Disgust: Political Emotion of the Times

December 6th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

There have been a whole lot of emotions flying around this fall leading up to and in the aftermath of the mid-term elections in November. Before November 2nd, there was mostly frustration and anger on the Right and fear and resignation on the Left. After the “shellacking” at the polls, another set of emotions kicked in. For the victorious Right, there was euphoria, excitement, and the inevitable righteous smugness. For the defeated Left, there was devastation, grief, and the inevitable despair.

Yet, with the elections several weeks in our rearview mirror and the intensity of emotions having ebbed for most people, there is another emotion that has persisted in me throughout this season of political unrest and upheaval. It is an emotion that, based on my decidedly unscientific poll of people of all political persuasions around the U.S., is shared by those on both sides of the aisle.

What is that emotion, you ask? Disgust, plain and simple. Though I will likely be accused by those on the Right of engaging in sour-grapes sentimentality from one of those citizens on the Left who got royally spanked by the election results, my hope is that I can show that disgust is an emotion that all reasonable (now there’s a hot-button word!) people should feel during these turbulent political times.

First, a brief tutorial on the emotion of disgust. However unpleasant it is to experience, whether smelling rotten garbage, seeing pus from a wound, or hearing a truly distasteful joke (I feel disgust just typing those examples), disgust evolved as an emotion central to our survival. Its primary purpose has been to safeguard us from ingesting contaminated substances.

But, as often happens with our evolutionarily adaptive reactions, disgust can now be elicited by experiences that in no way threaten our physical well being (at least directly), but, nonetheless, have a significant impact on our lives.

There is much to be disgusted about in today’s political climate for members of both parties, with the equivalent of rancid meat, human excrement, and animal innards everywhere. Let me count the ways:

1.  Disingenuous and corrupt politicians who seem not to care about their constituents.

2.  Policies and legislation that seem to favor the rich and powerful.

3.  Digital soapboxes that offer little beyond disinformation and vitriol (you can pick your cable channel poison depending on your political leanings).

4.  Lack of civility in our political discourse (a topic which I have discussed and felt disgusted about in the past).

5.  An unwillingness of citizens and politicians alike to find common ground in the name of solutions (however imperfect) that would actually help people.

But the piece de resistance of disgust that I feel is directed at the obscene amounts of money that were spent (and, in my view, wasted) in the Congressional races leading up to November 2nd. In fact, around $4 billion, a new record! California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman alone spent an estimated $160 million of her own money on her campaign…and lost. Good to know that money can’t buy everything. On a side note, the research indicates that only about 11 percent of multi-millionaire, self-funded campaigns result in a victory, so you’d expect they would think twice before throwing good money after bad. But I suppose when you’re that rich, you assume you will always win. And think of all the good that money could have done if it were spent on jobs or education or other worthy causes. Of course, it is a free country and these people can spend their money any way they wish. I’m just saying.

Though the reasons for feeling disgust differ significantly depending on your political views, you would think that those of differing ideologies, but with the shared experience of disgust, would be motivated to find common ground that would alleviate the revolting olfactory onslaught. Unfortunately, that communal disgust seems to actually prevent us from coming together.

Research has shown that feelings of disgust cause people to become more severe in their judgments and hold more negative attitudes toward people who are different than they. According to other research, those who are politically conservative have a higher sensitivity to disgust than do liberals (not getting partisan here; just stating the research).

One theory is that primitive peoples were threatened by rival tribes that could transmit diseases to which they lacked immunity. Today’s disgust toward those with opposing views may be our way of not contracting the diseases of conservatism (if you’re a liberal) and liberalism (if you’re conservative), both of which, from where each group stands, must assuredly lead to a slow and painful death.

I wonder where independents score on the disgust-sensitivity tests. From what I’ve seen, they respond to the aroma coming from whichever party is currently in power because they are the easiest scapegoat and we have to blame someone (other than ourselves) for our problems. Given that independents seem to decide elections these days, the challenge for political candidates is to figure out what causes them to feel the most disgust. If someone can bottle that, they will have future elections in the bag (along with the previously mentioned putrid meat, vomit, and other gross-out substances that may be able to sway elections).

As for getting rid of my disgust, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. There are no signs that the stench emanating from Washington is going to be replaced by the scent of roses in the foreseeable future. I guess my only chance of changing my dominant olfactory stimulation is to stop reading about politics. But then the even harsher stink of ignorance would probably disgust me even more.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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8 Responses to “Disgust: Political Emotion of the Times”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I completely agree. I’ve gotten so sick of (i.e., disgusted by) politicians that I no longer care about much other than just getting some people in place who will do a job for the country instead of thinking only of themselves. I don’t care if they’re Democrats, Republicans, or Rastafarians. The system has become so eroded by money, ideology, inflexibility, and self-interest that it’s virtually impossible to do the right thing.

    I don’t know what the answer is. It certainly isn’t the tea party movement or some similar movement on the far left. What we need less of is extremism and know-nothingism, but I don’t see us headed that way.

  2. Brian |

    The solution is a simple one, though not an easy one: return to limited government. Human nature is what it is, and as long as there is much power at stake, the fight for that power will be expensive in terms of money. If we should continue to devolve to the point where absolute power (or near absolute power) is at stake, it will become expensive in blood. If you doubt this, a casual perusal of all of the world’s history should convince you. If you still remain unconvinced, I’d suggest that you don’t want to be convinced.

    A good start would be to repeal the 17th amendment, putting the political fight for senate seats in the capitols of the several states.

    I’d also suggest that if you’re a fan of much of what the federal government has been doing since the rise of progressivism, none of which comports with the idea of limited government, that you wish for a contradiction to be true. You might as well wish for water to not be wet, for the sun to rise in the west, and for the sky to be orange.

    In order for an entity (from the individual up to the federal government) to do a thing, it must have the power and resources to do a thing. If your wish is that the federal government be able to do much, it stands to reason that it must have the power to do much, and you’re part of the problem.

    If one is unwilling to give up on patently absurd ideas like a federally established minimum wage, then one doesn’t truly wish for an end to the disgusting things going on presently. If one accepts umbras and penumbras and emanations as legitimate, and as in comportment with the idea of limited government, then one doesn’t really wish for a limited government, one probably wishes for hegemony.

  3. Michael |

    solutions– what kind of solutions? those that call for more government intervention for example? those that call for additional taxes, subsidies or regulations etc…

    help people– by what means and at whose expense? will it involve redistributing the wealth of others for instance? will it sacrifice the rights of others so some can benefit because they have needs? etc…

    regarding disgust with politicians I’d like to say three things:

    (1) the broader culture drives supply in electoral politics via demand, (2) the problems we are having with pandering and vote-purchasing in politics will not go away until something about our culture changes for the better, and (3) it is time to challenge the dominant approach of blind pragmatism.

    Brian makes several good points although one has to ask: limited by what principle? by the constitution? by the principle of individual rights? Also size is a non-essential, we should be talking about the proper function of government. Does it for example involve protecting the environment from man or supplying disadvantaged individuals with affordable housing? etc….

    This is what the public needs to learn more about and understand.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Problem is, we already have limited government. I don’t know of a large, industrialized country with a government that’s more limited than ours. If we’re talking about limited in the sense of going back to the governments of 200 years, or 100 years, or even 50 years ago — well, interesting parlor chat, but not very useful. The fact is, in the modern world of today the federal government has many legitimate functions to perform. The issue is not whether government will tax the people and return some of that money to people who have legitimate needs; the issues are how much, to whom, for what purposes, and whether there is corruption involved in the legal sense. We can talk about downsizing or eliminating this or that department, which always comes down to ideological preferences, and we can talk about reducing or increasing spending for this or that purpose, but in the end all we’re doing is nibbling around the edges.

    Brian, we’ve discussed this question of repealing the 17th Amendment before. I realize that it’s a question near and dear to the hearts of libertarians, but in my view it’s over-emphasized and poorly understood. Senators today represent their states, just as the Founders envisioned. They depend on the citizens of their states to elect and re-elect them, and they have to satisfy those citizens to get and keep their seats. Repeal of the 17th Amendment would put the selection process back under the control of state legislatures and governors. In some states, senators would still be elected in direct elections, as in the past. In other states, legislatures (with more or less involvement of governors) would make the selections. Do you really believe that would eliminate or even reduce the influences of money (including from outside the state), lobbyists, and special interests? Do you really believe that legislative selection in general represents a more honest and open process than direct election? All you have to do is look at the extremely corrupt process of selecting a replacement for Obama’s Senate seat in Illinois.

  5. Dan Miller |

    Tom, you say

    Problem is, we already have limited government. I don’t know of a large, industrialized country with a government that’s more limited than ours.

    I don’t know of one either. However, one interesting question as to those with comparably or more intrusive governments would be, “How many of the are more successful.” That would, of course, require some definition of “successful” and that depends largely on ideology. Another would be, “How many of them have more personal freedoms or really care about that sort of thing?” How many have constitutions similar to that of the United States, intended to limit governmental powers? How about economic success? China had been doing pretty well economically although she seems to be faltering. Russia’s government seems rather more intrusive than that of the United States and her economy is rather bad. Greece, France, Germany, Italy, England? I get the impression they are having a very difficult time maintaining their more expansive social programs.

    It seems to me short sighted to suggest — as you do not really seem to do — that further limitations on U.S. governmental intrusions can be rejected appropriately since other large industrial countries are no less intrusive. Clearly, the United States government can legitimately be bigger and more overreaching than was the government of two hundred years ago. However, the question is how much? Should it continue to push economically disruptive solutions for the very questionable impact of carbon dioxide and other stuff on climate change? Should card check legislation be passed to make unions even more powerful politically, economically and otherwise than they are at present? Should the Commerce Clause of the Constitution continue to be used further to expand control of the federal government into such areas as medical care? Does the federal government really need to regulate school bake sales as authorized in the recently passed Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act? How far should the federal government go towards making private enterprise less competitive and simultaneously less economically viable?

    I agree that repeal of the 17th amendment would not make things better and could easily make them worse. I also think that the notion of a constitutional convention to discuss wholesale modifications to the Constitution would be ill advised; the Constitution is pretty good as it is, but some of the ways in which it has been stretched beyond recognition should be revisited. There is a fertile field for limiting and perhaps even diminishing the intrusive nature of government without resorting to what I consider hare-brained “easy fixes” which are neither easy nor real fixes.

  6. Brian |

    No, repealing the 17th won’t eliminate those things, it will merely add another hungry mouth to the competition for power and limited resources. The purpose of the senate as originally envisioned was to decentralize power. Senators may now represent the people of the several states, but they are supposed to represent the state governments. As currently configured, the Senate is merely a smaller House of Representatives whose members have longer tenure.

    In Federalist #62, Madison does a much better job of explaining these issues than I ever could.

    Would there still be outside influences on senatorial selections? Of course, but how much more difficult would it be to try and manipulate the several thousand state senators and representatives than what we currently have? The founders counted on man to behave like man, and thus the idea of decentralizing power. Those with power are not to be trusted, so the obvious solution is to establish a system where there cannot be a great accumulation of power.

    And no, our federal government isn’t limited by the constitution, at least not very much.

    Throughout every apology you make, there is the undertone of “the government MUST do thus and so.” This is not an appeal to reason, it is an appeal to power. It is an assertion that we should have philosopher-king masters. In general, our bureaucrats and politicians are no smarter than we are, and they are most assuredly less ethical, so why on earth do we want them in control of anything except for the barest essentials?

    The hydra that our federal government has become must necessarily come with everything that you and Jim lament about the current political landscape. Yet you frequently are an apologist for the things which feed the hydra and make it grow. You cannot have it both ways.

  7. Tom Carter |

    Dan, the point I was making in that statement is that the government we have is already the most limited in comparison to other large, complex, industrialized nations. What other valid comparisons are available? If one wants to bemoan the loss of governments of yore, in distant times, fine. It’s just not a useful argument for or against anything.

    My position is that I would like to see the federal government, and government at all levels, be as limited as possible in the context of the modern world. I would like to see them be honest, efficient, and effective. (And I also believe in Santa Claus.) Unrealistic as those desires may be, it doesn’t mean we can’t make reasonable efforts to trim and improve government. But there’s the rub — what’s “reasonable?”

    As to a constitutional convention, while it’s one of the two ways of amending the Constitution, it’s never been used, and for good reason. Political scientists and others who understand the process (as you do), including serious-minded politicians, know that it would turn into a disaster. It couldn’t be limited to addressing just one issue; the whole Constitution would be subject to being re-written. Delegates to the convention could include the likes of Al Sharpton and Sarah Palin. No sane person wants that.

    Brian, all this stuff about “appeal to power” and “assertion that we should have philosopher-king masters” has nothing to do with what I think or want. You seem to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

  8. Brian |

    Dan, the point I was making in that statement is that the government we have is already the most limited in comparison to other large, complex, industrialized nations. What other valid comparisons are available? If one wants to bemoan the loss of governments of yore, in distant times, fine. It’s just not a useful argument for or against anything.

    Why should we compare ourselves to anyone? This country was founded on the idea that we should take a radical turn away from what the rest of the world was doing.

    How about a few other comparisons that, while true, are perfectly useless: dog pooh stinks less than can pooh (but honestly, do you really want either one on your living room carpet?); 12th graders are mature compared to kindergartners; the Sun is a cool star (never mind that its surface temp is about 10K, and the conversion of H to He at its core is in the millions of degrees).

    Limits on government? What limits? The debt ($14T by cash accounting, nearly $100T by accrual accounting)? Article I sec 8 limits?

    I guess I’m just not as smart as any of our legislators or federal judges that have discovered enumerated powers that remained hidden from the people and the judges and legislators for the better part of 140 years.

    If the constitution needs to be changed to suit the times, then let’s avail ourselves of Article V. Any other “change” is really a usurpation, and you know it. Otherwise, let’s just stop pretending that the federal government is actually limited by it.

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