Is the Electorate Smart Enough to Protect Itself?

In his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Thomas Frank evaluates the ability for right-wing politicians to win elections, despite touting policies which are harmful to the economic and social programs which serve their potential constituents.

A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that genetic, environmental, and educational differences can lead to fear responses toward “out-groups” (those not like us) As a result, the fearful tended to espouse anti-immigrant, or pro-segregationist beliefs. Simply put, there are deep-seated fear responses which are partially responsible for people’s irrational political behavior.

In an article for “Psychology Today,” Dr. Deborah Serani writes: “It’s been said that fear-based media has become a staple of popular culture. The distressing fall-out from this trend is that children and adults who are exposed to media are more likely than others to (a) feel that their neighborhoods and communities are unsafe, (b) believe that crime rates are rising, (c) overestimate their odds of becoming a victim, and (d) consider the world to be a dangerous place.”

The overall puzzle, and I am only cutting short the citations for brevity’s sake, is that the human brain can do lots of things, but not all at once. In particular, the functions associated with fear response override those associated with logic and rational thought. Likewise, our decision centers are more closely connected to emotional responses than to things like language centers. Bottom line here: It’s pretty easy to scare people into doing stuff, even if the stuff doesn’t actually make sense.

Looking at the rhetoric around the president alone, we see examples of political players triggering fear responses to the idea that he “is Muslim, is a Communist, is from Kenya, is gay, wants to use FEMA to intern the American people in camps allowing the UN to instate a new world order and impose a unified currency.” -yes, that last one is really a thing. Message: THE SCARY LIBERALS ARE GOING TO GET YOU! So, freak out, and don’t pay attention to how little sense any of that actually makes.

It has proven similarly useful to use religion to frighten people into acting against their own interests. Think about the ‘culture war’ issues: reproductive care, gay rights, immigration, gun control, “the war on Christmas” This is a very similar message, it just incorporates the use of an imaginary friend. GOD HATES THE SCARY LIBERALS, AND YOU SHOULD TOO!

To be clear, I have not liked many of the President’s policies, and I do not think the White House has handled negotiations well at all. Obamacare is terrible, in that, it still is an enormous for-profit enterprise. In other words: there is a profit incentive to minimize and deny care.

Another angle I want to touch on briefly is that both critical thinking and civics have been eliminated from many public school’s curriculum. Our schools are turning out graduates whose ability to evaluate information is neglected in favor of memorization exercises. How can we possibly have a thoughtful discourse on policy if public education is not affording the populous the means to decide for themselves? How can our nation possibly be a true democracy with such systemic blocks in place to prevent a majority of Americans from ever having a real place at the table?

That’s a beginning…. What do you think? Despite it being a right and obligation, do voters deserve the responsibility for making these weighty decisions?


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