Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.”

I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why. It also might reduce the toxicity and antagonism around political discussions, if people are willing to admit (to themselves as well as others) how imperfect their politicians are, and hold them to a higher standard on both sides.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon us.

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