Why Does This Election Have Us So Down? Social Science May Have An Answer

Oct 23, 2016
Originally published on July 20, 2017 3:44 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's no secret that this presidential campaign season has been tense, with disagreement and rancor even louder than usual.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know, people are actually watching this at home.


HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president than...

DONALD TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet...



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) our borders (ph)...


MARTIN: The discord highlights what seems to be an ever-widening political gap in our country. There are many theories to explain it - race, religion, gender. The list is long. For NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explored another idea. Could a driving force behind our political preferences be rooted deep inside the brain, hidden even to ourselves? We start with two voters whose deeply-held beliefs illustrate how moral values can shape our politics.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Thirty miles from the White House on a small farm in Dunkirk, Md., Tom Barnes is finishing up his day. Barnes is a farrier, which means he trims and shoes horses' hooves all day long.

TOM BARNES: It's funny, it doesn't really look like a lot of work. But when you're under there (laughter)...

VEDANTAM: Barnes believes in hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility. And these qualities have shaped his political views.

BARNES: Fiscally and internationally conservative, not hard right but conservative.

VEDANTAM: Barnes says he'd never take on too much household debt.

BARNES: I'm real simple when it comes to these kinds of things, and I don't think people should take on more debt than they would be able to repay. And I think that the country is no different.

VEDANTAM: When he thinks of what ails America, he returns to a model of how a family should operate.

BARNES: America needs stricter parents. It goes back to my example earlier of the household budget not getting to a point where they can no longer service their debt. Well, as a country, it's the same type of values that we need to get back to. We need to start being stricter parents.

VEDANTAM: Hundreds of miles away, Kate Burkett is also working hard. She's an English teacher in Indianapolis, Ind. She has a different perspective shaped by her own values.

KATE BURKETT: The school district that I'm in, the specific school that I teach at is a 73-percent free-and-reduced-lunch school.

VEDANTAM: Burkett doesn't just think government-supported lunch programs are useful, she knows it.

BURKETT: I think I've just seen what can be done with government money, kind of putting a face to - you know, you hear all these statistics about, oh, it's a free-and-reduced-lunch school, but I don't think about it like that. It's I know these kids, and I've known them for years and I've seen the good that they go on to do in the world, and it's worth it. It's worth the investment.

VEDANTAM: Tom Barnes and Kate Burkett are thoughtful and fair-minded and have clear reasons to think the way they do. But when you put millions of Toms and millions of Kate's together, you don't get reasonable disagreement. You get Democrats and Republicans who can't comprehend each other's points of view.

Social scientists are looking at what produces these intense disagreements. At the University of California at Berkeley, George Lakoff noticed what he thought could be a clue. It had to do with the way many politicians speak about the country.

GEORGE LAKOFF: We have a metaphor that the nation is a family. We have Founding Fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. We don't want missiles in our backyard and so on and so on.

VEDANTAM: Lakoff was drawn to the family metaphor because he's a cognitive linguist. Over decades of research, he's found that metaphors are not just figures of speech. They are ways to organize how we see the world. Could it be, he wondered, that this metaphor plays an organizing principle in the way voters think about politics? Could it help explain the deep divisions in the country?

LAKOFF: If you have two different views of the nation, you may have two different views of the family, so I worked backwards. I took the two different views of the nation, worked backwards through the metaphor and out popped two different views of the family.

VEDANTAM: Lakoff's theory goes something like this. The earliest experience most of us have with authority is inside the family. If people grow up thinking of parents as governing bodies, could it be, later in their lives as adults, they see governing bodies playing the role of parents? If so, could unconscious models of parental behavior shape how we think about government? One of those models is what Lakoff calls the strict father family.

LAKOFF: In the strict-father family, the father knows best, the father knows right from wrong. And the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family but also, with respect to children, is to teach them right from wrong so that they have the right moral views.

VEDANTAM: There is another model of how to be a good parent. Lakoff calls the style nurturant. Marti Gonzales is a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. She's done follow-up research on Lakoff's work. She says the goal of the nurturant parent...

MARTI GONZALES: Is to rear children who are happy and self-fulfilled. And for children to be happy and self-fulfilled, they have to develop a set of kind of beliefs along the way, among them that we as a society benefit when people are willing to care for, support and nurture other people.

VEDANTAM: Could these two models of parental behavior be behind some of the divisions in the country? To figure this out, Marti Gonzales and her team analyzed presidential political ads going back to 1980. And they found a bunch that fit the frameworks of the strict parent and the nurturant parent.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The message Ronald Reagan has carried to America is one of strength.

RONALD REAGAN: Peace is made by the fact of strength.


WALTER MONDALE: We believe in a solid, just, compassionate, hopeful future...

VEDANTAM: There was also a clear pattern between parental models and political leanings.

GONZALES: Republicans were much more likely to rely on strict father ideas to make their points to persuade voters. Democrats were much more likely to use nurturant parent ideas.

VEDANTAM: You can see the same ideas in the current presidential campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Here's a Trump ad featuring the voice of his son Donald Trump, Jr.


DONALD TRUMP, JR: Well, a lot of people think of my father as a tough guy, and in many respects he is. Growing up, my brother, sister and I had to really know what we were talking about before bringing him any kind of proposal. He may be a little less tough on his grandchildren right now, but it's that toughness that I want renegotiating trade deals with China and Mexico.

VEDANTAM: And here's an ad from Hillary Clinton.


CLINTON: When I think about why I'm doing this, I think about my mother Dorothy. She was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent from Chicago to LA to live with grandparents who didn't want her. But people showed her kindness, gave her a chance.

VEDANTAM: Can you hear the appeals to the frames of the strict, tough-love parent and the nurturing, empathetic parent? Lakoff and Gonzales think these hidden frames are responsible for much of the political rancor in the country. Much of the problem is because we don't realize how powerfully frames shape the way we see the world.

LAKOFF: And what happens when you hear things that don't make sense, there are various things you can do about it. One, you can just not hear it, it doesn't make any sense. You can ignore it. You can ridicule it, saying, hey, this doesn't make any sense. They're stupid people, they're dumb, they're mean, they're cruel, whatever. Or you can - if it's threatening, you can attack them. So all of those things are happening in our politics right now.

VEDANTAM: George Lakoff and Marti Gonzales' ideas aren't the only explanation for what divides us politically, but they offer a point of view you might not have considered. So when you're thinking about the last few days of this presidential election, think about it as a parenting dispute, like two parents who love a child but can't get along with each other. And while bewildered voters might be pointing fingers and questioning motives, the truth may be more complicated. What fuels our rancor may not be stupidity or callousness, but love. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.