Monday, February 25, 2008

When Cavemen Vote

Barack Obama is all talk. More than an empty suit, he is stupid.

Hillary Clinton is a power hungry shrew who will stop at nothing to gain the Presidency. She will arrange for Obama's assassination if it appears she is destined to lose the primary election battle.

Both of these sentiments are ubiquitous in the discussion threads of political Web sites, staining and obscuring what little thoughtful dialogue can be found there. Even the redoubtable Erica Jong is not immune. In an ill-considered polemic on the Huffington Post, Ms. Jong let her fury cloud her judgment, baselessly intimating that Barack Obama offers no more than "soundbites and attacks on 'the' Clintons." Particularly ironic was that the pitch of her 12-paragraph shriek only served to reinforce the very same false stereotypes about women that she has debunked so artfully over her lifetime.

Was she in this instance a pawn of her own hormones?

Whatever its source, hyperbole about Clinton or Obama arrives always cloaked in terms superlative and self-discrediting. But while we may dismiss the ravings of those intent on instigating discord, it's instructive to consider the role that emotions play in heightening our political enthusiasms and distastes, and eventually turning us all into blathering idiots.

Evolution has equipped the human psyche in wondrous ways. Unfortunately, most of the tools she has equipped us with are designed to protect us from charging tigers, or to assist us to confront feces-flinging upstarts in our clan. We have made successful physical adaptations in civilization's brief time frame. For instance, in a mere few thousand years of bovine domestication we have come to produce the enzymes that digest cow's milk. Meanwhile the kinds of dangers and challenges to our status we must face have evolved as much as our dietary habits. Peril wields carcinogens rather than claws, and every super model that pouts at us from billboards is a seratonin-depressing put-down. These are elements of the new that we have not learned to digest. In fact, it appears that we may require some millions of years to rewire the infinitely multilayered interraleation of our emotions to metabolism and behavior. In other words, we confront the modern world with the emotional equivalent of rocks and pointed sticks.

Make no mistake, the outpouring of bile in this primary process is not the result of conflicting opinions about policy. Its triggers are primitive. Are we being relegated to a second-tier status because we are black, or because we are female? Will we feel personally shamed by a less-bellicose stance towards Iran? Is our place in the social hierarchy threatened when others question our judgment based on our support for one candidate or the other? Who dares affront the tribe of Obama? Or of Hillary? These are the keys to our emotional floodgates. And when the sluice opens, we behave in ways that might make sense when our spouse flirts with another partner, or when there's a burglar in the house, but that are remarkably stupid in the context of a political debate.

For example, when we percieve a danger, we become acutely sensitive to input that we associate with that threat. In the burglar scenario, we become conscious of even the subtlest sounds. Are those footsteps we hear in the hall? In this state, we tolerate a high incidence of false positives--suddenly every creak and clink we hear is an intruder--but our heightened alert might save our lives, and the downside is no worse than a night's sleep lost.

But in the political dialogue, our paranoia is expressed in letters and conversations, and takes on a corrosive life of its own. It evokes equal and opposite defensive responses in others, and is sustained and amplified in the echo chamber of 24-hour news and online social media.

More importantly, as feeling intensifies in response to percieved threats, all our mental capacity is directed towards immediate sef-defense. Our mind gathers itself for an imminent leap, whether to hide, or attack, or to flee. As a result, we reserve little capacity for deliberate and considered thinking. And I'm sorry to tell you that we didn't have much of a surplus in that area to begin with.

So we find ourselves reduced to an animal state. But if we could collect ourselves for just a moment, we would see how ludicrous is most of the shouting. I suppose it's possible that Barack Obama is a dim bulb, but if so, shouldn't he get some sort of credit for slipping under everyone's radar to become an editor of the Harvard Law Review? And perhaps Hillary will take out a contract on Obama's life, but he'll have plenty of warning because someone on the review committee she's sure to convene on the matter will certainly leak their plans to the press.

And it's not just crackpot opinions like these that have garnered unwarranted credibility. Many of the narratives espoused by an enflamed electorate and boosted by a craven corporate media--hungry as ever for the drama that makes advertising gravy--have little grounding in likely reality. I'll go on the record right now to contest each of these memes.

If Obama maintains a solid lead in non-superdelagates after March 4, there will be a tide of superdelegates eager to demonstrate their respect for the popular will by coming to his support.

If Obama is clearly the popular choice, Hillary Clinton will not implement a burnt earth policy and destroy the Democratic party in a fit of pique. Instead she will gracefully and honorably step aside, voice her support for the nominee, and work to ensure his election in November.

If Hillary wins the popular vote fair and square--which is the only way she'll get or accept the nomination--Democrats that supported Obama will rally to her side. Likewise, Hillary's supporters will stand behind Obama if he is the nominee.

And unless there is a sea change in public sentiment before November, the presidential contest will not be nail bitingly close. Voter turnout during this primary season clearly shows there is enormous enthusiasm on the Democratic side, and a significant lack of the same for the Republicans. When you consider how close the 2000 and 2004 contests were, 2008 is looking like a relative no-brainer.

All this will come to pass. Unless some reader has just said "jinx."

One final point about emotion and politics. It is clear that many are attracted to Obama because he moves them, and they have been seeking such a connection. And it is just as clear that many of Clinton's supporters cleave to her campaign because they are wary of good feelings as a substitute for competence. But like it or not, emotion remains a key factor--arguably the dominant factor--in determining how we relate to everyone we encounter. It determines whether we listen to them, whether we give them the benefit ofthe doubt, whether we forgive them when they err, and whether we follow where they lead. The broader the audience, the more important emotional appeal becomes, because while you may be able to get most people to agree they like you, you will never get them to agree on a health care plan. And nobody has to sway a broader audience than the President.

At least, that's how I feel.

1 comment:

stanfaryna said...

Jinx. You've been dugg.