effort, we can reason our way through difficult issues with our opposition, instead of siding with our group identity and tuning the others out. If we cannot accomplish this, we waste our time and our opportunities for goodwill with mindless banter that does little more than up the ante of public anxiety.
I began writing this essay long before I became aware of the Coffee Party Movement now being organized, but having read about their goals and aspirations, I am encouraged. My own scholarship began many years ago when my work schedule allowed me enough time for serious study. In a short period of time, the exploration became its own reward.
And, as I hope this piece shows, the most psychologically liberating discoveries to be found often lie beyond the emotional angst of popular culture. Now that a healthcare reform bill has passed, Tea Party and Coffee Party aspirations could represent an opportunity to lower the rhetoric, do our homework, and passionately reason our way to a better future.
So, what will it be for you: tea time or a coffee klatch?
Cross posted with Self-University Newsletter.