POLITICAL ANIMALS: How Our Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics
By Rick Shenkman
Basic Books. 302. $26.99
Now, I’m not going to come right out and accuse Rick Shenkman of slipping an early draft of his latest book to Donald Trump last summer. But I will say that “Political Animals” at times reads like a playbook for the Trump presidential campaign — or, even more, a devastating explainer for why the Donald has dominated the Republican race so far.
Shenkman, editor of the History News Network, delves into evolutionary psychology to illuminate why American voters so often misread their leaders, resist politicians who offer hard truths and succumb to facile arguments. It’s not that voters are stupid or ignorant, though certainly some of us are one or the other, or both. Rather, he contends, it’s that we’re hard-wired for a different world and different politics.
“There’s a mismatch between the brains we inherited from the Stone Age, when mankind lived in small communities,” Shenkman writes, “and the brain we need to deal with challenges we face in a democratic society consisting of millions of people.”
And talented politicians can exploit that mismatch. Trump is just the latest.
We lived as hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene era, some 10,000 years ago, Shenkman notes, and our brains are still made for that environment. For all our online social networks, we function best in small groups (no more than 150) where we can know other members of the community and build relationships, trust and empathy. In such settings, we also get to know our leaders and observe them face to face, and can judge clearly if they deserve their exalted positions. That’s hard to do in a modern democracy with 300 million-plus people.
Today, despite the endless televised debates and nonstop campaign coverage, we rarely come to know our politicians and public officials in a meaningful, personal way. “Our natural gifts of reading people are largely neutralized when we are reading politicians,” Shenkman writes. “The circumstances in which we get to know them are so artificial, it’s impossible most of the time to get a whiff of the real person.” And our biases and instincts — sticking with a gut feeling despite contrary evidence, projecting our own feelings on others — are ill-suited to our modern, large-scale political system. “When it comes to politics,” Shenkman argues, “the times when we can unquestioningly go with our instincts are almost nil.”
Even though “Political Animals” never mentions Trump and does not touch on the 2016 presidential race, it’s impossible to read the book without thinking of the GOP front-runner, who has fashioned a campaign that appeals to instinct, anger, fear.
While announcing his candidacy in June, Trump memorably referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists; he has since called for a halt to the entry of Muslims into the United States; white supremacists have seized on him as a conversation starter for their cause.
It’s a development entirely consistent with Shenkman’s argument. “In the Pleistocene era, it was helpful to know if someone came from different stock,” the author writes. “Almost certainly someone who did posed a potential danger.” Though today that knowledge no longer offers evolutionary advantages and can lead to “unwarranted conclusions” about political leaders, candidates can still “win over many voters simply by playing on a bond based on common ancestry,” Shenkman writes. “They have learned we can be manipulated into voting for them merely by establishing this connection. The mischief comes when a politician and his acolytes decide to exploit this bond by whipping their own kind up into an ethnocentric frenzy and demonizing rivals who lack the connection.”
Or who are portrayed as lacking that connection (see Obama, Barack; Cruz, Ted).
Much has been made of Trump tapping into the anger and disaffection of portions of the GOP base. From an evolutionary perspective, Shenkman explains, anger was indeed useful for us as hunter-gatherers. “In a crisis requiring quick action, anger gave us the focus we needed to succeed,” he writes. In modern politics, however, “anger undermines democracy,” Shenkman argues. “People who are angry cannot see others’ point of view. Angry people don’t compromise.”
But politicians deploy anger, he writes, because it “draws people together and gives their efforts focus and purpose.” And when it works for one candidate, others follow. “Demagogues connect with us,” Shenkman writes. “Other leaders, operating under a code of restraint, have a harder time. The more noise there is in politics, the more politicians are likely to feel pressure to exploit emotions as demagogues do to break through.”
The enormous television audiences for the Republican presidential debates, driven in part by the Trump phenomenon, suggest that people are truly getting a sense of the candidates. The more we watch them, the more we learn about them, right? Not so. Television only gives “the illusion of intimacy,” Shenkman counters. “We shouldn’t trust our instincts when we evaluate politicians by their demeanor — as we do all the time from their appearances on television. It makes us vulnerable to connivers and deceivers. That’s one reason why televised debates are a problem.”
For an argument so focused on the importance of empathy, feelings and personal connections, “Political Animals” is a reserved, distant book, reliant on studies and academic reports, and the writing style reflects that remove: straightforward but flat, with little authorial voice. (That may be okay in this case, because Shenkman’s occasional efforts at vivid prose produce stuff like this: “In Scandinavian countries, for example, where civics education is baked into the culture like a thick chocolate filling in a perfectly balanced communal souffle, voters take a lively interest in politics.”)
Eventually, all these behavioral-psychology-meets-real-life, find-the-hidden-bias books start sounding the same: studies, anecdotes, speculation and gee-whiz findings that are predictable in their incessant counterintuitiveness. After “Political Animals,” I may have had my fill.
Also, they tend not to offer much help in overcoming the shortcomings they reveal. In a matter of weeks, our Stone Age brains will begin taking part in modern-day presidential primaries and caucuses. How can we be more skeptical of manipulative politicians who play with our emotions and biases?
It’s been going on since long before the 2016 race. Shenkman dwells on Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and others as exemplars of manipulation and image-making, and he thinks little of that class. “To make it to the top rung of American politics . . . you need to be willing to sell out your friends, compromise your principles, exploit your family, conceal malfeasance, slam your adversaries, scrounge for contributions, wink at racism, prevaricate, and worse.” And you need to lie about your motives, apparently. “All the while they are telling us that they decided to run because of their great love of country, the truth is that their love of country probably had less to do with their decision than their burning hunger for power and status.”
But still, we let ourselves believe them, especially if they offer easy narratives and scapegoats. Voters “do not want the truth,” Shenkman writes. “We want hope. If the truth robs us of hope, we don’t want to hear it.” Skepticism, he explains, requires higher-order thinking and consumes more energy, time and brain power.
Shenkman suggests that we train ourselves to recognize our biases, surround ourselves with people who think differently, even move to large cities, where he says we’ll encounter greater diversity of thought. He also says schools should teach kids to think critically. All very well, yes. But his bottom line is that we should mistrust our instincts, in an almost tautological way. “We should trust them when they seem to fit the context of the modern world and seek to ignore them or neutralize them when they don’t.”
If we could always discern the difference, then they wouldn’t be our instincts, would they?
Read more from Book Party, including: