The human brain is pretty amazing. We have the capacity to write beautiful sonatas, engineer skyscrapers, and achieve flight. In such higher level thinking we must be conceptual and rely on an extensive network of pre-existing neural pathways, their beginnings started with our first breath. Whether our cleverness is about natural born talents or acquired knowledge, the finer achievements in human history are a product of thoughts that went way beyond finding food, heat, water, security, reproduction and sex. The part of the brain that impels us to meet those most basic needs – voluntary or involuntary – is called the “reptilian brain”. As sophisticated as our higher level deliberations may be, our reptilian brains are always in charge. One reason why media, campaigns, and messaging in general – especially Republican created- works on us is because it speaks to our reptilian brain. Democrats tend to appeal to higher level thinking and lose the battle for the mind.
Modern day Republicans are especially good at triggering our reptilian brains. Fear is one of the most basic and overriding responses coming from this part of the brain. Every time our security is called into question in reality or imagined, our reptilian brains make snap decisions about staying to fight or starting flight. Especially since the presidency of George W., Republican campaigns have poked at our reptilian brains with “the War on Terror”, “the axis of evil”, and similar war campaign efforts that are still in place today via policy, if not rhetoric. The campaign against LGBT rights is about fear of what will happen to the institution of marriage, fear of what “they” will do to our children, and fear of sexual deviances that don’t honor reproduction. Gun loving activism and campaigns appeal to our need to fight a threat. Religion has nothing to do with our reptilian brains, but many socially conservative religious campaigns rely on a fear of damnation to keep their followers towing the line. (What religion has to do with reptilian thinking is another fascinating topic I’d love to explore sometime – if you have an opinion, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you).
Obedience to the “victor”, the “winner”, or the conqueror stems from the need to feel protected. If you can’t beat ’em and you join ’em, it is much less exhausting than continually trying to beat them unsuccessfully. Joining the oppressors conserves energy and gives cover for the rest of their daily activities.
Democrats tend to talk about policies, proposals, initiatives, and issues that are in silos. Because we all have higher level thinking, regardless of political stripe, it is sometimes seen as insulting to “talk down” to people that can handle more intelligent messaging. Whether a campaign is actually “talking down” to its audience or not, connecting with an audience at the reptilian brain level is essential to create a memorable, effective message. This doesn’t necessarily have to be about fear, but we do tend to remember threats more easily than pleasant thoughts – so those positive thoughts need to be powerful. Dems who try to mimic the Republican methods of fear mongering may be somewhat successful, but along the way they are likely to run into a mismatch of values. Obama’s campaign aside, Democrats values really do encompass hope and change.
Good marketers know this. Marketers creating election year campaigns know exactly how to push our buttons and elicit responses, we are a pretty predictable species. This is why petty things such as a bill’s title is fantastically important. A bill’s title needs to be short, have a hook, and be descriptive – the descriptions are often not accurate such as with the once proposed “Clear Skies Act” that would’ve allowed an increase in air pollution. That’s why misnomers like “pro-life” work, they don’t actually get into the details of all the ideas the label is trying to encompass.
Modern conservatism and Republican thinking would like us to stay in our reptilian mindset. They would like the higher level thinking to stay in the hands of the wealthy class and are not really interested in American ingenuity unless it makes them a buck. They are fine with most of us struggling to feed our families and keep our houses, they’d like to move further in that direction. When we are worried about meeting basic needs like health and living off of a healthy ecosystem, it means that we can’t focus so much on things like oil speculation, mortgage fraud, legislation, or foreign affairs. Modern conservatives would be most happy if things fell “back into natural order”, which is a dog-eat-dog and often patriarchal society. They’re not that interested in democratic input, in fact many will get in a huff and point out how “we don’t live in a democracy” when you press the point.
We do live in a democratic republic. Democracy is a part of our tradition, it is just a representative democracy. Because of our history of democracy, we as a nation, have an obligation to each and every citizen for an equal opportunity to be able to participate in the process of governing – and that means more than voting. Just talking – and not just to the choir! – is probably the best way for any interested American to get involved and start influencing your friends. Being authentic, sincere, and respectful will speak volumes about your intentions.