Why I’m a Registered “None”
My struggle to become a “No party preference”
Posted Aug 21, 2012
The voting age dropped to eighteen when I was in high school, and my Social Studies teacher brought in hip-looking speakers to help us register. They said “most young people register Democrat,” and I became a Democrat.
In college, my professors taught me that the world's problems could easily be solved if only conservatives would get out of the way. I learned from their tone of voice that nice educated people despise Republicans. I wanted to be a nice educated person, so I monitored myself carefully. It's comforting to be one of the good guys, though I couldn't help noticing that the good guys were promoting their self-interest in the name of the greater good.
In grad school, I learned to blame corporations for all the world's problems. I learned that fighting corporate oppression is the way to get respect. Thus I was thrilled to get a job in Africa with the United Nations. I ended up with a lot of time on my hands because the project I was assigned to was frozen by the country's corrupt leader. This left me plenty of time to time chat with seasoned foreign aid workers, and I learned that most projects are waylaid by corruption– but you don't say so if you want to keep your job. Didn't they feel bad about this? No, because "our society is the real problem.” I heard this over and over. I could have produced such analysis easily thanks to my "good education," but I felt an awful sense of complicity that I did not want to endure for a lifetime. So as much as I wanted to be one of the good guys, I looked for a new career.
I became a college professor, and soon was embroiled in a different kind of fraud. It appeared that my students did not do the assigned readings, and expected good grades anyway. (I wasn't even sure they could read in some cases.) I asked my colleagues about the problem, and they told me that Republicans had ruined the educational system, so there's nothing we can do but give our students degrees so they can change the system. Did they feel bad about being paid to evaluate student skills without actually doing that? Au contraire. They proudly told me "I'm not here to judge. I'm here to teach them how to think.” They meant "think like me," of course. What would become of our unskilled students in the workplace? They would blame their disappointments on social injustice because we taught them to do that and we never taught them to recognize their skill deficits.
I would like to tell you that I courageously challenged this practice, but I just lived with an uneasy feeling until I noticed my own kid having reading problems. Then I brought up the subject more urgently, and was horrified to learn that many of my colleagues had children who did poorly in school. So academics are telling people how to raise "our" children and it's not even working for our children?
I started to see the problems we caused with our "you-shouldn’t-have-to-do-it-unless-it’s-fun" mentality, and aggravated with our blame-the-system habit. But I was surrounded by people who insisted that learning is fun, so "our society" must be the problem whenever students choose not to learn. I saw how professors are rewarded for producing evidence of this belief, and punished for questioning it. We're protected from the ultimate punishment by tenure, but how many of us have the courage to be ridiculed and shunned while our more compliant colleagues are promoted and applauded?
Finally, my Mom genes kicked in. I started thinking for myself in time to save my kids from the poison of low expectations. But I was completely alone.
I did not know any who questioned the blame-the-system world view. In my forties, I never knew a Republicans except the ones on Saturday Night Live. I thought I was well-informed because NPR was always playing in my car. But I started noticing patterns. Within five minutes of turning on the car, I always heard about racism, sexism, or some new form of oppression. Constant fear of common enemies builds in-group cohesion in all mammalian species, including humans. Offering protection from common enemies helps a mammal rise to alpha status, whether or not their policy prescriptions are effective. I was having forbidden thoughts.
I didn't dare express them because I knew the hate that nice educated people spewed at challengers to their orthodoxy. I feared that hate pointing at me. But one day I cracked while a colleague spoke reverentially about NPR. “Have you noticed that they accuse someone of racism, sexism or another ism every few minutes?” I said. He stared at me blankly. “No, I never noticed that.”
I was so frustrated that I went to the Post Office the next day and filled out the form to change my party affiliation to “declined to state.” It was the only way I could think of to escape that thought loop that filled my world, even though I couldn't escape the fact that this thought loop surrounded me.
But I didn’t dare tell anyone, not even my husband. That marriage didn't last, and when I started dating I was even less inclined to reveal my deep dark secret. I married a nice Democrat under false pretenses. Possibly grounds for annulment.
I do not call myself an “independent” because the word suggests anger at both parties. I am not angry at the government. I do not think it's healthy or mature to pin one's hopes of happiness on the government, or blame unhappiness on the government. Raging at the government is a fast, easy way to feel important, so would-be leaders woo your support by inciting rage against rival leaders. Thus people learn to blame their emotional ups and downs on "the system" instead of recognizing emotions as a natural brain function.
I have power when I take responsibility for my ups and downs. If I blamed my ups and downs on external forces, I'd be giving away my power. To me it seems crazy to abdicate the control tower of my brain in that way. But I'm obviously in the minority, so no one could win an election by appealing to me. Elections are won by appealing to private interests in a way that inovkes the public interest.
I was alone with my discomfort for a long time. If conservatives had horns, I might have been able to find one and stop them for a chat. Instead, I found solace by studying the mammalian brain. Here’s what I learned.
Mammalian Social Dominance
Virtually all mammals live in social groups with a status hierarchy. Mammals invest their excess energy in status rivalries because it promotes reproductive success. This behavior is caused by mammalian neurochemistry, not by capitalism. When a mammal raises its status, its happy chemicals surge. When its status is threatened, its stress chemicals surge. If you filled a room with people who say they don’t care about status, they would soon form a hierarchy based on how anti-status they are. That is what mammals do.
Primates have special neurons that activate when they observe the behavior of others. If you listen to news reporters lamenting the failure of government to meet our needs, you are likely to lament the government’s failure to meet our needs. Other ways of looking at life don't come to mind if you’re not exposed to them.
The brain learns from rewards and punishments. If teachers give you an “A” when you blame “our society,” even if you haven’t done the reading, your brain learns from the reward. If your teachers sneer and say "you don’t get it” when you write essays that take responsibility instead of blaming the system, your brain learns from the punishment. Even if you're a good student, conforming makes it so easy to get rewards that you wonder whether it's worth risking the scrutiny you get if you don't. In the workplace, the stakes are higher. In most professions, you put your career at risk if you question the everybody-is-a-victim world view, and you get rewarded if you conform to it.
Most mammals find safety by sticking with a herd or pack or troop. Small-brained mammals like sheep release happy chemicals when with herd mates, and stress chemicals near sheep that are not of their herd. Big-brained animals like primates have more in-group conflict, but they hang together because of their much harsher conflict with non-member monkeys and apes. The old adage “you’re either with us or against us” is deep in the mammal brain. People who pride themselves on tolerance can quickly ostracize you if you don't embrace their definition of tolerance.
Each brain sees itself as the center of the world, and sees today as the pivot point in human history. Things have been "going to hell in a handbasket" for millennia because thinking of the future bring awareness of one’s mortality. The thought of your own demise triggers anxious feelings that your brain rationalizes by projecting them onto the state of the world. Connecting with grandchildren relieved this existential angst in the past. By age forty, people had grandchildren and lived near them. Today, this way of feeling good about the future is rare. Your genes may be annihilated in the future, and the thought is so painful that your brain equates it with the annihilation of the world.
A Mammal without a Herd
The mammal brain is designed to constantly monitor its herd or pack or troop because an isolated mammal quickly disappears into the jaws of a predator. My isolation triggered alarm bells in my mammal brain. But I was not interested in joining a new herd because it had been so hard to extract myself from the old herd. I was not interested in belongning to a group that expected adherence to preconceived positions and hate common enemies. I did not want to be a partisan and I did not want to listen to the partisan anger of others.
Eventually I came out to my new husband. Parenthood was once again the motivator. We had three children between us, and our different outlooks led to serious parenting differences. When our children learned to blame their problems on "the system," I felt like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion. The expression “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations” rang in my ears. (It refers to a poor person who rises through hard work, only to have their descendants lose it all because they never learn to be responsible.) It's easy to blame your kids' problems on "our society," but you still have to watch them suffer. Do we want our kids to suffer just so we can feel good about being “non-judgmental”?
The Bush years were hard for me. Here in the Berkeley area, expressing anger at Bush was the routine greeting and the social glue. I don't expect the next few years to be better.
Conformist pressures are part of being mammal. As unpleasant as they are, we are free to make our own choices. The consequences of thinking for yourself are milder today than they have been in history. I’m grateful for this freedom, and I’m using it. I decide my position on each issue, one at a time, without regard for partisan nastiness. Perhaps you do that too.
For the rest of the story, check out my new book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry.