As I head back home to California today for a weekend visit, it’s a good time for another in my periodic forays into the underworld of the American political psyche.
Earlier this week, I posted a generally negative review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.
But my thumbs down was for the book’s political slant, not its core contents. Haidt proposed, quite reasonably, that our politics are founded on our emotions, not on our reason. The most spectacular example of the truth of Haidt’s assertion is the fact that all of the polls show that the U. S. presidential race is, so far, too close to call.
On any rational basis, this seems absurd. The profoundly negative effects of the aggressive militarism and disastrous tax cuts of eight years of Republican leadership are still wreaking havoc throughout the country, yet it seems that a majority of Americans may be about to return the perpetrators to power after just four years.
It’s not as if the Republicans have seen the errors of their ways and changed their approach to success and prosperity. Quite the opposite. Policies that the Republicans supported, and often introduced, just a few years ago, they now attack as outrageous, dangerous, irresponsible, and, most disingenuously, “socialist.”
Rather than softening their advocacy of growing income disparity, of tax reduction for the very wealthy and the corporations that made them rich, of culture war attacks on federal support programs, and all the rest, Republicans have made these policies non-negotiable principles. Most Republican legislators and candidates for office, Mitt Romney included, have, for example, signed an “anti-tax” pledge, promising that they will never raise taxes under any circumstances whatever.
How can these guys be so close to winning, with policies like these? The answer, of course, is that most people don’t vote for policies. They don’t even vote for people, as Mitt Romney’s “hold your nose and vote for him” lack of charisma demonstrates.
Some citizens do vote against people, regardless of policies, as in the case of those primarily male, predominately Southern voters who, without openly admitting it to outsiders, will vote against Obama because he’s black (even worse, of “mixed race”), or urban, or northern, or educated — all of which he is — or a Muslim, or a foreigner — neither of which he is, although 30% of Republicans reject all the evidence and continue to think that he is one or both. This kind of negative voting is based on emotion, surely, but it’s not the direct focus of attention here.
What’s happening more generally in this election cycle is that many people are hurting, and many more are afraid of being hurt. When suffering and fear are prominent, the scope of my political attention decreases sharply. If I don’t have a job, or if my mortgage threatens to exceed the market value of my house, I can’t think dispassionately about the big picture or the long term.
I can’t think about the fact that under Obama the recent severe recession and housing crunch, which could easily have turned into a protracted depression, levelled off and appears to be easing, slowly but surely, despite the continuing negative pressures of economic troubles in Europe and elsewhere.
I can’t think of these things because my amygdala keeps shouting at me, “I don’t like it here! I don’t like it now!” And when that happens, my instinct is toward change, any change. Get my hand off the hot stove element now — we’ll think about how my hand got there later.
The political equivalent of pulling back my hand is voting for change, any change. It may be that I’m jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but I can’t stop myself from jumping. I don’t like the frying pan. I have to get out of the frying pan. There’s only one place to go, and it’s worse than the frying pan? I don’t care. More accurately, I can’t care. My muscles are tensing, and I’m getting the hell out of here!
Republican policies favour the wealthy. I lost my job!
Tax cuts cripple the infrastructure. I can’t pay for my health insurance!
Chopping federal programs hurts the poor. My bank is foreclosing on my house!
I can’t hear what you’re saying. All I can hear is the voice in my head, screaming “JUMP! JUMP!” So I’m jumping —
Straight out of the frying pan. Straight into the fire.