Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Democrats lose elections - Republicans : Elephant :: Democrats : Rider

People vote for politicians on the basis of primordial instincts, not because of policies. The preferences for policies come after the selection of a politician. The policy preferences are rationalizations for what voters want to do or have done. That’s one view of voting behaviors that has a lot of support and one that I have been pushing for quite a while. We Democrats need to align with the primordial concerns first, and let the policies follow.

Fareed Zakaria writing in the Daily Star’s main editorial this morning asserts that Democrats need to connect with voters at the gut level. He makes the same point that I did back in November of 2014 in What neurobiology might offer messaging by a Neodemocratic party.

The terms “right-brain” and “left-brain” were always misused in the popular press, or, perhaps, just endowed with more meaning than scientifically justified. But now there is a large body of research - behavioral and biological - that indicates that differences between conservatives and liberals are deeply rooted in differing neurology. has a brief review of a new study on the neurobiological differences between Republicans and Democrats. Here is a link to the original research report.

This is one piece of evidence favoring Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of a rider and an elephant. 90% of the action is in the elephant and 10% of the action is in the rider’s explanation for what the elephant does. The problem is that the rider’s explanations are often disconnected from what the elephant actually does.

The elephant is a stand-in for our unconscious, sometimes even primordial, emotional responses. The rider symbolizes our conscious, mainly verbal, rationalizations for our behaviors. Now imagine that there are two different elephants. One is very skittish and likely to over-react to events in its environment. That elephant, when presented with a threatening stimulus reacts with fear, defensive behaviors, and sometimes even aggression.

With their messages of fear, the Republicans are prodding the elephant. With their cool rationality, Democrats appeal to the rider. This is why we Democrats lose elections. Our 10% messaging loses to the opposition’s 90% appeal. We keep chastising the electorate for their votes against their (supposedly obvious) self interest. The Republicans deploy simpler messages to create emotional responses at a deeper level.

We have yet to learn the lesson from all this. We need to learn the language of elephants.

If Trump did not understand this fundamental point at a cognitive level, he certainly acted upon it at an instinctual level. Throughout the campaign he appealed to the elephant while the Democrats appealed to the rider. Trump prevailed and got the job done, the election won.

And this observation alone should drive home that message to Democrats once again. We must speak the language of elephants.

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