Back in my early 20s I made some extra money working as a political canvasser for a group called Washington Citizen Action. We were dropped off in a neighborhood around 5pm and knocked on doors, asking for money to support our lobbying efforts. Back then the organization was lobbying to get George W Bush’s administration to include prescription medication coverage under Medicare. It’s a cause I believed in very much, and I still believe in it. We had seniors who were taking buses to Canada to get affordable prescriptions, or sometimes just going without their prescriptions because they couldn’t afford or were too sick to travel. When Medicare was created in the 1960s, prescription drugs were incredibly cheap, so it wasn’t a big deal that they be covered under Medicare, the governmental insurance Americans get when they reach the age of 65. But in the 90s, those prices started shooting up. Pharmaceutical companies claimed it was to cover research and development, but their budgets revealed that most of their money was going to marketing and lobbying. Most research and development came from sources like the taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health.
So it was an important job, but friends: I was terrible at it. In order to keep the job, we had to collect a minimum amount of money each week. I never once hit that quota, so I was constantly on the verge of being fired but they were too nice to fire me.
My best friend at that job was another girl about my age who was also named Rebecca, and she brought in more money than anyone. She was amazing and had a knack for convincing people that our cause was good and that our organization needed their money.
I did not have that knack. I did believe in our cause, but I’d get into these discussions with the people I was canvassing. They’d ask about the cause and I was pretty well-versed in it, so that wasn’t a problem. But where I ran into problems was when they’d ask things like, “How do I know that giving you $100 is the best way to fix this problem?” I’d have to admit that I wasn’t sure. Maybe there are better organizations! I don’t know. Or they’d be skeptical that I even worked for the organization and I would agree that they were right to be skeptical. They could mail in a check but generally if you leave a house without money, they’re never going to get around to sending the money in on their own.
Or I’d have someone willing to give me money, but they themselves were clearly poor and needed the money, so why should they give it to my organization when their rich neighbors slammed the door in my face?
There were too many variables and at the end of the day I’d have to admit that people were generally right to not write a big check to the stoner who randomly knocked on their door. But my coworker, Becca, had none of those doubts. She was single-minded in the fact that we had a vitally important cause, that people should give her money for the organization to fight for that cause, and sometimes she would convince them to double the amount they were giving before they’d finished signing the check.
I’ve thought of her a lot over the years because Becca made me realize that in order to get anything done in a job like that you need someone with that single-minded focus and that charismatic attitude. And a skeptic like me just can’t do that.
I’m thinking about all this right now because of a new study that found that politicians who are open to new ideas and experiences are less likely to win their elections. In a survey of about 3,000 Canadians, researchers found that people who are creative and open-minded are more likely to want to run for office, but when they’re up against an opponent whoever is least open is the one who tends to win. The researchers suggest that this might be because the most creative, open-minded people may have trouble sticking to a message. In order to mount a successful campaign, things need to be black and white, in a way, and politicians need to explain their positions in easy-to-understand sound bites for the general public. The open-minded individual is less likely to be able to do that, in part because of doubts, skepticism, and constantly fine-tuning their views to be sure that they are doing what they believe is the right thing.
Just to be clear, this was a very small effect and the study only involved Canadians, so we shouldn’t take it to be gospel and there are a million other factors that can affect elections. But it strikes me that we really do see so few scientists and open critical thinkers in office. Getting any politician to change their mind is a monumental achievement that usually requires the entire country turning against them, like Hillary Clinton suddenly being okay with same sex marriage in 2015.
And from a voter’s perspective, we hate “flip-floppers.” Changing your mind is seen as weakness, and that view is constantly pushed by political opponents. How can you trust the politician you elect to stick to the promises they gave you if they’re constantly changing their mind? Forget about why they change their mind, like if a check from Big Pharma landed on their desk or they evaluated the scientific evidence and realized their position was untenable — we just want consistency. So those creative, open-minded types (who also tend to be more liberal than others) lose the election.
The researchers also note that those types tend to not bother running for re-election. Hey, I get it. I quit that canvassing job after a few months of torture and I will never, ever go back to it. And don’t worry, I won’t be running for office any time soon. Let’s get a slightly less-open but still pro-science person to run instead, and then we can vote them out when they refuse to change their mind if new data comes in.