Political Animals

How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics


By Rick Shenkman

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Can a football game affect the outcome of an election? What about shark attacks? Or a drought? In a rational world the answer, of course, would be no. But as bestselling historian Rick Shenkman explains in Political Animals, our world is anything but rational. Drawing on science, politics, and history, Shenkman explores the hidden forces behind our often illogical choices.

Political Animals challenges us to go beyond the headlines, which often focus on what politicians do (or say they’ll do), and to concentrate instead on what’s really important: what shapes our response. Shenkman argues that, contrary to what we tell ourselves, it’s our instincts rather than arguments appealing to reason that usually prevail. Pop culture tells us we can trust our instincts, but science is proving that when it comes to politics our Stone Age brain often malfunctions, misfires, and leads us astray.

Fortunately, we can learn to make our instincts work in our favor. Shenkman takes readers on a whirlwind tour of laboratories where scientists are exploring how sea slugs remember, chimpanzees practice deception, and patients whose brains have been split in two tell stories. The scientists’ findings give us new ways of understanding our history and ourselves — and prove we don’t have to be prisoners of our evolutionary past.”

In this engaging, illuminating, and often riotous chronicle of our political culture, Shenkman probes the depths of the human mind to explore how we can become more political, and less animal.




The Michael Jordan Lesson

Why people who don’t vote and don’t follow the news don’t think they need to


This is a book about politics, but a sports story illustrates one of its themes—that voters don’t seem to be very good at their job—better than any political story I know. The story is about the most famous basketball player in history. Even if you do not follow sports you know his name: Michael Jordan. This is because Jordan was such an exceptional athlete, he became a phenomenon. ESPN says he was the greatest athlete in North America in the twentieth century. The Associated Press lists him as second best—just behind Babe Ruth. Jordan’s most famous feat was literally flying across the court from the free throw line for a slam dunk. The soaring maneuver earned him the nickname Air Jordan. In the early-1990s he led the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships in a row—a three-peat. A few years later he led the Bulls to a second three-peat. He is known the world over for his athletic accomplishments. This is how Ira Berkow, the longtime sports columnist at the New York Times, opens a profile on Jordan:

One day I found myself on a boat wending its way up the Bosporus, which not only divides a city—Istanbul—but splits two continents as well. The guide for this morning tour for two was a young Turk who was doing his job by the numbers. At one point, leaning over the rail—it was the Asian side, not the European side, if memory serves—he asked what I do for a living in America. I told him. He came alive. “Have you ever met Michael Jordan?” he asked. I said that I have, that in my line of work he’s rather difficult to avoid. The guide said, “Oh my God!”

In between his three-peats Michael Jordan did something that shocked the world. He retired from basketball and became a baseball player. The news was carried on the front pages of newspapers on every continent.

The very best baseball player in history, judging by batting average, was Ted Williams, who hit .406 in 1941, the highest ever in a single season. The player with the best career batting average was Ty Cobb. His score was .366. At the other extreme are players who hit below .230. They are considered inferior batters.

So how did Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in history, do at baseball? On his first try, playing for a team in the minor leagues—the Double-A league, which is below Triple-A—he batted .202 and hit three home runs. On his second try, playing in the Arizona Fall League, which is comprised of Double-A and Triple-A players, he batted .252. That was respectable, but still disappointing. In basketball Jordan had been a star. In baseball, he wasn’t. “Bag It, Michael!” a cover for Sports Illustrated blared.

After playing baseball for two years Jordan went back to basketball to the cheers of Bulls fans, who had watched their team lose its championship status without him. Once again, Jordan ruled the court. In his second game out he scored 55 points. The next season he averaged 30 points per game, making him the league’s top player. With Jordan the Bulls resumed their old winning streak. His first full year back, the Bulls won 72 games and lost just 10. It was the best regular season record of any team in the history of the National Basketball Association.

In high school a student who is a star in one sport is often a star in another. As you flip through the pages of your high school yearbook you will see many of the same faces pop up on multiple sports pages. The star featured on one page with a baseball bat is found on another wearing a helmet and clutching a football. The star of the tennis team doubles as a guard on the basketball team. But college is different. In college, student athletes specialize. It is rare for a college athlete to play in multiple sports. The reason is that in college sports there is often a great deal of money on the line. Schools want athletes playing the sport they are best at. Most are much better at one sport than another. With the intense competition in college sports, even a gifted all-around athlete can’t play all sports equally well.

On Wikipedia there’s a fascinating page that lists professional football players who have won renown in other sports. The list is short. Of the more than 10,000 people who have played pro football through the years, just 116 made the list. On another Wikipedia page there’s a list of people who won Olympic medals in different sports. More than a hundred thousand athletes have competed in the Olympics. Just 81 have won medals in different sports. What these lists suggest is that it is rare for star athletes to excel in different sports. But that’s not all. When you begin to examine these lists carefully a pattern shows up. Here is the tabulated list of the football players who excelled in other sports:

49 baseball

24 track and field

20 basketball

7 soccer

5 martial arts

4 wrestling

3 lacrosse

3 golf

3 boxing

1 car racing

1 American Ninja Warrior

1 ice hockey

Notice anything? These athletes aren’t excelling in two entirely different sports by and large. They are shining in sports that require similar skills. Football has a lot in common with baseball and basketball. All three sports require athletes to possess either good eye-hand coordination or fast legs. The similarity between football and track is less obvious. We think of football players as bulky and track stars as skinny. But track stars who can throw a javelin can probably also throw a football, and several of the football players who did track were expert javelin throwers. The other sports on the list are outliers. Significantly, some sports don’t show up on the list at all. No football players made their mark in swimming or tennis. This is striking.

You see the same pattern when you review the winners in the Olympics. The athletes specialize. They either participate in the summer games or the winter games. Just four medal winners in the summer games ever won a medal in the winter games. Just four—and that’s in the whole history of a competition that draws athletes from around the world. Only one person—Deion Sanders—has ever played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl. Then there’s Bo Jackson. What’s special about Bo? In the opinion of many sportswriters there haven’t been any other athletes like him; a star in both baseball and football, he was courted by teams in both sports after he won college football’s Heisman Trophy. The man who made a documentary about him for ESPN says Jackson is even great at surfing and rollerblading.

What this suggests is that human beings, even highly talented human beings, aren’t supermen. This is the Michael Jordan Lesson. People are good in some things but not all things. They can excel in one sport but not all sports. When do these star athletes succeed? When their skills match the challenges they face. When do they fail or flail? When they apply those same skills to tasks for which they are not naturally suited. This explains why swimmers like Mark Spitz don’t play football and football players like Joe Namath don’t compete for swimming medals in the Olympics.

Does it also explain why voters have so much trouble keeping up on the news and making informed decisions?


For as long as mankind has been trying democracy, there have been people who have said it won’t work. The reason that is most often provided is public ignorance. Plato’s “The Simile of the Cave” is the best known of the early indictments. The story begins with an account of a group of prisoners who have been confined from childhood in a cave. The prisoners are shackled in such a way that the only thing they can see in the dim light thrown off by a fire behind them is the wall they are staring at. They cannot look around or even turn their heads. They can only stare ahead. Behind them there’s a stage, the kind marionette players use. Plato asks us to imagine that, on this stage, performances are constantly being held featuring various objects—a figure of a horse, a little statue of a man, and the like—which the manipulators (out of sight like marionette puppeteers) move back and forth across the stage. What the prisoners see are not the objects themselves, then, but the large shadows the objects cast.

Those shadows form the only world the prisoners know until one day one of them is released. As the freed prisoner rises and starts moving about he notices that what the prisoners have been looking at all these years is not the objects themselves, but the images of the objects. As he makes his way out of the cave and into the light and his eyes adjust, he encounters the real world and real objects. “And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners,” Plato asks, “do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?” The answer of course is that he would.

But this is not the end of the story. Plato wants us to consider what would happen if the freed prisoner were to return to the cave to tell his former colleagues what he has found. If you expect his former colleagues on prisoner’s row to be grateful to learn what the real world is like, you are in for a disappointment. What actually would happen, Plato predicts, is quite different, and it would be tragic:

While his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

The grim ending to Plato’s story—which suggests that people who see the light will be punished for their insights by people who lack vision—sounds extreme. But he was speaking from experience. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, paid for his willingness to speak the truth with his life. In the advanced democracies of the modern West, visionaries are no longer put to death. Instead, they are given book contracts. In their books these modern-day Platos raise a hue and cry over the problem ignorance poses to democracy, turning alarmism about ignorance into a virtual cottage industry. Walk into any bookstore and you will find volumes like Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, which warns about the dangers of ignorance about religion, and Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, which charges that young people raised on Google don’t read literature, can’t understand basic scientific concepts, and have no idea how our government functions.

Bauerlein’s book suggests that the young belong to a special category of ignoramuses—and perhaps they do—but critics have been beating the same horse for generations. Mass man is ignorant. See almost any of Walter Lippmann’s books, especially his 1922 treatise, Public Opinion, in which he raises Plato’s ghost to try to scare the country into addressing the problem of gross public ignorance. Books like Lippmann’s became especially popular after World War Two. Nazism scared people. It turned liberal democrats into worrywarts, or as one historian calls them, “The Nervous Liberals.” Democracy no longer seemed the cure; it was the problem. Nazism showed that even in an advanced nation like Germany millions could succumb to ignorance. Adolf Hitler didn’t take power in a coup. He rode a wave of popular discontent into office (even if he never won a majority in a free election).

One of the most popular of the early-postwar critiques was written by Bergen Evans. Evans was exactly the sort of figure you’d expect to find selling America on the idea that ignorance is costly. A Rhodes Scholar, he had gone to Harvard and become an English professor. He became so well known that the quiz show “The $64,000 Question” hired him to oversee the selection of the questions the contestants answered. He even got his own show, “Of Many Things,” which mixed fun material on pop culture with serious discussions of events from history. He wrote two books exposing the public’s ignorance. The first, The Natural History of Nonsense, came out in 1946, just after the war. Its opening salvo is memorable: “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Ideas of the Stone Age exist side by side with the latest scientific thought. Only a fraction of mankind has emerged from the Dark Ages, and in the most lucid brains, as Logan Pearsall Smith has said, we come upon ‘nests of woolly caterpillars.’” Millions, he points out, still believe in witches, informing his readers that “between 1926 and 1936 the New York Times carried stories of more than fifty cases of witchcraft,” fifteen of which were in the United States. How near we are to darkness, he warns. For “few people think rationally.” Skepticism, “the life spirit of science,” is rare. The book was so popular he followed it up with another, The Spoor of Spooks, a few years later. It too was a hit. The popularity of his books suggests that educated readers shared his alarm.

After the war university professors became consumed with the problem of public ignorance. One is worth singling out, for he devoted himself to the subject for decades. His name was Thomas A. Bailey, and he was a giant in the field of history, elected by his peers to lead the Organization of American Historians. Bailey had the white hair of a stereotypically distinguished historian and a friendly, intelligent face. His name may ring a bell. He was the author of one of the most popular textbooks ever published: The American Pageant. Half a century later it remains in print. If you are lucky, it was the textbook you read when you were in high school. Unlike many textbooks, it reads like an actual human being wrote it. Like his book, Bailey was witty. Once, a college student eager to meet the great historian who’d written The American Pageant sought out Bailey on a visit to Stanford, where Bailey taught. He found the historian in his large first-floor office literally surrounded by open boxes of photocopied papers, thousands and thousands of them. As Bailey looked up, catching the student’s surprised expression as he took in all those boxes, the professor wisecracked, “These days it’s Xerox or perish.”

Bailey was trained as a diplomatic historian. But he became fascinated with public opinion after it dawned on him that every foreign policy crisis in US history was shaped decisively by public opinion, an observation that formed the basis of the first chapter in another of his textbooks, his hugely popular A Diplomatic History of the American People. It wasn’t the diplomats who controlled events. It was the masses. As the nineteenth-century British political economist John Stuart Mill observed: “In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world.”

Bailey did not find this reassuring. He laid out his concerns in The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy, which was published in 1948 (Mill’s quote is featured on page 1). The book reads like a ride through a foreign policy house of horrors. Every few pages the “Man in the Street” is on the brink of bringing America to disaster. During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the masses living along the Atlantic seaboard demand that the navy divert key warships from the West Indies, where they are awaiting the arrival of the Spanish fleet, to protect the coast from a nonexistent threat. Bailey observes: “If the Spanish fleet had been stronger, the tale might well have had a less happy ending.” That is, we might have lost the war. In World War Two, a loud “get-Hirohito-first” crowd crows so loudly that the army feels intense pressure to change its decision to focus on Hitler first, “and thus prolong or even lose the war.”

Ignorance, in Bailey’s opinion, was driving these wrongheaded moves. “An appalling ignorance of foreign affairs is one of the most striking and dangerous defects of American public opinion,” he acidly observes. As evidence Bailey points to a poll concerning the Atlantic Charter—which defined the Allies’ war aims and gave soldiers and voters an understanding of the war’s meaning. It’s regarded as one of the great documents of the twentieth century. In 1942, eight in ten Americans admitted they had no idea what the Atlantic Charter was. This was just several months after FDR and Winston Churchill signed it.

Two generations later, in the late 1980s, another author, inspired by both Bergen Evans and Thomas Bailey, began plowing the same fields. His special concern was with the myths of history, a subject Bailey also addressed in several books. “Americans, despite everything you hear, know plenty of history,” the writer starts off in his debut book on myths. “They know that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, that Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill, that Columbus discovered the world is round, and that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The punch line, of course, is that Americans know all of these things but that none of these things are true.” Like Bergen Evans’s books, this book was also a best seller. After the author went on the “Today Show” the publisher had to scramble to meet demand. The books literally came flying off the presses so fast, they didn’t have time to dry, eliciting complaints from booksellers that the books were arriving with warped covers. The author made a virtual career out of debunking myths, turning out two more books along the same lines. A few years later, frustrated by the continuing evidence of public ignorance, he put out a polemic. It was called Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter. The author of the three debunking books and the polemic was me. (I was also the fresh-faced college student who visited Thomas Bailey with all his photocopies.)

In the early years of the twenty-first century, evidence of public ignorance is omnipresent. These are just some of the findings that have attracted attention:

         A majority of Americans who supported the war in Iraq believed that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 terror attacks. They supported the war chiefly for this reason. In their minds, we went to war in Iraq in retaliation for 9/11.

         Nearly 25 percent of high school students cannot identify Adolf Hitler.

         About 25 percent of Americans have an opinion about Panetta-Burns—a piece of legislation that doesn’t exist. A newspaper invented the legislation to see if people guessed the answers to the questions pollsters ask.

         A majority of American voters in 2010 believed that President Obama raised taxes on the middle class during his first two years in office. Obama actually lowered taxes during that time for 95 percent of Americans.

         Nearly 60 percent of Americans cannot identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

         A majority of Americans do not know there are three branches of government.

         Nearly 30 percent of Louisiana Republicans in 2013 blamed President Obama for Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane occurred in 2005, when George W. Bush was president.

         Nearly 25 percent of high school graduates cannot pass the army’s rudimentary math, reading, and science entrance exam.

         A near majority of Republicans believe that ACORN, the leftwing activist group, stole the election for Obama in 2012. ACORN did not exist after 2010, having been driven out of business by hostile Republicans.

         A majority of Americans do not know which party is in control of Congress.

And that’s not the worst of it.

Not long after Barack Obama became a viable candidate for the presidency in 2008 journalists began noticing what seemed like a peculiar phenomenon. A lot of people seemed to believe that Obama was a Muslim. According to the polls, first as many as one in ten believed it, then later, one in five. Many Americans professed not to know what his religion was at all, though Obama had gone to great lengths to identify himself as a Christian. About four in ten Americans in Ohio told pollsters in 2008 that they had no idea what Obama’s religion was. Birtherism—the belief that Obama was born in a foreign country—was also popular. A majority of Americans said they did not know in what country Obama was born. Millions believed he was born in Kenya. At anti-Obama rallies voters began demanding to see his birth certificate.

To journalists these poll results seemed the height of ignorance. The facts were well known. Obama had been born in Hawaii. And he wasn’t Muslim. He’d attended a Christian church for two decades. His Christian pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even became for a time the subject of front-page news stories after a tape of a sermon surfaced in which he seemed to suggest that America deserved to be hit on 9/11. “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he had thundered. How, journalists wondered, could Obama be castigated one moment as a Muslim and the next for his close association with a Christian pastor (who had married the Obamas, no less)? It didn’t make much sense. So one day, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, the Washington Post sent a reporter, Eli Saslow, out to the heartland to find the answer.

Saslow ended up in Findlay, Ohio—a city that Congress officially designated Flag City USA in 1974. There he came across Jim P., a quintessential heartlander. He had worked until retirement at Cooper Tire. He was an Air Force veteran. He had two children. And on top of all that he was flying four American flags from poles planted in his front yard. Perfect! You can imagine the glee Saslow felt when he found Jim P. Saslow popped the question: what did Jim P. think of claims that Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya? The answer was so good that Saslow opened his story with it. The answer was, Jim P. wasn’t sure what to think because he kept hearing conflicting stories about Obama. “It’s like you’re hearing about two different men with nothing in common,” Jim P. said. “It makes it impossible to figure out what’s true, or what you can believe.” A reporter lives for a quote like this.

But it was strange. The mainstream media had, by this point, repeatedly debunked the myth that Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya. Shouldn’t the media’s exposé of this falsehood have buried it completely? And it wasn’t just the Obama nonsense that had been widely debunked. So had the other phony stories, such as the claim that Saddam was behind 9/11. That there should be rampant ignorance when the relevant facts are as easily available as they are today was puzzling. Why then did these stories not only remain in circulation but also attract millions of adherents? Why were people so ignorant about so many things?

That we have to ask this question is troubling. It suggests that human beings are not very good at something we should by all rights be superb at: figuring out the basic facts about our world. As a species, humans excel at discovering the basic facts about the physical world. It is to understand the world that we come equipped with five senses. We are built to understand the environment in which we find ourselves. For instance, vision helps us pick out predators and friends, and our sensitive hearing allows us to detect the direction from which a sound is coming.

Curiosity is built into our brain. We know this by virtue of one of the great discoveries of the twentieth century. It was made by the Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist and biologist Eric Kandel in the unlikeliest of ways, in lab experiments on Aplysia, an ordinary sea slug researchers love to study because its brain consists of just 20,000 neurons (the human brain, in contrast, has 86 billion neurons). Kandel spent years poking and prodding Aplysia and measuring their response to various stimuli, including electrical impulses. His most significant finding? When they first encounter a stimulus their brain neurons fire like crazy. But the more they experience the same stimulus, the less they respond. By the tenth stimulus their response declines to nearly one-twentieth what it was initially.

This was an amazing discovery because it suggested that the animal brain doesn’t consciously decide to ignore habitual stimulation—sea slugs lack consciousness. Rather, the brain does this automatically. In his insightful memoir about his decades-long experiments on Aplysia, Kandel explains why evolution favored this development. It saves energy. The first time you hear a fire bell go off, a chill runs down your neck and you expend a lot of


On Sale
Jan 5, 2016
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Rick Shenkman

About the Author

Rick Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter, a New York Times bestselling author, and the editor and founder of George Mason University’s History News Network. An associate professor of History at George Mason University, he lives in Seattle, Washington.

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