Under Political Siege

This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on October 27, 2010. 

In the lead up to Election Day, political battles are raging ever hotter. Commentator Susan Clark suggests ways that voters can avoid a bunker mentality.

Every day, we’re bombarded with political ads. Even the so-called facts are overwhelming – candidates refer to so many contradictory studies, I feel like I’m under siege.

I like to think I’ll battle it out and choose candidates who best reflect my views. But according to new research in cultural cognition, I might not even bother. If I’m a typical American, I’ll find simpler ways to pick a winner.

Before voters even consider a candidate’s platform, we’ve received dozens of coded messages. We each have our own cultural orientation interpreting candidates’ signals. We hear a candidate’s views on one hot-button issue – or notice whether a candidate pronounces words as we do, or even what his wife wears – and we might allow these to stand in for learning his views on the deeper economic, environmental or social issues we thought we cared most about.

This “cognitive cuing” has happened since time immemorial. But surely we can override such tribal urges. Can’t we?

In 2006, brain researchers at Emory University wired up some voters to find out. A group of self-described Republicans were subjected to unflattering information about Republican candidates. According to their MRIs, the Republicans’ brains under-processed information that contradicted their bias – in fact, the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for conscious reasoning, hardly even fired. Then, when shown information boosting their candidates, the emotional center of their brains lit up -- essentially rewarding themselves for ignoring input that contradicted their beliefs.

And liberals, bad news -- the same, pathetic results were true for Democrats’ brains.

Most of us won’t question a candidate’s so-called facts – even if they’re increasingly unbelievable – as long as his or her hairstyle and glasses look trustworthy to our demographic.

That’s why some political professionals reduce issues to polarizing extremes. We’re easier to manipulate when our brains are shut down.

But happily, people of good will can also use this research. Because it turns out that the great majority of Americans don’t live at polarized extremes. Most of us want the same things from our political system – security and economic health. We’re busy, thank you very much, but we agree on a lot more than we disagree on.

Organizers who want real, citizen-based decisions are learning to frame issues very carefully. High-quality deliberation elicits perspectives from right, left, and center. So: in a conversation about, say, energy, we’ll talk about “climate change”; but we’ll also talk about “energy security.”

Then, we’ll skip the grandstanding, and engage in face-to-face deliberation. Where respectful, open-minded dialogue occurs, research shows that humans can overcome cultural biases. We’ve all seen it happen – a new neighbor, a fresh-faced exchange student, or a conversation at town meeting changes our mind or expands our world.

We’ve can’t live in this no-man’s-land of stereotypes and sound bites. We’ve reached a sort of Cold War of political organizing – both sides have escalated equally, and it’s a war no one will win. I’m ready to tear down the wall -- and start talking.

You can listen to this radio commentary here.