Just the Facts

The Danger of Drama-Driven Politics

By Emma Petasis
May 17, 2019 | Blog

No Labels supporters are a passionate group with interesting views on the causes and solutions to America’s political dysfunction. We wanted to share this perspective from Dr. David Reiss, a psychiatrist, on what he views as the root causes of political dysfunction in the U.S.

A brief introduction to the psychological deterioration of the political process

                                                  by David M. Reiss, MD

The use of drama and emotional appeals to influence political events long pre-dates Shakespeare having Marc Anthony beseech, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears!” Of course, Marc Anthony’s appeal was only heard by those assembled before him, neither tweeted to millions world-wide in milliseconds nor transmitted as a meme near-instantaneously across multiple platforms.

It is easy (and not inaccurate) to attribute significant responsibility for the paralyzing tribalization of our political processes by emotional, drama-driven appeals to the adoption of modern technology by the public and the media.

Yet a deeper look reveals that the concurrence of a chance feature of the current U.S. electorate and a deep-seated aspect of human psychology has set the stage for the deterioration of productive political debate and negotiation into histrionic gridlock.

Most people perceive themselves as making important decisions based upon rational thought and logical evaluation of alternative options; and hope and expect that others are doing likewise.  Yet we are all more susceptible to emotional factors than we like to acknowledge.   

The average person struggles to integrate rational arguments with emotional reactions, not always aware that they are doing so and often with minimal insight to the power of emotional drama over logical, fact-based reasoning. 

There is a relatively small, but significant, percentage of the population who stay trapped between rational ideas and emotional responses, remaining “undecided” until forced to implement a decision.  For those people, most often, it is not reasoned debate – but a reaction to the triggering of powerful feelings – that is the last consideration before concluding, “Yes, that is my final answer.” 

If the U.S. two-party system was not in a state of near-equal split between the Democratic and Republican camps, the influence of the “late-stage undecided voters” would be minimal.  However, with committed voters often falling into a near 47% – 47% draw, the much smaller percentage of drama-driven Undecided become The Deciders.

Political operatives understand that the large majority of voters have made their decision long before an election and are unlikely to change their minds.  Thus, while making sure to “secure the base”, campaigns become increasing focused upon the emotionally vulnerable Undecided voters, crafting dramatic appeals that will “swing” those voters.  

(Bill Maher harshly satirized that aspect of the electorate on “Real Time” 11/16/12, “New rule – if you’re one of the 5 percent of American voters who are still undecided on who to vote for… stay home… what more information does someone need… Obama has been president for nearly four years, and Mitt Romney has been running for president since 1971…”)  

Perhaps the most common psychological fixation in our culture (which I will discuss in future posts) involves what I have termed a desire for “Shared Omnipotence.”This is an unconscious wish for a relationship with a “partner” who promises, “You and I together can accomplish anything and all of your needs will be met; without me, you well be helplessly abandoned and neglected.”   

Election results are often heavily influenced by the last-minute irrational emotional reactions of a relatively small percentage of the population seeking Shared Omnipotence. Appeals to the electorate become focused on immature emotions rather than logical arguments. This is hardly a way to create sound policy, but it makes “great TV.” 

In a vicious cycle, the entire political system regresses:  

  • The media embraces the “click-bait/ratings-enhancing” drama at the expense of informed discussion. 
  • Candidates take emotionally-triggering stands to obtain more media coverage.  
  • Selection of candidates gravitates towards those who are inherently “good” at being emotional and dramatic. 
  • Media salivates for grandiose claims and angry “take downs.”  
  • Coverage of politics descends from encouraging reasoned elaborations of positions to seeking the next “Breaking News!” – which will never generate a chyron, “Next! Politicians soberly discuss their positions and arrive at a reasonable compromise.” 

Thus, rather than diminishing the impact of those who have limited abilities to analyze complex issues logically, there is a regressive pressure upon the entire societytoward immaturely craving and reacting to emotion and drama.  We unwittingly focus on electing “good campaigners” rather than talented leaders and legislators.

It may be considered unlikely, impractical, and naïve to expect the political process to foster an implicit form of national psychotherapy. From a psychological point of view, however, there is a dismal prognosisunless some form of enlightened post-partisan leadership can attract significantly larger than 50% of the population. 

This would diminish the over-embellished power of the inherently immature, emotionally-based, drama-driven “swing voters” – and move the political process back from “must-see TV” to the difficult but necessary process of Problem Solving.  

Dr. Reiss has been a practicing psychiatrist for more than 30 years.  He has evaluated and treated over 15,000 persons of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, from every occupational field. Dr. Reiss has been associated with multiple hospitals, including having served as Interim Medical Director of Providence Hospital (Holyoke, MA), a 126-bed psychiatric facility.  Dr. Reiss is a California Qualified Medical Examiner and a member of the Society for Exploration of Psychotherapeutic Investigation, the Sports Lawyers Association, and the International Psychohistory Association.  Dr. Reiss has been recognized internationally for expertise in character and personality dynamics. Dr. Reiss has authored articles published in academic journals and newsletters, authored multiple articles and book chapters published in the lay press and he is often interviewed and quoted in the print, Internet and radio/TV media, nationally and internationally, to help the public understand the psychological aspects of current events.  Dr. Reiss graduated from Northwestern University Medical School and completed a psychiatric internship at Ohio State University Hospital, followed by a psychiatric residence at the University of California, San Diego. He has a background in engineering and systems theory, including an undergraduate degree in chemical and biochemical engineering (Northwestern University) with a minor in Philosophy.   

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