Let me say right off the bat that the Steven Johnson article in today's New York Times Magazine is silly and innocuous. Its subject is the amygdala, a center of emotion in the brain, and how it might be responsible for deciding whether we're liberals or conservatives.
It's silly -- but go read it. And notice that all the examples of the amygdala's effect involve turning people into Democrats, as if being a Democrat is an aberrant state:
Do liberals "think" with their limbic system more than conservatives do? ...
As The Times reported not long ago, a team of U.C.L.A. researchers analyzed the neural activity of Republicans and Democrats as they viewed a series of images from campaign ads. And the early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a "Democrat brain" was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence: either the Bush ads that featured shots of a smoldering ground zero or the famous "Daisy" ad from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign that ends with a mushroom cloud. Such brain activity indicates a kind of gut response, operating below the level of conscious control.
...Consider this possibility: the scientists do an exhaustive survey and it turns out that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It's a plausible outcome that matches some of our stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain....
Now, jump to Maureen Dowd's scathing column about sewer politics in the Bush family. Look past the main argument ("It's easy for the Bushes to stay gallant. They delegate the gutter.") to a couple of anecdotes from the column. The first one's about Lee Atwater, a hatchet man for Bush the Elder:
The New Yorker editor David Remnick, writing in Esquire in 1986, limned the 1980 Congressional race in South Carolina's Second District "between Atwater's man, Republican Floyd Spence, and a Faulknerian figure named Tom Turnipseed. At one press briefing, Atwater planted a reporter who rose and said, 'We understand Turnipseed has had psychotic treatment.' Atwater played it cool and refused to comment, but later told the reporters off the record, 'In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.'"
Then, later in the column, there's this about Bush the Younger and his team (something also noticed recently by Atrios):
Meanwhile, the Bush crew is shamelessly doing to Mr. Kerry what it once did to Mr. McCain: suggesting that the decorated Vietnam vet has snakes in his head and a temperament problem. "Senator Kerry appears to have lost his cool," Scott McClellan told reporters in Crawford on Friday. And the Bush campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, said on CNN that Mr. Kerry looked "wild-eyed" responding to Swift boat muck.
See a common thread?
Democrat equals neurotic -- or worse, possibly crazy.
Republican equals normal.
Watch for this trope. It's been part of our politics for a while now -- but most people aren't aware of it.
I've been reading Greg Mitchell's Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, about the 1950 Senate race between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Here's Mitchell describing an L.A. Times column written during the campaign by Kyle Palmer, who was unabashedly pro-Nixon:
[Palmer wrote that Helen Gahagan Douglas] was "an emotional artist" ... who had been "emotionally attracted" to the left-wing doctrine of her day. "Her emotional reactions took her far afield.... Mrs. Douglas was influenced by a state of mind -- by an emotional concept." There were "many instances of her emotional powers -- and reactions." A good example was "the emotional reaction that caused her to weep" when her idol, Henry Wallace, was kicked off the Roosevelt ticket in 1944.... The lady was "a veritable political butterfly, flitting from flower to flower and from bower to bower while others -- Nixon among the foremost -- have pulled up the weeds." There was, Palmer concluded, "nothing superficial about [Nixon's] make-up and no emotional instability whatsoever."
That last line's a hoot -- though in 1950 (and 1968 and 1972) people bought it.
Bush's supporters imply about him just what Palmer said about Nixon -- "no emotional instability whatsoever." That's obviously not true in Bush's case, but even his harshest critics talk about him as venal, stupid, and ideologically dangerous far more than they talk about him as hostile and sarcastic and snappish and vindictive. I think it's a huge mistake that we avoid pointing out Bush's utter inability to keep hisa cool, and I think the fact that Bush's stability is never questioned is a big reason that people tell pollsters he's a "strong leader" and that he "says what he means and means what he says."
Mitchell, in quoting the column about Douglas, discusses it as pure sexism, for obvious reasons. I'd argue that it's more than that -- it's making the case that there are "real men" and there's everyone else -- the weak, the dangerous, the unstable, who can be men (though not "real men") as well as women.
One last quote. It's from an infantile e-mailer who's written twice, the first time to insist that the Swift boat liars are telling the truth and to suggest that Kerry is undergoing a "meltdown":
The "meltdown" that I was more referring to was Kerry's psychological state or lack thereof. If various items of the story are true then I think that is a tremendous problem for Kerry and all of us. I can see lying and embellishing one's record to get laid, but not broadcasting it on the floor of the Senate or making a hollow record the centerpiece of a presidential campaign. It's not, ah, normal if you get my drift. If you detect someone home at the Kerry mansion so be it, however, I cannot. The Teresa "relationship" is another weird chapter.
There it is again.
Watch for this. If you're looking for it, you'll see it a lot -- especially as the Bush campaign sinks further and further into the sewer.