Meyer and the Futility of Political Debate – UPDATED

Meyer and the Futility of Political Debate – UPDATED March 15, 2006

Well, Dick Meyer at CBS has done it again! I’m not kidding, this fellow manages to find the most interesting things to write about – stuff no one else is looking at because most of us (and 99% of the press) run like lemmings to whatever breathless headline has been deemed “important,” like Birdshotgate…

Today Meyer is wondering whether is political ruminations are worth putting to paper, or is political debate a futile and dead thing?

He wonders about it because of a scientific study which suggests that the brains of political partisans are so chemically overwhelmed as to render most partisans…well…impotent to the allures of reason might be a good way to put it (indulge me, I’m still on a Bryn Terfel high.) It’s not merely that partisans will not listen reason, it’s that reason fails to elicit a productive response.

This is a very interesting piece, and I highly recommend that you read it. Here’s a teaser:

It would be reasonable to ask whether all brains — not just partisan ones — respond to political information emotionally. Westen says the answer is clearly no, that research does demonstrate that centrists or independents are more able to process rational and non-emotional political information.

But Westen’s MRIs show that is clearly not the case with political contradictions processed by a partisan brain. That process is almost entirely emotional, heating up regions of the brain that govern things like forgiveness, relief and pleasure. The reasoning zones stayed ice cold.

Your response, I imagine, is “duh.” Partisans are emotional; stop the presses, get me rewrite. Perhaps. But I find the graphic clarity of colorful brain scans to be sobering. It’s one thing to know that some people get obnoxious during political arguments; it’s another thing to see that 30 adult men who read candidates’ quotes while strapped down in MRI machines didn’t even fire up the thinking parts of their brains.

Sounds alarming, doesn’t it? It might be, too…except I think the study is flawed, or based on an incorrect foundation.

I’d like to see a study that compares these reactions to reactions concerning religious beliefs. I believe you would see very similar chemical reactions in the brain – both politics and religion come down to what you “believe” and that’s what brings in the emotional, whacked-out and unreasonable result. For more and more people in this country politics and religion have become enormously commingled. And I’m not only talking about Evangelical Christians on the right. The secular humanists have their own “religion” as do those who worship at the altar of “political correctness” which clearly has its own list of commandments and sins. Our very polarized, very fragmented society encourages this, largely (sadly) because our education system has spent so much time vaunting “self-esteem” that people have become very protective of whatever belief they’ve decided to hang their hat on; what I think must be right, must be valuable, must have worth, because I am special! And because I am so special, I do not have to be reasonable.

Interesting as this study is, and Meyer has written on it very well – I think a great deal of the blame for this phenomena can also be traced to two bodies: the Christian Coalition of the 1980s and the Clintonistas of the 1990’s. The Christian Coalition, in looking to put prayer back in schools and teach creationism – among other things – began to put politics and morality together, but in a limited way, but I know that many on the left found even those limits to be threatening and troubling, because I was on the left, and I was finding it threatening and troubling.

The Clintons however stepped it up a notch; they were the first and only politicos I ever heard of, in all my years of watching politics, who talked about their opposition not as men and women with differing views but as “evil” people with “morally evil” views. If you did not agree with them, you were suspect; you were evil. This was much more than a simple, “let’s get their people out and our people in” this was a means of taking a large chunk of the Democratic electoral base, and finding a means by which they could be appealed to on a strictly emotional level. Stay on this side, because the other side is morally eeeevil. They want to starve children, kill grandmothers and send women to the back alleys for abortion.

The day I knew I could never vote for Al Gore was the day I watched him campaign – close to the end of the 2000 run – and I heard him shout out, “this is a battle between good and evil.”

And yes, the religious right reacted to that – “we’re evil? No, YOU’RE evil…”

Thus were a thousand scientific explorations of poisonous partisanship and unpersuadability (is that a word) founded.

People like to point to the right and say “they started the religious/political thing.” That might be true, but the Clintons were the one to turn our political process into a ongoing passion play where both sides take turns being Jesus or Judas, depending on the rhetoric and the perspective, and they have never abated from that maneuver.

It is destructive. It is doing terrible things to our country, all of this, because it is obscuring reason and creating a very, very narrow sliver of space in which politicians may operate – which serves the electorate not at all. And it’s creating these scientific reports that appear – on the surface – to mean and measure something. In fact, the report misses the point. It’s not about politics. It’s about what you believe – and these days that means if it’s about politics, it’s about faith.

Now, the real question is, interesting studies aside, how do we FIX this? Let us assume for a second that journalists are as affected by this political/faith knot as other human beings, and that bloggers are too. Journalists tell us they are at the service of our nation, that they hold a public trust, are essentially the Fourth Estate; many bloggers on both sides of the aisle feel that they, too, are working for the cause of their country. How do we help the country get off this destructive mobius strip?

I don’t have an answer. But I suspect that the only way we can even begin to heal this national sickness is to elect into office (particularly into the White House) people who are less polarizing, who have less of a grip on the national heart and the national psyche – people we can look at without feeling that emotional faith/ideology chemical zing. And the only way such people can ever hope to ascend to those offices will be if politicians stop the demagoguery and reporters start actually reporting, again – even if it means reporting “negatives” on candidates they like.

If the press would do its job, political demagoguery would be more difficult to get away with – emotions will eventually, slowly, drain from the political fever swamps and we might once again see reason, debate and substance brought to the fore of our political dialogues.

It will be difficult, but I think we’re running out of opportunities, here. We must try.

UPDATE: Shrinkwrapped takes this on as a psychologist. Maxed Out Mama also has a thoughtful response to all of this with interesting links.

The days fun ended, Meyer has graciously linked to this post over at the Public Eye, so you might want to head over there and watch the bloodletting, er, discussion. :-)

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