Friday, 27 December 2013

Obama and the Politics of Love - A Scientific Perspective

Politics: It's a love thang

If President Barack Obama were to christen his ship of state, it would perhaps be appropriate to name it The Love Boat.  When I listened to Obama's now-famous speech in Cairo in June, 2009, it occurred to me that Obama was the first world leader to wield his personal loveability as a tool of international statecraft.

Of course, other leaders past and present have been the objects of national and international affection -- Gandhi, Mandela, and Kennedy, to name but a few.  However, given the vast reach of the digital media today, and given further the USA's global hegemony, and given in addition Obama's multi-cultural and bi-racial appeal, it seems likely that Obama has become the most beloved leader in world history.

In Cairo, Obama not only personified a loveable America, he also portrayed America as a country capable of respect and love for others, most especially Muslims.  He did all this without ever addressing the obvious and inconvenient fact that lasting peace will not come to the Middle East until the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank is substantially reversed (meaning that most Israeli settlements will have to be relinquished).  However, given the large number of Israeli settlements currently flourishing in the West Bank, a reversal of that occupation is extremely unlikely anytime soon.  This may be why Obama's Cairo speech projected a promise of love, but avoided specific commitments.  Was Obama whispering sweet nothings in the world's ear?

The impact of the speech was widely debated at home and abroad, but when frustrated Iranians began to take to the streets in protests a few days later, one had to wonder if they were not in fact partly motivated by a need to have a leader they, too, could love.  Perhaps Obama's love machine had scored its first victory in Iran?  But then...missiles continue to rain down on Israeli territory.  Hate remained healthy.  

Which leads one now to ask: Are Obama's politics of love likely to work?  Is Obama the world's Mr. Right, or is he just another sweet-talking heart-breaker? 

This line of enquiry allows me to rehash one of the world's oldest questions: what is love?  And: what is the role of love in politics? And further: is it a good thing -- or a bad thing -- that we love our leaders?

So, let's talk about love

The evolution of love

There has been a lot of scholarship and research on love in the past century, so we can look at love from a number of perspectives.  There are different elements of love (lust, attraction, intimacy, sharing, commitment) and different kinds of love (romantic love, parental love, brotherly love, hero worship, etc.).  In this essay, I want to focus especially on that particular kind of love that we shower on leaders and heroes, and which is sometimes referred to as hero-worship or celebrity-worship.

For those who may have forgotten, let me remind you that love feels good.  As James Brown put it eloquently, it feels "so good, so good."  This makes sound evolutionary sense.  Romantic love provides us with an overpowering stimulus to seek out and mate with individuals who are genetically well-suited to us (sorry to make it sound so clinical, since it can be quite fun in practice).  Feelings of parental love help ensure the survival of our genes and therefore our species.  Feelings of social love encourage us to seek out and associate ourselves with trustworthy, competent, helpful, knowledgeable people.  Throughout evolutionary history, love helped us survive.  It still helps us survive.  From an evolutionary perspective, we could say that humans are capable of love because love must have long served a powerful adaptive function.  In other words: Love works.

When we love a leader we are more likely to emulate that leader's positive qualities.  Americans, more than citizens of other countries, look to their President to serve as the nation's Example-in-Chief, a living incarnation of the republic's virtues (or more accurately, the virtues the nation aspires to).  Obama's imperturbable calm and long-range vision may be exactly the personal qualities that Americans will need to traverse a long and gloomy economic wilderness.

They say that breaking up is hard to do

Despite the undeniable satisfactions of hero-love or hero-worship, there are obviously strong drawbacks when it goes too far.  Brain scan research has revealed that the brain patterns of people in the first throes of love are not that different from the brain patterns of people suffering mental illness.  More specifically, romantic love is blind - on this the modern scientists confirm the age-old verdict of the poets. 

While the brain's dopamine reward system is turned on by love (the same brain chemistry that drives drug addiction), the centers of the brain associated with critical judgment and negative emotions are switched off.  When we are infatuated, we no longer see the beloved one's faults and vices, and won't believe it if our friends and family point them out.  When the realization finally comes, it can be brutal.

As the child famously entreated the corrupt baseball player, "Say it ain't so, Joe!"  Like our lovers, we want our heroes to remain perfect and - since humans are never perfect - we are perpetually disappointed.  Sporting scandals and political scandals share a common aspect of adolescent disillusionment.

For this reason many of us, after a certain age, stop worshipping sports idols or musical celebrities.  We realize that their unique and amazing talents do not necessarily correlate with any other admirable moral qualities.

Where does that leave us with Obama?  Are the world's liberals acting like love-struck teen-agers, blind to his faults?  As is always the case in politics, there will be more than two sides to a complete answer.  For the time being, let me conclude with another venerable truism which has been confirmed by modern science.  Sometimes infatuation turns into lasting love, and sometimes it doesn't.  A young, handsome President at the beginning of his term is as irresistible as a dewy-eyed Romeo, but by the end of his term he may be as lonely and forlorn as old King Lear.  

Whether Obama's initial appeal earns him the lasting affections of the nation will depend, as in happy marriages, on the transformation of passion into trust.  Promises will have to be converted into actions if the relationship is to work.  As in all affairs of the heart, only time can tell.

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