The Emotions Behind This Election

There are a few last-minute unknowables in what still looks like a GOP victory on Tuesday. But perhaps the biggest unknowable is still what this election is about. I made my own stab at an answer last week, and I recommend Ross Douthat’s musings on the same subject. But one thing that is hard to measure is the shift in political atmosphere this summer and fall. The news that has penetrated most deeply has all been Cole-Ebola-ISIS-2-690 (1) 2about threats from the outside, threats that make anyone want to pull up the drawbridge against an invasive world. This is an emotional environment tailor-made for conservative success.

The Fox Media Industrial Complex has worked these stories with its usual assiduity, and combined, they pack a big punch. You have the flood of illegal immigrants – aka, desperate children seeking refuge from mass violence – at the border. You have Putin posturing around his near-abroad, reminding us of past dangers. You have the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq – an almost text-book case of images and memes likely to trigger atavism and paranoia. And then, like some last sign of the apocalypse, you have the Ebola virus – seeping onto our shores, and turning even the most mild-mannered folks into quarantine enthusiasts. That all of these threats seem temporarily checked or calmed or over-rated hasn’t penetrated the national frontal cortex. What’s still there is fear. Or rather, a series of issues that prompt disgust and revulsion at the other – which is an extremely potent weapon in an election season.

And I’m not just blah blah blahing about this, while we all quietly scan the electoral polling data for the actual news. In a newly published study, neuroscientists found that they could predict people’s political leanings with surprising accuracy based on how their brains reacted to repulsive images:

In the experiment, subjects sat in a brain scanner while being shown a mix of images. Some of them were downright nasty, Ebola Virusshowing filth, rot, and decay. Others were neutral or pleasant — like landscape shots, or pictures of babies. The researchers noted the neural response to each. Afterward, the study subjects took a political survey that asked them about their thoughts on issues, such as having prayer in public schools and same-sex marriage legalization.

The researchers, led by Virginia Tech professor Read Montague, found that patterns of brain activity after viewing the gross images could be grouped together based on political leanings. In other words, conservatives reacted one way to the images (at least on a neurological level) and liberals reacted another way. When asked to rate the disgusting pictures, one group wasn’t more grossed out than the other. But the subconscious reactions varied enough for the researchers to tell conservatives and liberals apart.

Rick Nauert discusses the study with Montague in more detail:

Responses to disgusting images could predict, with 95 percent to 98 percent accuracy, how a person would answer questions on the political survey.

“The results suggest political ideologies are mapped onto established neural responses that may have served to protect our ancestors against environmental threats,” Montague said. Those neural responses could be passed down family lines — it’s likely that disgust reactions are inherited.

“We pursued this research because previous work in a twin registry showed that political ideology — literally the degree to which someone is liberal or conservative — was highly heritable, almost as heritable as height,” said Montague. “Conservatives tend to have more magnified responses to disgusting images, but scientists don’t know exactly why,” Montague said. Investigators believe the responses could be a callback to the deep, adverse reactions primitive ancestors needed to avoid contamination and disease.

Judis is skeptical of this sort of research:

Academics in the social sciences are always on the look out for ways in which they can ground their squishy subjective speculations in the hard terrain of science. The more mathematical symbols and complicated flow-charts or arcane graphs a journal article contains the better. Even literature professors have looked toward obscurantist continental philosophers to turn novels and poems into “texts” that can be analyzed and charted. Twentieth century philosophy is littered with attempts to reduce language to mathematic formulations. The drive to reduce human behavior to neurons and genes is only the latest expression of this drive to turn social scientists into real scientists.

Jon Green pushes back on Judis:

Long story short, research into how political attitudes and behaviors are affected by our biology — especially our genes — is very new and very clunky, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Judis is right to be skeptical, but it isn’t fair for him to be as dismissive as he is.

I too see the new knowledge of our genetics an important addition to our understanding of the world, including politics. They cannot replace all the other tools of analysis we have – history, ideology, demography, and human agency. But they can supplement them, and tell us, as in this election, a little more about what we already kind of know.

Toward A Conservatism Of Joy

Noting that Michael Oakeshott’s classic essay, “On Being Conservative” (pdf) was published nearly sixty years ago, Aaron Taylor notes a few of the distinctive features of what Oakeshott described as “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”:

The real foes of conservatism are not socialism and liberalism, but the reactionary and innovating mentalities. Neither the reactionary nor the innovator share the joie de vivre of the conservative mindits natural inclination to rejoice in and savor what is. They are restless and tormented if things are not in a state of perpetual flux, if “progress” is not being made either backward toward an imagined age of innocence, or forward toward an imagined age of future liberation. If nothing is changing, then nothing is happening. Reactionaries and innovators eschew what Oakeshott calls the conservative mind’s “cool and critical” attitude toward change, advocating instead a radical overhaul of society and its refashioning in the image of a golden age which is either imagined to have existed in the past or lusted after as a possible future.

I think that’s what Dan Drezner is expressing in his formulation of the “Zen Masters'” approach to foreign policy:

These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage.  The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should.  It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail.  They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price.

So, yes, Obama is a conservative. Taylor’s take on the future of this style of conservatism:

If genuine conservatism is to survive, then, it cannot succumb to the modern politics of misery that characterizes almost all political discourse today, including on the Righta discourse that proceeds by presenting a list of bitter complaints about what is wrong with the world and then offering in response to its own grievances either a selfish assertion of “my rights,” or else a vision of a social utopia that is all the more depressing because everyone knows it is pure fantasy.

This does not mean that we cannot be keenly aware of what is wrong with the world. But conservatism must rediscover a greater sense of what it is for and a sense of enjoyment for such things. It must recover the conviction articulated by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (who himself wrote during an age of flux and decline) that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and that “though the last lights off the black West went,” there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things”little “things” that are very much worth conserving amid the ruins. Misery may be infectious, but joy is more so.

Recent Dish on Oakeshott here and here.