'Fake' News Gets One Thing Right, We Feel Our Way To The Facts That Inform Our Vote

Dec 8, 2016

University of Central Arkansas political scientist Heather Yates studies the input human emotion has on the body politic. Her most recent book is The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Following the national election last month the din of news stories about news stories seems to have reached a crescendo. Academics and even online social media sites like Facebook are examining what, if anything, is an appropriate response to “fake” news stories. They’re light on facts, but no less alarming for it.

University of Central Arkansas political scientist Heather Yates studies the input human emotion has on politics. This year Palgrave MacMillan published her most recent book, The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices, but she’s been researching voter behavior since the 2004 election, focused on emotions and how they influence voters’ choices and even cognition.

She sat down with Arkansas Public Media to discuss a handful of developments she'll be watching — and some she'll be studying — between the election season of 2016 and the next presidential cycle in 2020.

ELECTORAL COLLEGE

The 2016 election, though a wrenching shock to some, is not "the most contentious" election in U.S. history, Yates says. In fact, it's probably only 5th.

The 2000 election, put to rest finally by the federal Supreme Court, is tops. The elections of 1876, 1888, and 1896 — all Electoral College departures from the popular vote results — are also high. Those, she said, were similar to 2016 in that the media played an oversized roles. Veracity was an issue, too. Then, it was called "muckraking," she says, which is not the same as "fake" news this election cycle, of course, but nonetheless left "voters overall to claim they're exhausted and fatigued with this type of journalism," even as they appear to vote for more with their touch-votes.

FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT LOSES

Without question, the nation narrowly choose a political neophyte over a woman with a political resume that, on its face, made her perhaps the most qualified contender in a generation. 

"Looking back, political history will examine Hillary Clinton's credentials and assess that there was no other woman who could have won the nomination. It had to be Hillary Clinton because of her accomplishments," and yet, it was not enough for the White House.

"Look at the Oval Office, it's a traditionally masculinized space," she says. "Prior to Barack Obama, it was a masculinized space that was also a white masculinzed space, so there was that barrier that was broken down, and I think that gave Democrats some hope and enthusiasm that we as a society had reached the political maturation ... we could also break down a gender barrier or two."

But consider Shirley Chisholm's candidacy in 1972. Chisholm, a black, Brooklyn woman so fiercely independent she titled her autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, "believed the world" — at least the world of national politics and the presidency — "might have been a little more sexist than racist. So, yes, her sex was the larger obstacle than race."

Having said that, Yates acknowledged that Hillary Clinton brought to her historic run a set of associations that will be hard for scientists to parse from her sex. She was dubbed "private" by her allies, "secretive" by foes. The Clinton brand, for all of its successes, also calls to mind scandal as well as conspiracy. It has steep "liabilities," Yates said.

One "issue with women voters is, are they interpretting the political landscape through the lens of gender identity? Many aren't." They're considering their socio-economic position, or else motherhood — "security moms," "soccer moms" — before womanhood.

IDENTITY POLITICS

Many have heralded 2016 as the end of identity politics, as many "identities" that would seem to predetermine allegiances didn't come to fruition. Hispanic Catholics voted Republican; Catholic nuns voted Democratic.

Yates says we haven't seen the end of identity politics because politicians require identity politics to tailor their campaigns.

"I'm convinced there's a shift or a changing of identity politics in teandem with electoral realignment. There's no stable coalitions," she says, but "voters rely on some form of identity politics and so do candidates rely on appealing to those identities."

NEXT TIME WITH MORE FEELING?

Yates' study is the intersection of emotion and cognition and how this influences people's politics. She does this from the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Often, on the first day of class, she asks students, "Are you a thinking voter or a feeling voter?"

This should be a lopsided survey, and it used to be.

"But within the last several years they've gotten savvy. Now, they're like, 'Oh, who are we kidding. We're totally feeling voters.'"

Feeling, she says, is not anathema to cognition or ratiocination. The brain is a pretty efficient instrument for assimilation information, and often we "feel" accepting or rejecting of something we have very little information about. 

"In politics, our brains don't understand [many of] its abstract concepts, but it's probing the perimeter for information that represents a threat to our status quo, our survival."

Such impatient, from-the-gut decision making in democratic societies, she says, is what Plato and Aristotle, and more recently, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, forewarned. "If we admit we're feeling voters, somehow we have proven ancient thinkers correct — democracy is terrible."

So "we cling to the promise of 'the rational voter.'"

And then define "rational" in a number of ways, objective and subjective.