Ever since Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio responded like a robot to Governor Chris Christie's attack, everyone seems to be watching the candidates more closely and wondering: Whose inner circuit board will be exposed next? Whose program will be outed? Who will else will be revealed to be robotic?
Under closer scrutiny, it's clear that the "Rubiot" (as he was quickly dubbed by his detractors) is not the only candidate who has become dangerously mechanical. In fact, almost everyone aspiring to the White House is engaging in the time-honored habit of well-rehearsed repetition. The drone of phrases has become so familiar that they are instantly recognizable. Like being forced to watch a year of TV reruns, we are trapped in an endless loop of Orwellian memorization.
To experience this first-hand, just test yourself with the four lines below. Name the candidate who said:
A. "We will win, and we will win, and we will win!"
B. "When the top 20 richest families own more than the bottom..."
C. "It's not just about big ideas. It is about getting things done..."
D. "Obama's not confused. He knows exactly what he's doing..."
The answer is obvious because even now, many long months before Election Day, these and other lines are painfully recognizable.
In their defense, this endless repetition of identical lines is understandable. Expected to deliver several speeches a day, month after month, candidates' endless reiteration of applause-generating lines is unavoidable. Now that social media and ubiquitous cell phones capture every burp and hiccup that comes from a candidate's mouth, the frequency of recurring phrases and sentences becomes even more audible. Given the length of campaigns and the intensity of media coverage, being a "robot" and being a "politician" have far more in common than we want to admit.
However, great leaders are not robots. They are human beings whose hearts are attuned to where they are, who they are with, now. They are able to share their basic message in ways that are unique and fresh each time they speak. In front of our very eyes, they can grow; they can evolve; they can mature. If they have the courage, they can be fully, and humanly, alive.
This quality of spontaneous, genuine aliveness matters more than we think. The more robotic our leaders are, the less responsive they are. The more they think and act like machines, the less they learn.
With change in every area of our lives accelerating, learning is essential. Instead of valuing how good candidates are at reciting their lines, we would be well-advised to value more highly whether or not they are actually learning. For example, when Marco Rubio admitted, in his New Hampshire concession speech, that he performed poorly at the final debate in the state, he said adamantly: "That will never happen again."
While time will tell if the "Rubiot" can deprogram himself, let's hope that every candidate will take up this challenge. But do we dare hope for a campaign in which every man and woman seeking the White House shakes off their armored speech and reveals their sharp mind, open heart and tender soul? Cam we let ourselves hope that any of them will actually be willing to learn?
Right now we have a political culture that is allergic to learning. Even as candidates extol education for children, they seem afraid to engage in it themselves. Faced with hyperpartisan political stalemate between the two major parties, America is desperately in need of fresh ideas and new approaches to public policy. Another generation of diehard ideologues, who simply repeat the ideological errors of their predecessors, will just sink us deeper into partisan quicksand.
While it is understandable that each of us would not rather be right than wrong, Senator Rubio's automatic repeated default to his script illustrated that any of us can become prisoners inside our own closed information loop. Living in a world in which all information reinforces or amplifies our existing beliefs can freeze us in place. Although we are blessed with freedom - of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of worship - we can all too easily find ourselves locked behind the bars of our own beliefs.
In 1960, researchers gave this mental prison a name: confirmation bias. It means seeking and valuing information that reinforces one's opinions and, conversely, avoiding or dismissing information that challenges one's views. If confirmation bias is prevalent, even a well-educated and diverse populace can become increasingly polarized over time. Confirmation bias, multiplied by media preferences and social reinforcement, can make political views so extreme that we as a nation become increasingly fragmented.
In such a political environment, is the pressure to confirm our own correctness in public becoming overwhelming? Are any of us -- either candidates or voters -- willing to learn?
"We need men and women of goodwill . . . building back the muscles of consensus, compromise, and solution finding," said Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush early in the 2016 campaign. A few months later, Democrat Bernie Sanders challenged students at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University to engage in "civil discourse" with those who "hold different views." But "solution-finding" and "civil discourse" simply won't happen if we are not willing to stop being right long enough to learn.
As we wonder who is a robot, however, let's not fall into the trap of only seeing the automated qualities of politicians on the other side. Then we are in danger of seeing with robotic eyes ourselves.
Robots may be signs of progress on the assembly line, in the laboratory and even on the battlefield. But on Capitol Hill or in the White House, let's make sure that we not only elect, but that we ourselves remain, citizens who are fully human.
Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.