Subscribe  |  Contact  |  Advertise  |  RSS Feed Other Publications

Wednesday, 17 December 2014 15:47

Faster than thought: two book covers

Written by 

op ellisBy Steve Ellis • Guest Columnist

As we leave this political season, which has been nasty, brutal and long, I’d like to offer some thoughts. If you doubt my description of nasty, brutal and long, I remind you of our recent controversy here in Haywood County over the newly elected tax collector.

My thoughts start with two casual political interchanges with friends. The first came in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. I was reading what was then called the definitive biography of Mitt Romney. As with many biographies, the front cover was a handsome headshot of the subject, Romney, with his truly perfect hair and perfect smile. Whenever my Democratic friends saw the book, they were surprised and, to a person, immediately and anxiously asked why I was reading a biography about “that man.” It didn’t satisfy them when I would say there was some likelihood (at that point) that Romney would be elected president and I wanted to get a better idea of what made him tick and how he might govern if elected. In order to set their minds at ease, I settled on telling those friends that this was “opposition research,” or, as a Chinese sage said long ago, “know your enemy.”

The second encounter came last year, some months after Obama was reelected, when you might have thought the fever pitch of election season had passed. I went into a local charity to drop off some items as donations. Before I left I looked through their bookshelves and found a novel by my favorite writer and a political biography, this one of Obama. Like the Romney book, the cover of the Obama biography was also a full-page headshot. The volunteer at the checkout counter was an old friend. I don’t recall ever having had a political discussion with her. Before the processing of my purchases, we took time to catch up on family news. When my friend then turned to ring up my purchases, she picked up the top book in my small stack, which was the novel. As my friend picked up the novel, she uncovered the front cover of the Obama biography and saw his photo. She involuntarily blurted out “Eeeuh!,” the same way we do when we unexpectedly taste something very unpleasant.

Each of these reactions to a book cover of a political leader was instantaneous and visceral. My friends, whether Republican or Democrat, all acted without considered thought. Besides being some indication of our polarized national politics, a parallel and probably bigger point is that these reactions show that, to a large extent, we as people are hardwired in our political convictions.

 There’s a growing body of science and social science laying out this thesis, that people are not necessarily sorting out political decisions through intellectual examination; rather, they follow their individual subconscious leanings and then buttress those positions with what they think are supporting arguments (that’s why often enough we see some really weak arguments trotted out to justify emotionally reached positions).

This is a matter of basic human nature, not current political circumstance. I recently ran across this quote in a biography of President Andrew Jackson. In 1830 the battle lines that led to the Civil War were being formed. The largest political question of the day was whether individual Southern states had a right to nullify a federal law that offended that state. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was the leading proponent of nullification. Former president John Quincy Adams described Calhoun this way: “Calhoun veers round in his politics, to be always before the wind, and makes his intellect the pander to his will.” In commenting on this passage, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Jackson, commented, “… but understanding the roots of irrational political sentiment cannot make such sentiment disappear. Politics … can be largely about belief, not fact ….” 

I read one of the recent books on the science of political viewpoints, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt studies the moral bases of political and religious beliefs. Here are some summary points from his book that fit with my discussion. There are different moral foundations that people respond to. Different people respond to different degrees to the various moral foundations. Specifically, political liberals and political conservatives respond differently. This gives an explanation of why different people have different perspectives on what is “fair.” I recommend this book, if for no other reason, because it gives a plausible analysis of why liberals are repeatedly befuddled when blue collar voters go against what the liberals suppose to be the self-interest of those voters — they are motivated by interests other than ones to which the liberals respond.

What does all of this mean? I don’t think this new science is opening up new techniques for political operatives to lure voters to their causes. For me, it doesn’t lessen the strength of my own beliefs, but it does reduce any temptation to think my beliefs need to be adopted by everyone else. It’s a reminder of what my parents taught me about respecting others. I’m reminded that others look at things differently than I do, that I should try to understand their point of view, and try not to thoughtlessly dismiss their opinions. One of the good aspects of living in a small town like Waynesville is that the scale of life means I have friends and acquaintances who I am in daily contact with who see this same world differently, and my life is richer because of those differences.

(Steve Ellis is a local lawyer and lifelong resident of Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)



• Malcolm Gladwell — Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking

• Jonathan Haidt — The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

• Daniel Kahneman — Thinking, Fast and Slow

• Jon Meacham — American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

blog comments powered by Disqus


blog comments powered by Disqus