August 30, 2016
ake Rick Shenkman’s Political Animals seriously, and politics is futile. Modern America, large and diverse, is enormously different from our ancestors’ bands of cousins, more or less distant, held together for the purposes of hunting, gathering, and self-protection. But since our instincts and faculties were formed in the Pleistocene era, they are ill-suited to navigating politics in a complex modern world. This tension between anachronistic instincts and contemporary political realities leads to a “mismatch” between our nature and our circumstances. It is, Shenkman argues, the cause of four major political failures: political apathy, misconstruing leaders’ character, a resistance to “hard truths,” and a lack of empathy. Overcoming these failures requires us to resist our impulses, weigh evidence, and reject snap judgments, advice that comports well with nearly every assessment of nearly every political situation.
Shenkman wants his readers to make better political decisions, but his argument is overwhelmed by a desire to achieve a “post-partisan” world. In it, political disagreements will be rendered unnecessary and gratuitously contentious by the advent of a highly rational “smart politics.” This approach delegitimizes genuine, legitimate political disagreements. Instead of refuting who disagree with a specific policy agenda, it rules those opponents out of order.
The list of major policy failures no doubt elicits broad agreement—who would claim to be against empathy?—but it’s unclear if that agreement amounts to anything. While transfer payments to the poor and encouraging self-reliance and pride through meaningful work might both be considered “empathetic” policies, the political space between them is vast. It comes as no surprise that Shenkman has a progressive slate of public policy solutions at the ready for overcoming the failures caused by the “mismatch”: lessening our hostility to abortion, opening borders with a more humanitarian and empathetic immigration policy, restricting industry through comprehensive environmental regulation, and an expansive welfare state. Science supports these positions, we are told, so resistance is groundless, even atavistic.
Shenkman sees the major failures arising out of the mismatch as distinctively modern and American. But does evolution really provide the best explanation for them? Blaming evolutionary history for America’s insufficiently empathetic welfare policy, for example, is like blaming the great celestial orbits in our corner of the solar system, rather than the season’s snowfall and current warm weather, for a springtime avalanche. Political Animals assumes what it sets out to prove, never considering and therefore never refuting alternative explanations for the policy failures it laments.
If our evolutionary history leaves us ill equipped for politics, that mismatch should afflict all humans everywhere (save for the handful living Pleistocene lives in remote rainforests), not just modern Americans. If we are limited by evolution to effectively navigating the relations of a small hunter-gatherer group of about 150 people, then any larger social organization will require very different cognitive tools, ones that are in a basic sense unnatural. It appears that all political life must have major failures of some kind.
The purportedly smart, post-partisan standpoint of Political Animals is neither fully articulated nor defended. Parties with divergent yet legitimate claims to justice will always exist, and our politics will inevitably confront the effects, often harmful, of that disagreement. Attempts at post-partisanship consist of one group imposing its will on others, rather than a glorious synergy around smart, enlightened policies. In modern America, progressives justify that imposition by appealing to science and its objective conclusions, held to be beyond partisanship and irrational attachment. These objective conclusions take the form of a sub-rational explanation of the rational—a genetic explanation of mind—thereby removing controversy and precluding the possibility of reasonable disagreement. From this, ultimately, comes the charge that only knuckle-dragging troglodytes could possibly disagree with “reasonable” policy objectives.
Shenkman’s partisanship, in the guise of objective science, is revealed in his treatment of abortion. He explains how our emotions can be manipulated against our reason by referring to pictures of aborted fetuses. These, he rightly claims, are intended to cause disgust. Disgust may be a reasonable response to seeing what abortion is, however, despite his contention that presenting such evidence is an illegitimate political tactic. By triggering an instinctive response, he believes, these abortion opponents foreclose our access to reason. Shenkman makes his point by referring to Nazi propaganda, which paired images of rats and Jews in films to render the latter disgusting. But what is an invocation of the Third Reich other than an invocation of hate and disgust? If the anti-abortionists are like Hitler, they merit our opprobrium. This is a good way to undercut your opponents, but not to uphold reasoned deliberation.
Political Animal’s virtues and charms are at the margins, around the flaws of its central argument. It offers accounts of how shark attacks stole the 1916 election, bad weather made George Bush president in 2000, Gerald Ford lost an election because he mistakenly ate the corn husk of a tamale, and the Donner party clarifies family ties. These amusements, however, neither vindicate nor compensate for Shenkman’s partisanship and, in particular, his untenable claim he is not a partisan, just a champion of detached reasoning against primitive responding.