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Political Fervor 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Democratic Theory, History, Politics.

[On a post-mormon forum I participate on, there’s been some discussion about why Mormonism breeds such intense political feelings in addition to the religious identity one would expect, so much so that it is often impossible to have a rational discussion about politics with a mormon (or any religious person, for that matter. Here are some of my thoughts:]

Cognitive Scientists have done a series of studies on people’s reactions to political discussions (not ideas) and here’s the thing: people have to make a concerted effort to stay in a ‘rational’ mode. If they don’t, emotions take over, so that the emotional brain controls the discourse. I’ve found this to be true here in the Bay Area as well, even among secular, left-wing people. I thought when I left Kansas for San Francisco, I’d be politically free; but I find that the political culture here is just as reactionary and normative as it was in Kansas, only from the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve been scolded in a Berkeley parking lot by complete strangers for throwing away a plastic bottle (instead of recycling it) and have been called a Republican and a fascist (in tones approaching religious fervor) because I questioned the city’s policies on homelessness and, more recently, school busing. In short, people seem to hold political positions uncritically, in general, and emotionally; and they are usually identities as much as or more than they are political positions.

In social psychology (i.e., microsociology), it’s been pretty well demonstrated that, at least in democracies, political affiliation is rarely a mere alignment of parties and even rarer of intellectually substantiated argument; rather, it is almost always an alignment of values and group boundary drawing of peoplep who share those values. Values can (and should!) be discussed and arrived at rationally whenever possible (we should have reasons for taking the value positions we do), but the reality is that most often we *feel* our value positions, rather than think about them. And thus, our political affiliations, which are value affiliations, are emotional attachments, not rational choices.

American politics’ two-party steaming pile of fresh bullshit has the frustrating cultural effect of making Americans think that all issues only have two sides and two possible solutions, and one is evil and one is good. I cannot see how American politics could possible ever get better until we have a multi party, proportional representational system, and publicly funded proportional campaign financing. But I digress. My point here is that the emotional nature of political affiliation is then exacerbated by the fact that we have a political culture based in a duality that forecloses our ability to see the complexity of issues and possible solutions to problems.

All this historically is actually connected to the way Americans do/have done religion. Where disestablishment had the unintended effect of imbricating religious participation and political participation completely by the 1830s. My small point is simply that it is deeply American to have inextricable relationships between faith and politics. Even during the long 100 year long period where ostensibly evangelicals believed that religion was incompatible with secular politics, they framed religious issues as political issues (think: Scopes trial; temperance movement; etc.). And so people’s religious identities and political affiliations are woven together in vexing and vexed ways.



1. Cy - 4 September 2006

Very helpful of you to draw attention to the need to control emotions in discussions, like First Officer Spock as opposed to Doctor McCoy. I invariably skid off the rational road into the emotional stoney ground. All excellent stuff here. I used to scoff at doomsaying old fogies during my teenage 1950s (Rock’n’Roll, end of Empire, decline of education) but they did not know the tenth of it. It is a great comfort in life to know that it does not last forever. I pity the newborns of today. Your generation has the con, pal, so good luck. cyquick.wordpress.com

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