The Unfortunate Heart of Politics

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once said that the “American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone.”* Well, Tommy-boy, the evidence is in and that hypothesis holds less water than beef jerky.

If the Republic has proven anything it is that people are mostly governed by their passions. Oh, they are happy to tell you that their politics are cogent and reasoned. And, in the vast majority of cases, they are absolutely wrong. Political attitudes are driven by impulse and intuition, debated with fervor and feeling. Our political choices are driven less by rational heads than by peevish hearts. Politically speaking we are less Mr. Spock and more Dr. McCoy. Rational analysis is not our bag, we’re more damnit-Jim-let’s-set-phasers-to-kill types.

Jefferson had this idea—noble, but completely nutty—that the American system of government could foster an informed and judicious citizenry. Ensconced within the nurturing folds of their democratic blanket, the electorate would do its part by deliberating carefully before making its political choices. This collective act of popular prudence would accrue into governance by and for the greater social good. Many Americans still tend to favor Jefferson’s idea as a not wholly fallacious description of the Republic’s reality. And, like Jefferson, they’re self-deludingly bonkers.

It’s hard to govern by reason and reason alone because, well, reason is never alone. Its constant companion is emotion. And while emotion often doesn’t make much sense and leads us to do some pretty silly stuff, it sure feels good. Reason proposes cutting down on the carbs and taking up jogging. Emotion proposes sitting down on the couch and taking up a cold one. Reason might know what’s best for us, but chances are we’re guzzling beer and chips and not powering up on minimally processed, gluten free protein pucks before a five mile run.

Believe it or not, the same general principal works in politics. Especially contemporary politics, which is increasingly tribal. People are not voting on the basis of a knowledgeable and dispassionate weighing of pros and cons on what’s best for themselves, their community, or their country. At best, they’re just voting their team. Political scientists have known for decades that you can predict someone’s vote with 80-90 percent accuracy in pretty much any election, from city dog catcher to president of the United States, just by knowing their party identification. At worst they’re mad as hell, haven’t a clue, and making their political choices more or less at random.

Now, there are some in my profession who argue that being pig-ignorant and voting purely on the basis of who has an “R” or a “D” on the ballot is both rational and reasonable. If the parties represent competing baskets of policy positions and a voter has a minimal notion that one is more conservative and the other is more liberal, then there’s no need to dive too deep into the details. As long as the “R” or the “D” more or less connects with the genuine preferences of the voter it’ll all come out in the Jeffersonian wash.

Except it doesn’t. The lack of information for many voters is so gobsmackingly complete they are largely incapable of connecting what they want out of government to their vote. In other words, they are perfectly capable of repeatedly voting against their own interests. There have been a number of academic studies suggesting this is a widespread phenomenon and even entire books devoted to the subject (the best known is probably still Thomas Frank’s, What’s The Matter With Kansas?). Representative surveys administering basic tests of political knowledge show most Americans flunking even the most basic civics test.

If there’s plenty of evidence that people are not voting on the basis of reason, there’s overwhelming evidence they are voting on the basis of emotion. Anger, hope, frustration, trust, disgust – this is what gets people ginned up and out to the polls, not their extensive consumption of C-SPAN and policy white papers. Most elections—certainly the last one—are less Jeffersonian rites of reason than cries of passion. Politics for most people is less sober meditation on how to improve the public administration than an irksome let’s-just-get-this-over-with civic obligation or, even worse, a yee-haw moment of catharsis.

Unlike Jefferson, Founding Dudes with more skeptical takes on human nature—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton—never thought reason intruded too far into the politics of the vast majority of people. The idea of a Republic bobbing along on a warm bath of populace-supplied rationality probably struck them as loony. They were just hoping to get a jigger of the stuff into government while tamping the popular passions down to the smallest minimum possible.

And the institutions they established have done, mostly, a decent job of this. But human institutions are no match for human nature. The institutions increase the probability that actual grownups will run the government, but they offer no guarantees. They give reason a decent shot at making it into the running of the commonweal, but offer no warranty. They leave open the possibility that those elected to powerful office will reflect the troubling political traits that huge swaths of voters display in spades: A mind-blowing lack of information about government and a disconcerting reliance on emotion in making important decisions. Given the behavior of a certain bitter Twitter critter, you might say we are already there.

And what’s a reasonable person to do when that happens? Beam me up Scotty.

*I say “supposedly” because while I could track down plenty of examples of people quoting this quote, I couldn’t actually locate an original source or something that cited an original sauce.


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