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Tough Crowd 2016

The 2016 presidential campaign is the scariest campaign I’ve observed since I first voted. mm-4Many good people who wax nostalgic about the prosperous happy days that followed WWII seem to blame Democrats both for gun violence and the lack of legal economic opportunity that might fuel street gangs, just as the Confederates blamed the Yankees for interfering in the south’s profitable and genteel slavery based economy. Earlier this year, extreme-right politicos on social media pointed to the fact that Emancipation Proclamation President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican to suggest that Socialist Bernie Sanders was akin to Hitler. The implications of the post-Reconstruction Democratic southern voting bloc’s blocking the GOP for decades then shifting Republican after Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 goes unmentioned. History and neuroscience suggest that old grudges motivate people more quickly than calm consideration of fine details. It’s easy to play on fear.

Ethnic, regional, and cultural differences including educational disparities within our borders fuel most misunderstanding; misunderstanding breeds antagonism. People expect and want the familiar and, right or wrong, we make things familiar by labeling them. We confuse economic with governmental systems arguing somehow that socialists are totalitarian and capitalists value freedom above all else when clearly that is not the case. If we can’t agree on some basic definitions, how can we come together to elect representatives and executives who will represent our interests? 

mm-1We need to read more. Reading printed information lends itself to critical analysis in a way listening to candidates advertise their views does not. More importantly, just as reading the history assignment before class facilitated better classroom discussion, knowing some background before discussing current events over coffee raises the level of discourse. The business of our nation involves more than business.  We are not actors on reality TV.

A communication expert speaking on NPR recently commented that in this election, primal gender stereotypes loom large. Research shows people view aggressive men as powerful and effective while they view aggressive women as angry and malevolent. People view both reserved men and women as ineffective. A booming male voice promising greatness taps into archetypal hero worship in many of us. A woman’s booming voice doesn’t resonate the same way. Our primal amygdalae respond to sight and sound and if not overridden by our analytical pre-frontal cortexes, we might miss what a candidate is saying because of how the candidate sounds.

It’s scary when powerful people threaten you. Historically, labeling and name-calling always precede oppression and violence and some Americans feel threatened now. It’s unfortunate that so many people choose to insulate themselves from face-to-face political discussions by communicating their thoughts on social media where their online settings reinforce their own views. In this detached quick click world, many people are losing the focus and ability to articulate the reasoning behind why they think what they think.

The sensory brain based intricacies of how we think develop over time. We talk a lot about addiction these days: addiction to opioids, addiction to alcohol, and addiction to the internet. Unexamined belief systems themselves can be addictive.  Addiction is learned behavior. 

mm-3A book I read this summer described in neurological terms a phenomenon I’ve experienced and noticed many times at concerts, in bars and singing along with the radio as I drive my car. Dopamine is a neurochemical involved in encoding memories into our consciousness and behavioral repertoires. Neuroscientists who study addiction find that dopamine triggers us to want the things that released dopamine before. Teenage brains release more dopamine to provide positive re-enforcement for the risk taking behaviors young adults need to make their way in the world. (Nature builds in gender differences here also.) More interesting to me was this: dopamine wires our brains to anticipate familiar verses in the music we like. After we have heard a song many times, our dopamine levels automatically rise at the point prior to a preferred musical verse or strain. When we hear a new rendition of a song that fails to follow the music as expected, our dopamine levels drop leaving us feeling disappointed and negative. Whether it’s a cover band playing music on Friday night or a candidate trying to get the votes to get the office, golden oldies rouse the crowd.

We live in on a small planet, in an increasingly interconnected world that some statistics suggest is less violent than ever before, we just hear more of the bad news. Negativity and fear grab one’s attention quicker than a typical boring day. As November nears, deep breathing and discernment are in order.

Debra Merryweather