America needs both intuition and rationalism to uphold democracy

America needs both intuition and rationalism to uphold democracy
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We have the #MeToo movement and now, all across the country, we have an erupting #MeOnly movement. Its adherents assemble on state capitols and suburban street corners to protest coronavirus restrictions designed to keep us safe. They brandish guns, dress in tactical gear, wave political flags, and hoist repulsive signs that invoke imagery of the Holocaust and desecrating its victims, as if being asked to remain at home is the moral equivalent of being marched to the crematoria. The orders are certainly for the greater good, but these people see nothing in the greater good.

Despite universal consensus of doctors, scientists, and medical history that isolation during a pandemic saves lives, they want the fresh air of freedom. But that air may not be so fresh when it carries the microbial stuff of coughs, sneezes, and spittle, possibly infecting anyone around them. Some of them once believed ObamaCare may kill grandma. Now, however, they seem fine with elevating her risk of infection by exposing her to the coronavirus. Is there a rational explanation to such irrational behavior? Yes, actually, but it will not necessarily make you feel better.

This idea is thoughtfully explained in the book, “Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics,” by Eric Oliver, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Thomas Wood, a professor with the Ohio State University. The authors argue that there are two powerful forces shaping our politics. On one side are the “rationalists” who base their judgement on data, reason, science, and objective empiricism. On the other are the “intuitionists” who place far more trust in their gut feelings and instincts.


According to studies by Oliver and Wood, and I can hear the intuitionists groaning, intuitionists are more likely to reject scientific explanations and the advice of doctors, believe in conspiracy theories, disbelieve experts, and distrust the media. Intuitionists reject the norms of democracy and also happen to be the “most enthusiastic supporters of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE.”

Rationalists will listen to Anthony FauciAnthony FauciVaccine skepticism emerges as early test for Biden Trump encourages Americans to 'gather' in Thanksgiving proclamation despite coronavirus surge Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE and blithely say that “his advice is good enough for me.” Intuitionists will listen to the renowned doctor, see a conspiracy, and take to the streets with signs that read “Fire Fauci!” The divide, however, is not cleanly liberal versus conservative. I know plenty of intuitionist liberals who stridently reject science and rail against vaccines. I know plenty of conservatives who believe deeply that the attacks of 9/11 were an inside job and that the country needs to bring our troops home.

For the United States to survive as a democracy, we need both rationalism and intuition. I use the word “survive” intentionally because both qualities are part of our primitive wiring. They balance each other inside, helping to regulate our fight or flight impulses, our assessment and management of risk, and our decision making. The problem today is that the convergence of economic stability, gerrymandered districts, and the curated news on social media have all further divided the poles of rationalism and intuition.

So the country has a new culture war over face masks, health regulations, and personal sacrifice. It is also another civic war where each side seems much more demented to the other. There is simply no act of Congress, no federal bailout, or no relief measure that can cure this divide. We will have to cure it ourselves. As Oliver and Cook had noted, “For all the discussion of ideological polarization that is dominating American political discourse, true liberals and true conservatives can unite in protecting and sustaining the basic values and principles that have defined the American republic.”

It is a noble thought. In the meantime, can the maskless protestors wave their guns and signs in their own backyards? It is time to do a gut check that the coronavirus might be a hoax to you but it is not to the rest of us.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.