Letters and Politics

Debrief on the Iowa Caucuses

We’ll talk about Iowa and moving forward for the Presidential Candidates with:

Adele Stan, weekly columnist at the American Prospect. She is the former Washington Bureau chief for Alternet and a longtime chronicler of national politics.

Normal Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, author of the book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He just wrote the piece The Bernie Campaign: The Democratic Party’s Biggest Insurrection in Decades.

Then, a conversation on how our brains react to and drive political campaigns. Our guest is Rick Shenkman, author of the book Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.

About the book: 

Why do so many millions of ordinary voters believe Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he was born in Kenya? Why do millions still believe WMD were found in Iraq after the war? Why did a majority believe that Saddam was behind 9-11 on the eve of the Iraq War? These are some of the important questions answered in bestselling historian Rick Shenkman’s Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.

Eight years ago Shenkman raised these questions in Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter but few at the time were convinced our democracy was in trouble. Then Donald Trump came along.

No matter what happens in the end with Trump, he’s already proven one thing: Appealing to voters’ fears and anger works. His crowds are huge. The burning question of the moment is, then, how this could happen in an advanced democracy like ours. In his new book,Political Animals, Shenkman uses science to explain why so many people are susceptible to politicians’ manipulative appeals — and why they don’t seem to care when politicians are caught lying.

That so many millions of people succumb readily to the entreaties of wily politicians is a mystery given the extraordinary brain power of the ordinary human, which no computer can match. Or to put it another way: The human brain is packed with eighty-six billion neurons and this is the best we can do?

It’s this mystery that is at the heart of his new book, which challenges the bromides of civics reformers who claim that our problem is a lack of information. Shenkman shows that the unsettling truth is that when we go with our gut instincts in politics, as we usually do, our gut fails us. Trump voters have been going with their gut. It’s failing them.

Shenkman shows what science says about these four common failings: The failure to engage in politics even when the stakes are high, the failure to correctly size up our leaders, the failure to reward politicians who tell us hard truths, and the failure to show empathy in circumstances that clearly cry out for it. Drawing on cutting-edge research in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral psychology, Shenkman says the explanation is that evolution has left us adrift in a modern world with a brain wired for the Stone Age. While in our personal lives ancient instincts often work to our advantage, in politics they usually don’t. Modern cues set off ancient instinctive responses that prompt us to behave in ways contrary to our own interests and good governance.

Example: Football games have affected the outcome of elections. So have shark attacks. So have even droughts. In a rational world this shouldn’t happen, of course. But as Shenkman explains in Political Animals, our world is anything but rational. In the book he explores the hidden forces behind our often illogical choices.

Political Animals challenges us to go beyond the headlines, which often focus on what politicians do (or say they’ll do), and to concentrate instead on what’s really important: what shapes our response. Shenkman argues that, contrary to what we tell ourselves, it’s our instincts rather than arguments appealing to reason that usually prevail. Pop culture tells us we can trust our instincts, but science is proving that when it comes to politics our Stone Age brain often malfunctions, misfires, and leads us astray.

Fortunately, we can learn to make our instincts work in our favor. Shenkman takes readers on a whirlwind tour of laboratories where scientists are exploring how sea slugs remember, chimpanzees practice deception, and patients whose brains have been split in two tell stories. The scientists’ findings give us new ways of understanding our history and ourselves—and prove we don’t have to be prisoners of our evolutionary past.

In this engaging, illuminating, and often riotous chronicle of our political culture, Shenkman probes the depths of the human mind to explore how we can become more political, and less animal.

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