If you are watching the current political debate (aka, if you are breathing and being constantly bombarded by it), you might have picked up on how it seems that campaigning politicians and certain state legislatures have detached themselves from any notion of rationality and reality. Laws have been passed requiring women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory probing so invasive, it could actually be considered sexual assault. Rights of access to contraception (a means of preventing abortions) are being denied based the beliefs of employers, despite the beliefs of the workers. Obama is back to being an alien Muslim. Corporations are people. The government wants ignore economic concerns just so they can take away your guns. Following a religion based on a guy who fed the poor and promoted peace and social justice requires ignoring the poor and promoting violence and discrimination. Rush Limbaugh is still on the air. It is just getting stupider and stupider.
But is there something more insidious behind the stupidity? What could be the gain from divorcing yourself from reality in such a way? And why does it seem to be working?
As it turns out, there is a specific psychological reaction that these stances are hoping to invoke: existential terror. Once they get this mechanism going, they no longer have to provide argument, no longer have to debate, and no longer have to justify anything. And here is how it works:
I have previously discussed the fundamental human existential crisis, that we are torn between our infinite creative symbolic potential, and our very finite material bodies. One of the consequences of this crisis is that, unless we develop very sophisticated methods of accepting our deaths, we reflexively deny our reality of death, and desperately defend that denial. The way that people deny death is that they come together to build a series of symbolic structures to act as shields. We call this “culture.” Culture is not in itself a problem, it provides a necessary support and security that we need to function in a highly frightening reality. Ideally, the goal of these symbolic structures should be to foster an eventual independence from them through the creation of the more sophisticated acceptance of our mortality. Some symbolic structures have been able to do this, and have created some of the greatest leaders we revere. However, the larger part of society has not installed this important process, leaving us largely vulnerable to our fear of mortality and vulnerable to a manipulation by this fear.
When a person is reminded of their mortality, or when their protective structures are threatened, they react instinctively against it by clinging to their symbolic defense structures ore fervently. They quickly demarcate themselves from those not of their culture. People who violate their cultural norms are lashed out against, because those violations challenge their symbolic defense structures. People who defend their cultural norms, the “Culture Warriors” are looked to as the heroes to defend these symbolic structures and help the person to reestablish their denial of death. Simply put, when you remind people of their mortality, or when you threaten the symbolic cultural structures, they will react in terror and give their power over to the person who promises to reestablish their cultural safety as a reflex devoid of higher evaluative rational thought.
This is not hypothetical or theoretical. This has been confirmed in research.
The strange and surreal stances that are being taken in modern politics can be explained through this mechanism. If you look at the content of the stances, they either 1) contain a threat of mortality or 2) contain a threat to symbolic structure (culture, religion, etc) that defends against mortality. At the same time as these threats are presented the person who introduces the existence of the threat attempts to establish himself as the candidate who is the strongest culture warrior by providing the most extreme (and irrational) solution to the threat
Abortion for instance, is referenced both 1) as the death of the unborn and 2) a threat to a symbolic cultural ideal of strictly controlled sex (sex is our animal selves, and therefore must be controlled because to give into out animal self is to deny our shield of civilization). The more extreme you are in defending against this death and threat, the more of a hero you are. Abstinence is the extreme symbolic antithesis, and supports the cultural ideal. Planned Parenthood, is the cultural threat because 3% of it’s activities goes to providing safe access to abortions (and the deaths and maiming of back alley abortions are justified to the pariahs who challenge this structure). Contraception is off the table because it enables unwed sex, and likewise challenges the symbolic structures. All of this ignores the reality that abstinence only programs don’t work, and that through providing contraception and education, Planned Parenthood prevents twice as many abortions as it provides. If the goal were to truly end abortion, then you would endorse the evidence supported practices that actually reduce the unwanted pregnancies. However, the goal is to get elected, so you need to become a culture warrior, reality be damned.
This can be seen in the other stances. Guns are another symbolic means of defending against death, which is why the threat of having guns taken away (note: usually brought into the conversation by those who support gun rights in the extreme, and rarely by their opponent, unless in reference to a recent gun related tragedy). Homosexuality is opposed based in it’s “threat to marriage,” another symbolic cultural structure, and homophobia more or less is caused by the threat it presents to rigid gender roles and rigid social hierarchies. Corporations are touted as the defenders of economic freedom, and to challenge them based on crimes they actually commit is to challenge the symbolic status quo. Asking people to care about the poor or dispossessed, or have mercy on others challenges the absolute rightness of your defense system by pointing out some flawed consequences. A mosque or Muslim community center becomes a symbol of cultural invasion and any request to respect the religious beliefs of another threatens the supremacy of your cultural shield. Obama is not a citizen and a Muslim, making him someone not of our culture. The claims seem irrational until you notice the pattern. They all create symbolic threats that invoke a predictable reaction: “I will vote for you and do what you say if you make the fear go away.”
So that is the origin behind the stupidity of modern elections. It hurts us by creating oppressive extremist laws. It drags down the conversation by excluding real discussion on the topic, and silences more reasonable voices (yes there are some very reasonable voices in these parties), because once the fear structure activates, reason is thrown out the window. Finally it hurts us because it essentially “hacks” the election, focusing on psychological tricks, not the actual needs of the nation.
Can it be fixed?
We know what is causing it. Diagnosis is the first step towards treatment. And if our instinctual fear of death is the problem, then there is a solution that lies in conquering that fear. Some cultures have developed methods, so we know it can be done. And even though we don’t have to copy another culture’s way of solving this issue, it is possible for us to find one for ourselves. But we have to acknowledge the issue, the problems it causes, and the possibility for the solution.
Otherwise, we will just go farther down this political spiral of stupidity.