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The Politics of Stupidity

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

As a long-time member of our military where I commanded troops who were willing to put their lives on the line for our democratic way of life, I may sound somewhat hypocritical when I point out the glaring faults with our political system. However, too often our universal suffrage system leads my fellow voters to support candidates not quite suited to the office to which they aspire. The fact that it is widely believed that at least one of our local city governments is highly dysfunctional and considering the often comical shenanigans involving the steadily dwindling number of Republican presidential wannabees, leads me to conclude that democracies are far from being perfect.

Why is this so? As a practicing clinical hypnotherapist who emphasizes science and neurology, I have carefully examined how voters make decisions concerning for whom they will cast a vote. To make this discussion rather simple, I view the brain as having a very emotional and identity-driven component on one hand and a more rational, creative, and intellectual one on the other. The first, which generally focuses on the functions of the brain’s limbic system located just above the brain stem, is primarily concerned with hunger, libido, nurturing, fear, and anger. This part of the brain is very reactive – and thus not very intelligent. If I were to say this in a less understated, Southern and less polite way, I would conclude that it is rather stupid indeed. The other division of the brain is the center of creativity as well as rational and logical thinking. Even though our limbic nature is very much a part of our human experience, I would like to believe that our more intelligent capabilities – rather than the stupid ones – should rule our decision making.

Unfortunately, I include in the more limbic-oriented voting patterns those one-issue voters who prefer any candidate as long as he or she is favorable to their one issue. Such issues normally include the sanctity of teacher tenure, support of public service unions, fiscal responsibility, Pro-Choice or Pro-Life, and the wisdom of large or small governments. Even if such one-dimensional voters believe that they made their choice rationally, the uncompromising and myopic focus on their primary concern leads them to vote for candidates based upon an affinity rather than considering superior wisdom. When I see clients who display such one-dimensional values, this normally extends to other areas of their lives and thus causes them to be unhappy and aggressive to others. This lack of adaptability is what psychologists look for when diagnosing personality disorders.

If you believe that exit polls have any accuracy, it is always interesting to see the trends regarding how people vote. With very few exceptions people indentify with and vote for candidates who generally look, feel, and act similar to how they see themselves. For instance, in the last presidential election, a vast majority of black voters supported Obama and white working class voters supported McCain. During the primaries a large portion of women voters supported Hillary Clinton – and Sarah Palin during the general election – even when such voters had difficulty describing the political views of either candidate. Such affinity voting – which primarily uses the brain’s dumber regions as the primary decision making tool – is much more common than voters – who have a self-perception of rationality – would like to believe. Also, I want to point out that fear, which is the dominant limbic emotion, is very much tied up with affinity voting. Thus, fear of the movement toward legitimizing gay marriages was a major factor in George W. Bush’s reelection for his second term. Voters thus swayed could rarely discuss any substantial accomplishment or policy of the first Bush Administration. Again, they were one-dimensional, affinity/fear voters. (I am not taking sides on this issue. I am merely pointing out behavior patterns.)

Conversely, the same exit polls just mentioned revealed very different voting behaviors when it came to our country’s educational elite. Those who had more than a high school or bachelor’s level college degree were less likely to vote according to their affinity with the candidate. When questioned, these voters stated that they felt that they made a more rational decision as to their choice and were less swayed by cultural, racial, gender, and religious similarities that they may have with a candidate. Nevertheless, education level is not a guarantee of intelligence, which is a capability that most people have – should they choose to use it. Education is no replacement for common sense. Yes, as my rather uneducated Granddaddy Brunson one said, “No one has a monopoly on common sense.”

The essential question is whether affinity or more rational voting will lead to the most qualified candidates getting into office. Before going further I want to explain why this is significant. Predominantly limbic voting trends have been responsible for many of the worst episodes of modern history. For instance, if you investigate history and consider the tyrants who ruled during the last 100 years, you will find that not counting an occasional military coup, most of them gained and/or retained political office through the democratic process. This includes Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Saddam Hussein. If this does not get you to think twice about the fallibility of our political process and why we should examine our motivations, nothing will.

When choosing a particular political candidate over another, you should consider many factors. I doubt that any candidate will be perfect. However, candidate selection processes can be learned by examining how businesses perform this task. Highly successful corporations screen candidates using multiple criteria such as job experience, proven competence, and skill levels. Human resource decisions cannot legally be made using criteria such as race, religion, and sexual preferences. Yet, when the typical voter goes to the polls, this is exactly what happens.

Think about the absurdity of non-rational decision making for a moment. Do I really care that my heart surgeon is a Muslim, my attorney is gay, or an airplane pilot has had several wives. For instance, when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River I never heard anyone ask him what church he goes to, if anyone in his family is gay, or whether he is Pro Life or Pro Choice. Rather, as a fellow pilot, I was very respectful that when the emergency happened Sully had the competence required to save the lives entrusted to him. Shouldn’t we use the same principles and values when selecting competent leaders who may make or break or economy or send our sons and daughters off to war?

Regardless of your political persuasion, I ask that you ponder just for a moment as to how you make political decisions. I know that part of being human is to make emotional decisions. Is the candidate attractive? Does he look and sound like me? Does she have the same religious convictions emphasized at my church on Sunday? Is she more or less educated than me? I would hope that you begin to realize how you make your decisions, realize that purely emotional decision making is faulty, and that you responsibly weigh your selection before you vote. When you realize how you made mistakes in the past, you are much more likely in the future to pick the best candidates qualified to serve you, your neighbors, and your children.

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