Elections 2010: Money Can't Buy You Love

11/04/2010 06:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week's election showed the Tea Party on the rise, America more deeply split, taxes and public spending in the crosshairs, with "me" winning out over "we." And yet these same elections also affirmed the commons.

The Trust for Public Land reports Americans voted up 80% of the local and State ballot measures to increase taxes or issue bonds for preserving public open space. This election scored the highest rate of passage for open space bonds since 2000. Even in Maine, where the Tea Party-backed candidate was elected governor, the Land For Future land conservation ballot passed with 59% support of the electorate.

In candidate races, the huge amounts of money spent didn't always decide the outcomes.
For example in Connecticut, voters elected Richard Blumenthal for Senator, even though Linda McMahon, World Wresting Entertainment's CEO, outspent him seven to one using over $40 million of her own money. Connecticut voters also replaced a Republican governor with an urban Democratic Mayor, Dan Malloy, who has a strong track record of job creation and environmental innovation.

The new governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, another urban mayor, is a pragmatist whose many successes have been accomplished by bringing people together rather then dividing them.

In California, Meg Whitman outspent Jerry Brown six to one in the governor's race, spending $160 million of her own money, and still lost. Proposition 23, which aimed to undermine the State's innovative climate legislation, was defeated despite the enormous inflow of funds from out-of-state corporate interests who supported it.

Why wouldn't the influence of big money determine all election outcomes? I'd argue it's because there are also other powerful influences on our voting behavior, like our neurological wiring.

The human mind is very complex, but essentially, we can divide it into three organizing systems: the fear system, the wanting system and the affiliative system. The fear and wanting systems are organized to deal with single issues and generate a single response. For example, if a bear comes out of the woods at you, you run fast, and while you are running, you are not thinking about what stocks you should sell. Simlarly if you see someone you really desire, and they respond to you, as you begin to cuddle up, you get pretty focused on your single objective and are not likely to be thinking about the federal deficit.

But the affiliative system, which is the one through which we have complex social relations, is the only one that easily integrates complexity. Family and communal life are mediated through the affiliative system. They often raise complex questions in which we have to balance current and future needs, love, patience and frustration to maintain a healthy balance.

The reason why voters were willing to increase taxes for land preservation was because it appealed to the affiliative system, which is evolutionarily designed to relate to the commons. In general, solutions to our intertwined environmental and social problems are more likely to succeed when they appeal to our affilative system. Policies that appeal to the fear system are more likely to turn the voter off.

For a great discussion of neurological wiring and how it influences our policy thinking on things like climate and environment, see Dan Siegel's brilliantly compressed talk at the Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium [hyperlink]earlier this year.

The Tea Party's message in general targets the fear system. The onslought of corporate-funded messages also typically aims at generating fear. In the fear mode, we are incapable of complex thinking. So when the message is " higher taxes threaten the economy," it's hard to think, "but a large deficit also threatens our economy."

The interesting aspect of the mid-term election results is that in many of the races where the most was spent the most on negative, fear-based campaigns, voters also supported pro-environmental candidates and ballot initiatives.

My takeaway is this: The American people know we need to invest in our communities, that we need to rebuild the local economies and preserve the environment that we share, raise our standards of education for all schools and get our collective fiscal house in order. When non-ideological, pragmatic candidates call on us to work together for the common good, we respond with American can-do spirit. Despite our increasingly fear-based politics, Americans are quite capable of voting and acting affiliatively.