Our Emotional Nation
By A.D. Freudenheim  

7 November 2004

Following President Bush’s election victory last week, American emotions seemed to crest, either at a high or low point depending on whether or not one supported the winner or the loser. It is understandable that those who felt Bush to be the right choice would be elated, while those who thought Kerry the better candidate should be disappointed. Emotional responses to Wednesday’s concession and victory speeches were also perfectly well expected.

More disturbing is the sense that American emotions formed the substance of the campaigns for both sides. In just the few days since the election, much has been written about how Americans in the “red” states voted for Bush based on (moral) values, not facts, while those in the “blue” states voted for Kerry, perhaps as much out of a distaste for the President as because of any great support for Kerry himself. But pegging the election to a difference of “values” seems misleading – because values are as much about emotion as anything else, and emotions can be swayed.

For example, Bush received strong support from a self-defined population of “Christians,” based on what they feel to be a shared belief in god and basic (Christian) values. Yet however much Americans may want to attribute Bush’s victory to such issues, these god-driven, Christian voters are making choices from what is fundamentally an emotional point of view. After all, the existence of god, and the specifically-Christian corollary that Jesus was god’s son, has yet to be proved; people’s belief in god can only be dictated by how they feel, not (at this point, anyway) what they know. Moreover, a “value” similarly-articulated by different people can suggest varying courses of action: professing “tolerance,” as Christianity does, clearly does not mean all Christians are always tolerant of others. Likewise, many of those who say they “value” life, and consider this part of their moral opposition to abortion, also support the death penalty – even though, to other people, intentionally killing anyone at all suggests a disregard for life. A reflection of a basic American anti-intellectualism, these rational hurdles are overcome by labeling as “values” and “beliefs” things that are actually the result of emotion – of how we feel about an issue, not what we might logically think.

This process of rationalization affects more than just the politics of the middle-American voter. It shows up in daily life, too, expressed as a the American desire that everything should be “easier” than it is, or more convenient, more comfortable, or less threatening – even as the outside world encroaches further and further into our lives. Clone-like houses; cushy, wide-berth SUVs for the growing American girth; zillions of available television channels; so-called restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden offering standardized choices from coast-to-coast; schools that teach un-challenging information and carefully perpetuate the mythologies of American history or easy-to-learn Twentieth-century science; the list goes on and on. For an American population that feels under attack from the unfamiliar, the selection of a political representative is surely driven by an emotional aversion to change. The mantra is, essentially, this: Even if it isn’t perfect, life should be more like it is now than like what it might be in the future. To “red” America, President Bush represents that sentiment perfectly.

The trend towards emotion-based decision-making is not limited to American conservatives; Democrats and lefties can be similarly dim-witted. At a political level, in relation to Bush, liberals respond to the President’s sense of having a god-driven agenda by turning around and demonizing the man, playing right into the Bush team’s demagoguery and giving further credence to Bush’s own sense that god is by his side. In this way, the American left helps to sustain the conservative Christian, Manichean sense of operating in a world that has forces of good, forces of evil, and only a battlefield in between.

In two recent columns in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that for the Democrats to make a political come-back, they need to start addressing the “values” voters that Bush has courted so successfully.[1] Kristof is partly right. But to do so means to risk reducing complex issues to banal basics, and appealing to sentiments rather than sentient choices – never mind trying to reconcile two seemingly-irreconcilable views of life (whether god does or does not have a role to play in American public life) or to show these Americans, as Kristof suggests, that Christianity is actually more “liberal” than it is “conservative.” If it shows us nothing else, the last four years of Democratic losses at the polls make clear that the more Democrats in those “red” states try to mimic the current Republican theology, the more they are bound to appear like second-rate missionaries in a land that has already been converted by force.

Instead, liberals need to leave some of their own emotional desires behind. The left needs to let go of some of the absurd pressures they have inflicted on society (particularly on the east and west coasts), pushing the idea that we as a nation need to be tolerant – to the point of intolerance. What is needed are more civil libertarians, Americans who are tough enough to stand and withstand – and uphold the rights of – people with whom we disagree. Leftist America has been as closed-minded as the right-wingers about whom they complain, creating academic environments that shut down debate rather than sustain it, and pushing the view that people who disagree about “choice” on abortion, or about affirmative action, or about gun laws, are either evil or stupid. This is a reflection of the same irrational emotion as shown by their conservative opponents.

Democrats have been pegged as a bunch of money-grubbing trial lawyers, even though liberals are definitely not the only ones who use the courts to address their grievances with corporate America. Tort reform is, as John Kerry noted in the second presidential debate, necessary, and Democrats should use their time out of power to seize the initiative in this area and press for substantive change. Unions, a mainstay of Democratic power, become ever more of an impediment to innovation and growth as they grow weaker and less relevant, whether in blue-collar industrial jobs or white-collar teaching positions. And Democrats have shown a true inability to face up to legitimate challenges, like the problem of sustaining Social Security – and all the talk of “lock boxes” and all the hope of surpluses never truly addressed that system’s underlying weaknesses.[2]

These liberal pieties may be worth fighting for – they are, in fact, worth the fight – but this battle has to be handled smartly, and the Democrats must avoid falling prey once again to the same closed-minded – and emotional – attitudes held by conservatives. Democrats need to push back, and take a page from the TV series “The West Wing,” where the fictional President Bartlett ran for re-election, and won, by being “the smartest kid in the class.” Not the candidate most likely to drink an American beer, not the wordiest or most “complex,” but singularly the smartest. Democrats need to free up their overly-emotional investment in ancient and ailing government policies and programs, and come out swinging for the kind of change that the Republicans cannot offer: paradigm-shifting revisions to how our society protects its weakest and most vulnerable citizens, while freeing-up some of the burdens placed on those whose lives are already complicated enough.

Ironically, the answer to the Democrats’ problems might be found in some of the platforms (and even the rhetoric) of an earlier ea of Republicans. The left should draw in elements of the Libertarians – many of whom, sadly, seem to vote for the authoritarian Bush and GOP – while positioning themselves as the party of a safe and open freedom for all. Democrats should focus less on special-interest issues like gay marriage or choice in abortion, and instead be about choice, writ large. Democrats need to reinforce the position that the driving philosophy of life in these United States is and should be about freedom: religious freedom, social freedom, the freedom of association, and the freedom to create and sustain communities that reflect the values of the citizenry. George W. Bush wants us to believe that he supports freedom, but his actions have not matched his rhetoric. Bush seems to believe that this nation is not big enough for all of us, or for the diversity of ideas represented in America. He is wrong, and it is up to all of us to prove it, with feeling.

[1] “Living Poor, Voting Rich,” 3 November 2004, and “Time to Get Religion,” 6 November 2004, by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times.
[2] Which would have been a problem even if President Bush hadn’t wiped out the American budget surplus.
  Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.