The Sum of Our Parts

(Article first published as The Sum of Our Parts on Blogcritics.) Most everyone has heard the saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been around for quite a while and generally means that, together, pieces produce a result not independently obtainable. It has several applications. First uttered by Aristotle as a philosophical precept, it is also a tenet of Gestalt psychology and an expression of the concept of synergy.  And, it’s a notion most of our politicians wish didn’t exist, especially during election season.

In attempting to influence voters, politicians too often aim their pitches at the primal parts of our mental processes. They excite our fears, our prejudices, our inceptive character traits, anything that represses critical examination of the positions they advocate. But, it is our ability for analytical thought that makes us more than the sum of our emotions and lesser cognitive processes. Every time it is defeated, we lose, too.

Barack Obama consistently appeals to our baser instincts to whip up support for his agenda. One of his favorite techniques is to demean those he opposes and then use ridicule, and often dishonesty, in his public pronouncements. There are almost as many examples of this technique as there are Obama speeches. In his 2010 State of the Union address, he chided U.S. Supreme Court justices, seated before him, for a ruling with which he disagrees. For good measure, he also mischaracterized the Court’s decision.

Last week, the president used a derisive red herring to impugn the integrity of business for being anti-regulation. He also launched into a dishonest bit of demagoguery about Republicans, the safety of children and corporate jets. Earlier this year, he invited key Republicans to his budget address only to deliver a partisan, and perfidious, attack rather than a serious proposal. A few days ago, he blistered the entire congress for lacking the study discipline of his daughters who are 10 and 13 years old. This from a ‘leader’ who has yet to offer anything substantive of his own.

On the other end of the political spectrum, too many conservatives also rely on emotional calls to action rather than thoughtful discourse. While not the name-calling petulant that is Obama, Michele Bachmann rarely speaks in other than the broadest of conservative strokes. Without a scripted speech, she usually makes little sense of it. Her most recent gaffe is confusing John Wayne, the movie star, with John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer. But, she also identified Concord, New Hampshire as the birthplace of the American Revolution. While Obama has too many states in his Union, she has too few Concords in hers.

When Bachmann has to extemporize, she talks in circles as in last month’s Fox News Sunday discussion of same sex marriage. She should be thankful that the voters in her congressional district have given her the House to call home and simply stay there.

As counterproductive as emotional political debate is, who is really to blame? Certainly, politicians are happy to engage us at that level. Emotional appeals are much easier than offering coherent and detailed proposals, which can be challenged and rejected along with their authors. But, is it also what voters want? Do we prefer our fears and prejudices heightened to figuring out the best solutions to the issues we face? Today, when knowledge is instantly available on the Internet, no political scholarship site ranks among the top five hundred most visited in the U.S.

We also have a tendency to substitute personality for scrutiny, preferring to base our assessments on who is speaking rather than what is spoken. But, fact finding is the guardian of our election process. In my case, for example, I have a human on my shoulder because I need more than just a spell checker to write my blogs. But, she remains in the background because we want our arguments to rise or fall based on their strengths or weaknesses. And, of course, I’m a lot cuter.

Perhaps, Ross Perot’s pie charts during the 1992 election campaign would be the brunt of jokes in any election year. If that’s the case, the laugh is on us.

See you on the left-side.