Karl Rove, Master Psychologist
I'm a big fan of Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist who's given us such great books as The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and his latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature. All highly recommended if you're interested in what makes us humans tick.
One of Pinker's core tenets is that evolution has equipped us with a set of "mental modules"—specialized bits of programming that endow us with basic human traits. There's one for simple math, another for finding our way home, another for detecting when other people are lying, one for handling language, and so on. Since these modules have essentially been layered on top of each other through the eons, they don't always mesh very well, and sometimes are in outright opposition (which can explain why we often feel conflicted about things).
The sum total of all these modules is what Pinker calls "human nature," and it's remarkably constant through (recent) time and throughout cultures worldwide. You can study it, figure out how it works, and use it to make predictions about how people will react in a given situation. One simple example will suffice: everywhere in the world, people have sensitive "unfairness detectors," and if they perceive that someone is being greedy, they will try to punish that person—even if it costs them something personally. (The technical term for this trait is "altruistic punishment".)
All of which is a long setup for my recent thought about that guy progressives love to hate: Karl Rove. The master political strategist responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House and keeping him there for 8 years.
Here's the puzzling thing about Rove: how does he get away with the stunts he pulls? He promotes outright falsehoods with impunity, and never seems to pay a price for it. He attacks his political enemies viciously and generally leaves them with their jaws wagging, babbling incoherently and ineffectually. He seems immune to counterattacks. How does he do it?
Well, I was reading some blog yesterday and came across something called Karl Rove's 3 Principles of Politics (I'd provide a link but don't have one). And it made me think of Pinker and his notion that humans are essentially pre-programmed to respond in certain ways to situations.
So I dropped Steve an email. And here it is (minus some irrelevant chitchat):
I haven't heard back yet; if I do I'll update this.
Update: I received this from Pinker on Jan. 6, 2012:
Thanks for sharing that insightful analysis, which I agree with. The strategy, of course, is a risky one, as big lies are the easiest to refute, and cannot survive forever. Rovism was defeated in the Congressional elections of 2006 and the presidential election of 2008, and therein lies a ray of hope.