Newt Gingrich? That Newt Gingrich? And good ol’ boy Mitt Romney, who thinks that $373,000 in speaking fees isn’t really much money? Or Rick Santorum, who hopes that America will find the moral will to bomb the crap out of the Middle East? Or Ron Paul, whose solution to the worst economic crisis in 80 years is to dismantle the government?
After the South Carolina primary, it’s time to ask the question: How do they do it?
How do Republican politicians keep getting themselves votes despite the overwhelming evidence that their policies, foreign and domestic, are disastrous? What makes so many poor and used-to-be-middle-class voters fly in the face of their own needs and rally round the flag of the fat cats?
The answer starts with the fact that people don’t vote against their own interests — which, for most people, is what voting Republican means — because of stupidity or faulty logic or misconstrued arguments. Self-defeating votes are motivated by the oldest and most powerful of our human emotions: anger and fear.
Watch a Republican presidential debate, if you have the stomach for it, and you see strange and curious things.
When one of the candidates screams that the government needs to get off the backs of the people and let freedom ring, the crowd — most of whom are ordinary folks like you and me, people who are struggling (and often failing) to get by, people whose only defenses against the ravages of the money barons whom Republican politicians serve is the government — scream their heads off in approval.
When another candidate bleats without a trace of shame or irony that it’s the entrepreneurial class that will bring the jobs back to America, those same listeners — many of whom have lost (or soon will lose) their jobs, thanks to the captains of industry — bray back with enthusiasm.
And when all of the candidates vow that they will never raise a single tax on anyone, certainly not on their friends in the 1% or on the businesses they own, the audience — whose need is greatest for the government services that tax cuts dismantle — treat that pledge like the news that someone in the family has won the lottery.
What’s going on here? If facts mattered, these folks wouldn’t be cheering. They’d be looking for the tar, the feathers, and the pitchforks.
Every one of the candidates up on that stage — the company-busting ex-Governor, the ethics-ignoring serial adulterer former Speaker, the lover of foreign wars and hater of gays Senator, the you’re on your own and good luck libertarian Congressman — is promising nothing else than the continuing political, financial and social dismantling of the American Dream, and yet the dreamers in the audience act as if they’ve just been delivered from Noah’s flood.
Of course, the fact is that facts don’t matter, not in the face of raw emotions like anger and fear. According to all of the current research, it’s the raw emotions that matter.
Here’s what the neuropsychology shows: We perceive things. We respond to those perceptions emotionally. We act on those emotions. Later, if at all, we explain to ourselves and others why we acted the way we did. And our explanations don’t have to have — and much of the time don’t have — any connection to the emotions that were the triggers of the actions we’re now justifying.
Anger and fear.
Anger and fear that something’s wrong with our society, that we’re doing all of the things we’ve been told to do, and instead of getting better and better, it’s getting worse.
Anger and fear that the American economy is faltering, that the Chinese and Indians are taking the jobs that have always been ours, and in the process driving our wages down toward their levels.
Anger and fear that every Muslim in the world seems ready to blow us up in our own homes, that Iran and North Korea are going rogue, that the Europeans hate us even though we saved their asses in WWII. When the otherwise saintly libertarian Ron Paul speaks against a bloated defense budget and interventionist foreign wars, the Republican audience boos.
Anger and fear that working harder no longer helps, that the jobs keep disappearing, that the mortgage is worth more than the house, that Johnny and Susie won’t be able to college without taking on a lifelong debt load.
When we feel threatened, we become conservative — not in the adoption of a political philosophy, but in the way that a homeless person keeps everything close, guards his remaining blanket and the bus pass he scrounged as if they’re precious jewels. If I’ve just lost my job, or if my home is threatened, I can’t afford to pay more taxes, to “grow” government, to impose new regulations, to honour pension commitments for others while I have no financial security for myself, and on and on. So that’s what the Republicans do, over and over — they make us angry, and they scare the hell out of us, playing on our anxiety and our insecurity to make us vote against the policies that might save us, to make us vote for the policies, and the people, that got us into this mess in the first place.
Just keep the message strong, and keep it loud. Volume and conviction, patriotism and values. Threatened people become conservative in their instinct to reach out one hand to a strong and protecting authority figure while looking for someone to blame, for somebody to whack over the head with the blunt force weapon in the other hand.
Seen in this light, the political message of the right, that it’s all the government’s fault, fans the fear and feeds the anger. The facts say something quite different, but this isn’t about facts.
So we have the owners of under-regulated and under-taxed corporations pointing their fingers and shrieking like Donald Sutherland in the second Invasion of the Body Snatchers, claiming — in the face of all the evidence — that it’s not corporate outsourcing or money market greed but government that needs to get off the backs of the working poor.
Yes, they did it to us, but listen to them screaming now about how it’s the other guy’s fault. And if they just keep screaming loudly enough and often enough, our anger and our fear will lead us to vote against our own self-interest and elect them.
Vote for the ones who scream your pain, even if they also caused it — vote your anger and your fear — vote Republican!