Fathom Mag

Primal Politics

People are simpler, busier, and more human than we appear.

Published on:
October 24, 2016
Read time:
6 min.
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In political writing there is a tendency to over-intellectualize what’s going on. This political season has been no different.

Last year, large, leftist magazines like the New Republic wrote that Donald Trump is “not the frontrunner,” that “smarter polls would prove it.” They cited Princeton professors with fancy numbers and techniques. And then Trump won the primaries and the GOP nomination. Just last week the New Republic ran with this headline: “Donald Trump Is a Talented Politician.”

“Trump’s gut instincts about the nature of the Republican Party,” they wrote, “is very rarely, if ever, wrong,” noting Trump’s “skill at appealing to ordinary Republicans.” Trump is an expert at finding the appetite of the American people and speaking directly to it. He knows what to say and how to say it. He uses simple, one-syllable words over and over again, and the ideas end up sticking in their minds.

This simplicity of speech and gut instinct about voters are what keep his campaign going. He has tapped into the anger and fear of the American people. This goes without saying, but it’s far different from what the political establishment is used to saying. Many writers fail to realize what others have begun to unfurl.

Zadie Smith, for example, wrote about Brexit this past summer in The New York Review of Books. She wrote about the strange underbelly of political opinion, where things are not quite what they seem, hinting at her guilty or wistful recoil over the left’s dismissiveness during the last generation.

Most people aren’t voting because of the “historic xenophobia” or the “neoliberal economic meltdown.”
Brandon Giella

In her piece, she theorized where this new brand of neoconservative leaders in Britain comes from and where it’s going, saying, “‘Conservative’ is not the right term for either of them anymore: that word has at least an implication of care and the preservation of legacy. ‘Arsonist’ feels like the more accurate term.”

However, apart from the political theorizing and the philosophizing, she began to peel back the layers of intellectual jargon to a more human, a more primal, origin in the voting public: our basic humanity. She writes about the “painful” recognition that “Google records large numbers of Britons Googling ‘What is the EU?’ in the hours after the vote.”

For a majority of the population in the west—British or otherwise—huge swaths of people do not share the vocabulary or the intellect of the political intelligentsia. Most people aren’t voting because of the “historic xenophobia” or the “neoliberal economic meltdown.”

They’re likely voting because they’re afraid or angry. Life used to be different fifty years ago, they claim. They remember that people didn’t have to lock their doors before they walked down the street to their aunt’s house or the welcoming neighbors’ living rooms. They’re going to vote for whoever makes them feel safe. You and I are no different. We vote for whoever is in our best interests.

I’m not trying to say that people are dumb, or that they’re careless or apathetic. I mean to say that they’re simply busy. If my brothers explained to me the complexity of largemouth bass migratory patterns or the tensile strength of aluminum, I would be a glass case of emotion.[1]

I don’t know anything about those ideas because I focus on other things. They would feel the same if I sounded my barbaric yawp over the supralapsarian soteriological decisions in God’s foreordination. Or something. We all have our things.

There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and the likelihood is low that the average American has one or two of those to devote to constitutional law or the inner workings of our foreign policy. Should they? Well, that’s another conversation.

Donald Trump

Imagine for a moment that you have a high school education, you’re in your 60s, and you’re a part of the lower working class. You remember a simpler time a generation ago, before the internet, before caller ID and telemarketers, before 24/7 TV and news coverage. This was before gunmen were shooting police officers from elevated positions—your view of a police officer was Barney Fife—or running over people in a truck during a festival.

We can’t write essays about what is good and bad about the issue on the ballot. We have to put a checkmark next to “Yes” or “No,” “Leave” or “Remain.”
Brandon Giella

You remember friends and neighbors dropping by, knocking on your door, and you didn’t feel angst over who it might be or what they might do to you. They brought over a bowl of ripe plums, perhaps, and wanted to tell you about how Louisa is having a garage sale this Saturday. You should come over at seven in the morning sharp, they tell you, before the “tourists” get there and the sun starts to beat down on you.

It was a time of ease and simplicity, but most of all, it was a time of safety. You felt safe. Zadie Smith even remembers a time when there weren’t fences surrounding a local primary school, “blocking the view of the playground from the street and therefore of the children as they played.”

People operate on this level more than the intellectual, sophisticated punditry on CNN or in The New York Review of Books. Most people feel fear, or hope, or security. Democrats are labeled not progressive representatives who are interested in expanding health care or education reform, but as people who get the government to give me things. Republicans are not those interested in preserving tradition or honoring the middle-class socioeconomic stratum; they are gun-toting bigots who hate gay people. Politics, for most of the general public, doesn’t get more complicated than that.

Evidence is rampant. Smith, for one, makes the case that a referendum like this “magnifies the worst aspects of [democracy],” arguing that “in practice [it] delivers a dangerously misleading reduction.” But it’s all we have to vote on. We can’t write essays about what is good and bad about the issue on the ballot. We have to put a checkmark next to “Yes” or “No,” “Leave” or “Remain.”

Another note in her story is when she described three scenarios that happened to friends and family. One neighbor explained that she voted Leave in order to “‘get rid of that bloody health secretary!’” Her mother experienced a skinhead running up to her and yelling in her face, “Über Alles Deutschland!” And another: “The day after the vote, a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: ‘Well, you’ll all have to go home now!’”

This is fear. Or hunger. Or desperation. Or hope, maybe, but it certainly isn’t some conservative political ideology they learned in a textbook at Yale or Cambridge.

On YouTube and every late night talk show, you can watch video after video after video of how few people are contemplating the current economic models from Ivy Leaguers. By the way, the people in these videos appear to be fairly middle class and college-educated.

Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century, noted that Obama won awards for the best marketing campaign in election history. “Obama didn’t really promise anything,” he said. “That’s mostly illusion. You go back to the campaign rhetoric and take a look at it. There’s very little discussion of policy issues and for very good reason.” 

Of course, all of this isn’t a degrading review of voters, talking about people as if they’re ignorant. It is, however, a case against the holes of our democracy and our current education system, that something is broken here. It’s also a case that humans are much more emotional than we like to think. We vote from our guts rather than our heads. We’re not “brains on a stick,” as one philosopher put it.

Rather than simple Enlightenment thinking machines, human beings are motivated by their appetites, their passions, their desires. We want a warm, safe place with plenty of food. Whichever candidate can offer that much, according to the voter, that’s who will get that little check in the ballot box.

In a world like this, where we reason with our guts because we’re so busy, we want a place where we can visit our neighbors and bring bowls of ripe plums and chat about garage sales. We want a place where America is great again.

Brandon Giella
Brandon is the content editor for Fathom, serving as its copy editor. He also serves as a content developer for The Starr Conspiracy, a full-service digital agency in Fort Worth, TX. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1] My family consists of pro-am fishermen, design engineers, and football 


Cover image by Elizabeth Lies.

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