November 3

Dealing with Preoperational Voters

Although yesterday's election was distressing from my perspective in terms of nationwide results, especially in the House of Representatives, from a personal standpoint, and for my state of California, the results were pretty good, plus the Dems retained a majority in the Senate. Most of the Democratic/Progressive candidates I voted for won, and the propositions I cared about the most went the way I hoped. Number 23 which would have repealed environmental protection laws, lost, and Proposition 25, which changed the vote needed in order to pass a state budget to a simple majority, passed. Results seem mixed on other propositions and it is difficult for me to remember all of these results. The best thing about the election in California, however, is that it once again showed the limits of money in the political process. Rich people cannot buy their way into office, no matter how much they blitz the public with advertizing. The defeats of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, despite spending many millions of their own dollars on their campaigns, are just the latest example. Actually, Arianna Huffington's husband at the time, as I recall was another such candidate in California. Like Fiorina and Whitman, he was a Republican, but his wife turned out to be a progressive who founded The Huffington Post, quite a twist of fate.

However, the ignorance of the majority of American voters continues to be unbelievably distressing. A recent survey found that 52 percent of voters thought that the Obama administration had raised their taxes, even though he lowered taxes for almost everyone, while only 19 percent knew that he had lowered taxes. Apparently, 29% admitted to having no idea how to answer the question. Another question was about the expansion of the economy. The large majority of respondents thought that the GDP of the United States has been decreasing since Obama became President, although actually it has been increasing and there have also been incremental decreases in the jobless rate (although not the large decreases in joblessness hoped for).

Jean Piaget, who was a precocious genius from Switzerland who was trained as a biologist (and finished his Ph.D. in Biology at the age of 20), eventually turned his attention to cognitive development, studying his own children at first, and eventually, studying other people's children. According to the theory of cognitive development that he, well, developed, children go through 4 stages of cognitive development. Although his theory has some smallish flaws, is too rigid since it is a stage theory, and does not adequately account for the effects of culture, family life, lifestyle, and especially education on cognitive development, it has remained a well-supported and useful theory for describing cognitive development in children since Piaget developed his theory around the 1930s. Piaget never studied adults, however. One of the interesting findings from more recent research on Piaget's theory, but studying adults as well as children, is that children advance cognitively more quickly than Piaget stated from his findings, yet, strangely enough, adults once studied, have been found to be less advanced in their cognitive development for the most part than they should be. My explanation for the lousy cognitive level of approximately half of adults, which also agrees with the explanation of some other psychologists, is that many adults may actually regress in their cognitive development, based upon their lifestyle as well as lack of intellectual interest. The final stage of Piaget's theory is called the Formal Operational Period, which begins around the start of adolescence, and is characterized by abstract thinking. However, about half of adults, according to research, appear to be thinking in a Concrete Operational mode, which is the third stage of Piaget's theory, in which children are able to think logically about problems involving real objects, and solve such problems, but are unable to transcend the limitations of dealing with the physical reality of the moment in one's thought processes. In other words, they cannot hypothesize, theorize, metaphorize, or generalize concepts in any appreciable way.

After viewing the results of the above mentioned research, however, it has occured to me that a sizeable percentage of adults not only appear to regress to concrete operational thinking, but continue to regress to the Preopertional Period of cognitive development (Piaget's second stage), in which young children (age range -- 2 to 7 years old) are imbued with magical thinking and are easily fooled by appearances. This is exactly what is happening to a substantial proportion of the American electorate, it seems to me, perhaps more than half of them! Constantly barrage the public with negative messages about the "liberal, tax and spend party" (as if governments were not supposed to tax the public and spend the tax money on needed services), and somehow, the majority of the public magically believes that the "liberal" party in power has raised their taxes, even when the opposite is clearly true. Pound the public with the message that our economy is bad and getting worse, and that it is the fault of the current majority party, not the predecessors who drove the economy off the road, and most of the electorate will believe that, too, magically erasing their memories of the previous 28 years in which economic policy was guided almost exclusively by conservatives, who created the situation we now are in. It's like a magic trick performed for a 5 year old. Even I could fool such gullible people, and I am no magician. Lower taxes, and our budget deficits will go away as if by magic. That was one of Meg Whitman's and Carly Fiorina's main messages (along with how they would "create" millions of jobs with their CEO knowhow by "encouraging businesses to hire people" or something like that). Fortunately, the majority of Californians appear to be a little less naive than people in other parts of the nation, or the money factor for these candidates was a little too obvious, as opposed by the Citizens-United-case-fueled massive expenditure of "dark money" from big business (possibly foreign in some cases, which is something which will need to be investigated, as well as basic disclosure of where the money was coming from) used to support conservative candidates, and to take down especially progressive ones such as DeFazio, Grayson, and Feingold. Make government smaller, and it will somehow function better and yet still provide us with needed services -- if not government, then billionnaires in all of their unfathomable compassion will swoop down with gobs of money to save us! It's preoperational thinking all over again.

How should we deal with people whose thought (or lack of thought) is operating at a far lower level than they are capable of? Educate them, make them think and show them how government and the economy really works. Most of all, the Obama administration needs to improve its messaging, not to fool people or suppress the vote, as Republicans do, but to inform people, and encourage all eligible citizens to vote. Clearly, much of the public, most likely the majority, are unaware of the good things that the Obama administration has done, with health insurance reform, financial industry and credit card regulation, for example, and in many other areas, plus tax breaks and stimulus money which has helped the public and possibly averted a much worse economic disaster from occuring. Actually, for my next post, although this represents another detour from my Capital Ideas series, I am thinking of writing another letter to the Obama administration with some encouragement, but mostly, encouraging them to work on their messaging technique. I wrote about much of this before in a post entitled "How to Outmeme Conservatives," and have been concerned about how to explain true and sensible progressive ideas in such a way that the general public can understand and agree with them. At least one reader has stated that I have a talent for developing good memes, which is partly a natural extension of my personality but I must primarily credit my job, trying to explain psychology to community college students, for my messaging ability. In any case, I have listened to many of Obama's speeches, enough to know that he is good at messaging when he concentrates on that, and he must have aids who are competent at that, too. Let us put them to work, before the political situation in American gets any more ridiculous. Meanwhile, there are some areas that Republicans, if they are serious about accomplishing anything and reducing our national deficit, and Democrats should be able to agree upon, such as letting the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, if not for everyone, withdrawing from Afghanistan and continuing the drawdown in Iraq, which will reduce spending greatly, perhaps suspending social security payments for those who don't need it, and no more five-thousand dollar toilets (or whatever they charge) for generals or other government employees (you know, the infamous but often elusive "government waste" problem which Republicans are always talking about). But ultimately, the public must come to understand, that government is not the problem -- the corrupting power of big money and business monopolies (as opposed to small business, which is what we should be encouraging rather than monopolies) is the problem -- and good government is the solution. Why is it that we are subject to vicious political attack ads, yet self-adoring, self-serving big business ads? It's just another way of promoting the dominance of large corporations in our society while ensuring continued expansion of their owner's (not their employees') wealth, deflecting the blame for our problems from the corporatocracy to government, and making the unenlightened among us think like 5 year olds.

Here is the link to the article about the poll mentioned at the beginning of this post.


kpep01's picture
kpep01 9 years 12 weeks ago

Interesting post.

The decline in the ability of people's thought process has been explained throughout the 2500-year history of Buddhism. The "brain sciences" seem to be catching up. When one part of the brain receives progressively less stimulation, it becomes disfunctional.

I believe you're correct in stating that the "low information voters" need more mental stimulation. I would disagree, however, that it's a question of messaging from the Obama adminstration or any other top-down method.

In my mind it remains a question of how we develop relationships within the neighborhoods and precincts. Through developing those relationships based upon civil understandings we can change so much more than can the administration, any member of Congress, or electronic communications.

Natural Lefty's picture
Natural Lefty 9 years 12 weeks ago

kpep01, I recognize you from the old Thom Hartmann site. How are you doing?

Yes, to put the point about brain stimulation another way, people's modern, convenient lifestyles promote reduced brain stimulation in those so inclined. This leads to a regression in thought processes. By the way, I am not saying that low information voters are stupid. Rather, I am saying that they are naive, just as a 5 year old is smart at learning things, but naive in many ways.

I suppose getting out the vote by developing relationships in neighborhoods and precincts has the most effect on the outcome of an election, so I agree with you on the biggest influence. I think that messaging and advertising also has an influence too, more in some elections than others. Thom has also been saying that the Obama administration is hurting from a lack of effective messaging, and I agree with that. Perhaps it should be self-evident to people what the effects of various policies are, and I think it is to the well-informed among us, but when dealing with naive, low info. voters, they respond to simple sound-bite messages mostly.

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