Our behavior can be explained by our beliefs.
I act the way I act for a reason. Several things have happened in my life that affect my behavior. I watched my parents divorce, twice; I failed at things such as waiting tables; I learned to play musical instruments; And I attended a few friends’ funerals. Did any of this play a role in the way that I vote today?
Yes, it had to.
I’m terrified of marriage, work as an accountant, listen to music that is hard to play, and I always try wear a seat belt. This way of thinking is a behaviorist’s weapon of choice when explaining human nature.
Perhaps the most influential behaviorist is B.F. Skinner. Skinner coined the term “operant conditioning,” which simply means that what happens to a person through the sequence of their life affects the way they behave.
This would explain, one-by-one, the before mentioned forces and how they influenced my behavior. As a person investigates their ideas about the world they live in—how they see and interact with the world around them—there is one question that constantly comes to mind:
“Why do I believe what I believe?”
And more importantly, why do I vote the way I vote? To answer this question, we must look at political socialization.
Political socialization is a term that identifies the origin of political ideology. It is said that 90% of our ideology comes from our parents, but I believe that this can change over time, just as our opinions about religion and family change. For more information we must look at the origins of human behavior to actually find the true root of what makes us tick.
Biologists and psychologists have argued for years about the roots of human behavior. Biologists take a genetic stance. By inserting a gene associated with memory, a Princeton biologist was able to improve the learning ability of mice. This genetic research, like the behaviorism studies, fails to tell the whole story.
To find a definite answer to the question, let us look at a study done on children. Dr. Patricia Kanngiesser from the University of Bristol, and Felix Warneken of Harvard University found that children three to five years of age are more likely to take only their share of the reward for work done, based proportionately on their output. This study suggests that, at first, before much life experience, we are fair-minded. As children we believe we get and give what is earned.
A study done by Felix Warneken of Harvard University and M. Tomasello from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology even further solidifies this idea.The study showed, as most new parents can attest, that an 18-month-old toddler wants to help. If they see an adult struggling, they invariably want to lend a hand. If a toddler sees his dad reaching for a tool, he wants to be the one to hand it to him. So, even at an early age helping out your fellow man, without any benefit or profit motive, is inherent. Man being a social organism, natural selection has found it advantageous to reinforce cooperative behavior.
So, what happened?
What forces disrupt our cooperative nature, and motivate us to behave differently?
I believe that Abraham Maslow’s “Theory of Human Motivation” best answers this question. Maslow suggested that a “hierarchy of needs” ordered from least to greatest is what motivates a person. The needs, in order, are first biological needs, then safety, the need for love, self-esteem, and finally the need for self-actualization. These needs explain the breakdown in our moral system that contributes to changes in behavior. For example, an executive becomes greedy because his need for love in western society gives him the impression that he must have money for his significant other to consider him fit for marriage.
We are the victims of a capitalistic society that rewards greed and punishes “fairness.”
This battle is prevalent in conservative politics. Where the Democratic platform focuses more on social equality and environmental issues, Republican debate is organized around economic and fiscal concerns.
We start out social minded.
As a child, we are born to live in equality. We are genetically manufactured to take care of one another. Everyone is born “good,” but due to obstructions they do not always turn out that way. Capitalism, unlimited campaign contributions, agenda-driven media, a lack of voting knowledge, and other factors affect the final vote.
But what about God?
Biologist and prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins wrote,
The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal…Faith cannot move mountains. But is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.
When explaining God, Dawkins never considers that faith keeps us closer to our genetic makeup. When we love our fellow man, care for our neighbor, act in fairness, and maintain a healthy diet; we are closer to our true genetic makeup whether God created us or not. In America, debates about public policy, much like Dawkins argument, ignore the essence of the God question and are interjected as a sort of emotional distraction.
Why is there a separation of church and state?
The separation of church and state is a forgone conclusion in the mind of most Americans. But religion and politics can never really be separated, and to believe that they are is naive. Law and public policy only plays a small role in influencing public opinion and behavior. If we look at spirituality and religion as something that brings us closer to our inherent nature, we can see that keeping God and religious institutions out of politics is near impossible. While the federal government is constitutionally prohibited from intervening in the religious life of its citizens, it is impossible to separate religion and politics in the individual mind.
So, if I—a candidate for office—can convince you—an average American who, over the past ten years has been indoctrinated to believe that all Mormons are weird or that all Muslims are terrorists—that my opponent is in fact a Mormon or a Muslim then I have essentially convinced you that my opponent is unfit for office.
What about the media?
The political activist group Americans for Prosperity is a group that has a large base of people, most of whom want reform the government. The people that drive this organization, for the most part, are working class people. The group’s only problem is its founders: the Koch brothers, owners of Koch Industries, Inc.
Koch Industries owns many subsidiaries in finance, investment, manufacturing, and energy. By controlling an organization such as Americans for Prosperity, disguised as a grassroots movement, they have been able to gain support and pass legislation that otherwise would not be able to be passed under other conservative standards.For example, on their website they are pushing for passage of the Energy Freedom and Economic Prosperity Act, H.R. 259. Under the impression of fiscal responsibility, the bill actually would eliminate tax credits to clean energy companies making it harder for them to compete against Koch Industries coal, natural gas, and oil subsidiaries.By investigating the origins of media and grassroots organizations like this one, we can clearly see that public policy issues can be confused easily with campaigns that appeal to voter emotions in neatly disguised movements.
This kind of political strategy is playing out all over the country and is the exact thing James Madison warned against in the Federalist papers when explaining special interest groups. He stated,
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.
So, what does this mean?
I believe we are born social voters because of our inherent nature. The decisions we make are those in alignment with equality and God or spiritual principles. Economic standards taint this way of life with both capitalistic goals and imperialistic views of the world. This is even further complicated by interest groups and campaigns fueled by money and corporate competition.
I guess maybe the best thing to do is turn off the TV, read the bills themselves, and pray like hell.
Brandon Horton is a student of political science and accounting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He is a member of the Pi Sigma National Political Science Honors Society. He served on the executive board for Young People in Recovery, an advocacy group formed to influence policy on addictive disorders. During his service, he participated in a live Q-&-A at the White House. He will be presenting at the annual conference for the Association of Third World Studies in Chennai, India in December.