After a series of ineffective public messages -- leaving the political landscape dotted with dry rhetorical wells -- President Obama has hit upon a closing argument.
"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now," he recently told a group of Democratic donors in Massachusetts, "and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country is scared."
Let's unpack these remarks.
Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents "facts and science and argument." His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader -- the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains -- the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.
Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.
The neocortical presidency destroys the possibility of political dialogue. What could Obama possibly learn from voters who are embittered, confused and dominated by subconscious evolutionary fears? They have nothing to teach, nothing to offer to the superior mind. Instead of engaging in debate, Obama resorts to reductionism, explaining his opponents away.
It is ironic that the great defender of "science" should be in the thrall of pseudoscience. Human beings under stress are not hard-wired for stupidity, which would be a distinct evolutionary disadvantage. The calculation of risk and a preference for proven practices are the conservative contributions to the survival of the species. Whatever neuroscience may explain about political behavior, it does not mean that the fears of massive debt and intrusive government are irrational.
There have been several recent attempts to explain Obama's worldview as the result of his post-colonial father or his early socialist mentors -- Gnostic attempts to produce the hidden key that unlocks the man. The reality is simpler. In April 2008, Obama described small-town voters to wealthy donors in San Francisco: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Now, to wealthy donors in Massachusetts, opponents are "hard-wired not to always think clearly." Interpreting Obama does not require psychoanalysis or the reading of mystic Chicago runes. He is an intellectual snob.
Not that there is anything wrong with this. Some of my best friends are intellectual snobs. But they don't make very good politicians. Somehow, an aristocrat such as Franklin Roosevelt was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side. But the old social aristocracy could have been taught a thing or two about snobbery by the intellectual upper class -- conditioned to believe their superiority is founded not on wealth or lineage but on "facts and science and argument."
What must Democrats trying to compete in Pennsylvania or Ohio think when they hear Obama make arguments such as these? Do they realize the tremendous mistake they have made, tying their political fortunes to a leader who makes Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry look like prairie populists in comparison?
This is not just a political problem; it is a governing challenge. There is fear out there in America -- not because of the lizard brain but because of objective economic conditions. And a reactionary populism can be disturbing when it targets minorities, immigrants and intellectuals. But intellectual disdain among elites feeds this destructive populism rather than directing or defusing it. Obama is helping to cause what he criticizes.
It is among the nobler callings of a leader to understand public fears and then place them in the context of national commitments. Yes, the American dream is fragile, but it won't be recovered by abandoning American ideals. Yes, the borders must be controlled and terrorism is a mortal threat -- but we can't give in to stereotyping and hatred.
One response to social stress doesn't help at all: telling people their fears result from primitive irrationality. Obama may think that many of his fellow citizens can't reason. But they can still vote.