By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
You’re not a reptile, so don’t let yourself be treated like one this election cycle.
In legal circles, the “Reptile Theory” is the basis for many plaintiff’s attorneys’ cases. According to a report by Dr. Ann Greeley that’s posted on the American Bar Association’s website, lawyers across the country have stopped trying to focus on building sympathy for their clients and instead are focusing on rousing anger toward the defendant.
The practice got its name from a 1960s theory of evolutionary biology by neuroscientist Paul MacLean, who said the brain at its most primitive core is “reptilian” and focused on survival.
Regardless of whether or not plaintiff’s lawyers believe that theory makes any sense biologically, they want jurors focused on safety – theirs and others. Lawyers aren’t just building a case against the defendant; they’re identifying a source of danger facing the entire community, including the jurors. A tire blowing out and causing an accident could happen to anyone, so the lawyer wants to give jurors a chance to punish the danger itself and hopefully eliminate it by punishing the defendant.
If a plaintiff’s lawyer focuses on the plaintiff’s suffering, on the other hand, then juries might find fault with that person’s actions. Maybe the driver bears some responsibility for the tire blowing out because he drove over a broken glass bottle. Besides, why should that guy get rich just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Plaintiff’s lawyers are not the only ones relying on the Reptile Theory. Political campaigns do it, too, especially this year. The unfavorable ratings for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are so historically high that the Reptile Theory is either’s best path to victory.
That’s a big reason why this year’s Republican National Convention was so much an exercise in Hillary fear-raising rather than Trump praising. Like a plaintiff’s lawyer, the party tried to make voters focus on their fears and punish the defendant – this week, Clinton. It’s why the first night’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.”
Of course, the Reptile Theory is only part of the reason for the party’s focus on Clinton. There are legitimate concerns about her candidacy. At the same time, some Republicans can’t bring themselves to say much positive about their own nominee, even if they should. In a seven-minute speech, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton mentioned Trump’s name one time, and then only his last name. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump had insulted and whose father Trump had suggested was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination, didn’t even endorse the candidate, instead encouraging his audience to “vote your conscience.”
I have no doubt that the Reptile Theory will be alive and well at the Democratic National Convention, when Trump will become the defendant.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with criticizing an opponent. A majority of Americans have serious concerns about both Trump and Clinton, so of course the opposing campaigns will try to use those concerns to their advantage.
The problem is that fear alone, unless you’re in imminent danger, is a terrible basis for making decisions. As those plaintiff’s lawyers know, frightened people are more easily manipulated. When we’e afraid, we’re more likely to surrender our freedom, we stop thinking logically and creatively, and we start looking for people to blame. And then really bad things can happen.
Moreover, the two major parties use these fears to maintain their shared control. Republicans and Democrats make us believe we must vote for one or the other – the one we fear the least – rather than give a third party or independent a chance.
Reptiles have been around a long time. They are good at individual survival – eating and avoiding being eaten. But they don’t advance, they don’t make the world a better place for their young, and they don’t do anything great.
So, yes, this election, vote your fears. But also vote your hopes and dreams, and your logic and reason.
Most importantly, as Cruz said, vote your conscience. It’s something that reptiles don’t have but humans do, which helps us invent things like democracies and elections.