A psychologist friend and I often have lunch and talk politics. Nice guy, with insights on the human mind that my engineer brain skipped right by in my formative years. Engineers are trained to be logical, to follow the scientific method and to believe in what works, so people who spout nonsense in conflict with human experience befuddle me.
When I start railing about the latest idiocy coming from Senator Nitwit or Pundit Know-Nothing, my friend just smiles and tells me to take a couple of deep breaths and chew on my taco rather than my latest target. Then he reminds me that I’m making the mistake of thinking that people make decisions logically, when in fact most make them emotionally.
Now, what my psychologist buddy tells me is that, at the deepest level, what underlies our beliefs is not logic but emotion. Our views on life, thus our politics, are shaped by a vision of the world that forms early, has little to do with conscious thought, and is far more durable than anything that later schooling pounds into us. Not that change is impossible, but it is difficult; logic and conscious thought are rarely equal to the task. An emotionally powerful, even traumatic, event is usually required to make real the lessons that reason teaches. Reason is too abstract to seem real.
Well, just because he’s right doesn’t mean I have to like it — which just proves his point. We want to believe that carefully applied reason underlies our conclusions. It’s probably closer to the truth that they are formed by our predilections, after which we tie ourselves in elegant knots to make the facts and theories fit. Macramé of the mind, performed with equal zeal by the right and left, the wise and foolish, the well-educated and ignorant.
I bring this up because the thought has been growing on me that the United States is going through one of its occasional fits of the politics of resentment, and my friend’s diagnosis may explain why. He tells me that resentment is a smoldering, diffuse anger, and anger at root is a manifestation of that most primitive of emotions: fear. That means it’s deeply ingrained, strong and highly immune to logic and persuasion. A politician who can tap into it has a weapon of immense power, more than equal to sweet reason.
The problem is that emotion is a poor substitute for logic and reason in selecting leaders and formulating policy. And of all emotions, resentment stands out for its ability to take us in disastrous directions.
People of my political persuasion were mystified by Barack Obama’s easy victory in 2012. Given the results of the 2010 election, the unpopularity of Obamacare, his feckless foreign policy and failing economic policies, it seemed that Obama was in serious trouble.
Add to that the attractiveness of Romney himself — well-educated, a family man, builder and manager of companies, moderately conservative, financially successful, faithfully but not fanatically religious, a serious man for a dangerous world. How could he lose?
Well, he did.
As analysts have dug into the data, one thing that stands out is that the Democrats succeeded in demonizing Romney. Rather than the good, decent and sensible man he really is, they painted him a rapacious, evil capitalist who shut down companies and destroyed jobs — who knows, millions of them, all sent to China — and feasted on the remains. The rich, old white man with his fancy houses and show horses and sons with perfect teeth and trophy wives, out of touch with the real, struggling America. Elder in a creepy pseudo-Christian sect. Stiff and stuffy, not cool and hip. What does he care about real people?
All of this is a caricature and a lie, of course, but it worked. Romney was not a man to be admired for his success, but to be disliked and disdained for that very reason. Does this make any sense?
No, it doesn’t. Obama’s campaign pulled off the feat of tapping into the resentment of people who feel that a man like Romney is not a model upon which to pattern themselves, but someone unlike them and, therefore, to be feared. We re-elected a president not on his merits, but because, based on a falsified vision, we liked his opponent less. Not for logical reasons, but emotional.
We’ve been here before, and it doesn’t end well. For example, Reconstruction, which led to Jim Crow and intractable racial problems; and FDR’s foolish economic policies that prolonged the Great Depression and laid the foundation of the welfare state that is now bankrupting us. And all because we allow ourselves to be ruled by resentment rather than reason.
Something to remember the next time you walk in the voting booth.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.