Why Do We Do What We Do?: Politics and the Brain Explained

What the heck is going on with United States Politics?! My dad, Lew Askegaard, is back as a special guest blogger to help us make some sense of the seemingly irrational reality show of the 2020 election. Enjoy!

I don’t really know what a normal father-daughter relationship is like.  Is the fact that the kid risked everything and endured four weeks in quarantine to go to the other side of the world some sort of clue?  Tasmania is farther from Staunton, Virginia (my town) than any other dry land on earth. I may still get the last laugh. Depending on the outcome of the election Nov. 3, we just might show up on her doorstep some day for a LONG visit.

One of the rewards for spending all that money on the kid’s dance classes and education is that you can see some of yourself in the kid.  For example, I passed along to Katie my dashing good looks.  My rapier wit.  I don’t have the heart to tell her what happens to that washboard stomach at age 30.  She’ll find out.  But one characteristic which is already full-blown in her is my Nordic talent for always finding the WORST CASE SCENARIO.

Which bring us to the possibility that Dastardly Don will get four more years.

A good way to fight Worst Case Scenarios is to dissect the scary stuff. Gives the illusion of control.  And that has (finally) led both Katie and me to a mutual love of


There are authors out there who can make sense of Everything. Three of the classics in TOE-verse are Yuval Harari’s Sapiens; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and the 717 page tome, Behave by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.  This last one explains Everything about human behavior from the neuron’s eye view. 

Sapolsky is an amazing neuroscientist who is possessed of both erudition and a hilarious self-deprecating dry wit. Not only that, but he seems to have an encyclopedic memory (or the world’s best graduate assistants). And he did prepare for campus life for a decade or two by living with a tribe of baboons, ala Jane Goodall, the Chimp Lady.

Like all good TOEs, Behave has all the answers to those incomprehensible questions of life.  Like this one,  which comes up whenever liberals gather:

How Can Smart, Educated People Support Trump?

Some do.  Answer follows, in the form of a case study.

  1. Trump looks into TV cameras. He says he’s brought the greatest economy in the history of the world.  He saved us from the China Virus. He protected us from the evil illegal immigrants and made America Great Again. JUST THINK OF WHAT I’LL DO IN THE NEXT FOUR YEARS!
  • Two people watch, one Trump supporter, one Biden person. Both process what’s happening through what has been called the most complex three pounds of spongy fat and protein in the universe: the human brain. The brain, like every other part of our bodies, has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. We actually have many brains. Sapolsky counts three (chapter 2).  An ancient one we share with geckos, crows, whales, that monitors sensory inputs; one that’s been called a mammalian invention, that generates emotions; and the newcomer, the cortex, which is involved with thinking. It’s a Rube Goldberg assemblage that’s evolved over 200-300 million years. All three are constantly busy, firing messages back and forth to each other in response to every stimulus that comes along. And right now, to Mr. Trump’s ad.

3a. Trump guy basks in the warm dopamine afterglow of love and respect since mid brain identified an alpha male evoking happy images of tribal status. Cortex responds with happy images of 3As high school buddy, local BMOC, of his dear old dad excoriating the guy who mowed their lawn whose accent they couldn’t understand after Dad’s watch went missing. Hooray Alpha Males!  Down with furriners with accents!  Go Trump!

3b. But the Biden guy next door is getting very different sensations. Yes, there may be a little dopamine shot, but then the cortex intervenes with prior learning. Calls up memories of worthy immigrants, articles read denouncing Trump’s virus handling that scared us, things Dad told us.  Memories are treated like actual experiences by the middle brain, and the response is a new flood of scared, anxious, feel-bad chemicals. Boo Trump.

It’s not a matter of IQ.  It’s a matter of the way your three brains have been conditioned by experiences. The newcomer cortex is constantly rattled by the old-timer brains, and it retaliates by creating images and retrieving happy or scary memories or predictions which it passes along down the chain. .


And there you have it.  Right versus Left, reduced to the biochemical level.  Libs and Conservatives are programmed differently.  Sapolsky reviews the literature on it, as follows.  It’s all in Chapter 12, pages 446-451.

  • Conservatives like hierarchies and respect dominance more than libs. 
  • Lefties tend to be more educated than Righties. 
  • Libs are more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity. They “think harder”
  • Conservatives “trust their gut” and snap judgments whereas libs are more likely to think things through. 
  • Conservatives place more value on loyalty, authority, and sanctity; libs value care, fairness, and liberty .
  • Conservatives like structure and predictability and react more strongly to perceived threats.. 
  • And one so dangerous Sapolsky prefaces it by saying, “The hell with it.”  Research says that lower intelligence is associated with right wing authoritarianism (p. 446).

Or to sum up the preceding in Yeats’ disturbingly-titled “The Second Coming”:



All behavior and opinions are motivated. We were motivated—to eat, to pee, to cry–long before we thought deep thoughts. Our brains are one more physiological systems we employ to get the right mix of feel good drugs out of our neurons.  Some of us get it by yelling cheers at football games, unmuffled by face masks. Some of us get it by writing scathing reviews of someone else’s article. We spend our lives in quest of the elusive dopamine bath, the serotonin shot.  We seek what makes us feel good, and we avoid what makes us feel bad.


Mr. Trump is no fool. He’s a smart guy who learned dominance from his loving and hyper-aggressive millionaire Dad, Fred.  He learned about immigrants by listening to Dad talk about his deadbeat renters. He learned dominance by cheering Dad on as his lawyers beat the city fathers and tax guys’ lawyers.  When he got into trouble for bullying at New York Military Academy, he took notes as Dad marched into the head’s office and showed him who’s boss.  He learned that you never back down, you never second guess, you just charge. In January, 2016 at Christian Dordt College in Sioux City, Iowa, candidate Trump famously said, “I could stand in the middle of Park Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s incredible.”  He was right on both counts.  His platform is simplicity itself: I’m Donald Trump. That’s why you should vote for me. It’s a strategy that has characterized leaders for millennia. I’m General Patton, that’s why.  I’m Attila. I’m Darius.

“If you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it.  And you will come to believe it yourself.”  -Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister

Every day is a reality show: “Donald Trump, World’s Greatest President.”     Trump knows what gives the 3As their feel-good soak, and he doesn’t really care about the whining 3Bs.  He’s got his demographic, and his Q scores are through the roof with them.  He makes his midnight screeds must-read tweets.  If his mid brain ever runs short of feel good chemicals in those dark, diet-Coke fueled nights, no one hears about it.


The challenger is Gentleman Joe, a well-meaning mediocrity who showed the world how far you could go by being a nice guy. What’s not to like? He was the nice guy who was never at the top in anything but football. Everyone liked him. His dad was a riches to rags tale who eventually earned a middle class living selling used cars. Sonny worked his way up the ladder the old fashioned way, by being inoffensive and friendly and competent enough. Was it Jimmy Carter who said that to be elected you have to be someone the voter would enjoy hoisting a beer with at a bar? Genial Joe is that guy. (Seriously now, who would want to down a cold one with Hillary?)  He must have learned something from eons in the senate and 8 years as VP of the United States.  Experience counts, right?

Is America ready for a well-adjusted, ordinary, predictable guy?   Personally, I’ve had enough excitement in the last four years.  Go Joe!

Thoughts, feelings, comments, concerns? Shoot Lew an email at laskegaa@marybaldwin.edu

Love this? Check out Lew’s other post!:

Free College: Progressive, Revolutionary, and Wildly Impossible

Is Joe Biden’s Free College plan absolute genius or incredibly stupid? The academia expert (and my dad), Lew, weighs in.

And if you’re feeling political charged and ready to feed your hungry brain, check these out:

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting post. I’m setting it aside to read more carefully and refer to.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hmmm very interesting post indeed. I have been following this election like GLUE probably because I have little else going on outside work right because of you know what. I’m not sure theres a country on earth as polarized as the USA is right now between two sides. and I dont think the States has ever been as polarised in history as it is right now. I’ve been thinking doing a post about it but I am very aware that it will be interpreted as taking sides either way. and in general i try to keep politics well out of what I post.

    I’m going to pluck this one out –
    “Conservatives like structure and predictability and react more strongly to perceived threats.. ”

    I mean I dont think Trump has in any way provided structure or predictability. and I think a lot of supporters like that. In many ways he goes against the grain of traditional conservative values. He is clearly not religious at all and I can’t believe for a second his die hard supporters would argue that he is. The concept of tariffs which he’s used as a tool to get better trade deals with Mexico and China to name but two is actually a very left wing idea. A lot of European countries have heavy tariffs to protect their own industries. He’s an anomaly.
    I think to be honest a lot of the world is watching this contest and it’s the most bizarre episode of ‘The Trump Show’ yet. People are genuinely wondering how Biden became the opponent. sure its mostly his age. But it seems that the angle each candidate is using is to just go negative on the opponent. Trump more so than Biden which is equally bizarre as he is the incumbent.
    Nobody knows how reliable the polls are after the last election. They seem to be holding steady but who knows?


    1. Great points! It has been fascinating watching the election from Australia. Stepping away (FAR away) and looking at it with fresh eyes makes it look even crazier than it does from being in the thick of it.

      I haven’t encountered one person who supports Trump and thinks he’s sane (not saying they don’t exist, but yet to find one!), but there also isn’t a strong Pro-Trump presence here. In the US, if you turn on Fox News and that’s all you watch, you DO think he is reliable and a good leader because you get sound bytes, not facts. News in the US is astoundingly emotional, and unfortunately you really have to weed through the rhetoric to get the truth, and let’s just say most people don’t care to be weed diggers.

      The information I read about from Tasmania seems less emotional and less bias, and it makes it easier to feel properly informed rather than duped and tricked into taking sides. But then again, I guess it’s important to take everything you read with a grain of salt!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s