(HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL) I am going to begin the year with a slightly revised blog published earlier. I’ve not done this before but it seems to me that this article could be really useful to readers trying to make sense of what is sure to be a chaotic and confusing political year. In political writing human motivation has been too often not really thought through. This may be helpful. HR

We are once more facing the 2020 presidential election. In an unusual way that election seems to be all about the current incumbent. It is really an election about Donald Trump. The balance of forces seems to be not so much between Republicans and Democrats as it is between those who are embarrassed and terrified by the notion of Donald Trump continuing in office and those who continue to loyally support him. It is not for lack of information. There is plenty of information out there. It is that each side rejects the information accepted by the other.

To understand what is happening, let us suggest a kind of shortcut model of human behavior. Think about it this way: As we grow each of us constructs our own smaller world inside the larger one, a kind of personal universe. We do that because from the beginning we have had the need to constantly reduce internal conflict.

As organisms, we are really conflict reducing machines. Creating that personal universe is something that we all do. We use every element in that small world we create in an attempt to keep internal conflict comfortably low. Think of that personal universe as an inner world with an enclosed oval boundary. Inside that boundary are our immediate families, the people we know at school and later, at our work. Inside that boundary are also our friends, romantic attachments and a limited number of people we relate to in our social organizations, our athletic endeavors and our churches.

Most of us are aware that there is a larger world out there (we know that there are people in Lansing, Tallahassee, Washington, Berlin) but for most of us, that small world is our real world. It protects us from the larger less controllable world outside. What we really do is rocket around within the boundaries of that little world we’ve created. We rarely get outside it. After our brief vacations, we hurry back inside.

If we are born into a world where people are angry and feel that the world has treated them unfairly, or are just distant from each other, it may be almost impossible to reduce our level of internal conflict enough to be comfortable. In that case we may try to reduce our real pain by projecting anger or love on to symbols outside our personal universe. We do tend to pick the same symbols that the people around us also use. Not to do that would cause still more conflict.

So, if our universe is made up of people who have adopted Donald Trump as a love symbol (because he will protect us from all those people we fear), we will feel pressure to support Trump too. If the people around us are angry with Nancy Pelosi we will probably project anger on to her also (see Whose Afraid of Big Bad Nancy, this series, March 26, 2018). It’s important to remember that these are real people doing real things but that we are using them as symbols. We don’t actually know Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi or the hateful Hillary Clinton. What they are like in real life may be very different from the symbol our minds have created.

These symbols serve a purpose for us. They provide something to love or to hate outside our personal universe. That reduces our need to be angry with the actual causes of our distress, including our own personal failures. Once we have adopted those symbols, they are very hard to give up. So, if we have adopted Donald Trump as a love symbol others may point out his flaws, his past sins, his unwillingness to do the work it takes to be president, and we will forgive it all. We will find excuses. We will rationalize (we all know it is fake news, the liberals in Washington are out to get him). For Donald Trump or for any other politician, to be adopted widely as a love symbol allows him/her to get away with almost anything. The same people who would have expressed outrage had Barack Obama duplicated Trump’s behavior, cheerfully forgive Donald Trump.

Symbols, of course, don’t have to be people. Think about socialism. A great many people in this country really hate socialism. The truth is that not many of those people actually know what socialism is. Because it is being used as a symbol they don’t feel the need to know. (for a discussion of socialism, see this series, Facing the Socialist Menace, Sept. 6, 2018). So politicians have it easy, all they have to do is label something “socialism” and they are home free. It is no accident that Donald Trump is planning on including “socialism” in every aspect of his campaign.

All the polls show that many people know remarkably little about the political system. They not only do not know who their congressman is, they often seem to know almost nothing about anything political (a few, in contrast, will know a great deal). There is a reason for that. Because so many of people’s needs are being met by that very limited personal universe, they don’t feel the need to know much about anything outside it. They develop just enough verbal patter so that they will not be embarrassed and that is it. They don’t need to know any more.

Thinking about people this way is not the normal way to talk about politics. It does help to make a lot of what happens in politics make sense. Critics of Donald Trump as president keep being frustrated because they can’t make his followers see his presidency as the disaster they perceive so clearly. His supporters see no problem at all. They do feel he is being attacked and undermined by liberals who they know are evil.

It’s important to understand that these people aren’t lying. They are all reporting what they think they are actually seeing. The need to reduce conflict through symbols is, for many, so powerful that the mind will see what it needs to see in order to keep internal conflict down. The answer for all of us is to understand what is happening and learn to separate the real from the lure of what may seem to be satisfying symbolism. That can be the beginning of wisdom. It can also help us to understand what is really happening. It can make this almost surreal campaign make sense.

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all