A recent article by Ezra Klein at Vox.com eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason. The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.
OK, I don’t mean literal asteroids made of rock and metal. I mean big problems that polarize us and therefore paralyze us.
If you’re on the left, you probably have extremely acute vision for threats such as global warming and rising inequality. You’ve tried to draw attention to the rising levels of carbon dioxide, the rising average global surface temperature and the rising seas. You’ve also grown increasingly disturbed by the percentage of the national income taken home by the richest 1 percent. In fact, I’ll bet you spotted those two asteroids back in the 1990s, when it would have been so much easier to deflect them, and you’re angry that conservatives are still deep in denial. What’s wrong with those conservatives?
On the other hand, if you’re on the right, you’ve probably been tracking our nation’s entitlement spending and the rise of nonmarital births for a long time now. You’ve been ringing alarms about those two asteroids since the 1970s, but liberals have treated you like Chicken Little, completely unconcerned. Caring is spending, they seem to believe. All forms of family are equally good for kids, they assert in spite of the evidence. What’s wrong with those liberals? Read the whole piece online at Tallahassee.com.
Matthew Dowd today on This Week with George Stephanopoulos:
“We also must keep in mind that the Founding Fathers warned against day in and day out, including President Washington, about the power of political parties. And the power of parties to tear apart the government and create this dysfunction. We are at a point now where the political parties and people line up in these tribes and it’s very difficult. As I say, you can’t have the same rules in chess oh we’re going to be fine and all that, as you have in mixed martial arts which is where the situation is today in Washington.
“Where we are today George, where we are today is the president in 2008 and 2007 ran on the idea that he was going to bring the country together, bring Washington together. We’re going to get past the partisan gridlock. We’re going to get past the vitriol. And now we’re at a point where the rules have to change in the Senate because it’s become so polarized, so vitriolic that we can’t get it done.”
A British study released Thursday in Current Biology further supports theories that there far more to political difference than just who we vote for. It’s already been shown that there are differing levels of brain activity in the amygdala and upper brain cortex in liberals and conservatives, but apparently there is also a difference in the size of each part of the brain. Conservatives have more brain mass in their amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex which is associated with managing uncertainty and conflict. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the political bent affected the size of the brain region or if the brain differences started the whole shebang. It continues to be our assertion that it’s understanding where people are coming from – differences in brain and all – that makes all the difference in having a constructive civic dialogue with them.
An editorial comment: I’ve seen this fascinating study quoted in publications with a liberal bent with the subtle undertone of superiority, but it’s important to realize that fear can be a pretty useful intuition in all sorts of situations (read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear). Fear can lead to appropriate levels of caution in situations requiring thoughtful action. Fear can save your life. Our CivilPolitics.org speakers last week – Matt Motyl in person and Jon Haidt by Skype – both likened conservatives to the brake and liberals as the gas. Both pretty dang important in how the car functions, eh? So thumbs down on the “we’re smarter than you” line of argument, even if it’s politely covert. Respectfully, that’s part of what’s gotten us where we are, where conservatives know to their core that there are ways that we’re messing up badly in our culture and liberals want to know what degrees earned them the right to make the assertion. Plus, there are some things that require a little certainty and can’t just hang forever in limbo. This is not to mention the broader basis for moral reasoning among conservatives that Haidt & Motyl’s studies show (a topic for another day).
But a take-home lesson for conservatives might be that it’s worth submitting some of the fear mongering served up with stunning regularity to win your vote to a little fact-checking. Your brain is a handy tool for a fear that is real, but might be at risk of being hijacked by the demagogues for fears that simply are not.
I wonder if it’s possible for us to stop hating the differences between us and start appreciating them as a tool in civic decision-making? Our childish squabbling is about as ridiculous as arguing whether the gas or the brake pedal is most important in driving a car. And a stunning number of us seem to be arguing to just get rid of one the pedals.