Wednesday, January 29, 2020

False Strength and the Artificial Polarization of Our Era

Most of the polarization of our time is due to people's failure to direct their skepticism inward. People who claim to be climate skeptics, for instance, are merely pretending to be tough minded, because they practice one-way skepticism, aiming it all outward. True skepticism, the kind that demonstrates strength of mind, is directed inward as well. The current president is an extreme example of directing criticism outwards but none inward. He's tough on others, soft on self. Scientists have an incentive to practice two-way skepticism, because the rigor of their profession requires that they look for flaws in their own data and conclusions, lest they later be discredited by their peers. They have to be tough on themselves, as well as others.

Independence of mind runs deep in the American tradition. It, too, is associated with strength, since it involves resisting the mainstream flow. But for those who don't want to accept that we are faced with a climate crisis, the pose of strength is in fact a clever game rigged to make the denier always win. The usual tactic is to find flaw in the overwhelming consensus by cherry picking which evidence to pay attention to. That demonstrates not tough mindedness but rather a finding of excuses to continue thinking what one wants to think, a clinging to false notions that generates artificial polarization. Though resisting the herd mentality can be a useful instinct, there are also times when accepting consensus is justified. We become stronger, as individuals and collectively as a nation, by confronting tough realities rather than running from them.

Truth is a potentially unifying element in society, and thus is a threat to those who wish to promote and sustain division. To survive, those who thrive on political polarization must find ways to dismiss truth by creating resentment towards those who are most likely to speak it. When one political party ignores the overwhelming evidence about the cause and risk of the climate crisis, and additionally continues to claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves, the result is artificial polarization rather than an authentic divergence of views.

There is dismissiveness towards truth, and then there are active lies, which are meant to fill the void left by the rejected truth. When a political party fails to call out its president for being a prolific liar, the solidarity is sometimes interpreted as strength, but is another indication that a political party is artificially creating polarization where none need exist. In a way, the American tradition of independent thinking has been hijacked. Truth has become the new oppressor from which people must gain freedom. In the information age, when truth is so close at hand, just a click away, false reality built on lies is the new frontier people are being encouraged to populate.

In recent years, politicians who make false claims have chosen not to acknowledge their mistaken views, but instead to double down and become even more fervent in their false claims. This brand of stubbornness and rigidity can also be mistaken for strength--a tribal solidarity that becomes its own truth. The sort of humility that we value in friends and associate with quiet strength does not play well on the political stage. The double down behavior is another step in the unmooring of politics from reality and traditional values.

For me, the big change happened with the rise of Newt Gingrich, and his training of fellow Republicans to use emotion-laden language that was aimed not at disagreeing with a political rival but at burying liberalism altogether under a sea of negative connotation. That weaponization of language, that shift from fact-based to emotion-driven thinking, from denotation to connotation, and the refusal to consider the possibility that the other side had any legitimacy at all, has continued to this day among Republican leaders. It is rooted in insecurity, for acknowledging that the other side has validity is the start of a very slippery slope back to the pre-Gingrich era of Republican minority status.

The result is an artificial polarization sustained by counterfeit notions of strength.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A-Team and B-Team Politicians--Looking and Listening Beyond the Words

Looking back across the tattered landscape of American politics, in my case extending back to the 1960s, is like having witnessed a six decades-long military convoy under attack. Politicians from Kennedy to Clinton slog forward as potshots and straifings generated by media and political opponents come from all sides. Some endure the onslaught, while others lie burning along the roadside. Some politicians were dropped by real bullets, but the focus here is on the varying capacity to survive intense scrutiny and brazen lies.

Across that arc of six decades, it's possible to see that some had a gift that lifted them above the rest--a resonance of voice, charisma, a compelling message that allowed them to survive attacks by connecting at a deeper level and with a broader swath of voters. While some of us vote according to which candidate best represents our beliefs, there seem to be many who are drawn more by an emotional connection to the leader, and this can cause the ship of state to lurch back and forth, from left to right, from election to election, according to the political heft and magnetism of those running for office. As the rightwing in particular becomes more radicalized, whether in the U.S., Brazil or elsewhere, these swings from left to right develop an increasingly destabilizing quality.

Gifted politicians at the presidential level, what are here called the A-Team, are rare. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama--they may have been attractive to some, repugnant to others, but they had a quality of voice, and something consistently present in their faces that drove home a message and lifted the spirits of their followers. Donald Trump also has that combination of vocal resonance and dependable facial expression that may help keep him politically afloat.

Range of facial expression, by the way, would be an interesting phenomenon to study in past and current leaders. Is that range particularly limited in Reagan and Trump, and does that give voters an impression of strength, a steadfast quality that people want in a leader? The capacity to communicate a broad range of emotions, from joy to despair, which is an advantage in private life, may not translate well to leadership, where people may seek an unflappable, granitic consistency more akin to Mt. Rushmore.

The shift in the Democratic Party from A-Team to B-Team candidates was particularly apparent at the ends of the Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies. During those campaigns in 2000 and 2016, the outgoing presidents had by then honed a compelling message that somehow went missing in their chosen successors. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, for all their extraordinary A+ abilities and experience, lacked the qualities of voice, aspect and message to connect with a sufficiently broad swath of humanity. They still might have won if not for lie-based character assassination and electoral quirks, but they would have won despite themselves.

And so, as Democratic candidates debate on stage in Iowa over who has the best plan for healthcare, it can be useful sometimes to listen not to the words but to the quality of voice that carries them, and sometimes to turn off the sound altogether and scrutinize the visual. Who, for instance, has an appealing voice? Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg, maybe Klobuchar, sometimes Warren but sometimes not. Certainly not Steyer. I thank him for making climate change his number one issue, but somehow all those billions have not been able to buy him a clear throat. In terms of facial expression, most are consistent, but Steyer keeps nodding in a way that makes it hard to connect with his eyes. Buttigieg's face is destabilized in less obvious ways. His eyes can change quickly, in mid-sentence, suddenly smiling then shifting to something more complex and not necessarily supportive of his words.

Ideally we'd look beyond voice and facade and make judgements based on vision, knowledge, and temperament, but an emotional connection matters more and more in determining who will show up to vote and who they'll vote for. There are ways to learn some of this. Though I've never run for office, I've found that training in acting helped me to connect more directly and authentically with people. Someone unfamiliar with acting might think it teaches you how to be something you aren't, and Reagan's acting experience may well have enhanced his capacity to put an appealing face on cruel policies. In my case, it helped me grow a voice, and open up inner and outer channels of communication, so that the words I spoke were better connected to the emotions behind them. Maybe I was just lucky to have a resourceful and creative director, or maybe this sort of training could help some of these candidates reach beyond the political choir and connect with the non-believers deep in the balconies.