Q: What brought you to write Red Genes Blue Genes?
JIMENEZ: I wanted to try to understand why people are so crazy when it comes to politics. There are few areas of life where people talk as much nonsense as they do in politics. Human beings have a well-known penchant for irrationality, but it seems strangely and particularly acute in politics. Surveys repeatedly confirm that people know virtually nothing about political issues, and yet people are extremely confident and even arrogant in their political views. If you watch political talk shows on TV, you become accustomed to the lowest kinds of prejudice and sloppy thinking. Sometimes, it’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Since I’m starting to lose a little too much hair for that, I decided to try to understand why people are so crazy when it comes to politics, and I think I’ve come up with a pretty good explanation.
Q: You say that most people’s political thinking is characterized by “political irrationality.” What exactly do you mean by political irrationality?
JIMENEZ: Well, there are lots of different kinds of irrationality that we can witness in politics, but I focus above all on what I call our “characteristic mode” of political thinking. When the average person hears political news, how does that person react? Political irrationality is the tendency to arrive at political opinions emotionally and instinctively while attributing those opinions to logic and reason. Most people blindly follow the party line as determined by their friends and family, but if pressed will pretend that they hold political opinions because those opinions are somehow more logical or sensible than the opinions held by their political rivals.
Thus, most people deceive themselves continually in politics. We don’t really analyze issues, we just try to figure out what “people like us” are saying, and then we adopt and repeat those views. For most people, politics is tribal rather than logical. The art of political development is merely of learning which tribe we wish to belong to, and how obedient we want to be to that tribe.
Q: Can you give some examples of political irrationality?
JIMENEZ: Sure, let’s look at a couple examples:
The first example I call “political debate via screaming.” At any well-publicized political event today one can commonly find two crowds of opposed protesters, often carrying signs and posters, chanting slogans through bullhorns, that kind of thing. Before an American campaign event, for example, the protesters often divide into two long rows, the red and the blue, where they then yell insults at each other. Curiously, the insults are interspersed with logical arguments.
This is pretty funny, when you think about it. The political protesters are trying to engage in a logical argument at the top of their lungs. How is that rational? Has anyone ever been convinced to switch sides at such an event due to the political insights shared by the other side? It’s like thinking that a Pittsburgh Steelers fan will suddenly become a New England Patriots fan, at half-time of the Super Bowl, due to the persuasive cheering of the other side. Why do we do it, then?
Why do we pretend that political conflict is a logical affair, when it is clear that our positions are impermeable to logical argument? I maintain that it is due to the self-serving, self-deceptive nature of political irrationality.
The second example I refer to as “The Voting Religion.” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have raised quite a brouhaha with their attacks on traditional religious belief, but I would argue that many of the most common political beliefs are just as faith-based, and hence non-rational, as any spiritual affiliation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dawkins or Hitchens themselves hold political beliefs as non-rational as the cosmologies of any stone-age shaman.
For example, let us examine our popular beliefs concerning one of the central aspects of any modern state, namely, voting. American citizens are indoctrinated from an early age that voting is extremely important and that “every vote matters.” However, this last statement can only be true in a symbolic sense. What can we possibly mean when we say that a single vote “matters”? For a single vote to determine a political election there would have to be a one-vote margin, which is a virtual impossibility. It may “matter” symbolically whether you vote or not, but in a very practical sense, it clearly makes no difference to the outcome of a national election whether an individual votes or not. Now, to be clear, I’m not at all arguing that people shouldn’t vote, I’m just pointing out that when they do vote they shouldn’t be captive to the bizarre fantasy that their personal vote has any chance to tip the outcome.
And yet surveys reveal that people routinely do fall prey to such a magical belief. If you stop people on the way to the ballot box and ask them if they think there’s any chance that their personal vote could decide the outcome, there are quite a few who will assure you that it could, though they are obviously deluding themselves.
People are simply not being rational if they think they have a reasonable chance of determining an electoral outcome. Strangely, though, our entire society reinforces and encourages young people to take on and subscribe to this mystical belief. Why? Clearly, beyond any doubt, voting can have an important social impact at a mass level, but why do we need to think that the individual can also exert that political influence? Once again, it’s our political irrationality acting up. We believe what we want to believe, and this is something that we very much want to believe, though it only takes a second to realize that your personal vote will never change the outcome of a presidential election.
Q: You claim that there is recent scientific evidence to support your theory of political irrationality?
JIMENEZ: Indeed, we have masses of evidence from a dozen different academic disciplines. I’ll cite just three main areas of recent research.
The first involves a productive use of behavioral genetics theory by political scientists like John Hibbing, John Alford and Carolyn Funk. The researchers have used enormous databases of surveys conducted on fraternal and identical twins. When identical twins agree on political issues to a greater degree than fraternal twins, we are provided with a rough metric that allows us to estimate the degree of influence of genetics on ideology. It appears not only that the influence is very strong (about half of our political differences are attributable to genetics), but that humans seem to separate into two separate breeds, which might be called the soft (or liberal) and the tough (or conservative). The soft people naturally seem to place greater value on nurturance and relationships, while the toughies focus more on competition and material achievement.
The second area of research that I’ll cite is from the field of neuroscience. Brain scan (or fMRI) studies, for example those conducted by Dr. Drew Westen, have allowed us to observe people’s brains while they watch political videos. Neuroscience tells us that certain areas of the brain are generally associated with certain specific types of cognition. When we’re angry or frustrated, for example, a different area of our brain “lights up” than when we are happy or satisfied. The results suggest that people are subject to a strong confirmation bias in politics (we stubbornly believe our candidate is always right, and that the opposing candidate is always wrong). Just as significantly, it we are unaware of that bias. We won’t listen to the other side, and we don’t believe it when people who tell us that we don’t listen. It really shouldn’t be surprising, in consequence, that political debate is so generally unproductive.
The third area of research I’ll cite is from cultural anthropology. Massive cross-cultural surveys, such as those conducted by Geert Hofstede, show us that the countries and cultures of the world fall along a conservatism vs liberalism spectrum that is quite reminiscent of the American red-state vs. blue-state divide. Hofstsedes’ classification of cultural dimensions corroborates what we have found in biology, namely that some people prefer what might be referred to as “soft” social relations, in which equality and fairness are emphasized and there is a good deal of gender-neutrality, while others prefer “tough” social relations, in which loyalty and deference are emphasized and there is a good deal of gender-role division.
What all of these studies tend to suggest, along with lots of others that I cite in my book, is that human political predispositions are deeply-rooted. I believe that our political irrationality is hard-wired, but even if you don’t believe that human behavior can be hard-wired, it doesn’t necessarily matter, because you have to concede that cultural programming achieves virtually the same result. Whether you prefer to argue that humans are shaped primarily by nature or by nurture, in either case you will see that something like a left-to-right political spectrum is a universal social fact. The fascinating thing about this dichotomy is that we find it so necessary to deny it. By custom, humans always pretend that they have derived their political opinions from evidence and logic. We are reluctant to admit that we get most of our political opinions from our parents and friends. But if we look at people’s brains while they listen to opposing political figures, we can actually see that narrow-minded partisan stubbornness setting in.
Q: You argue that partisanship is irrational, but you also admit that you are a liberal, so how does that make sense?
JIMENEZ: On the whole, yes, I think partisanship is irrational, or at least non-rational. But that doesn’t mean we can escape it. To some extent, it’s like being born with brown or blond hair. There’s nothing particularly rational about brown hair, especially as opposed to blond hair. You’re just born one way or another. Despite this, people are well-known to have preferences for brunettes or blondes. Those preferences are not, strictly-speaking, rational, and while we accept them most of the time, it is annoying when people begin to take them too seriously.
It’s the same in politics. We should accept our genetic heritage, but when we become too proud of it we become a bit ridiculous. I was born and grew up in a certain kind of environment that fostered a liberal political orientation. To some extent, I remain convinced that such an orientation is particularly sensible in a world filled with gross unfairness, injustice and inequality. On the other hand, if I force myself to take a balanced, rational view of things, I must concede that liberals often just make things worse with ineffective or counter-productive government actions. You could say that I have become somewhat agnostic as to my own liberalism, kind of like a lapsed Catholic who still crosses himself while entering a church. I am willing to admit that conservatives can come up with some very logical and convincing rationalizations for conservative political policies, and they are probably correct some of the time.
Q: You make some extremely controversial statements in your book. For example, you argue that America is not a democracy.
JIMENEZ: That may seem controversial at first glance but it’s not really debatable, at least not on the level on which I present it, which is to say linguistically and historically. It is a matter of meticulously-recorded historical fact that the Founding Fathers carefully considered the possibility of democracy for America during their legendary deliberations in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. What we tend to forget is that the Founders emphatically rejected democracy in favor of republicanism. Why then, have we come to say that America is a democracy, rather than a republic? I maintain that it’s really just a matter of political sleight of hand. Politicians realized, as far back as 1828, that voters liked it if you told them that America was a democracy, especially if you promised that you would do whatever they told you to do. This marketing innovation was referred to as “representative democracy,” which the Founders would have mocked as a contradiction in terms. Voters bought it nonetheless, and the name-change stuck. So now we refer to real democracy as “direct democracy,” as if it were some kind of arcane and radical sub-set of democratic theory. Believers in democracy should begin by reclaiming the word. Real democracy is democracy; don’t belittle it by calling it direct democracy. What we have today in America is sham democracy, democracy in name only. If you want to be fair, call it a republic, and defend that. There are many good, logical reasons one can cite to support a republican form of government. But don’t try and fool us and call this a democracy.
Q: How do you feel about President Obama?
JIMENEZ: I was not an initial fan and therefore have been somewhat surprised by his stellar performance ever since the debates with McCain. Before that, his speeches were so filled with hope-and-change fluff that I was almost nauseated. My opinion reversed after the debates. The grace, intelligence and charm he displayed in those debates was very impressive. Since then his performance has been like that of an athlete, artist or musician who usually plays at the top of his game. It turns out the man has the grace of a cat and the luck of the Irish. There are days when he seems like a cross between Tiger Woods and James Bond, a kind of debonair super-man.
Obama’s self-confidence is so strong that it actually seems to preclude a need for personal vanity. He has a fast brain but conceals it effectively beneath a common-man, aw-shucks demeanor. While brainy politicians like Clinton, Gore and Sarkozy could never resist showing off their wonkish policy acumen, Obama doesn’t seem to need it. Obama possesses a mixture of calm, intelligence, seriousness and good-nature that is inordinately beguiling, at least to liberals. That said, I remember that conservatives felt the same way about Reagan, whom I still consider to be a dolt. And so we are right back at the concept of irrational partisanship. Some measure of my positive evaluation of Obama is certainly irrational and biased in light of my liberal inclinations, because if we want to get specific, my own specific politics differ greatly from Obama’s in key areas.
But I also think that Obama presents us with a rare and interesting case, the case of the natural leader ascending to supreme power. In modern times, the great republics have most often been led by mediocrities, as if the grinding bureaucratic machinery of electoral politics crushed out all the independent, brilliant spirits. Obama is so obviously superior he makes other politicians look run-of-the-mill. Obama’s popularity can be profitably interpreted with insights from evolutionary psychology. It would make sense, from an evolutionary point of view, for humans to be programmed to be inspired by cool, intelligent, good-looking leaders. Humans should be programmed so as to be able to morph either into leaders or into followers, depending on the environmental circumstances they encounter. We should be able to intuitively detect when we are in the presence of a good leader. A leader who exhibits excellence on as many parameters as Obama may be able to operate as what biologists call a “super-normal releaser,” a type of stimulus which provokes an unusually-strong response. In Obama’s case, his leadership qualities elicit what might be called a genetic “followership” reflex in many people, especially in liberals. This is a pseudoscientific way of saying the man possesses that political quality called charisma, and possesses it in abundance.
There is an important danger lurking in the shadow of Obama’s overpowering aura. Sure, Obama seems great now, at least to liberals, but in truth America is ruled by over 512,000 elected officials, not by just one. The problem is that the vast majority of the other ones are subjected to daily temptations to sell the public out to special interests; more often than not, they give in, and our partisan irrationality prevents us from punishing them for it (we always forgive the lapses made by our own side). In recent years we have witnessed repeated, extreme political failure. The inability of the government to anticipate or manage the financial crisis of 2008-2009 is one example. The decision to engage in a ruinous war in Iraq is another example. Both of these disasters were triggered and sustained by political irrationality.
Like all other politicians, Obama is constrained by popular opinion and political calculations. Thus, I doubt that Obama himself is happy with many of the policies which he is forced to pursue or abandon for political reasons. For example, I doubt that Obama considers marijuana-legalization as laughable as he has suggested in press conferences. I suspect that his political consultants have told him that it would be too dangerous, politically speaking, to become known as the "pothead President." This is really very sad, because America's marijuana laws are hugely harmful and stupid. Marijuana is one of the principle commodities of our economic system; rendering it illegal has not only discredited our entire political system, it has wreaked havoc in Latin America. Legalization of marijuana would deprive the drug cartels of one of their principal sources of income. Ending America's long and idiotic marijuana prohibition period is one of the most important and pressing policy issues facing the country, but Obama does not even dare to talk about it honestly.
Similarly, Obama has expressed great sympathy for the Palestinian people and their plight but always does so in the context of a mirror-statement in which he expresses America's undying support for Israel. He says, to each side, precisely what that side wants to hear. There is a limit to this even-handed approach, however, because Israel's leaders themselves are too politically-constrained to offer the Palestinians what is needed for a lasting peace. So there is a limit to how much Obama can achieve while retaining his popularity, and that limit will probably sharply constrain his achievements.
Despite Obama's current popularity, we still have very little idea as to whether history will judge Obama to have been a competent president or not. Even more than that, it’s way too early to assume that he will be granted a second term. It’s not that I don’t expect Obama to perform well, it’s just that history suggests that a president’s success is to some extent a matter of luck. The economic and political world has become so complex that it cannot be mastered and controlled by a single man. The American President is tangled in the same global spider-web of causality as the presidents of other countries. The global economic cycle has ups and downs that are foreseeable and controllable by no man, not even the American President. In other words, Obama could turn in a superb performance and still be unlucky enough to be coincide with an economic depression or military conflict that would doom his re-election chances. Only time will tell.
Q: What can we do about political irrationality?
JIMENEZ: The first thing people can do is learn more about political irrationality, which means learning about politics and psychology in a bit more in depth. People who want to feel that they are educated about politics should read a bit more popular political science, and bit less political tabloid trash. Not surprisingly, I recommend people start with my book, “Red Genes, Blue Genes,” because if you don’t understand the concept of cognitive bias, the rest of your political education won’t do you any good.
The second thing people can do is support initiatives for new and alternative forms of democracy, forms that are closer to what we might call “real democracy.” We should fight to overcome our natural tendency toward political irrationality and its natural consequence, the exploitation of a divided citizenry by a corrupt political class.
As an example of one democratic innovation that people can support now, I propose the creation of a new political party called the “Let’s Try Democracy Party” (the “LTD Party”). This party would be based on the concept that legislators would agree in advance to defer to a citizen panel that would set all legislative policy. In other words, this will be the first political party that offers a version of true democracy, by turning decision-making power over to the citizens. People wanting to learn more about the Let’s Try Democracy Party concept can start by going to the party’s Facebook Group Page, and anyone wanting to learn more about political irrationality is welcome to blog me at redgenesbluegenes.com