A new book says our brains damage politics by applying primitive rules to complex issues, but we can get beyond those instincts.
There is hope. America is wrestling with global warming, terrorism, immigration, race and Donald Trump, but there is at least the possibility that we will, in the end, do the best thing.
Even Rick Shenkman thinks so. Shenkman is the Seattle historian, journalist and author whose popular books include one titled, “Just How Stupid Are We?” So I was pleasantly surprised to find him holding on to the promise that there is something in our nature that can set the alarm bells ringing before we walk off a cliff. It’s the anxiety we feel when what’s in our head doesn’t match the world of facts outside.
I was just starting Shenkman’s new book when Trump made his latest attention-getting declaration, saying he’d bar Muslims from entering the United States. America has some history with that kind of action, and it’s not good. Trump says lots of things I’d think would send potential voters fleeing, yet he is the leading Republican presidential candidate.
The campaign and the book seemed made for each other — the new book is “Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics,” and you should get a copy when it comes out Jan. 5.
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I called Shenkman on Wednesday and we talked for a while. His 2008 “Stupid” book about how uninformed the American public is was intended to say, “Hey, we’ve got a 10-alarm fire going here, and people, we have to wake up.” Now, Shenkman said, “Donald Trump is the 10-alarm fire.”
The new book tries to explain how we came to have such troubled politics and what we can do about it. Shenkman writes that we make political miscalculations because our brains evolved for a different set of circumstances than we face in the modern world, so we have difficulty dealing with the problems of a big complex society and interconnected world. Fear and anger serve a purpose, but they damage the political process because they prevent people from listening to each other. Climate change won’t make your heart pound the way a bear in your path would, but it’s important even if our gut doesn’t react to it.
As voters we suffer apathy, trouble judging our leaders (we don’t get close enough to know them, but we think we do), a failure to show empathy, and a tendency to punish politicians who tell us hard truths. All because our brain wants to apply the same rules to modern politics that it does in more clear-cut situations.
The book details the science behind those problems because voters who understand how their brains work might be less likely to make poor political choices.
“The American people in a time of crisis are surrendering to their instincts,” Shenkman said, but people don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. Trump “is making blatant appeals to people’s fear and anger,” he said, “and that’s allowing voters to override any other considerations.”
“We’re all emotional beings,” he said. “Emotion and reason work hand in hand, but you have to ask, ‘Are my instinctual reactions appropriate given the context of modern politics?’ ”
In hunter-gatherer communities of 150 people, it might have made sense to be hostile to outsiders, Shenkman said, “but not in the multicultural world we are living in.”
Shenkman said he’s been “haunted for 40 years by my support as a young voter for Richard Nixon. I was watching the Watergate hearings in the summer of ’73 with my family. I was reading The New York Times every day.” His support for Nixon was not because he didn’t have the facts, but despite them, because “I wasn’t studying my own reaction to the facts.”
He reacted by seeing the facts as an assault on his judgment in backing Nixon, and even as his college friends abandoned Nixon, it took him a while to see that his bias in favor of the president kept him from seeing what had become obvious to most people. The good news is that if we feel enough anxiety, we rethink our positions.
We should study the issues, of course, but we need to study ourselves, too, and recognize those times when we need to temper instinct with reason.