The Watering Hole, Monday, April 18, 2016: Why Democracy Doesn’t Really Work For Americans

America is supposed to be a Democracy. It’s supposed to be a country with a government of the People (according to the dictionary), and by the People and for the People (according to President Lincoln.) Let’s face some cold hard Truths. It isn’t. Any of those things. The few rich and powerful in this country (and Donald J. Trump is one of those rich and powerful people) really do control things beyond what the People want to have happen. I’m not so naive as to think that isn’t a cold hard Truth. I know. It sounds conspiratorial. Bitter. Even a tiny bit ignorant. Oh, sure. They hold these annual or semi-annual events they call “elections,” but it’s not like we have the greatest of choices for which to cast our ballots. We get the choices the folks running the show want us to have. They decide who the parties will put up, and we get to pick from the choices we’re given. But are we really fit to be doing that?

Bill Moyers sat down with Rick Shenkman, the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (and Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of History News Network), to talk about how and why someone as clearly unqualified to be President of these United States (as opposed to the United States of Mexico, I suppose) could be so apparently close to achieving that office as is Trump. It all comes down to this: as a species, humans have not sufficiently evolved to the point where we are able to make rational decisions based on facts no matter how unpleasant, and not on gut instincts that tell us to make quick decisions about how to respond to the danger we perceive. Humans are still easily manipulated into feeling we’re in danger, and when people are afraid, they do not take the time to make well-thought out decisions on how to proceed. Instead, they go with what experience (even experience without proper training) tells them to do. When they feel safe enough to stop and assess their situation, they may find the danger was not as great as they were led to believe. They may also come to realize that had they known then, when they were being told of the danger, what they know now, they might not have done the same things they did when they thought they were in greater danger (like knock that old lady down who was taking too long at the pharmacy counter.)

The cold hard truth is that though we humans have evolved over the hundreds of thousands of years, we still have brains hard wired to look for dangers in our environment that are no longer there. In many places, we have built civilized societies, free of the dangerous roaming predators that once hunted our ancestors. You may look around and see buildings made of wood, steel and concrete, but your brain is still going to look for the hidden tiger waiting to pounce from…well, from somewhere. The amygdala in our brains looks for things that have caused us harm before and sends warning signals to our prefrontal cortexes. It’s the prefrontal cortex that does the actual analysis on what you’re encountering and decides what, if any, action you should take. Is that a snake? No, it’s a garden hose, so I don’t have to do anything to protect myself. Later, when you walk past it again, your amygdala is still going to send that danger signal to your prefrontal cortex, but this time your prefrontal cortex will tell you you’ve already determined it’s nothing dangerous and will ignore the danger warnings. The key to not panicking every time we think we’re confronted by danger is in how much thought we put into analyzing what w’re being told is dangerous. The less time your brain spends thinking about something, the more likely it will produce a conservative outcome. And Conservative politicians (mostly Republican, but some Democrats, too) have learned this, and so they constantly try to tell you that you’re in great danger, and that you should do what they tell you if you want to survive. (Yes, some even say your survival is at stake.) And what they want you to do is, of course, one of the worst things you could do if you really want to look out for what’s in your own best interests. And they tell you this because they know if you’re too scared, you won’t think and realize you’re being lied to. And you’ll do something thoughtless, like voting for a Conservative Republican.

Thanks to the destruction of our public education system by conservative ideologues, Americans lack the critical thinking skills needed to address the growing dangers we actually face – like the fact that our planet’s temperature has been steadily rising (do not believe anyone who tells you differently) and the ripple effects of that temperature rise will be dramatic changes to our overall climate. Landlocked ice will start to melt in larger amounts, causing the sea levels to rise. (The ice already in the water will not do anything to make the water level go up when it melts, just the added water from the snow and ice that melts off land surfaces into the oceans.) Nearly two out of every five Americans lives in counties directly on a shoreline. But rising sea levels won’t affect just Americans, a study found, “As of 1998, over half the population of the planet — about 3.2 billion people — lives and works in a coastal strip just 200 kilometers wide (120 miles), while a full two-thirds, 4 billion, are found within 400 kilometers of a coast.” It’s an extremely serious problem, but judging from what Americans seem to find important, it’s not one we’re prepared to address anytime soon. On account of how ill-educated and fearful we are. And because we don’t seem to want to be put people in charge who are capable of doing what needs to be done to fix it. Not when there are so many votes to be had by making people afraid of it.

Daily open thread. Don’t be afraid of it.

11 thoughts on “The Watering Hole, Monday, April 18, 2016: Why Democracy Doesn’t Really Work For Americans

  1. ‘we still have brains hard wired to look for dangers in our environment that are no longer there. In many places, we have built civilized societies, free of the dangerous roaming predators that once hunted our ancestors’
    Truth.
    And now the dangerous roaming predators are those who would ‘lead’ us. Those who are dedicated to ensuring the wealthy stay wealthier, and no one has the nerve to ask.
    How Much Is Enough?

  2. When it all melts, Florida will become a true to life Atlantis diving destination.

  3. The Most Exciting Attack On Partisan Gerrymandering In Over A Decade

    America’s anti-gerrymandering law is an incoherent mess.

    Thirty years ago, in Davis v. Bandemer, the Supreme Court held that a partisan gerrymander may be struck down as unconstitutional upon proof of “both intentional discrimination against an identifiable political group and an actual discriminatory effect on that group.” Yet the Court struggled to determine where to draw the line between lawful and unlawful maps.

    Nearly two decades later, in Vieth v. Jubelirer, the justices seemed even more confused. Four of them called upon federal courts to simply give up on solving the problem of partisan gerrymanders. Four others splintered into a maze of dissenting opinions, altogether proposing a total of three different standards for weighing alleged gerrymanders. In the middle, Justice Anthony Kennedy threw up his hands in frustration. “The failings of the many proposed standards for measuring the burden a gerrymander imposes on representational rights make our intervention improper,” Kennedy wrote. Nevertheless, he concluded that “if workable standards do emerge to measure these burdens . . . courts should be prepared to order relief.”

    Now, a dozen years after Kennedy despaired for want of a workable way to uncover partisan gerrymanders, two young scholars may have cracked the code. In a paper published in the University of Chicago Law Review last year, law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee propose a mathematical formula judges can use to identify suspect maps. This formula is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, Whitford v. Nichol, which has survived two motions, submitted by defenders of Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn maps, that sought to kill the case. Moreover, because of a quirk of federal law, the case is overwhelmingly likely to wind up in the Supreme Court.

    This takes a bit of reading, but is worth getting the gist as this case moves forward. It could be the means to wrest control of the House away from Republicans despite their advantage at the state level.

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