Thursday, January 15, 2009

Our Ms. Brooks: One Promise He Kept

Rosa Brooks makes the point in her latest column that George Bush did keep one of his campaign promises. He turned out to be "a uniter, not a divider." The entire country, in fact, the entire world is united in wanting the 43rd President of the United States to just go away. His inability to speak in coherent and complete sentences, his penchant to mess up every one of his undertakings (Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the economy), and his arrogant contempt for our constitutional form of government with its concomitant civil liberties: all have made him the most despised political leader in decades.

Still, as Ms. Brooks charitably points out, he made Barack Obama's unlikely run for president not only possible but also, to a large extent, successful. After all, Mr. Obama had only served four years of his first term as the junior senator for Illinois, during which time he made few headlines outside his home state.

I don't mean to discount the positive pull of Obama's message and policies. Obama ran an unusually positive campaign, emphasizing hope, justice and a vision of a more harmonious, more giving and less fearful future. But I wonder if that positive vision would have resonated so much if Americans weren't already fired up with anger at Bush and the mess he made of our country.

Psychological research strongly (if depressingly) suggests that it's far easier to build social and political solidarity on negative emotions (fear, anger, disgust) than on positive ones (hope, generosity, love). What binds groups together, as often as not, is a collective sense of opposition to some force perceived as threatening to the group, whether external or internal (and regardless of whether the perceived threat is "real"). It's easier to be against things than to be for things, to stir up anti-communist venom than pro-capitalist passion, to whip up anti-Semitism or anti-Islamic feeling than a collective pride in religious tolerance.

That's not to say humans are never motivated by "positive" emotions or can't hold negative and positive emotions simultaneously. We can feel genuine delight and hope at the prospect of a more generous, brave and pluralistic nation at the same time we feel anger at Bush. But often the positive emotions seem to be less powerful drivers of political behavior.

I wonder.

It may very well be easier to "whip up" strong negative emotions, but I think that is possible primarily because those negative emotions have been invoked so often that we now have a Pavlovian response at work. If our political and societal leaders spent as much time building up those positive emotions such as "a collective pride in religious tolerance," perhaps humans in general and Americans in particular would respond just as strongly.

This might be the time where my hypothesis will be tested. Mr. Obama successfully appealed to our kinder angels with his vision of change based on hope and optimism for a better, more just, and less fearful future. He also has put together an incredibly well organized grass roots movement designed to put pressure on members of Congress who would resist the sort of change the new president promised so eloquently. That movement may even flex its muscles in bringing the same sort of pressure to bear on Mr. Obama himself should he back pedal on some of his promises, thereby making government the kind of interactive construct the founders of this nation envisioned some 233 years ago.

I am cautiously optimistic.

I am also fairly certain that late-night television comedians, liberal columnists, and liberal bloggers will not run out of subjects under the new administration. We are, after all, talking about human beings.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent piece!


4:17 AM  

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