I’ve voted in every local, state, and national election since I was first eligible. I take my voting responsibilities seriously, a joyful obligation in return for the benefits and pleasures of being an American citizen. I believe in America’s greatness, both historically and presently. I love my country, and with a little work, love most of my fellow citizens. The patchwork quilt that is American civil society is a delight and inspiration, at least most of the time.
But this year, I’m an undecided voter.
None of the candidates currently vying to represent me seem to feel the same way about this country that I do. At the far left and far right, we’ve got two candidates that are basically running a grumpy old man, get-off-my-lawn, kind of campaign. Trump wants the Muslims to vacate and and Sanders wants the 1% and corporations to vacate.
In between we’ve got gradations on that us-and-them continuum, but nobody does it as well as the two actual grumpy old white guys, and it shows in the primary results to date. We Americans are suckers for someone who is the best at what they do, even if what they do is sometimes of questionable value or integrity.
So Candidates, you may ask, what would compel my vote? It’s pretty simple. As always, politics is about appealing to my reptile brain. Do that and you’ll win. Both history and recent decision making research suggest all the other conversation is just justification for what the reptile brain has already chosen. Bernie and Donald, Ted and Marco are all pumping fear and anger towards that scaly, instinctual part of my brain. Hillary… so far I’m not sure she’s even aware we all have that reptile part of our brain.
But she or somebody on the right has an opportunity, because every one else has abandoned the part of my reptile brain that is most powerful, that can calm fears, that can trump anger (sorry couldn’t resist). That part of my reptile brain seeks pleasure and comfort. You offer me pleasure and comfort and the decision making story just writes itself.
What would pleasure my reptile brain? Again, history and research can provide some pointers. The first pointer comes from a post that’s going viral on Vox from Matthew MacWilliams. Mr. MacWilliams is a researcher in a niche focused on authoritarianism and our response to it. That niche stretches back to just after World War II when folks began trying to figure out how someone like Hitler could have succeeded politically. There are well vetted criteria for assessing responsiveness to authoritarianism and MacWilliams has discovered a very tight correlation between high scores on those criteria and support for Mr. Trump. Guess what, it’s the old fear and anger part of the reptile brain.
In his February 16th New York Times column, David Brooks gives us a hint of the second pointer to the pleasure and comfort centers of old forked tongue brain. He reached back to what he calls the Roosevelt Approach, relying on community and inclusivity to address the pressing problems in front of us. I always start feeling more happy, more secure, when I’m part of team that’s getting something done, that’s pulling in the same direction. And, by the way, that’s a pretty good description of the moments in American History, both recent and ancient, that are the foundations of our greatness. Thank you, Mr. Brooks, for well thought out words.
Put that all together and a way forward out of this current political ugliness begins to emerge. How does one counter fear and anger and panic? It’s not with facts, and it’s not with policy, at least not at first. If you want to distract my reptile brain from those very powerful motivators, there’s only one thing that works, pleasure and comfort. That’s precisely what nobody is offering right now.
So Hillary (or somebody from the right), you want to catch fire? Get your grandmother on. That’s what this nation needs right now. Someone to tell us that we are one family and that there’s no substitute for family, like ‘em or not. To tell us it’s going to be o.k. To give us some time tested, pragmatic wisdom on how it’s going to be o.k. That’ll make my reptile brain stand up and take notice.
I love this county and I know we can come together and address the many problems facing us if we have the right kind of leadership. We can do this. We have in the past. We can in the future, but we can only do it together. And if we do come together, I know the result will be, indeed, to make American great again, not a bad aspiration.