Why am I sure that this exercise in revelatory political detective work is unlikely to change any votes? Because this sort of thing is inaudible to Buck partisans, much as it fires up Democratic supporters. Except in very limited circumstances that I'll get back to later, we don't care when politicians contradict themselves.
Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide is a readable, easy to understand explanation, of what is known about how the neurons and chemistry of the brain push us in various directions as we are constantly buffeted by instincts, emotional storms, and rational brakes. It's a wonderful story. It's also a practical guide to how to get the most out of our brain's processes.
Lehrer is out to reinvigorate respect for the intelligence of instinct and emotion that modern civilization has usually ignored. He starts with examples: how does the great Patriots quarterback Tom Brady make all the instantaneous decisions required of him for football success? Brady applies his bodily athletic gifts to allowing the chemical squabbles between emotion and reason that rage in all our brains to flow through to almost instantaneous conclusions and trusts himself to apply those insights. All of us do this in most of life, though we don't recognize that is what we are doing. The brain is a constant wrangle with itself that turns out to be pretty smart about life's necessities.
So what does this mean for our political preferences? Mostly it means we make our political choices based on very simple cues and then use our intellectual faculties to make up rational explanations for our instinctive conclusions. To some extent, we really do all pick our own facts. More from Lehrer:
This accords with a famous study from the early 1990s which found that the more TV coverage people had watched of Papa Bush's Gulf War, the more certain they were they understood its value and the less they knew about underlying issues in the region.
I believe we are all subject to the blinkering lens of our politics, though being a partisan progressive, I know for a fact that Republicans are worse offenders when it comes to choosing "facts" to fit their prejudices. /snark off.
So under what circumstances can a campaign use evidence of a candidates's contradictions as ammunition to turn votes toward an opponent? There seem to be two prerequisites for making hay out of the often abundant material.
- The campaign telling the tale of the contradictions needs to have enough money to repeat the charge over and over again, preferably with enough grace not to turn the attack back on the candidate making it. This takes a little finesse, though not over much.
- The charge of being self-contradictory needs to reinforce a deeper emotional narrative about its subject's faults. For example, Karl Rove could succeed in labeling John Kerry a "flip-flopper" in 2004 because the shape of the charge accorded with the deeper narrative that the New England patrician war hero was actually an effete wimp. That worked, just well enough for Rove's cowboy creation.
Really -- our brains work that way.