Elections are mirrors of a nation’s consciousness, so it makes sense — sad sense, unfortunately — that the 2010 election reflected fear and confusion. Many analysts disagree. They call it an election about anger. But anger is the surface expression of deeper anxieties. Recent polls show that 65% of Americans believe that they will not be able to maintain their current standard of living, around the same number who believe that America is on the decline. This doesn’t mean that each of these people watched an intelligent balanced news program or read an informed book. Quite the opposite. They were not aware of what was outside themselves. Instead, they were focused almost entirely on what was inside themselves. Since the primary thing that was inside amounted to deep confusion born of fear, that’s how the election turned out.
Facts have to match a person’s inner state before they make any impact. A poll asked people if the American economy has shrunk of grown under Barack Obama. By two to one they said it had shrunk, when in fact it has grown. They were asked if taxes had gone up. By two to one they said that taxes have gone up. Again the wrong answer, taxes have gone down under Obama’s administration. They were asked if the TARP program had largely earned back the enormous sums paid out to save failing banks. By two to one they answered no, when in fact TARP will cost hundreds of billions less than anticipated, and repayments have already exceeded the outstanding bailout debt. These facts were not secrets, but they might as well have been. They didn’t match people’s inner state, and so they didn’t register. If you or someone you know is in danger of losing a job — a third of Americans are in that category — it doesn’t matter that more private sector jobs were created under the Obama administration in eight months than in all eight years of the Bush administration. When you are confused and panicked, and the panic is exploited by fringe politicians who dress up as Nazis, want Social Security disbanded, have doubts about civil rights legislation, and propose that the best way to pay off a crushing national debt is to give larger corporate tax cuts, the reasonable side of human nature has been overruled.
Brain researchers tell us that fear, being a primitive inheritance, has a privileged pathway that overrides the higher regions of the brain, such as the cortex, where rationality prevails. That’s why a sudden fright will make a person instantly feel a rush of adrenaline, immediately leading to fight or flight. There’s nothing the higher brain can do to head this reflex off at the pass. It takes a few seconds and sometimes much longer, before a reasonable decision can be made. (First you jump, second you try to figure out what’s scaring you.) The evening news makes everyone jump all the time, yet somehow the political class, who should act as the voice of reason, can’t get through. The saddest aspect of 2010 is the rise of those who deliberately foment confusion and feed off fear — Sarah Palin, with her invention of death panels and other fear-inducing fictions, leads the list.
The Tea Party elected a sweeping number of new Congressmen with a cry that government cannot be trusted and should be dismantled. This reflects another finding by pollsters: 80% of responders said that their current congressman didn’t deserve re-election. But if you’re against everybody except those who agree with you that they are against everybody (the only bond that seems to link all Tea Partiers), what kind of future is being envisioned? Because the government is slower to turn around than the Queen Mary being pulled by a rowboat, the self-destructive aspects of this election won’t be fatal. The Tea Party is right when they see gross inequities in society, especially the unconscionable way that Wall Street looted the economy of jobs and pension plans, destroyed the housing market, and rewarded themselves with huge profits on the way up and the way down. But their rage brought out the lunatic fringe. Instead of ending the gridlock everyone complains about in Washington, they voted in representatives who stand for gridlock.
Instead of approaching this election as a sign that government is broken, unfixable, and corrupt, each person needs to work in changing the climate of fear and confusion. That change happens one person at a time. It’s the reverse chicken effect. When you hear someone bitterly complaining, setting up bogeymen, despairing over the future, and hating anyone whose views are different, take a moment and ask yourself, “If I listen to this, will I be more afraid or less afraid? Will I have more clarity or more confusion?” In the answer to that question lies more hope than either political party deserves. Laws that are passed or not passed pale in comparison to a collective consciousness that recovers its confidence and faith in ourselves.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle