Sometimes, I feel like the only journalist/blogger in New Hampshire who isn’t writing about politics. My street is littered with campaign signs, from Kucinich to Huckabee, that have been stuck haphazardly into the snow. My recycling bin is full of glossy campaign mailers. In the last 48 hours, Obama has appeared at the local high school and Richardson showed up at my favorite pub. McCain practically lives in my zipcode.
Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of attending numerous political events. (And I say this as someone who grew up in LA and lived in NYC and never, ever saw a presidential candidate. So I know that New Hampshire citizens are privileged, at least in the civic sense.) I read way too many political blogs and waste too much time studying the statistical details of the latest tracking polls. I spent my Saturday night watching the debates.
So I’m clearly a political person, with pretty generic left-of-center partisan beliefs. And yet, I’m really not interested in blogging about politics. A big reason, of course, is the internet version of comparative advantage: if you want to read about politics, I assume you’ll get your fill reading real political blogs, from real political reporters. My little niche is neuroscience.
But there’s a more important reason why I shy away from writing about politics. And that’s because so much political writing, including the blogging I would do, suffers from a basic misunderstanding of the mind. To better understand what I’m referring to, it’s worth considering this witty little scenario, which was invented by Jonathan Haidt:
Julie and Mark are siblings vacationing together in the South of France. One night, after a lovely day spent exploring the local countryside, they share a delicious dinner and few bottles of red wine. One thing leads to another and Julie and Mark decide to have sex. Although she’s on the pill, Mark uses a condom just in case. They enjoy themselves very much, but decide not to have sex again. The siblings promise to keep the one night affair secret and discover, over time, that having sex has brought them even closer together. Did Julie and Mark do something wrong?
If you’re like most people, your first reaction is that the brother and sister committed a grave sin. What they did was very wrong. When Haidt asks people to explain their harsh moral judgment, the most common reasons given are the risk of having kids with genetic abnormalities and the possibility that sex will damage the sibling relationship. At this point, Haidt politely points out that Mark and Julie used two types of birth control and that having sex actually improved their relationship. But the facts of the case don’t matter. Even when their arguments are disproved, people still cling to the belief that having sex with your brother or sister is somehow immoral.
According to Haidt, this simple story about sibling sex illuminates the two separate processes at work when we make moral decisions. The emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is wrong and what is right. In the case of Julie and Mark, it refuses to believe that having sex with a sibling is morally permissible, no matter how many forms of birth control are used. The conscious brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides us with reasons, but those reasons all come after the fact. “Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,” writes Haidt. “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate…Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”
My hypothesis is that political judgments are like moral judgments. When you see a candidate, you experience a visceral, instinctive, inexplicable response. Your brain generates an emotion – Obama is uplifting, Hillary is commanding, McCain is honorable, etc. – and then the rest of your brain goes about explaining your emotion. The inner interpreter gathers together bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make our automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a façade, an elaborate self-delusion.
My problem with so much political punditry is that it doesn’t admit that it’s irrational. After the debates, for example, an endless series of “experts” was trotted out before the cameras. Each of them sounded very confident of their assessments, announcing that Hillary’s anger had gotten out of control, or that she successfully drew sharp contrasts with Obama and Edwards, etc. Instead of qualifying their sentences with “I feel…”, the pundits talked as if they were describing simple, objective facts. But, of course, they weren’t. They were searching for reasons to explain an essentially unreasonable mental process. So much campaign reporting, especially at the national level, and especially on television, consists of this kind of hokum masquerading as genuine insight.
Obviously, there are ways to talk about politics that get at something more interesting than the emotional opinions of Chris Matthews, Joe Klein or Tim Russert. We could, for example, talk about actual issues. After the Saturday night debate, I kept on waiting for someone, anyone, to spend a moment or two talking about what was actually said during the debate. Do terrorism experts really estimate the chance of nuclear explosion in an American city during the next ten years at 33 percent? (If so: holy shit.) What are some of the policy implications of a Huckabee national sales tax? How many small business owners actually make more than $250,000 a year? (The Democrats were asked if their plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts would hurt “entrepreneurs”.) Would a mandate actually lower health care costs? My point is that there are genuine facts to discuss. But coming up with answers that depend on the facts, of course, would require a little research. It’s so much easier to just spin your feelings.