VOTERS ARE RATIONAL (II OF II)
In Part I of this discussion we suggested that each of us, in order to keep down internal conflict, creates a personal universe. And that we use everything in that smaller world to keep internal conflict as low as possible. In the best of circumstances that allows us to feel both effective and free.
Unfortunately, for many of us it will be difficult to really keep our internal conflicts (experienced as anxieties) at a comfortable level. Family relationships often are not ideal. Family members, a kind of imposed part of the small universes we create, can be incapable of providing the love and the support that we need.
Our own ability to become the overly idealized success we imagined for ourselves may seem to have become frustratingly out of reach. That will be particularly be true if we live in one of the many parts of this country that seem to have fallen permanently economically behind. We can feel trapped.
It would be natural to reduce the conflict that we feel by being angry with people in our small world. If we do that things can become even worse. Those people either withdraw or strike back with anger of their own. Driving away the people in this universe we have so carefully constructed is usually not an option.
What we can do is to project that love or that anger onto symbols outside our universe. Because of the way our troubled political system has evolved since the advent of Donald Trump, the political system has become the major provider of targets for love and for anger (we are no longer in the forties and fifties when people projected love onto Hollywood movie stars).
And, we are talking about projecting love or anger onto symbols here. An example: In the buildup to the 2016 election a great many Republican voters hated Hillary Clinton. As a result of relentless propaganda, good Methodist Hillary became positively evil. There was a real Hillary Clinton but the people who so detested her didn’t actually know that Hillary at all. She had become a symbol. The people who chanted “lock her up” at all those rallies were angry with an image in their own heads.
If Hillary Clinton was for many Trump rally goers an anger symbol, other political figures may become love symbols. For a politician to become a love symbol means that they inhabit the best of all possible worlds. They almost literally can do no wrong. In order to allow people to maintain that needed outlet for love, the mind will simply reject any information that weakens the symbol.
Those who can remember Ronald Reagan are looking back at a classic love figure. He seemed obviously good hearted. He had a great personality. For many of his followers, despite his very real lack of information, he could do no wrong. And for many, neither can Donald Trump! For his most dedicated followers he has become an object of projected love. Any negative information about him will be rejected. There is a real Donald Trump but those followers don’t actually know that person! The Donald Trump those people are supporting is a symbolic figure living in their heads.
Political symbols don’t have to be based on particular individuals. They can be based on religions, racial groups, and political movements; really almost anything. Think about socialism: Republicans office seekers understand that many of their potential voters hate socialism. Ask most Americans and they will recoil at the very thought of socialism. They will also have no real understanding of what it actually is. Donald Trump himself probably doesn’t have the ability to explain it in any detail. The irony is that people don’t feel the need to really know about socialism in detail. Once it has been adopted as a symbol, to add real knowledge would only risk revealing troubling flaws.
Political figures seldom talk to voters about what they do, or will do, in Washington. It is easier for them take advantage of the voters’ need to project love or anger by holding up symbols. Rather than deal with real things they will talk about the radical right, radical socialists, radical Muslims or radical Hispanics (they love the word radical). Of course they never leave out the radical left, even though almost no one knows who or what that is. Again, once something begins to function as a symbol people will resist seeking any real information about it.
So think about the political world from the point of view of frustrated voters. They know very little about how our complicated political system works. What they do know they learn from those people in that little universe they’ve created to keep them safe. They will certainly tend to adopt their political images from the people around them. To have opinions separate from those people would raise their levels of conflict. If they hear that Donald Trump has been wronged and is that he is their only real hope for the future, it is rational to interpret the world that way. They will reduce anxiety by tuning out almost everything else. All those radicals will loom large.
If this model really helps us understand why angry voters are reacting the way they are then what they are doing will seem more rational. If their reactions are rational, then those reactions will also be more predictable. We can design campaigns and later programs that will reduce their level of anxiety. If we can act in a way that will reduce their anxiety they will move in a direction we prefer, toward greater health and happiness for themselves. And, we will no longer be flying blind.