After winning independence, the thirteen states were loosely connected by the Articles of Confederation without a strong central government. Many founding fathers believed in order to form a Union, the Articles needed to be replaced with a constitution. Not everyone agreed. Responding to the argument that reason favored voting for a new constitution, George Washington wrote:
“It is one of evils perhaps not the smallest, of democratical Governments that the People must feel before they will see or act … .”
The feelings Washington speaks of are not emotional, but rather the deeply held beliefs or values people have but may not be able to reasonably articulate; they just know. Fortunately, colonists came around and the Constitution was adopted. Many, including Washington, believed the danger posed by the armed uprising of Shay’s Rebellion 1786-87 and the necessity of a federal army to restore order, had more to do with the successful votes for the new constitution than the reasoned arguments of Madison, Hamilton and Jay.
We like to think we are rational beings, making decisions on objective factual information. But as Washington observed, values trump reason every time. For democracy to survive, we need to account for values in the decision making (voting) process.
The Middle Ages are called the Dark Ages because after the gradual fall of Rome to barbarians, most of the Western world degenerated into an existence envisioned by Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Fortunately, into this dark void stepped the Church and Kings to give some order to the chaos, since people clearly could not think, much less govern, for themselves.
With some order restored, learning increased, and by the 1600s a time called the Age of Reason brought forth two strains of thought that effectively catapulted civilization into modern times. Empiricism holds that facts come from what our senses experience, thereby giving rise to the scientific method. Rationalism holds that knowledge is gained through the power of our reason – consciously applying logic to facts – that we can think for ourselves.
By the 1700s, this rigorous ability to think for ourselves spread into all pursuits, including politics – people began to realize they didn’t need a Church or King to tell them how to think. The political ideals of the Enlightenment – self-determination democracy, freedom, equality, individual rights, tolerance – were wrought and forged into our Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution under the guiding hand of reason. The United States of America is the enduring embodiment of the Enlightenment and the triumph of human reason. However, for all the accomplishments of Enlightenment political philosophy, it is not clear that human reason alone can sustain self-government. Reason shows its power more convincingly in criticizing than in governing. This may be due to the limits of reason in the decision making process. People will not get together to accomplish things unless they feel it. Democracy needs to address values too.
Reason or rationalism may be human conduct at its highest achievement, but it is not the whole story of our choices in the march of civilization. Modern neuroscience suggests that most thought, including decision-making, is at an unconscious level. Our conscious thought, reason, is simply a process of finding facts to support what the values our unconscious mind have already decided. And when the facts are different from what our values tell us, we go with our values, forgetting, ignoring, or explaining away the facts. Cases on point: the OJ verdict, union members voting for Walker, anyone buying a Hummer.
In politics the power of values over reason explains why people vote against their own economic interests. They don’t feel their vote is against their interest/values, despite reasoned arguments to the contrary. In democratic, self-determinative government, the politicians must address the people’s values so the people feel represented. Lately, the government, particularly the democrats or progressives, have failed to address values. Progressives, perhaps out of arrogance, figure they know better and the people should just accept their reasoned positions. On the other hand, most conservatives have abdicated reality to radio trash talkers and demagogues, going all in on base values, for example a whopping 43% of Republicans voters think Obama is a Muslim, and the GOP politicians ride that wild wave. When people are so deluded as to actual facts, its impossible to effectively engage in self-determinative government.
Progressives and conservatives message very differently. Thinking deeply, liberals recognize life’s problems are often multifaceted. Consequently their solutions are complex, not only in the execution but also the explanation. Agonizing over issues and lattes with furrowed brow at their favorite coffee shop, progressives ultimately come up with reasoned, albeit convoluted, solutions full of caveats and contingencies.
Conservatives do not see ambiguity or shades of gray. Conservatives see simple issues with easy answers, because everything is black or white, right or wrong. In messaging, conservatives eschew subtlety, and go right to the heart of the matter. In 1968 Republican campaign advisor Raymond Price laid out this strategy:
“Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration: impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand … The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable … The natural human use of reason is to support prejudice, to arrive at opinions…”
More recently, conservative pollster Frank Luntz’s states: “You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and pre-existing beliefs. It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. … If your principles match their values, the details won’t matter.” Conservatives have thoroughly bought into this advice; progressives not so much.
Progressive political advisor George Lakoff warns that Democrats are mistaken to assume the world is run by people exercising conscious reason. Liberals believe in rationalism, the facts will set you free, that all you need to do is give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they will reason their way to the right conclusion. Wrong. Most of what we perceive and react to is not rationally based thereby explaining why people vote against their economic interests. They vote based on their perception of what lines up with their values. If the facts don’t fit their values, they will ignore the facts. The facts, framed by reason, must be presented in a way that addresses people’s values. If progressives are too obstinate to do this, they will lose not only elections but the legitimacy to govern.
Americans are good people who want to do the right thing. But they’ve got to feel that it’s the right thing. A reasoned argument based on empirical evidence is a great tool of persuasion, but it is never enough. To reach people, leaders have to identify and address people’s values and feelings, then use reason to line up policies with those values, and perhaps improve our values by appealing to, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of our nature.