Why do Republicans win so many elections?

For years, this question has puzzled me. At a rational level, their policies clearly favor a wealthy minority and penalize the middle and lower classes; i.e., the vast majority of voters. Nevertheless, Republicans have won 7 of the last 12 national elections. The traditional explanation – more money – has been pretty much debunked, at least at the Congressional and Presidential levels. And the alternative explanation – they’re smarter and tougher – never seemed persuasive. So what is going on? Here’s the explanation that makes sense to me.

How Our Brain Works

Over the course of our 300,000 years as Homo sapiens, we humans have evolved exceedingly effective survival mechanisms including, very importantly, an exquisite attunement to one another. While we were weaker and slower, we were instantly able to understand the meaning of a fellow hunter’s head nod or change of expression, at 50 yards. Living as hunter/gatherers – our reality for all but the last 10,000 years – this ability was key to our evolutionary success, the result being that we are fundamentally affiliative beings, wired to be in intimate connection with, and to care for, one another.

But this is not the full story. Like other mammals, we also have a second emergency system: Fight or flight. Because it is designed to deal with mortal danger, our fight/flight brain is fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain. A vehicle cuts across your lane without warning, and what happens? You swerve, superfast – your fight or flight brain in action. Only then do you realize that a car cut in front of you – your thinking brain.

Importantly, when our fight/flight brain is activated it takes control. It shrinks our thinking brain – which might, after all, inhibit a fast reaction by over thinking the alternatives. It also secretes chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, putting us on hyper-alert and keeping us there until that part of our brain is sure the risk has past; hence our inability to reason our way out of a state of fear or anxiety.

Fight/Flight in Our Species’ Recent History

So what does all this evolutionary and neurobiological theory have to do with the Republicans’ ability to win elections? That gets back to our species’ history over the last 10, 000 and 200 years.

As hunter/gatherers, our days were spent on the mundane tasks of survival, with only occasional and isolated episodes of terror. But then, about 10,000 years ago, as Jared Diamond describes in Gun, Germs, and Steel, we learned how to domesticate crops and animals. The effect was seismic. Now, for the first time in our history, one group of people – through control of the food supply – could forcibly exercise control and dominion over others on a vast scale. The result: We ceased to exist as small, isolated groups of hunter/gatherers. City/states, nations and empires became the norm.

This new way of living required new techniques for those in control to maintain and expand their power. And when we remember fight/flight’s powerful effects, it is not surprising that strategies activating that part of the brain became key tools. Demonization of the “other” became – and has remained – a mainstay of governance. Why? Because when fear propels people into a fight or flight state, their willingness to follow and to be controlled by a strong, decisive, and ruthless leader is greatly increased.

But while the use of fight/flight for political purposes has a long history, its impact has greatly increased in the last 200 years. The reason? Because technology has shredded the taken for granted rhythms of life that, throughout our history, dictated extended downtime and, with it, a natural reversion to our base-line affiliative state. In these years, we have eliminated:

  • Winter – with central heating;
  • Night – with the electric light; and
  • Summer – with air conditioning.

We have also obliterated the downtime previously dictated by distance – with the telegraph and telephone; trains, cars and planes; and, more recently, emails, text messaging and the Internet.

Now, we can be “on” all the time. And, compounding the situation is the fact that we live in a world that places so much emphasis on compete and win, dominate and control – states of mind that trigger our fight/flight states. Thus, we are literally at risk of having this auxiliary, emergency system become our new, base-line state of mind, supplanting our more natural affiliative state, day by stress-filled day.

The Republican Advantage

So why do Republicans win? Because, in contrast to more progressive politicians, Republicans wholeheartedly embrace and promote compete and win, dominate and control, the values that predominate in our culture. And because fear, anger, and attacking behaviors – the activators of fight or flight – so effectively promote these goals, they can, and do, embrace these tactics without reservation. In both their message and tactics, Republicans are fully congruent with these historical trends.

Progressives’ Opportunity and Challenge

In saying all this, I want to emphasize that I am not a pessimist. The powerful and enduring political advantage, enjoyed by true progressives, is that their policies are far more congruent with our true nature as affiliative beings.

For this reason, policies and tactics that push us toward chronic states of arousal are inherently limited in their appeal. Why? Because they provoke chronic states of mind – fear, anger, vulnerability, a hyper-alert state – that are physically and emotionally draining. In the end, politicians with a more humane approach to governance have, I believe, the better of the argument.

But we need to recognize that we now live in a culture that is dangerously out of sync with our biology. Thus, while the Republicans can simply exploit current trends, progressive politicians have far more difficult task: To mount a challenge to the status quo that persuasively presents a more decent alternative.

Living in a fight/flight-permeated world, progressives need to recognize they, too, are infected with this mindset, to a greater or lesser extent. The result: They are typically at odds with themselves, wanting to model and advocate a better way even as they, like their reactionary counterparts, engage in the knife fight that is our political norm. Thus, their challenge is two-fold: To tease out a coherent progressive agenda from this mishmash of confused motives and, then, to craft effective strategies to implement it. In a future blog I hope to offer some ideas about what such a program might look like.

Jeff Garson is a Philadelphia-based attorney, psychotherapist, and activist. A principal at the Decency Group, offering collaborative, values-based consulting to individuals and businesses, he writes extensively about Radical Decency, an inclusive approach to change. You can contact him by email at wjgarson@comcast.net or through his website, www.radicaldecency.com.


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