Freud and Machiavelli Will Elect Your Next President.

February 29, 2016

Human beings make the worst investors. Evolution has seen to that. Weighing us down with cognitive biases, analytical deficiencies and emotional traumas. Leaving us prone to every possible error at improbably terrible times.
Still, there's one thing at which we're worse.
Human beings constitute terribly ineffective electorates. Which explains the revolving door of specious, megalomaniacal and ineffective candidates voted into office.

Evolutionary deficiencies that prevent us from effectively meeting these all-to-modern-day challenges. Where politics be concerned, multiple psychological deficiencies seem to always stand in the way.
For starters, given all the years since we left our knuckle-dragging ancestors behind, our brains remain hardwired to hunt, gather and survive. More suited to "fight or flight" than "analyze and vote."
Fear? Loathing? Pleasure? Pain? We get it. Political theory? Fundamental or technical analysis? Not so much.
Those evolutionary shortcomings may devolve and be eradicated these next couple hundred years. Till then, however, they will lead us to consistently react not to what actually happens around us, but to that which we perceive is happening around us.
And that's important.
The difference between action and perception is vast. Politicians have long known this. Because their advisors are the same guys selling soap, shampoo and deodorant in their free time.
Moreover, they had some help from Niccolo.
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote the book on political deception. The Prince teaches politicians how to leverage impression management in their efforts to bridge the disparity between action and perception.
Layman's terms? The art of psychological manipulation for political gain.
Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli wrote, "the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are."
Natural selection. Competition. Politics. Each operate by Darwinian principles. That is, the survival of the fittest. Accordingly, politicians, seeking to achieve and remain in power, have become conditioned to telling constituents what they want to here. Instead of what they need to hear. Knowing that our perceptions more affect our responses than any reality we inhabit.
So explaining why most politicians spend their time cultivating reputations that posit them as trustworthy and effective. Instead of spending their time doing trustworthy and effective things.
Though their constituents crave forward-thinking policy that leads to life-enhancing results, such policies and results are hard to come by. And often involve constituents having to suffer near-term pain and sacrifice. Which makes it much easier to politicians to manage our perceptions. As opposed to delivering concrete, often difficult, results.
Machiavelli and other political philosophers have long taught those seeking power that all they need do is cultivate a reputation as a qualified, trustworthy and vigilant leader. As opposed to actually becoming one. Which, in the modern age of mass communications, is exactly what they do.
And regardless the strategist, be him Niccolo Machiavelli or David Axelrod, we're still buying what they're selling.
If the electorate perceives a candidate to be qualified, trustworthy and vigilant, then the candidate already has everything required to achieved his objective: that being the ascension to, or retention of, power through political office.
Of course, the American electorate wants its elected leaders to be morally incorruptible. One would rightly think that the simplest means of arriving at that desire would be to elect officials who have proven themselves morally incorruptible.
If only it were that simple.
Life often forces us to choose between appearance and reality. We may wish to live our lives by stringent moral guidelines. But, doing so consistently and over longer periods can be a struggle. Making it much easier to cultivate the appearance of having stringent moral guidelines. Even if we do not.
University of Kansas psychologist Dan Batson has run experiments studying this divergence. That being between appearances -- or people's perceptions of them -- and reality itself. His findings? People who think of themselves as moral are, in fact, more likely to "do the right thing" when called for. But, when "the right thing" goes against their best interests, they often ignore it in favor of self-interest.
Dr. Batson calls this "moral hypocrisy." The tendency to value the appearance of morality over the morality itself. One might safely guess that this tendency is rife throughout the political class.
Of course, this human tendency has been long documented. Going back to Christ himself. Consider a passage from the Book of Matthew:
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Moral hypocrisy exists throughout every facet of the human endeavor. But nowhere is it more evident than in politics. Where politicians must be devoted to appearances. Protesting against their moral shortcomings. Even when they've been caught red handed.
Remember the following?
"I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time -- never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you."
Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, said, "Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse."
Curing politicians of moral hypocrisy? Impossible. Because it's not a political problem. But a human one. Politicians, trained and hardened as they are in the Machiavellian world of reputation manipulation, are simply more ambitious and effective in their efforts than the rest of us. Further, politicians realize that when it comes to those with whom they have a devoted relationship -- call them loyal constituents -- they need not work that hard at retaining devotion once earned. Because motivated constituents are willing to forgive a slew of shortcomings in order to stand behind a winning candidate with shared ideological beliefs.
And here we find yet another psychological underpinning.
Clinical psychologists call this trait "motivated reasoning." Which refers to the means by which people who are motivated to reach a particular conclusion are ineffective analysts when reviewing the evidence before them. In other words, those guided by motivated reasoning usually conduct analysis through a one-sided search for supporting evidence alone.
For instance, red-meat lovers, when told of studies showing that a diet containing red meat as a staple is not healthy, will look for flaws in the study. Often finding faults that those who don't eat as much red meat would not see. Time and again, studies reveal that people embark upon cognitive missions to find supporting evidence for their preferred beliefs. And since they're often successful in that mission, they usually end up with an illusion of objectivity. Further convincing them that their positions are rational and justified.
All of which places the electorate at a disadvantage come election time. As we repetitively eschew productive, honest, morally upstanding though less-charismatic candidates in favor of those who would just as soon marry an albino in order to make themselves look more tan.
Today's average politician? 15 percent substance. 85 percent cult of personality.
Our psychological fabric dooms us to tilt towards charismatic candidates who have successfully cultivated the right appearance. Wreaking of morality, trustworthiness and ability. Still, we consistently find ourselves no better off, despite the promissory rhetoric. Even contributing to our ex-candidates exorbitant book and speaking fees down the road. Just so we can have a bit more access.
By now, shouldn't we be cognizant of these bugs in the human system? Shouldn't we understand how Machiavelli and Freud determine our electoral outcomes?
It always begins the same. A few great speeches. Magazine profiles. All the initial flirtation. The excitement.
"Is this the candidate for whom I've been waiting? Into whose arms I can jump with all my heart?"
Of course, it culminates with us walking into the polling place. Smiling as we punch the ballot card. Watch the chads drop. Then stroll proudly outside. Placing a sticker on the chest. Never realizing that, at that very moment, right then and there, will be the best we ever feel about that candidate.
For whatever begins with so much promise inevitably ends with broken hearts.

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