And Do We Really Care?

The number of people who understand the meaning of the votes cast in the election is astonishing.  They can’t all be correct, and yet so many are stridently certain — and eager for the rest of us to get the message they hear so loudly.

Research into consciousness, however, makes it startlingly clear that people in general do not know what drives them.  We all have opinions, to be sure, and we easily get offended if no one believes us when we explain our own actions.  Clearly, we often have intentions and we may even follow through on them.  But as we contemplate our intended actions, we usually rationalize them, saying what we would like to believe our motives are.

Take this representative and relatively innocuous passage from Wednesday’s New York Times: “Americans who voted described themselves as far more conservative than they did in 2006 and 2008 — and than the population as a whole. More than 4 in 10 said that they supported the Tea Party movement. But more than half of the voters said they have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.” (See, “Election 2010.”)

This suggests we can correlate the self-perception of “conservative” with voting in this year’s election.  But what does that actually mean?  When someone describes himself as “conservative,” does he mean fiscally conservative?  Opposed to debt? Or opposed to bailouts? Or taxes?  Could it mean morally conservative as opposed to abortion or same sex marriage?  Could it be against woman who work?  Or just against liberals?  Or, more simply, against change?

Moreover, does supporting the tea party mean voting for its candidates or liking the fact that they exist and add energy to the scene?  Does having an “unfavorable” view of the Republicans mean not voting for them?  The available evidence suggests otherwise.

There is no sure way to know.  Perhaps voters were angry with incumbents, blaming them for our economic plight?  Perhaps, though, they just wanted to give someone else a chance?  Were they strongly convinced or demoralized, angry or disgusted?  Or were their motives so mixed that discerning a clear trend would be a hopeless task?

The Times’ article went on to question: “Will either side draw the right lessons from this midterm election?”  But what could the “right lessons” possibly be?  Does it boil down to doing better in the next election?

The point is that we all like to believe we understand ourselves and our motives – and often we don’t.  But there is another point:  increasingly we are also in the hands of pundits who tell us more about ourselves than they could possibly know, while getting handsomely rewarded in the process.

Have we reached a point where we really do not actually want to know why we acted as we did – or, at least, we do not want to be told.  Protecting themselves from the intrusive certainty of others may well become a priority for the electorate.  If so, we are in for a truly bumpy ride.