The Passions of Politics

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Whenever we have a disagreement, Laura will say accusatorily, “You’re such a linear thinker.”

“I’m a scientist. What do you expect? It’s part of my training,” I will respond defensively.

“And I’m an artist,” she will continue, “so I’m much more intuitive.” Then she will add, “You just don’t process your emotions.  They’re there, and you act on them. You just don’t want to admit it, so you cover them up with thinking linearly.”

It’s at that point I usually give up.  But the truth is, Laura is right.  She invariably is.

We all behave based on our emotions, as Drew Westen, a neuro-psychologist from Emory University, documented several years ago in his book, The Political Brain, which I recommended in my December 2007 column as essential reading for anyone interested in communication.

Westen targeted politicians and the minions who surround their campaigns and staff their offices as a key segment of his readership. It’s clear why: They live and die based on their effectiveness in packaging their messages to voters.

It may not be a secret, but it’s the dirty truth–politicians are just as susceptible to acting on their emotions as the people who vote for or against them. Just how much of today’s Republican obstructionist strategy is embedded in emotion and how much is rooted in a rational political calculus is not easy to determine. Both play a role.

The rational calculus is easy to understand. When Barack Obama won the 2008 election and Democrats swept into congressional office, Republicans had two choices.  The first was to work with the new president to help pull the country out of its financial economic morass. If policies succeeded, Republicans correctly reasoned, the president would get the credit. If policies failed, they would all share the blame. It was a lose-lose choice.

The second option was opposing the president whenever possible. If his policies failed, the president would get the blame, and Republicans would smell better than Washington’s cherry blossoms in the spring. If the president’s policies succeeded, he would get the credit, and the Republican naysayers would be no worse off than if they had worked with him.

The rational political calculus dictated a course of resistance. The question was whether it should be one of loyal opposition or adversarial obstructionism. It was at this juncture that emotion entered the picture. Its essence was captured by the four words, “I hope he fails,” which Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio shock jock, uttered four days before Obama took his oath of office on the steps of the Capitol.

Before scrolling forward to the present, I need to emphasize that the left is as culpable as the right when it comes to succumbing to emotions. Here are two instances that I recall from my past.

In 1969, Vietnam dominated American political discourse, and TV network news bombarded viewers every night with the latest pictures of flag-draped coffins as they streamed into the military mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base by the hundreds. Yet, as shocking as those images were, I remember that many antiwar protesters on the Yale campus–my roommate among them–privately yearned for increased body bag counts, since they believed that more killing would more quickly spur an American withdrawal.

More than a decade later, in 1982, Ronald Reagan was in the first term of his presidency, and the nation was mired in recession.  I knew many Democrats in Connecticut at that time who harbored the hope the economy would get so bad and unemployment would rise so much that voters would turn Reagan out of the White House in 1984.

In both instances, an emotional craving for ideological victory trumped any temptation to seek solutions and accommodation.  Today, the emotional shoes are on Republican feet. And as the prospect of retaking control of Congress looms larger, GOP emotions are heading into overdrive–understandably so.

You don’t have to look very hard to see that passion has pushed aside rationality as justification for opposition. There is simply no other way to reconcile two apparently conflicting positions Republican leaders took this June. In the Senate, they held up passage of a bill to extend unemployment benefits, demanding that the $33 billion cost be offset with reductions to other federal programs.

At the same time, they pressed for extension of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts but, in this case, without any offsets–even though the original legislation deliberately sunsetted the reductions at the end of 2010. [As an aside, I agree with continuing the tax cuts, at least so long as the economy is continuing to sputter and small business has difficulty raising revenue.] Both extensions–unemployment benefits and tax cuts –inject money into the economy and rationally should be considered on the same footing. That Republicans have chosen not to accord them parity speaks to the emotional role obstructionism has taken on.

However you characterize it, the GOP strategy seems to be paying dividends. As I write this column, it appears quite possible Democrats will lose control of the House in November and, not entirely impossible, the Senate as well.

And as for scientists, since we are linear thinkers and not prone to emotion, we simply don’t fit into the passions of political practice–or do we?

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Editor: Alan Chodos

August/September 2010 (Volume 19, Number 8)

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Articles in this Issue
Congressional Letter Backs APS Bid to Curb Proliferation
APS Impacts Prisoner Release
Program to Aid Minority Transition to Grad School
New APS Policies Enhance Access to Journals
US Earns Five Medals at Physics Olympiad
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Inside the Beltway
The Education Corner
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Profiles in Versatility