Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum–two men that most of us have never really considered as legitimate threats to Mitt Romney’s inevitable presidential candidacy–have officially conceded this past month. As a country, this means two things:
(1) We are no longer subject to lazy SNL impersonations of the lackluster Republican field
(2) General election season is here! Let’s all get pissed off, cynical, and polarized!
While The Computer Newspaper cannot promise thorough coverage of the actual issues at hand for Obama vs. Romney, we can guarantee nearly-bipartisan enthusiasm when it comes to skewering the transparent, oft-misguided campaign tactics that we voters get to enjoy only every four years.
The newest, and most irrelevant, discussion in the political world is essentially the following: If you’re a Republican, your distorted worldview is the direct result of abnormal brain chemistry.
The pioneer of this movement is author Chris Mooney, who published a book this past winter entitled The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. Tangent: I love how harsh and sensationalistic that book title is, by the way. Not alienating at all, Mr. Mooney. I can imagine just tons of Republicans killing time in Barnes-and-Noble right now, seeing your book displayed and giving it an earnest and curious once-over, flipping it page by page, thinking ‘Hmm, interesting… I have always wondered why it is that I deny reality. Siri, remind me to Kindle this tonight.’
Mooney’s work first entered my internet periphery a few months back when I clicked on a headline about why, scientifically speaking, people actually watch Fox News. The main point of the article covers the idea of selective exposure, which is fancy talk for ‘you hear what you want to hear.’ As grown men and women, we settle on core beliefs, then seek out evidence that accordingly complies, rather than allowing neutral evidence to form the core beliefs themselves. This hardly sounds like a foreign concept, and in fact, can equally impugn anybody on the Left for choosing to get their info-tainment from MSNBC instead. To criticize solely Republicans for this would be embarking down a slippery, hypocritical slope—people of all political affiliations just prefer to surround themselves with other like-minded people because agreement is more desirable than disagreement, even if the latter (eventually) creates more progress and change than the former. To put it simply, there just as many Greenpeace members who avoid NRA meetings as the other way around.
The difference, according to Mooney, is that conservatives are more close-minded as a political party, which would seem obvious if you interpret the term ‘conservative’ literally. They have a greater psychological need for ‘closure’ than their liberal counterparts; they are uncomfortable with ambiguity (e.g. in the 1970s and 1980s, Republican X decides homosexuality is gross, then sticks to that taboo two decades later when gays want to marry each other and receive the same tax benefits as straights).
Can we just stop here for a second?
In trying to paraphrase Mooney’s article, I am already guilty of using the same alienated (and alienating) voice that gets politicians in hot water. ‘They’ need closure, ‘they’ don’t like ambiguity. It sounds like I don’t think they can hear me or understand English. The average voter (read: you) is no doubt just as tired as I am of the us-versus-them dialogue and the two-dimensional, sweeping ‘they’ pronoun is not helping matters. Obviously, generalizations are nothing new to cultural discourse (I personally can’t wait to see Think Like A Man), but in the case of brain circuitry, there is something about pinpointing a group of people’s deepest cognitive weaknesses that seems so much more vile and cold than the typical racial or gender stereotype. As if a few lab-coats rounded up 200 people who believe in small government and trickle-down economics, and confined them to a room with a one-way mirror where we sit on the other side, making observations aloud in an Animal Planet whisper.
Within recent weeks, there have been even more experiments conducted that dissect the differences in brain structure for liberals and conservatives, including mainstream media outlets like ABC News citing the work of one study from London. First of all, the article mentions that the actor Colin Firth is one of the study’s authors, which is too stupefying to even research further. But more importantly, the discussion is getting increasingly technical and specific: this London study cites that liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, while conservatives have a larger amygdala.
For us amateur phrenologists, the amygdala is evidently a critical part of the limbic system that controls much of our memory and emotional reaction, becoming especially activated in moments of fear and anxiety. Based on the headlines this study generated (‘Why Is The Conservative Brain More Fearful?’ taken from USA Today), the take-away is that casting a vote for Mitt Romney this November is a clear indication you are an irrational alarmist (i.e. “Drunk Uncle“). That you perceive just about everything as a threat. Every Hispanic you see probably immigrated here illegally. Subsidized healthcare will lead to death panels. Obama has a very-clever-indeed disguise considering he is that rare combination of (a) Muslim and (b) Socialist. And when you consider the feedback loop that is Fox News, the paranoia-mongering agenda pushed by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck among others, it is easy to see why the Democrats ran with this new info when they got their hands on it.
Even if we do accept the above, that the mind of a Republican is simply pre-disposed to fear and suspicion, and ignore the fact that fear is not the only function affected by a larger amygdala (memory, emotional learning–what if these capacities were positively mutated in the conservative brain?)… does it really follow that as a party, they are unfit to vote? How is this diagnosis constructive for a debate about job creation?
If you’re a human like me, your primary weapon is reason, and you have participated in debates with family, friends, classmates, co-workers, etc. So you know, just as well as I, when a dispute has spiraled past logic and key talking points. This happens in classrooms and on playgrounds every day–a child tries to win an argument backwards by saying, “Well you’re wrong because you’re an idiot.” Is that where we are now, politics? I know campaign rhetoric has been partisan and petty for decades, but it at least was polished enough to resemble real debate. This “oh yeah? … well, I’m not surprised you said that, because look at your flawed brain structure” party platform is brand new to the race for the White House.
But here we are. Washington, D.C.’s 21st century divide is falling to baffling depths. The Democrats are so fed up with (what they feel is) misinformation broadcast by Republican talk radio and the wild accusations from the far Right (i.e. Tea Party), that they are actually pausing the whole conversation to sponsor neurological studies on the ‘Extreme Conservative,’ a creature whom they believe to be just fascinating. They are poaching their test subjects from the wild, luring them into the lab with promises of ‘venison jerky and Ryder Cup highlights.’ After getting their red-state subjects to solve puzzles and name mammals in alphabetical order, these scientists are now running back to the conversation they paused, waving fresh papers, saying, “See? I knew it! There is actually something mentally wrong with you! It’s not your fault! It’s not your faulllllllllltttttt!”
And, as a final consideration, let’s not pretend that the Republican Party has not hired its own neurologists to administer intelligence tests, soon releasing their own breakthrough findings that liberals tend to have an inflamed parietal cortex or something, a famous impulse-control section of the temporal lobe that, if left unregulated, will spend taxpayer money irresponsibly and insist we all bring recyclable Trader Joe’s tote bags to shop at Safeway.
We (liberals, conservatives, the too-cool-for-school middle) seemingly do all of this, finance all this self-righteous research, just to sleep well at night. Just so that we can make snide comments (e.g. venison jerky, Trader Joe’s) about the demographic that isn’t us. Following this London study, a renowned UCLA professor of brain imaging and apparent liberal, said this: “I’m glad to see liberals have a large anterior cingulate cortex — the more sophisticated part of the brain. The amygdala [larger in conservatives], on the other hand, is a really old structure, and not as developed.”
I mean, doesn’t that seem like an unnecessary burn to throw at the Right? Does a larger anterior whatever also suggest an increased biological likelihood that you’re going to be a dick about stuff?
Deep breath. Okay. I am gradually losing eloquence.
As we near this country’s 250th birthday, there are no signs that we will abandon this two-party system anytime soon. Information just becomes easier to access for us, the electorate, and as proved by these cognitive studies, our collective trust in politics and respect for the opposing viewpoint continues to bottom out.
I complain, but really, I know we are only getting warmed up for one helluva 2012 election; a melodramatic, old-fashioned spectacle for the next six months. Frankly, it’s the best (and scariest) reality show there is.