Reviewed by Hubert O’ Hearn
(This is the first of a series of reviews and author interviews examining the current state of US politics.)
Let me put it to you this way: We want our governments to decide like Vulcans, yet we vote like Klingons. If that is a shade too obscure, I can rephrase it more prosaically. A safe assumption is that any citizen of any nation wants its designated executive leaders — whether those are called Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings or Supreme Rulers — to make wise decisions based on careful assessment of a given situation with the goal of success measured by the best possible outcome available. I can’t imagine anyone having any great quarrel with that statement, although in the shark-filled waters of political philosophy one never knows what might be swimming in the dark. Nonetheless, let’s go with that presumed wish as a given.
There is a little problem, a small bomb if you will, ticking away inside that word “us.” Who exactly are we including there? There’s you, obviously. You want the best for you — not necessarily materially, for you may not be so inclined — yet however you define best, that’s what you want.
Then there’s your family, assuming you have one. And then of course you want the best for your community. And now we pause, because here is where it all starts to rip at the seams.
What’s your community? Just who’s in view in the greater group of you? Unless you live in a very small village in Ireland, as does a lucky boy such as me, it is vastly unlikely that your immediate cluster of humanity shares the same race, culture, religion and economic class. Even at that, ages range from toothless baby to toothless elder, and are there not both genders present? Sure, we say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but has anyone ever asked the gander for his opinion? Who is you may look grammatically incorrect, but for the purposes of this discussion who is you is right at the root of any election.
Therein lies an equation that is summed either consciously or semi-instinctively. By whatever terms or whomever it is that you decide to group into that circle of citizens you choose to define as “us,” you want your governmental leadership to take good care of them. As Barbara Walters said in a television interview with a freshly-elected President Jimmy Carter, “Be wise with us, be good to us.” Be a good Vulcan, won’t you?
In this series of reviews and articles, we are looking at US politics and isn’t 2016 just a swell year to be doing just that? Two days after I complete writing this review I will be speaking with Dr. Heather Yates about The Politics of Emotions, Candidates and Choices (Palgrave Pivot) for her analysis of Presidential politics. My first question may well be, “Donald Trump swears he has never once had even a sip of alcohol; so why’s he driving the rest of us to the bottle?” Maybe not. We’ll see.
The Politics of Emotions, Candidates and Choices both attempts and succeeds in tallying what seem at first blush to be two solitudes — the desired rationality of policy-making governance, and the emotional background of voter choices. Yates’ professional and acutely rational study states that not only should rationality and emotion (my Vulcans and Klingons from earlier) not be separated, they never should be. In essence, this is a chicken and egg issue. We perceive the “rational and logical solution” to any issue based on our emotional reaction to that issue. Equally, and perhaps even more important inseparably, our emotional response to an issue, our individual formation of a desired policy position, be that marriage rights, war in the Middle East, taxation or anything else, is based on our own observations of the situation. It really doesn’t matter which comes first — empathy or individuality, expansion or contraction — the outcome in terms of a cognitive reaction to a candidate and his/her platform takes in both. Put metaphorically, the finger that flicks the voting button is operated by the logical brain, yet is given life by the emotional heart. To attempt to divide them is literally to fall into Zeno’s Paradox of the Arrow, wherein an arrow can never reach its target as first it must pass the halfway point, the quarter point, the eighth point, in extractionem ad absurdum.
This of course does not make certain academics very happy; in particular those smiles turned upside down among the wishful thinkers who want all voting to be based on what one imagines as long sheets of calculations and sub-tabs, with mid-1960s IBM computers whirring and clacking in the background before spitting out envelope-sized cards whose hole punches, when hovered over a spell chart read out, “Vote For Al Gore.” Well that’s too bad, for chad’s a-dangling and could someone please cut him down before he chokes himself to death?
Yates puts the debate (which frankly shouldn’t even be debatable) as follows:
The expectation that citizens share civic obligation and responsibility to participate in a critical and informed fashion has translated into longitudinal consistency in public opinion and has given way to frustrations among researchers within political science. Inconsistencies in public opinion over time have been explained by implicating citizens’ lack of ideologoical commitment or knowledge of political issues.
Or to put it another way, democracy would be a great idea if it wasn’t for all these voters. And who is going to argue with that?
But, well, here we are and here we will be. Any kind of an intelligence test for voters could be so easily warped as to instantly take us back to the Jim Crow south where prospective black voters were handed a page of Chinese to read aloud in order to prove (ahem) literacy. And so the US system of democracy is what it is, and in general is as good as it is likely to get, so what exactly is it that goes on in a voter’s head when making a decision as to Bush or Kerry, Obama or Clinton, Obama or McCain, Obama or Romney?
Those are the elections Yates specifically analyzes in The Politics of Emotions, Candidates and Choices; those from and including 2004-2012. Taken in order, those include a President seeking a second term, the first election since 1952 without an incumbent (President or then-current Vice-President) on the ticket, and another incumbent seeking validation for his re-election.
Yates’ principal tool of methodology are surveys conducted by the American National Election Studies group (ANES). ANES questioned American voters in those three election cycles regarding two overlapping factors. One, their feelings vis a vis a pressing election issue, i.e. in 2004, ‘Candidate evaluation and emotional attribution toward the War on Terror.’ With that, or over that, was layered the respondents’ emotional response to the individual candidate and his (for they were all ‘his’ then) policy position to that issue.
There were four emotional reactions available to the survey respondents, and these choices I found fascinating. They were: Anger, Pride, Fear and Hope. Two are retrospective — how do you feel about what the candidate has done? — Anger and Pride, con and pro. Two look forward — Fear and Hope; good outcome, or will be on the road to hell in a handbasket? I still have not mentally worked through whether I completely agree with this four-squared matrix as one that is complete (wherefore the “oh whatever” square for those who can’t be arsed or at least lack conviction?). Yet, lacking a defined opposing view, I must accept the one presented.
The Politics of Emotions, Candidates and Choices defines the meaning of provocative within its pages and Heather Yates’ book truly makes you put it down and ponder the question, Why? For instance, I will bet dollars to doughnuts you did not know that on such defined moral issues as gay marriage or abortion rights, the opinions of black males (who overwhelmingly vote Democrat) almost perfectly overlap those of white Republicans. It would take many thousands more words to sort through that one, so let’s shelve that for a future date. Nonetheless, I admire any book that makes me think of many thousands of words. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.