Politics as a Feeling

A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found something that, believe it or not, surprised nobody. The conclusion of the study found that “People vote with their party, not their personal beliefs.” As YaleNews later reported:

People vote on an issue based on the facts and their ideology, or personal beliefs, but they disregard both the facts and their personal beliefs when they are aware of their political party’s position

The premise of the study is that given a situation involving the issue of welfare, people artificially voted from their beliefs. But when informed of their party’s beliefs beforehand they often switched their own opinion to fall in line with the party. Again this is not very surprising. A simple talk with a stranger reveals how little people truly care about core issues, or when they do take an interest to them how little information they get on that subject. The worst possible outcome is someone who is not just interested, but militant and uninformed.

This information is especially important going into voting season. And since we’re beginning to see oddlike cult of personalities pop up around the candidates it’s good to step back and analyze why. Albeit Trump supporters may be passionate about building a wall or kicking all the poor Moslems out or whatever it is they want to do, but many people are simply attracted to the persona of Trump. In fact Ice Cube, a celebrity Trump supporter, described him as what Americans love about the American Dream. 

One of the biggest questions to come out of this election season is at what point to people vote on policy, and at what point do people vote on personality? This may seem superficial but it is a very deep issue. At the heart of so many modern political movements is the call for increased democratic participation, but what good is more democratic participation if people merely vote for a single party and the candidate with the biggest smile?

One reason this happens is because it is so easy to be told what to believe. Instead of looking at each individual issue and making up your own mind, pick a candidate, listen to what he says, and repeat it. It saves a lot of time. The social experiment comes to mind when a person went around a city with a pamphlet full of Hitler quotes and watched as people agreed because they thought Trump said them. In fact it’s almost sad to watch. Increasingly at the end as the people try to defend themselves, with one man even claiming “I’d support them if Trump said them!”

The cult of personality is just one of the roadblocks to a participatory democracy. People tend to choose the politics that make them feel good, whether that be through helping others or helping yourself. This can be both good to bad, and more often than not leads to dogmatism. I’m guilty of it myself. A truly honest person knows this, that giving to the poor makes them feel good, or that collecting power for yourself feels good, and therefore votes in a way to continue that pleasure. I fail to believe that people just don’t care anymore about issues, like so many people want to claim. They way people bitch and complain there’s almost now way to believe that people don’t care about the issues, they just don’t care enough to go vote. However insignificant they realize their vote is. One of the main problems is that simply endorse an idea to get the pleasure out of it, making them feel good. They endorse the idea without actually doing anything to further it, and just expecting it to happen!

So really, what is there to be done? First of all we need a surge of information about the political process. You would think this would happen due to the increase in internet activity, but a Pew Research report found that that the amount of knowledge on current affairs hasn’t increased. The only thing to motivate people enough to participate is to feel personally obligated to, either from feeling threatened or inspired. That is the only thing I can thank Trump for, is organizing people enough to hold mass protests against him. Once people feel personally threatened by an idea or policy they are more likely to act.

Of course the issues in our political system are vast. Chances are in our celebrity driven media the issue of personality politics will likely worsen, but perhaps with the internet we’ll start to see a more interesting pick of candidates.

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20 thoughts on “Politics as a Feeling

  1. An interesting post –
    I wonder if anyone has completed a survey in a multi-party system (UK, Australia etc) where people might vote in such away as to stop a party gaining power, rather than voting for their own party, because they may not stand a chance of gaining a majority. The UK is based on ‘first past the post’ system whereas Australia has a built in preference system, which can give small political parties a great deal of power beyond the value of the number of voters.

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  2. You’ve identified the central flaw in a lot of political theories: the idea that people are mainly thinking individuals rather than feeling/thinking members of social groups. In politics and morals, people first decide what they want to believe, and only then look for “reasons” to justify their decision. It doesn’t mean there is no truth to be found, but it means that it’s a lot more difficult than commonly believed because we must be aware of and compensate for our own biases.

    One fellow I know is quite bright but thinks that anyone who is uneducated, unemployed, or on welfare is just lazy and undeserving of any help. He is therefore convinced, for example, that minimum wage laws are always economically harmful and that people on Wall Street earn every dollar they get. It is of course not impossible that those things are true, but he “knows” they are true without looking at any evidence. That’s how most people think. It’s how *I* think if I’m not careful.

    I covered some related issues in my own blog last week:

    https://ashesblog.com/2016/05/07/four-fallacies-and-an-oversight/

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  3. This year’s election has seen some interesting developments. Not least, the revolt of the electorate on left and right against the establishment. Emotion and feeling is the prime mover, with people more certain of what they are against than what they are for. People feel ignored, neglected and disenfranchised by the moneyed political establishment that has been captured by the corporate donors and lobbyists. Voting in the USA and UK is not compulsory so the anger doesn’t translate to the ballot box – which may be a good thing, considering the poor calibre of the candidates. Here in Oz, voting is compulsory – which means voters become more engaged with the process, and with the issues. Though even then, it doesn’t always produce good outcomes.

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  4. Well, you certainly “hit the nail on the head” as is often said, with this post. The human capacity to form “cults of personality” is a phenomena that is not even unique to humans, the alpha personality sways others to join in, like lemmings,going over a cliff. As a species, we humans have only recently left the jungles in geological terms. However, unlike lemmings, we do have the capacity to destroy all the good that has been done and the progress humans have made and in the process, end up like lemmings, going over a cliff. Thank you for a great post.

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  5. It is usually principles before personalities for many people. The opposite message is broadcast in the quick 15 second digital age. Are people listening or have the majority tuned out?

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  6. Reblogged this on ENNUI, Personal & Political and commented:
    Personally, I think the rise of Trump has been something easily predicted by the way we vote for people based on looks and personality. But voting for people based solely on party affiliation is not helpful to our country, ourselves or the ideals we claim to fight for. In fact, I would say that any voting machine rigged to allow people to vote a straight party ticket is rigged against democracy, against free thought, and against common sense. Why do politicians get elected who are straight-out crooks, liars, or hypocrites? It is not because they became corrupted after being elected, but because they weren’t evaluated critically, thoughtfully, and thoroughly. It is because people like a certain candidate for President or Congress or local office, and they vote for every candidate who is running on that same party ticket. If we don’t know much or anything at all about a candidate, we should never vote for them. Let some of them win with a handful of votes from close freinds and political party hacks. I’d be willing to bet that the ones who win with 1% or less of the votes cast will be unwilling to invade other countries or try outright theft and deceit, because they can’t count on enough support to claim any kind of mandate, or wiggle out of peronal responsibility.

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  7. Thanks for posting this article. I’m personally feeling a great degree of uncertainty about our own imminent election (Australia, July 2). I will not be “voting blue” – a term we use to signify support for our right-leaning major party. However, the powerful rhetoric of our left-leaning major party, the Labor party, smacks to some degree of anarchy: however paradoxical this may seem – a potential government fomenting anti-government ideas! I’m concerned that the removal of our current head of state at this time may engender a period of social and political instability for which we perhaps may not be ready, nor be able to cope with.

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  8. An insightful post.

    I have fallen into this trap myself several times in my life, but I think I am getting better at thinking my own thoughts and acting on my own beliefs much better than in years past.

    I think the cause of this behavior is rooted in evolutionary biology. For eons, humankind was only able to survive through intense cooperation at the tribal level. Women and children had to be protected by men from the males of other tribes, or from wild animals and the forces of nature. Each member of the group depended heavily on the help of other members of the group. To be outcast from the group was to jeopardize one’s own survival.

    It thus is not surprising that people cling so heavily to their factions. It is not far-fetched to presume that the humans of today have been naturally selected to be more cooperative at the tribal level purely as a mechanism for self-preservation. In participatory systems, voting is (correctly or not) recognized as a legal mechanism by which the wiles of hostile tribes can be checked.

    While one may feel particularly strongly on a given topic, most people will have been naturally selected to ignore strong convictions and fall-in-line with the group in order to obtain strength in numbers. I am not talking purely in terms of political parties here either – the same behavior is observed with religious groups and racial/ethnic groups. While the individual may have to “bite the bullet” and support an unfavorable position on a given issue, he will still gladly associate himself with his party since he assumes he can derive future utility, in a probabilistic sense, from future issues that the party will likely back him on.

    Heck, the reader can take a look at their own family in terms of religion. Does each member of the family (the mom, the dad, the two kids), each set aside time each night to study the various options available in terms of world religions, evaluate each religion according to its merits, and choose the religion that agrees with the dictates of their own conscience? Of course not. The children merely adopt the religion of their parents, either out of fear of punishment, fear of shunning, or out of love and respect for their parents. You virtually never find a Muslim father, a Catholic mother, a Jewish son, and a Bahai sister composing an intact, biological, nuclear family.

    I guess this is the part where everyone dismisses everything I said because I confess I am a Trump supporter. I do not know if I will actually bother voting for him though, since my area is so heavily Democratic, that it is unlikely my vote will make any difference. I am not voting for Trump based on “muh feelz”, but because I am basically a single-issue voter on the topic of illegal immigration. I am simply tired of seeing illegal Mexicans infiltrate our country, obtain benefits, and then agitate on behalf of the Mexican government. I am also tired of seeing Arabs from hostile Muslim countries overstay their visas – just like the 9/11 hijackers did. Trump’s stance on “America First” (or rather, the repeal of globalism) is a huge cherry on top of an already delectable sundae. I am tired of seeing America get bent over the pinball machine on trade deals, with absolutely nothing to show for it other than a sore rectum.

    Not that Trump is perfect, but the pursuit of perfection in political candidates is infantile thinking. In a participatory system, compromises have to be made on small issues (it very well may be a tautology that a “small issue” is defined as an issue that people are actually willing to compromise on).

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  9. One of the fallacies of “Political Science” is that it must some how be a “Science”. It never was and never will be for the simple reason that human behavior is not a mathematical formula. This is also the failure of Sociology, the idea that human behavior had rules and order and once discovered could be completely understood. Yes, this is a broad condemnation and one can always find a few items that do work well enough but my point is that emotion is a very large and complex part of our individual and collective behaviors. Yes, politics is about feelings, always has been. Politics is about identity, about belonging to a particular group. Ask an individual about what political party he has joined or at leasts votes what is that party’s goals, aims, ideology, and so forth are and I doubt he could tell you more than a standard vague answer. Well, we stand for freedom or improving the welfare of the poor or jobs with justice.

    I remember when the union steward told us we had to go on strike for jobs with justice. I asked just what were jobs with justice, what did she mean? I never got an answer. Well, what is this education fund that takes a part of my dues? Oh, so we can “educate” the various local, state, and federally elected individuals about out needs and goals. And by the way, no republicans could apply. On the other hand if one had joined a church and its leadership felt that abortion was a sin against god and morally wrong, no amount of reason would prevail. Or perhaps its outreach program of helping the homeless was to build more and more facilities for housing them in the same few blocks, thus concentrating their numbers. Drive all businesses away and cause many home owners to move because of the higher crime rates. All the while celebrating the work of God. Amen.

    The old USSR had mandatory voting. If you were in the hospital dying of cancer they brought the ballot to you. Not that you vote meant anything since the same people would still be retained in office unless their was a purge. Hell, we aren’t too far from that now with the Clinton machine and the Bush machine exchanging the presidency every eight years. Neither group members have much in the way of morals or respect for the law. The only non millionaires who enter Congress are the newly elected. Now Bernie Sanders may be the exception but I would have my doubts. So why do we keep electing crooked politicians and then complain that they are crooked? Ah, the free lunch. My representative may be crooked but he always comes through for my district. It’s like all those school bond issues that come up for voter approval and the teacher’s union marches in the streets chanting, “It’s for the children.” Bullshit!!! It’s for the teacher’s unions and the administration and the contractors and the suppliers and everyone else who makes a buck off the school system. But it ain’t for the children. Our children are not better educated, they are not better citizens of the world, and they are not the future leaders of the world.

    Rationalization is a wonderful thing. We can rationalize any bad behavior, any irrational thought, any sin, anything harmful to ourselves and mankind by pretending it’s the right thing to do. There was a time when businesses gave trading stamps for purchases so to buy customer loyalty and encourage additional spending. One of the larger of these stamp rewards companies was S&H Green Stamps. Then in the late sixties psychologists and psychiatrists would refer to those who collected grievances in relationships so as to use them for advantage later as emotional stamp collectors. Today we have a full blown industry of victims engaging in victimhood, and woe to the individual who questions such an act. We can now rationalize criticism as micro aggression. We can accuse individuals of all sorts of wrong doing without offering any evidence and calling them racists for even questioning our accusations. Yes, this is the politics of the absurd, feelings run amouk.

    So we think we need a way to get individuals to study the issues and vote in a responsible manner. More education, more instruction, more….well, not so fast. How many books does that average individual read each year and what kind of books are they? Same for magazines, same for blogs and social media. Where does the average individual get his news? Educating the average voter is like trying to push a string. Progressive liberals and religious extremists have much in common. They both believe in heaven, the former here on earth, the latter in some far away heaven. Both have control issues, that is, all must conform to the grand ideal, the ideology of greatness. And both, if let to their own ways, will become fascists. Yes, you will conform. You will lose your self identity. And yet if you ask these individuals they will tell you that they believe in individual freedom, under proper supervision, of course.

    The fact is, mankind is not on some historical march to perfection, never has been and never will be. To believe so is to believe that pushing on a string will advance that said string in a straight line. Technology makes little difference in our lives. It won’t end world hunger or wars or poverty. But, but, it creates new jobs. Yes, it does, but at the expense of destroying old ones and it will enrich the few at the expense of the many. That is it’s way. One improves productivity in only one of two ways. Increase the muscle power by way of technology or use more people at a cheaper rate per hour. the first is capital intensive, the second is labor intensive. But the measure is always cost per unit. Of course we rebel at such a thought, it doesn’t feel right in out minds. CNC tools reduce the number of machinists, and thus union members, while increasing quality and reducing cost per unit. CNC tools are very capital intensive but consider that human labor has its capital costs as well.

    As one can see, a political education is more than simply knowing where candidates stand on the issues, whatever those issues might be in any great detail. One must know something about the world one lives in else political platforms are meaningless. Will the average individual actually bother to educate himself to such an extent? A man could get rich making book against it.

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  10. Thoughtful and a very relevant post. As a South African I can agree that voters tend to base their votes on the party’s legacy or leaders charisma. The voting and even the debates do not really centre around issues and policies. How do we change and move to focusing more on the issues? Becoming an informed citizen is responisble – one must invest in educating themselves about the basics of what it takes run a country in a good way. What should the role of government be? What kind of laws should we have and why? What economic system work best? These are all questions one must answer to make an informed voting decision.

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  11. This is so true. People seldom act unless they feel personally threatened. I think this is one of the big reasons people are voting for Trump. They fear for their ability to survive in the current economy.

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  12. I am voter who votes for who I believe is the best candidate based on my research of each individual, the one I do like and the one I don’t. However, the political race has gotten so bad I am disheartened at even having to vote. And yes, I realize the struggle others suffered so women and African Americans can vote. I do not participate much in the way of discussing the candidates because I am not pleased with any of them at present. Bernie Sanders seems more favorable than most but what does that mean in the here and now? Tomorrow someone would probably come up with something he did when he was ten to discredit him and erase any opportunity to win the Democratic nomination. I tend to agree with most of what was written in this post but I would like to add that people aren’t interested in taking the time to read information for themselves any longer. Our attention span is 30 seconds and anything requiring reading more than five minutes is too much time. I believe this culture doesn’t want to be educated, it wants to be entertained. The media doesn’t help because it is about sensationalism, good or bad. There is a lack of respect for others that has crossed over into every aspect of our lives. The bottom line is?

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  13. Very interesting article. In recent times I do know that the UK Parliamentary system has even been accused of being Presidential because of the ever increasing attention the leader of the party is getting (as an individual), and the increasing focus more on their personalities as a judge of the whole party, which is due a lot because of the influence of the media.

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