What Can Explain the Irrationality of Those Who Have Taken American Democracy Hostage

            The most puzzling thing about the madness of the arch conservatives who have taken America hostage is, how can they be so deep inside their own extremist ideological worldview that they can’t see that what they are doing is self-destructive? Not just destructive to America, which it is. Not just destructive to Republicans, which it surely is. What they are doing is destructive to the very Tea Party movement they claim to lead. How can their passion be so deep they can’t see that?


            A likely answer comes not from politics, but social psychology. The study of how we determine our views has found that we shape our opinions so they agree with those in the group with which we most closely identify. (This is a form of what is broadly known as motivated reasoning, and this specific version is called labeled Cultural Cognition.) Our motivation to reason this way, it seems, comes from the fact that as social animals, we rely on our group – our tribe – for our health and safety. So we want our group to accept us as a member in good standing. That feels safe. To go against the tribe? That feels dangerous. See how you feel if you dare to argue against some strongly held belief of your group. You will probably feel the threat of rejection, and tension. Biologically, that’s stress, which is the direct product of a Fight or Flight or Freeze response to actual physical danger.

            And since we depend on our tribe to help keep us safe, it also feels viscerally, physically upsetting when our tribe loses in competition against other tribes, whether it’s our sports team, our country, or our political party. So in the name of safety and survival we are motivated to adopt views that agree with our tribe, in order to maintain the cohesion and unity that helps our tribe succeed in the combat with other tribes over who gets to set the rules for how society works.

            The Cultural Cognition groups we identify with are not defined by the familiar political labels… right or left, Republican or Democrat. Rather, our groups align around the basic ways we want society to operate. The two groups that have taken American democracy hostage are;

– Individualists, who prefer to live in a society that leaves the individual alone to make his or her own choices. Politically, Individualists tend to be Libertarians and Tea Party “the government has too much control over my life” conservatives.

- Hierarchists, who prefer to live in a society that runs by predictable stratified hierarchies of economic and social class…everyone in their place…a traditional order that is reliable, stable, comfortably ‘the way it has always been’. Politically, Hierarchists tend to be Republican and conservative, favoring the free market that maintains the status quo and rejecting government ‘interference’ that tries to make things fair and flexible for all.

            Individualists and Hierarchists have forced the shutdown of America’s federal government in order to impose their smaller government worldviews on society. There is nothing at all wrong with that…until the psychological/emotional need for tribal cohesion and unity makes people so closed-minded and fiercely defensive of their views that, like settlers threatened by the indians, they circle their ideological wagons and treat anyone who disagrees with them as The Enemy. That precludes the compromise and progress that we all need to solve the big problems we all face. Where can the drive for such closed-minded tribal combativeness come from? What can impel such passion that people close their minds to reason?

     A likely answer, again, comes from psychology, in this case the psychology of risk perception. Whenever we’re afraid, we look for things to do that give us a sense of control, since feeling in control feels safer than feeling powerless. (Note that the central rallying cry of the Tea Party is that “the government has too much control over our lives”.) Supporting our tribe and enhancing its strength, and increasing the likelihood that our side will prevail over other tribes, gives us that reassuring sense of control. And the more afraid we are, the more we do this…the more fiercely we close our minds to any facts that conflict with the tribe’s view, so we can maintain tribal unity and give ourselves a sense of control and safety.

     That may well be how ideology makes us blind to reality, which the small group of right wing ideologues who have taken America hostage certainly seems to be. How can they be irrational enough to claim that polls show that Americans don’t want the Affordable Care Act, and yet ignore polls like the CNBC survey that showed 46% of Americans oppose ObamaCare but only 37% oppose the Affordable Care Act. How can they be irrational enough to ignore evidence of how self-destructive they are being. Surveys consistently show that large majorities of Americans reject this ‘take the country hostage over one single issue’ tactic, and they overwhelmingly blame Republicans for the shutdown. Another poll showed that public support for the Tea Party, the movement these people claim to lead, is at an all time low, and sinking…and that was before the shutdown.

     And how can they be so passionate that they can’t see heir own hypocrisy? They invoke blind faith in the Constitution, yet claim the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional when it was duly passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. (See the Daily Show for a great satire on this. They invoke patriotic faith to America, yet try and hijack the will of the people…the most basic American principle…to impose their own narrow minority Individualist/Hierarchist worldview.

      The deeper question then arises…what makes the most extreme members of these Individualists/Hierarchists/Libertarians/Republicans/ Conservatives feel so threatened that their need for tribal cohesion so demonstrably supercedes reason? That’s a deeper and more complex analysis than fits in this essay. But it is the central question that has to be answered before we can truly understand the madness of how these people are behaving. And we have to do that…get to that core truth…in order to find ways past the ideological extremism that is holding America, and all of us, hostage.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.