Loyalty Trumps Logic, Machiavelli, and so on.

Okay, a lot of disconnected thoughts will hopefully come together at the end here…

Here in Massachusetts we have a spirited electoral contest going on between Republican Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren.  The election is more than a year away and already we are deluged.  Half of the ads are requests for donations.  It feels like being invited to a party we weren’t excited about and then being asked to pay for the food.  

If I can sum up the messages from each camp, Senator Brown tells me that it is essential to support him, because while his opponent is fine person, she is a vassal of demonic forces bent on total destruction of the nation.  

Elizabeth Warren has a video out, basically talking about her life as a sainted single mom who became a lawyer by dint her own bootstrap log-cabinesque middle-class efforts.  My goodness, how to choose?  

There is precious little in either of their “messages” about actual policies that they wish to institute, not that a single freshman senator can do much anyway these days.  Since they are not telling me anything about what they would do in terms of actual legislation, I’m left wondering why they are spending so much money giving me all this vague emotional information.

Well I think I have the answer.  Human beings are motivated more by loyalty than by logic.  The goal of all these ads is to cultivate blind loyalty to a vague but noble cause.  

Here’s the interesting thing about loyalty though: generally speaking, we tend to be loyal to things that we consider to be a little better than the average.  I know of no one who is loyal to generic aspirin.  And so I sense in these political ads a desire to create a grand image that is loyalty- attachable, not any specific policies that I can judge on their own merits.

And the third desultory thought here is a quote from Machiavelli.  He said, “no man is entirely good or entirely evil.”  That statement was a real epiphany for me.  Because all of our political discourse is an attempt to paint the opposition is being entirely evil.  We also like to feel that we are entirely good and morally above reproach.  But as Machiavelli pointed out, no one is.  

Unfortunately, as a nation and as a society, we are becoming ever more fractured, factionalized, and individually isolated, 4000 facebook friends notwithstanding.  One of the many standard knee-jerk reactions to an isolated shame state is to compensate with a sense of greater moral superiority.  As long as a politician can give us a dram of some sense of superiority to cling to, we won’t question their day-to-day policy making all that closely.  And when one falls into that delicious sense of moral superiority, this only works if there is an entity out there someplace that is morally inferior.  Hence the demonization of one political candidate/party by the other.  In this case, Scott Brown is being very tactful and not attacking Elizabeth Warren directly, but instead is attacking the viciously evil people who are supporting her.  I’ll give them that one, that’s clever.  

And my fourth desultory item here is that it’s a shame that most people don’t recognize what the founding fathers did: that even the best human beings we have in our culture are imperfect, fallible, and corruptible.  That’s why they created the checks and balances system of government.  If we mistakenly elect a horrible president, the Congress has the power to keep him in check.  If some wacky political movement takes hold, they might take over the entire House of Representatives, but on their best day they can only elect a third of the Senate, as the six-year terms are all staggered.  Yes, the founding fathers understood that no one is entirely good or entirely evil, themselves included, and they built the entire system of government based on that premise.  

I don’t think Scott Brown or Elizabeth Warren or his or her supporters are entirely good or entirely evil either.  I know for a fact that I am not personally entirely good or entirely evil.  I think it would be a good thing if every American knew that about themselves as well.  As it is we are spending billions of dollars on political campaigns trying to convince ourselves of something that is not true.  

© Justin Locke  


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