There have been dozens of news stories this year about the silly antics of presidential candidates. From calling people snobs for wanting kids to go to universities to reopening the contraception battle, the issues are petty, weird, and bizarre: almost like a real version of the Twilight Zone (which, unlike the television show, never really ends). What is most shocking about the race though, is not that presidential candidates make ridiculous comments, but the support they seem to garner in response.
Why is it that Americans, who by most counts are generally decent and rational people, can suddenly be whipped up into a frenzy to support positions against their own interests by such provocative language? Considering the vast changes facing the white working class, who really represents the heart of the Republican party (the Tea Party tends to skew upper middle class), it's a little surprising that they are the ones cheering for reducing scholarship aid or ending contraception.
There have been a lot of discussions about this issue, with talking head theorists discussing all kinds of different explanations. I'll throw my hat into this ring with my own theory, that of the psychology of decisions and loss recognition. Let me explain.
Daniel Kahneman (along with the late Amos Tversky) developed a theory in psychology about how humans react to loss. They found through experiments that humans actively avoid recognizing a loss, and will continue a losing endeavor even in the face of overwhelmingly clear evidence that such a decision is not the prudent course. Thus, gamblers often go into massive debt, since to not play another hand would be to recognize a loss - and therefore force them to confront the bad decisions they had made until that point.
I believe the same kind of theory neatly explains the kind of denialism witnessed in the presidential race. The economy has dramatically changed the rules of life, upending traditional notions of how one succeeds - particularly for the working class. The metaphorical "factory job" that paid well and provided a middle class income without a college degree (or even perhaps a high school diploma) has all but disappeared. The consequences of the decisions many of these people made who cheer in the stands for Santorum are now evident: they were poor decisions. Terrible decisions. And as we know from Kahneman and Tversky, humans actively avoid recognizing such bad decisions.
This leads to a combustible set of results. I don't think these people are against higher education, despite their seeming opposition to it. Rather, I think deep down, they recognize that their course in life has not worked out the way they had intended. Many would probably change their choices if they had the chance. But the economy has conspired to make such alterations to one's life course all but impossible. And so what are these people going to do? Live in despair, or live in denial?
Republicans - like all politicians in a democratic society - are predators. They seek voters, lull them into a false sense of security with the right language and push for their prey to vote for them. The denial that many in the working class feel about the economy today isn't a problem - it is in fact a solution. It is a means to ply for votes. When Santorum denounces higher education as "indoctrination centers" (despite having three degrees himself), he is trying to make these voters feel better about their poor choices. When he denounces contraception, he tries to provide moral support to the vast number of his supporters who had children out of wedlock - precisely because they didn't use contraception.
While everyone says they want to hear realistic and truthful arguments from politicians, in reality, few of us are really prepared to handle some of their tougher messages. No one wants to suddenly realize that their entire life course was a mistake, and that they are going to be in the lurch for the rest of their lives. Politicians realize that they are up against tremendous psychology. To expect them not to use their voters' denialism in the pursuit of their own goals is really asking too much.
I don't blame Santorum. I blame a system of political economy that has left large swaths of our population behind. Santorum and his ilk are not the problem, they are the symptom of a denialism that will be only more difficult to break in the years coming.