Neuroscience is one of the world's most exciting fields, challenging the ways we think about ourselves and our personalities. Our political behavior is no exception.
Some of the latest findings about the political brain are starting to upend a lot of our cherished beliefs about how politics works and the way we approach it. As it happens, it seems that our political leanings may be as much a product of nature as of nurture--that we are, in other words, predisposed by our genetics toward a more liberal or a more conservative approach to the world.
And the consequences of that are fairly enormous, as I outlined today at Alternet:
But by far the biggest and most often-studied difference between the conservative and liberal brain is their response to stimuli invoking fear and disgust. Conservatives tend to react much more viscerally to negative stimuli than do liberals, and they are likelier to interpret new information as having a negative or dangerous effect on their lives.
The latest of these studies, conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech, indicated that the predictive effect is so strong that they could accurately determinate a person's politics by their brain's reaction to even a single disturbing image...
This information has a variety of distressing implications. We already know that conservatives tend to have culturally different moral reasoning than progressives, and that even supposedly simple words like "freedom" have deeply different meanings to people depending on their political perspective.
But if our politics is also hardwired in our genes, then our familiar red-blue/urban-exurban geographic divisions may not just be a cultural gulf, but a separation between two different types of people whose minds function in fundamentally different ways. For whatever reason, a high number of Americans seem to be intrinsically responsive to messages that rely on judgmentalism, fear and disgust as primary motivators. Not much is likely to change that, because those responses aren't simply a cultural overlay but hard-coded into the brain.
It is a truism of liberal politics that progressives appeal to people's hopes and dreams, while conservatives appeal to their fears. But if the brain science is right, it may simply be that, no matter what people's policy preferences might be, the voters to whom fear appeals most outnumber those who base their vote on more aspirational emotions.
Basically, conservative brains aren't going to place their hopes ahead of their fears. They're not going to be persuaded, as George Lakoff would, to see the world through more open-minded glasses in which freedom for
things trumps freedom from
Conservative brains are going to act on their fear and disgust impulses. Right now their fear and disgust triggers are mostly against the "other" in society: minorities, empowered women and the like. But that can change. After all, look at the South in the FDR era:
Today's highly conservative Deep South was an integral part of FDR's progressive coalition that famously rejected "fear itself" and expanded the social safety net.
But the New Deal and the decades that followed only masked America's internal divisions by glossing over racial and gender injustice with a Leave It to Beaver smile. Conservative whites were, in essence, happy to strengthen the country's infrastructure and social protections as long as the benefits didn't accrue to people that activated their amygdalan fight-or-flight responses. Fear and loathing were mostly reserved for Nazis, Communists and decadent wealthy elites. The Civil Rights era changed all that: with the empowerment of minorities and women who didn't fit the traditional mold, conservative fear and anger turned toward domestically oppressed groups--and the do-gooder coastal liberals who were, in essence, forcing a Second Reconstruction on them against their will. America has been stuck in a politically divided rut ever since.
The key is not to try to override that behavior, but to provide the appropriate targets for their distaste through economic populism:
The path forward for liberals isn't to try to deactivate conservative fear-based responses by using more powerful frames based on hope and change. That seems nearly impossible. Would it be possible instead to reorient the target of their anger and fear toward the very wealthy elites on Wall Street who are actually damaging their economic well-being by hollowing out the American economy in favor of the asset class?
An economic populist approach has the advantage of being right on policy and on politics. The aspirational liberalism championed by President Obama is destined to disappoint in an era of rampant political obstruction designed to deflate hope and blockade real change. The rhetoric of the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, by contrast, is unafraid to make sharp contrasts and define villains. The instinct of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is to pretend that there are no villains in the economy, only temporary obstacles to inclusive growth; the instinct of the more economic populist elements is to clearly define the perpetrators of the decline of the middle class. Their very "divisiveness" is what allows voters motivated more by anger and fight-or-flight instincts to identify with political warriors who will solve problems by taking down the real bad guys.
This is not to say that decades of cultural coding will go away overnight or radically reshape the electorate. For most of the public, entrenched sociological assumptions about who is scary and who isn't will endure. But it would not take more than a minor shift in the attitudes of some swing voters—particularly combined with an upsurge in progressive turnout inspired by a more muscular brand of economic messaging—to seriously change the electoral calculus.
Polling shows that the vast majority of voters, including many conservative ones, distrust large corporations and Wall Street financiers. Republicans themselves have adapted to this anti-corporate populism within their own party by railing about "crony capitalism," essentially deflecting the blame for corporate misbehavior onto government collusion. Part of the challenge for Democrats is that many of these voters might be inclined to vote against Big Money, but they don't trust the Democratic Party to actually stand up against it instead of (supposedly) take their tax dollars to support people they culturally fear and resent. These voters must hold their nose to vote for either party at the moment. Winning a significant share of them back can be accomplished not by reducing the Democratic Party's commitment to social welfare, but rather by increasing its credibility as the champion of the middle class.
It's quite clear by now that voters are really, really angry
at the entire system. People from all walks of life, but especially those with conservative-leaning brains, are going to find someone to blame for our economic problems:
In short, it will be easier to convince conservative-leaning brains that Wall Street plutocrats are more to be feared than minorities or empowered women, than to convince them that there are no enemies to be feared at all.
We can win the political argument, but neuroscience is increasingly showing that we can't do it by pretending that we're all in it together--particularly since as a matter of fact we aren't
all in it together. The obscenely wealthy are winning the class war hands down. We either shine a spotlight on them, or a lot of conservative-leaning brains are going to find innocent targets to blame.