22 January 2016

Political Animals by Rick Shenkman: why we shoot our democracies in the foot


Best-selling historian and Emmy award-winning investigative reporter Rick Shenkman is back. He explains in the latest of his seven books, Political Animals – How our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, that despite our species’ pride of rational thinking, our world is anything but rational.

Like economists, political scientists base their models on rational choice, and do not want to think that a one off event like a shark attack can have a significant effect on voting. Yet it has been proven time and again that when times are bad, people vote against the incumbents. If a meteor hit Arizona, they’d vote against the incumbents. Extraneous forces have political consequences. Unfortunately for politicians, this is especially the case when the effect is negative.

Readers of Shenkman’s previous book, ‘Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the truth about the American voter’ may be reluctant to pick up another anthology of painfully embarrassing truths about the general public of the world’s most powerful economy. But they should be reassured that Political Animals is a forgiving, empathetic and motivational read.

It is tough love, however. Shenkman points out that despite the human brain being packed with eighty-six billion neurons – making human beings smarter than the smartest computer that ever existed (yet) – when it comes to politics, the public is very easily fooled. What is more alarming is that we’re fooling ourselves. We cannot blame the politicians or the Illuminati.

“We often lie about out reasons for doing what we do in politics. We don’t just lie to others, we lie to ourselves. Therefore we can only detect what people are thinking when we study patterns of behaviour in groups.”

Shenkman’s genuine passion for his subject matter shines through. As much as we rationalise our actions in hindsight, we’re not in a position to truly know ourselves seeing as so much of what happens in our brain happens outside of conscious awareness. So attempting to understand why people vote the way they do simply by asking them will get us nowhere. We need science.

Political Animals does this. It uses breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, behavioural economics, political science, political psychology and game theory to give new insights into political behaviour.

The basic premise of the book is that our brain evolved roughly 1.8 million years ago and so the instincts that were baked into human DNA then are now often not the most appropriate or efficient response to our environment: “In politics, [instincts] often don’t work: they malfunction, misfire and lead us astray.” Shenkman even goes as far as to argue that “when it comes to politics, the times when we can unquestioningly go with our instincts is almost nil.”

In essence: we frequently sabotage ourselves, upending democracy in ways none of us intended.

Shenkman focuses on four problems that we continually make: political apathy; failure to correctly size up our political leaders; a habit of punishing politicians who tell us the hard truths we don’t want to hear; and our failure to show empathy in situations that clearly demand it.

Hearing all of this, it is sorely tempting to conclude that democracy is hopeless. But all is not lost.

Throughout the book we are reminded that the way our brain is constructed does not mean we are fated to behave as cavemen, even though we might be inclined to think that based on the morning’s headlines. He shows us with numerous thought experiments (that readers can conduct on themselves) that is better to think of our brains as being pre-wired rather than hard-wired. We have certain innate traits but whether they determine how we behave in a particular situation depends on a range of factors. This shouldn’t be so surprising – think how easily and dramatically our energy levels can affect our decision making and self-control.

What is more controversial is Shenkman’s challenge to the convention that the main political problem society faces is a lack of information: “Modern Platos raise a huge cry over the problem ignorance poses to democracy, turning alarmism about ignorance into a virtual cottage industry”

And he’s right – critics have been beating the same horse for generations, crying ‘mass man is ignorant!’ After the Second World War and the rise of Nazism, university professors became consumed with the problem of public ignorance. It is not that simple, unfortunately. Proving that unknowledgeable voters can be turned into knowledgeable ones doesn’t prove much we didn’t already know. We send children to school because we believe they can learn. The truth is more unsettling: it is not an intelligence or information problem. It’s a motivation, environment, social and, above all else, a human being problem.

The problem is that voters on their own don’t try to learn.

Perhaps voters need to be motivated, probably financially. But no government has tried this (directly) because voters would find it insulting – anyone who dared suggest that voters need to be paid because they are citizen delinquents would instantly be branded as elitist. Equally, the Scandinavian experience shows culture can be just as effective (75% of Swedes participate in adult civics-study circles at some point in their lives having retained an interest in politics from school-age). But why should it take either money or culture to get people to perform their civic responsibilities? Shouldn’t people want to be involved?

So this is not a guidebook for how to be the perfect citizen. Shenkman is far from being an idealist. Instead, he offers un-patronising, concrete steps to ‘do politics’ better: don’t place a lot of confidence in your natural curiosity; don’t delude yourself into believing you can read politics; whenever possible, try to put yourself in a position where you can experience politics directly.

In this engaging, illuminating and often humourous portrait of our political culture, Shenkman probes the depths of the human mind to reveal what we must do to fix our floundering democracy, and to become more political, less animal.

Political Animals was first published on the 21st January 2016 by Basic Books, £17.99 RRP, hardback.

Olivia Archdeacon is Assistant Editor of CapX