Posted by: MC | August 12, 2012

Election Year Politics – Hold on to your Limbic System!

If there were a word to sum up the trouble with our elections and the leaders they bring us, what would it be?  Thinking back on the 100 Voices I listened to in 2009, Americans around the country offered words like immature, disappointing, ridiculous, greedy, irrelevant.  Ed Kemp, III in Jackson, MS said “useless.”  Then he elaborated.  “Senators and congressmen ought to all be farmers.  They get up in the morning.  They work until dark.  They work for nothing.  They don’t start a job that they’re not going to finish.  And they Don’t blow a lot of smoke.  They get the job done.  Plenty of farmers out there.”

Today I’ve been thinking of another kind of word – psychology. And refining even further, neuropsychology.  Yeah.  That’s it.

Here’s why.  Way back in the early 20th century a man named Watson was a psychology professor at Harvard.  He got busted for a few taboos – one was sleeping with his secretary while he was married … you know.  Johns Hopkins didn’t want him anymore, so he took everything he was thinking about “the prediction and control of human behavior” to Madison Ave – to advertising.

There’s a lot more to the story like the fact that John B. Watson was BF Skinner’s mentor, Watson himself credited as the father of Behaviorism.  But to keep close to the story line, the manipulation of buyers with strategies of behavioral reinforcement sealed the marriage of psychology and marketing. 

In the meantime, the rapid spread of television followed by the recent explosion of the internet have made it so that campaigns for public office have shifted from stump speeches and their transcriptions in newsprint to sound bites and 24-hour media spin.  Candidates’ physical appearances matter, their bank rolls matter – the amount spent on campaigning growing in inverse relationship to the substance of campaign discourse.

And in between all the media changes, neuropsychology burst on the scene with its quickly developed capacity easily to measure and reflect the fact that the vast majority of voters follow candidates and cast their votes based on information from the emotional (limbic) and survival (cerebellar) sections of their brains.  As it turns out, voters considering candidates these days rarely show activity in the higher executive areas of the brain’s frontal cortex.  Instead brain imaging reveals the neural light show in response to political candidates is limbic and lower.  To draw analogy to the fireworks at the closing ceremony of the Olympics in London would not be overstatement.

Now, this doesn’t mean we’re incapable of higher cortical analysis when it comes to voting.  In fact, given time, encouragement and opportunity – and especially given numbers, says blogger Mike Sinn – our frontal lobes kick right on line and rev up to make more integrated decisions – feelings mediated by evidence and thought.

So, here’s where we get back to the words Americans were offering about our elections and leaders in the days following the last Presidential Inauguration.  It is disappointing, immature, greedy and useless to see the candidates for Commander and Chief of the United States spending their access, time and money (corporate or otherwise) playing to – even counting on – our lowest levels of reasoning.

Checking in on the idea of democracy – an idea claimed as definitional for our country and thus touted by our leaders.  Democracy means that all who are affected by a social decision have a say in making it.  Government for the people, by the people.  In the U.S. we have a representative form of democracy, thus elected leadership is charged with representing our interests in the articulation and advancement of legislation and public policy.  Every one of those leaders are elected by the people affected by the social decisions they make.

At some point, the being elected part became far more important than representing the voting people.  At some point, higher level cortical processing actually became a liability to too many candidates wishing access only to the power (oh, and maybe wealth).

The responsible leader would not take the neuropsychological information on limbic-mediated voting and run with it, playing to emotion and more base fears of survival.  The responsible leader would slow the process, present evidence and respect the brains and minds of the voting public.  She or he would insist on this respect as the only way of ensuring that democracy actually happens.

Thoughtful and informed voters ARE the citizens of the U.S. and its representative democracy.  Certainly we are also emotional and driven by survival needs, but to relate only to those levels of our brains is cynically to pursue opportunism.  It is not democracy and it is not the way of strong and sustainable community.

Oh, and while I do hold our leaders and aspiring leaders responsible for inviting and creating space for citizens to engage in careful thought based on evidence, it is also up to us as citizens to insist on that kind of maturity and integrity in our leaders.  And, by the way, there are LOTS of us and we have more influence than we have come to believe.

The everyday people of this country like using all of our brains.  I learned that from the people I spoke with in 2009 and again this past winter when I made the second road trip around the country for 100 Voices  – Americans Talk about Change. Every time I sat with individuals or groups of people to really listen and speak with each other, the evidence was right there.  We’d rather get along than not.  We’re smarter than our leaders think we are.  Finally, we are also way more powerful in our numbers – in democratic action – than we think we are.

So it really is up to us to insist on the leadership that represents us well.  At this point, lots of folks on all sides have become convinced that their limbic assessments are well thought out.  It will take courage for us to become thoughtful in the face of solid evidence, and our choices for paths to solutions will continue varied.  But they will be way more intelligent, feasible and capable of sustaining the people and communities of our country and our world.

I guess the question is whether we’re ready and willing to use these brains for selecting our national leaders.  And I guess time will tell.

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