By Glen Olives Thompson
Joseph E. Stiglitz has observed that economists are so often wrong because they too often measure the wrong things – not unlike drunks (as he delightfully puts it) looking for their keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is. The same is largely true of the political media of the Left, especially when covering Donald J. Trump: they’re quite good at covering the political story, the winners and losers on any given issue, the scandals, the backstories, ad infinitum. But that’s not where the keys are, that’s just where the light is. The keys in this case are policies allowing for multicultural society to flourish in all the ways that matter: economically, culturally, scientifically.
In two words, policy matters. But in spite of the number one issue for voters during the 2016 election being the economy, the Big Three networks spent barely more than a half hour covering policy issues; instead they fixated on Trump’s mental illness and Clinton’s emails. Instead of focusing on important issues like the wealth inequality, racial injustice, foreign policy, education, and the environment, among many other things directly impinging on the daily lives of average Americans, they whored themselves for ratings.
After the election, think pieces and books about the (almost) inexplicable ascendancy of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States have come so hard and fast that they could fill several encyclopedia-length volumes, and it’s only been just over a hundred days since the Tangerine Tornado took office. One of course might have expected this, as the horrific enigma of a narcissistic failed real estate mogul and borderline moron who has never demonstrated even an infinitesimal interest in public service taking the Big Prize would have had to have led to America’s pundits and literati to pontificate, ad nauseam.
I too have not been shy about criticizing Trump, and more importantly, criticizing those who criticize him, because in their often rational and eloquent armchair musings about the Trump phenomenon, they commit the sin of over analysis, and in doing so are led astray, in turn leading their readers and listeners astray (I’m reminded of a writer who said something to the effect that “there have been brilliant theologians but I don’t think there is a god to theologize about.”) For example, there is an understandable trend among the cognoscenti to label Trump as an evil genius, an idiot-savant in his ability to manipulate the media, among many other areas where he is given credit where no credit is due him. The problem can be essentially boiled down to this – smart people are analyzing a really dumb person who has achieved something (by accident) that was thought to be impossible, and thereby they cannot bring themselves to believe that he can be all that dumb after all. A completely understandable mistake, but one we should try to remedy post haste.
Be that as is may, now that the hundred-day benchmark (e.g., disaster) of the Trump administration has come and gone, an equally point-missing analysis of Trump’s failures to implement policy is getting traction: his feckless bumbling to build a conservative governing coalition has led the left wing punditry to conclude that Trump’s lack of success is due largely to the fact that he does not have, and never has had, a political umbilicus. Once a pro-choice democrat, then a Perot-like protectionist, shuttling from being a New York liberal to a country club Republican turned scattershot playboy populist, he’s all over the board, and as such, he’s ensconced himself firmly in the chair of an effete and blustery dictator with no one to dictate to. His populist rhetoric consisting of nothing more than silly shibboleths and asinine aphorisms got him votes, but not the ability to govern. The political neophyte just didn’t understand the limited power of the presidency. He’s never had to answer to a corporate board, or shareholders, and much less two other branches of government. The talent most political pundits have brought to the table is simply this: the ability to state this obvious conclusion in interesting ways, a clever and gleeful schadenfreude. But where does that get us as a society when 97 percent of Trump voters still support him?
I’m troubled by this analytical consensus not because it isn’t true (surely it is), but rather because it is in turn both obvious and pointless, devoid of implications of the ham-fisted policies Trump’s kleptocratic cabinet are (so far unsuccessfully) trying to foist on the American people. People with national reach who are actually talking about the absurdity of Trump’s purblind policy wish list can be counted on a single hand (Reich, Krugman and Kristoff come to mind) while and army of politicos are marching the narrative (and the American body public) over the cliff of savvy analysis, and into a sunless sea filled with lemmings chattering about the horror that is Donald J. Trump as they drown.
Sure, Trump has been unable to implement his most perfidious, backward and counterproductive brain-farts-of-policies, and likely never will. But we’re going to be moving backward until at least January 20, 2021 on crucial game changers for our civilization: environmental degradation, climate change, wealth and income inequality, a necrotizing middle class, and unequal justice for all. And that’s just the start.
From the perspective of public policy, let me be as clear as I can be. Forget for the moment what we might consider political success – getting one’s policies made into public policy, regardless of its efficacy. We’ve had extremely “successful” presidents who’ve been political ideologues (viz. Ronald Reagan) and extremely “successful” presidents who’ve had no discernable political ideology (viz. Franklin Roosevelt), and many in between (George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others). But to ignore the difference in being politically “successful,” as both Reagan and FDR inarguably were, and guiding the country into the future as a positive force for economic equality and growth, peace, stability, a sense of community (as in we’re all in this together in a complicated world), and yes, a hope that our children might have the chance at a better life, are political journalist’s and pundit’s mistakes to make. Call me a contrarian, but political success is not simply getting one’s way. And the measure of a great nation is not quantified by how its wealthiest live, but rather by how its unluckiest do.
So no, Donald Trump will not be a failed president because he failed at forming a coherent political ideology that could be sold to his own party in Congress. And he will not have failed the country, as other presidents have, because of reasons beyond his political control. He has, and will have, failed the country, while perhaps damaging our already fragile democracy/plutocracy hybrid beyond repair, because he’s an idiot, as are the vast majority of his supporters. As FDR said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
The only chance we will ever have at rebuilding a worthy civilization will depend on the media class recognizing that science- (hard and social) based policies must be talked about and rigorously debated; focusing on the personalities and the political strategies of the players is the forever unrewarded labor of Sisyphus while the country rots around us. Good governance can never successfully have any real relation to political ideology or dogma. That is quite a claim. It will take some explanation.
Ideologies, Dogmas, and Common Sense Deceive Us
One doesn’t hear many economists, or political scientists, or public policy wonks, talk much about the role of the sciences in crafting good public policy. Public policy is mostly based on public perceptions, which are largely molded by economic elites, and as I have often said, bad policy is often good politics. What I mean by “good public policy” is public policy that works for all Americans, not just the rich, and almost by definition, must be stripped of any veneer that claims to represent reality.
We’re slaves to the pairing of two simple words: common (something shared by all) and sense (rationality). Common sense, once our only friend, has become our worst enemy. It needs to be unfriended. The most frequent phrase uttered by my conservative friends when arguing about law and public policy is, “It’s just common sense!” E.g., imprisoning drug dealers and addicts will reduce drug use and abuse, sealing our borders will keep out undesirables who take our jobs and commit violent crimes against us, releasing the shackles of tax and regulation will allow our job creators to create more jobs, and not coddling sexual deviants like those within the LGBT with equal rights will promote healthy traditional lifestyles. (And many more things besides.)
It is true of course that Thomas Paine ─ who Glenn Beck and other Republicans have oddly idolized to the point of beatification ─ used common sense to great effect in his famous pamphlet by the same name. Paine argued that, among other things, there was little reason for an island to rule a continent, the distance between America and Britain made governance difficult, and that Britain ruled America in the interests of Britain without considering the best interests of the colonists. Written in plain language. And solidly based on common sense. It is a beautiful pamphlet: simple, elegant, and correct. When Paine wrote Common Sense almost two and a half centuries ago, science was a novelty, Benjamin Franklin had had only just discovered that lighting was electricity, the extinction of species was but a hypothesis, the basis for modern chemistry was still a decade away, the germ theory of disease wasn’t even on the radar, and we had a comparatively unsophisticated view of how economies worked (I argue that we still do). Indeed, for most of human existence, the only two pillars upon which civilizations could be supported were common sense and religious dogma. Often they complemented one another. (Of course our Earth is the center of the universe – it says so in the bible and we can observe the sun and the stars and the other planets revolving around us!) Our political systems, too, were crude. Slavery was ubiquitous, as were religious inquisitions. Both political and religious patronage, clientelism, and corruption were rife. Women and many minorities, without suffrage, were treated mostly as property of propertied men. The list of the failures of good governance were long and ghoulish, and Paine railed against some of them, speaking truth to power. The central problem we face today is this: while science has progressed remarkably, our political institutions have remained largely stuck three centuries in the past because many of our beliefs have as well.
Common sense, to perhaps state the obvious, is necessary to our survival. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Not driving motor vehicles if under the influence of alcohol. Refraining from sex with intemperate strangers. Avoiding contact with lions or bears. Not shitting where you eat. Among thousands of other things. Through evolution by natural selection, we are biologically disposed to have it (some more than others, as “fail” videos on YouTube amply demonstrate); it keeps us alive so that we can reproduce and spread our genetic heritage.
But common sense rationality also often fools us. We think, for example that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We are, after all, the center of the universe. At least that’s what humanity believed for the vast majority of its existence. But now we know better (thank you Copernicus). The sun does not rise or set. We live on a planet orbiting around a rather ordinary star, and the appearance of a rising and setting sun is merely a spatial illusion; we’re rotating on our axis at 1,037 miles per hour through space travelling through the cosmos with our solar system and galaxy at a rate of 2.7 million miles per hour. We cannot feel this of course, because we have evolved to sense only the force of our planet’s gravity, the impingement of other movement on our senses would not serve any useful purpose for our survival. It is only through science, which gives no credit or importance to common sense, that we now understand that when compared to the cosmos, we are at best a bacterium, a micro-fauna, on a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an entirely forested continent.
David Hume said some two hundred years ago that we know nothing. What we pass off as knowledge is the product of custom, habit, and the application of common sense which is almost bound to be wrong; even in science we cannot observe causation, the best we can do is falsify theories, never prove them. Kant, Schopenhauer, and later Karl Popper seized upon these ideas, creating an impressive body of philosophical work.[i] (Some people still can’t get their heads around Kant’s famous premise that objects conform to our knowledge of them.)
As I’ve said before, paraphrasing a long-out-of-print college history textbook:
If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less that the last ½ second. Given this time scale, it should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence. [ii]
It seems that we have willingly imprisoned ourselves in Plato’s Cave, refusing to believe the reality presented to us through science. We tend toward finding comfort in the solace that is ignorance, in stolid platitudes and silly slogans posted on social media by the millions a day.
Thinking is hard work.
If this were not bad enough, we are wired to be seekers of patterns and causal connections, no doubt contributing to our survival, but this has a down side, too. When we don’t know something, we are inclined to invent knowledge, mistaking ignorance for truth. Our brains interpret the lack of knowledge as pain, and understanding with pleasure,[iii] whether that understanding is based on verifiable data or not. And for good reason: there is an indisputable evolutionary advantage in acquiring more knowledge, but this becomes an obvious disadvantage when we invent fake knowledge. A troubling observation, to be sure, something that has come to haunt us in the form of fake news, the pride and joy of the Trump administration and the alt-right.
In a purely intellectual sense, these problems of perception, epistemology, psychology and evolutionary biology fascinate me, but they are also key to the most basic problems of human existence on this planet: How are we to govern ourselves? How are we to create free, just, prosperous, and equitable societies? The answer for America has been a representative democracy combined with free market capitalism, but this doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it seemed to a half century ago.
Good manufacturing jobs are all but gone. The middle class is well along the well-travelled road to extinction while the wealthiest are living lives of opulence never seen before in human history. Our prisons are splitting at the seams. Racial tensions and police brutality seem to be where they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise intelligent people believe that bad weather is caused by sin. We are more politically polarized than ever. We seem to be perpetually taking one step forward and two steps back. We’re living in a new Gilded Age where corporations and their wealthy constituents control the government to the inarguable detriment of the rest of society. We seem to be but barely a generation away from The Hunger Games writ large. If this trend can be reversed, it won’t be by choosing any particular political ideology or economic dogma on offer.
We Can’t Understand Good Policy Until We Understand Ourselves
Bryan Magee in his book Confessions of a Philosopher made an important observation. He said that asking, “What is the meaning of life?” is a very bad a priori question. It assumes that the foundational questions have already been answered: such as if there can there be such a thing as a meaning to life, and equally important, if we have a reliable mechanism ascertaining what it might be. If those questions are not reliably answered first, then one is likely to waste quite of lot of time, perhaps a lifetime, pursuing the question of the meaning of life without a proper foundation, leading to infinite false starts, wrong turns, and poetic, perhaps even soothing, casuistry, with no real knowledge to be gained. So too, we must first ask ourselves a foundational question before moving on to the subject of what is good as opposed to bad public policy. That question is: What are we? For example, if we were created in the image of god, and the fundamentalist, literalist traditions within Islam are the divine revealed truth of our creator as given to Mohamed, then the policies of ISIS would be the only way to go. By the same token, if the Jews got it right in their own bible and Jesus was not the son of god, then, well, we have a different result, or then again, perhaps another Abrahamic faith is the real truth of our existence, or then yet again, perhaps an altogether different Eastern faith. (For reasons I think I need not elaborate on, I do not think any are true.) By the same token, if another dogma – an economic as opposed religious one this time – Milton Freidman’s supply-side, trickle-down program implemented by Ronald Reagan had been the nonpareil tide raising all ships, Reagan would never would have had to raise taxes, and the Clinton presidency would have spelled economic disaster for America. Of course the wealth never trickled down under Reagan (it never even trickled) and Clinton’s Keynesian approach led to one of the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history (and a budget surplus to boot). Of course Dubya was a Reagan fan, and with the help of perpetual wars, the Clinton gains were squandered. Hegel was right it seems: We learn from history that we do not learn from history. That’s what blind troth in ideology gets you.
Once we have answered the question of what we are (a much easier question that whether or not there can be such a thing as meaning to life), we can tackle the next question: What is the best form of government and economic system to achieve maximum freedom, economic prosperity, and justice for all?
With some disrespect to creationists, we are highly evolved primates,[iv] and were not created by a supreme being from dust or a clot of blood or a rib. We are the products of evolution by natural selection. Our propensity for violence, for tribalism, for irrational cognitive biases, among many other things, are deeply ingrained in us, and it takes an educated mind and a conscious effort to recognize and combat them. We are predisposed to seek out, interpret, and focus on information in a way the confirms our own preconceptions, and arguments against our closely held beliefs only tends to make them stronger, such as our beliefs in particular religious dogmas or political ideologies. (This particular propensity is known as confirmation bias ─ but there are hundreds of others well known in psychology.) We are highly irrational animals, well evolved for living on the African savannah, but not so much for living in modern, complex, crowded, increasingly urban, and technologically-driven societies. This is a problem; we can’t change what we are, but we can understand what we are. The answer, in part, is education, especially within the sciences. Indeed, the lack of the application of social science to law and public policy explains, largely, why conservatism and its ugly younger brother, libertarianism, are so ubiquitous in America and around the globe.
Gaps have to be filled. We’re compelled to do it. We see patterns where they exist, and also where they do not exist. No doubt this led to our survival when 99 percent of our cousins went extinct. But this propensity has become a burden in modern civilizations. How does one explain what one does not know? How does one predict what one cannot predict? One creates a dogma, and from that, an ideology, a lattice around which everything can be explained and predicted. It is comforting even when it is wrong, perhaps especially when it is wrong. The Aztecs thought good things would come to their society as a whole if enough virgins were sacrificed. As mentioned above, college educated public leaders think that bad weather is caused by human sin, ignoring what climatologists say about the effects of global man-made climate change. An Iranian cleric, a man of countless years of “learning” not long ago preached that immodest women cause earthquakes. For most educated people and for all scientists, this is bizarre beyond description. But much of the world still believes this type of Bronze Age feckless stupidity.
There are real differences between Liberals and Conservatives, and some of them appear to be biological, but in a balance-obsessed media culture, they don’t get talked about much. Recent research, covering some 50 years of party politics, reveals that Democrats are generally solution-seekers and practical problem-solvers, building coalitions with groups having similar interests, while Republicans are much more obsessed with ideological purity.[v] This is not to say that politically liberal people are not ideological, as many of them join their politically conservative brethren in marrying themselves to an idea and then unable to divorce it when it is proven hopelessly wrong or misguided (more on that below), but there are fewer of them. Democrats also tend to be smarter. Not only is there a curious and disturbing connection between low I.Q., conservatism, and racism, liberals are generally better educated, and the more educated one becomes, the more liberal one becomes, something that conservatives, unable to ignore, attribute to liberal college professors indoctrinating students into their “cause,” but not surprisingly this turns out to be bad pseudoscience,[vi] not even good enough to be wrong. There’s more. I’ve always been puzzled how fearful my conservative friends are – of death, of crime, of immigrants, of socialism, of voter fraud, of minorities, you name it. As it turns out, my anecdotal experience with social and political conservatives is born out statistically in a recent Pew poll, which found that 58 percent of Republicans think that the ability of terrorists to attack the United States is greater than the time of 9/11 compared to only 31 percent of Democrats, despite that the Conservative assertion is patently false by any metric looked at. It turns out, according to a fascinating study conducted in Britain, people with conservative views tend to have larger amygdalae, the structure in the brain activated by fear.[vii] This raises the perennially fascinating chicken-or-egg question of whether conservatives are born, or their amygdalae are shaped through their personal experiences, or of course, some combination of the two, but it does not matter much. The above findings are being confirmed more every day: conservatives tend to be not great at abstract thinking, undereducated, tribal, driven by fear, and slaves to ideology and dogma. When one finds the modern world so overwhelming, so seemingly incomprehensible when individual pieces are examined up close, one place to turn is ideology – a hook to hang the whole bag one’s beliefs that never need change based on new information, to say that “welfare makes people lazy,” “other people (mostly Mexicans and Chinese) are to blame for our problems.”
I mentioned Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s insights in the opening paragraph of this essay, and to illustrate how ideology will always corrupt public policy, economic ideology provides a very good example.
Hyper forms of state socialism, such as that experienced in Soviet Russia, hyper-forms of capitalism, which we are now enduring (and have suffered through before in the first Gilded Age), and all other absolutist ideologies, will always fail because they are constructs of the human mind, and as such, they claim knowledge to which they cannot know, and ignore evidence which contradicts their veracity. It is, again, a fool’s game where being wrong has little significance: if a society believes that the rains will come if enough virgins are sacrificed, and still the rains do not come, the High Priest, the Grand Shaman, will not be blamed. (Over the course of human history, “truth,” “knowledge,” and “facts” were simply decided by the ruling classes.) After all it is only He who is in direct contact with the gods. He will only say that the drought was caused by impiety, and not enough virgins were sacrificed. More virgins will be sacrificed. And either the rains will still not come and the civilization will wither and die, in which case only those with the capital resources (the high priesthood) will remain, or the rains will come, through no doing of the shaman, and He will claim victory. So, too, if economic prosperity does not come to all through free market capitalism, through the operation of plutocracy, no matter. It is not the fault of for-profit business corporations, but rather the government of the people which was too timorous to fully embrace it and let it turn its swag on, erecting obstacles like regulations and taxes. This is what ideologies and dogmas do so very, very, well – they can never be wrong.
All Politics is Yokel, and That’s a Big Problem Too
Most people are inscrutably ignorant about some very important things that all participants in society should have at least a basic knowledge of, like science, basic geography, economics, and government. Seventy-five percent of Republicans and Evangelicals think that Christianity was written into the Constitution, 80 percent don’t know how many Senators the United States has, almost half the population can’t point to where New York is on a map (much less Iraq or Afghanistan), a quarter of Americans don’t know from which country the United States gained its independence, almost a third don’t know what the Holocaust was, and some 25 percent of Americans think that the sun revolves around the Earth. The list of specific instances of our ignorance is much longer and sobering. And yet we ask these participants in our pseudo-democracy to make informed judgments about policy, and who would be the best representative in government to carry those policies out.
Even more sobering, if not hopelessly depressing, is what too many of us believe to be true is in fact embarrassingly fustian rubbish. Recent polling suggests that 42 percent of Americans think that god created mankind unevolved 10,000 years ago, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Seventy-two percent of adults believe in heaven. Conspiracy theorists routinely mistake correlation with causation and haven’t a clue as to the basic rules of logic, the scientific method, or how to identify logical fallacies. Social media is abuzz with conspiracy theories that Hurricane Mathew was created by FEMA for reasons that are too moronic even to mention. Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters think that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” despite the fact that he drinks alcohol, eats pork and professes to be a Christian. Whether people believe these things or simply say them as a way to articulate their dissatisfaction at being ignored for so long is still an open question. But these passionate, disenfranchised people vote nonetheless, and they’re increasingly frustrated with their seemingly hopeless economic plight, misdirecting their animosities through clouded minds and fuzzy thinking, shadowboxing the ghost villains of taxes, big government, regulation, and immigrants, insisting on easy solutions to complex problems, instead of focusing on what is before their very eyes: an increasingly plutocratic system manipulated by people that not only care nothing for them, but openly disdains them. They are, to put it mildly, easily distracted, and easily distractible by the emotional propaganda peddled by plutocrats. They unknowingly, but consistently, vote against their own interests.
Let me illustrate with three short examples. Paul LePage – a high-functioning retard and open racist who thinks immigrants are bringing the “Ziki fly” into his state – was elected to the governorship of Maine. Twice. Although his state, like many others, is suffering from a serious opioid overdose problem, he vetoed a bill which would have allowed pharmacists to dispense anti-overdose drugs without a prescription, claiming it would only encourage drug use, and openly advocates for the beheadings of criminal defendants who kill Mainers. Sam Brownback, another simpleton governor (Kansas) too dumb or naïve or corrupt or blinded by ideology to notice that supply side economic policy works in theory but fails in practice, tanked his state’s economy by cutting both regulations and taxes for the rich. Louisiana’s failed governor, Bobby Jindal, offers us another tale of caution about the application of idiotic supply-side theory. When he took office in 2008 Louisiana had a $1 billion budget surplus; when, after slashing taxes for wealthy business interests, deregulating industry where he could, cutting welfare benefits, and ignoring environmental regulations for Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, in the nation’s second poorest state, he left it with a deficit of $1.6 billion, and unprecedented environmental degradation, adversely affecting the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans. Idiots elect other idiots, or people who pretend to be idiots to get elected. This is a problem. Winston Churchill’s quip that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” seems like a more prescient observation now than at any other time in history.
I stole the “All Politics is Yokel” portion of the above heading from Christopher Hitchens, who didn’t coin the phrase, but brought it to life brilliantly in a 2011 article about Michele Bachman for Slate. Curiously, as Hitchens noted, we don’t want our public leaders to be smarter than us. We want our public leaders to be just as dumb as we are. One need only casually observe the political pandering to “regular” folk. Al Gore (for whom I have a great deal of respect because, among other things, he appreciates the value of empirical fact) emphasized his rural upbringing in Tennessee when in fact he was raised as a privileged Senator’s son at a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C. (to his credit, he willingly served in Vietnam, unlike the long list of chicken hawk draft dodgers like George W. Bush and Donald Trump). Bill Clinton, too, the Rhodes Scholar with a genius-level I.Q. of 148, “the man from Hope” Arkansas, spent most of his youth in the ever-so-slightly more worldly Hot Springs. But at least he can claim true hillbilly creds, being the first in his poor, dysfunctional family to graduate from college. The blue-blooded Connecticut Bush’s blushed at their Yankee roots and preferred to pretend they were Texas wildcatters. Joni Ernst, the graduate-degreed junior Senator from Iowa, bragged about having to wear bread bags on her feet as a child and working at the local Piggly-Wiggly. Politicians have learned the hard way that you need to downplay your intelligence, your education, your expertise, your privileged upbringing, if you want to get elected. Never bring your resume to a political debate. Politicians need to identify with voters, and the best way to do that is to dumb yourself down, to become one of them. The very word “elite” has become a pejorative, no doubt due in part to the frequent pairings of economic elite, business elite and political elite, or if you like, Hollywood elite. Of course it has not always been this way. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Adams, were highly educated and privileged elites – political philosophers, writers, military leaders, businessmen, lawyers and scientists. And yet they were elected by a largely illiterate agrarian citizenry who trusted that they had their best interests in mind.[viii] What happened? How have we come to distrust smart people so much? In his book In Defense of Elitism,[ix] William A. Henry III provides a provocative, if not persuasive, answer. Progressive liberalism and its confounding ideology of egalitarianism is to blame, at least partially. The myth propagated by this ideology has been fundamentally ingrained in us among the Left: all men are created equal, how you play the game is more important than winning, all cultures are equally contributors to society as a whole, everyone has something significant to contribute, and the common man is almost certainly always right – the diametric opposite philosophy of Ayn Rand’s caustic cult of individualism. But like Rand’s rantings, this too is hogwash. (The open acceptance of this egalitarian ideal has foisted upon us the scourges of moral relativism, cultural relativism, and the banal, parochial absurdities of political correctness.) These things are so obviously not the case in reality that I am confounded that any educated person could believe them.
Liberal readers may be feeling a flush coming on right about now, so poor yourself a Boulevarder, and brace yourselves for a modest revelation: some cultures contribute next to nothing to world civilization, some people are dumb through no fault of their own, objective achievement is nothing to be ashamed of, and the common man is more often than not wrong about just about everything. Disagree if you like, cling to your confirmation bias if you must, but note that, as Freud once said, the truth need not be something we must find agreeable.
Nonetheless, this puts politicians in a tough position. Identifying with your dumb constituency and agreeing with their incoherent views of the world – or coherent but incorrect views of the world –to get elected is one thing. Getting reelected is another. To do so you must have a credible argument that you have at least tried to turn your voters’ dangerous and dunderheaded perspectives into some form of policy. (Whether the politician actually believes her constituency’s views, while speculatively interesting, is irrelevant.) At the same time, you must please your wealthy benefactors with legislation that favors their interests at the expense of your poorer constituency. In sum, our political process, our very own human condition, has left us in a quagmire of absurdity. Legislators are beholden both to their rich financiers and their birdbrained base voters at the same time. A third of voters who see this clearly, both the forest and the trees, are a dissolute minority. The result is that the credulous voter finds herself (at best) within a maze of political sophistry or (at worst) an infinite library of riddles worthy of Borges’ fertile imaginings in “The Library of Babel.”
Sean Otto, author of The War On Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, noted recently in an article for Scientific American, that in this new era of “post-fact politics,” the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with political, religious or economic agendas has become normalized. Otto went on to say in the same article that
[o]ver the last 25 years the political right has largely organized itself along antiscience lines that have become increasingly stark: fundamentalist evangelicals, who reject what the biological sciences have to say about human origins, sexuality and reproduction, serve as willing foot soldiers for moneyed business interests who reject what the environmental sciences have to say about pollution and resource extraction. In 1990, for example, House Democrats scored an average of 68 percent on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard and Republicans scored a respectable 40 percent. But by 2014 Democrats scored 87 percent whereas Republican scores fell to just over 4 percent.
Such rejection is essentially an authoritarian argument that says “I don’t care about the evidence; what I say/what this book says/what my tribe says/what my wallet says goes.” This approach is all too human, and is not necessarily conscious. It is, rather, reflective of the sort of confirmation bias scientists themselves continually guard against. Francis Bacon noted the problem at the beginning of the scientific revolution, observing: “What a man had rather were true he more readily believes.” Conservatives notice that many scientists are, in fact, left-leaning. If one is not a scientist, and is conservative, a shorthand is brought to bear, with suspicion of the science as—rather than an objective statement—being a politically motivated argument from the left.
But liberals should not be gloating or feeling superior, as there are quite a lot of embarrassing antiscience beliefs among them as well, as liberal anti-vaccine and anti-GMO advocates so readily demonstrate. Liberal intellectuals have long preached the merits of postmodernist identity politics – that all truth is relative and subjective, that believing that the sun revolves around the Earth is as equally true as thinking otherwise, that we all construct our own truths and they are equally valid. This may be comforting (I personally can’t see how), but it is dumb nonetheless. The grandiloquent essay “Material Issue” by intellectual historian Jackson Lears is a perfect example of this asininity. In his fervent argument against scientific reductionism, he attacks Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris for scientism, which is, according to his own definition, “the redefinition of a science to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as nothing these three people have said indicate that this is what they believe. And even if they did, I will never understand why this would cause anyone any particular existential angst. He goes on to accuse the failures of neoliberalism on scientism, and even goes as far as to call evolutionary psychology “pop-Darwinism.” This is bizarre. In the world of fake news (not Trump’s “fake news” which is simply news he doesn’t like), the world hardly needs people who think that their beliefs or their “knowledge” – however authority-driven, alternative, or simply objectively daft it is – is equal to objective truths we have gleaned from the application of the scientific method to the natural world. Of course people are perfectly free to believe that the Earth is flat, manmade global climate disruption is a “scam to fund vacations up in the Antarctic,” or any else easily proven to be empirically false, drawn from the deepest well of human ignorance. But when such views are woven into the fabric of public policy, as they now are, it is hard to see how our planet’s species can survive in any meaningful way. And no, Dr. Lears, the failures of neoliberalism are the failures of an economic dogma, not of science.
This essay should give both liberal and conservative partisans a lot to bitch about. In my view, Republican voters are mostly dumb, hopelessly gullible, irrationally fearful of shadows, living in a cave formed from by millenia of ideology and dogma, too afraid to look outside at how the world might actually function in the sunlight of clear thinking. They elect either cynical leaders who are laughing themselves into the halls of power or the vaults of the bank (or both), or stupid leaders who actually believe the poppycock they so successfully promote. Democratic voters, in turn, though smarter and more issue-oriented, have bought, hook, line and sinker, the idea of egalitarianism as a universal truth, their leaders selling this brand of Bovine Scat almost equally well, and now we’re all choking on that rotting fish of coddling political correctness and silly side issues. We can happily debate cultural appropriation or identity politics when we live in an economically prosperous and economically equitable society. But instead public leaders on both sides have embraced – either fully or tepidly – the religion of neoliberalism. Political leadership has become more about internecine wars of rhetoric rather than a dispassionate application of what we already know toward implementing rational public policy fair for all of society. Not only is the truth not something we must find comforting or agreeable, it may be something we will never have the ability to know with absolute certainty. But striving to discover what it might be while fighting against obfuscation, pandering, self-interestedness, and cognitive bias, is the worthiest and most important goal of all.
If that were not a bleak-enough portrait, it gets worse. Perhaps the most fascinating – and depressing – book published in 2016 was The Enigma of Reason, written by cognitive researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, where they outline in convincing detail the very limits of reason. According to them, reason evolved as a mechanism to resolve problems posed by living in collaborative groups, and not to enable us to solve logical problems or make sound judgments after evaluating unfamiliar data. This, like much of what is discussed above, is counterintuitive in the extreme. Wouldn’t, through the process of evolution, abstract reasoning be selected for? In other words, wouldn’t humans who were poor at reasoning eventually be eliminated from the gene pool? The authors argue that in hunter-gatherer tribes, there was far less advantage to reasoning clearly than winning arguments – making sure that you weren’t being taken advantage of by your potentially selfish peers. Thus we have confirmation bias: sticking to your guns (or more strongly believing your erroneous beliefs) even when overwhelming counter-evidence is presented. Not only do people have a natural tendency to believe that they know more than they actually do, what they think they know is, as often as not, un-remediated bullshit. In everyday life this may be relatively harmless, but when it comes to law and policy, it has gotten society, and our larger civilizations, in quite a lot of trouble.
The good news, of course, is that although reason may not have evolved to help us with problem solving, it can and has been hijacked to do just that, as our scientific and technological progress indubitably indicates. Alas, though, scientists don’t elect governments.
I hold no illusion that a majority of people will ever think like I do, or that I have any chance of convincing them to abandon their insidious belief systems; I just can’t bring myself to be diplomatic about willful ignorance. Others are better at that, and therefore probably more effective in actually changing minds. If they are, they should concentrate on our only hope: promoting pragmatism, embracing economic and other policy ideas that work for all people while rejecting those that do not, and making adjustments along the way as needed. To do this, however, we must excise the cancer of dogma and ideology from our minds and recognize our own human nature. The medicine to eliminate or at least shrink this cancer, the cancer-fighting cocktail, if you will, is education combined with a sea change in our political discourse. One cannot happen without the other. This would be no easy task, and perhaps ultimately a Sisyphean one, but not trying is not an option if world civilization is to have any hope of sustainability.
Which is Why the Political Media Needs to Focus on Policy, Not Politics
Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. He could have been describing the liberal class of American political pundits. Their intellectual heft could be put to much better use in talking about how specific policies really affect the lives of Americans. While surely they would agree that average voters need to be better informed, they’re afraid that getting into the weeds of public policy would be too boring, and eruditely calling the play by play of Trump’s floundering political ground game is undoubtedly thrilling. I don’t begrudge them that. Schadenfreude feels good. But for the love of god, our planet is at stake here.
And it is not as if the American body politic is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to realizing the importance of policy. After all, the recent cris de cœur of righteous indignation at town hall meetings across the country about the possibility of the Republican Congress of actually repealing the Affordable Care Act is evidence enough.
So no, Donald J. Trump’s lack of political ideology is not a handicap to his political success, if you define political success as accomplishing something genuine for the betterment of America and all of her socioeconomic classes – her elite WASPs and her tired, and poor, and brown alike, instead of just possessing the sufficient political capital to enact one’s agenda.
Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity, though, brought about by his glaring flaws of character and intelligence, are a silver lining inasmuch as they almost guarantee that the worst of his pernicious policies will never be implemented. Of course the silver lining to this cloud has its dark side too: pragmatic progressive science-based policies during the reign of this administration are dead in the water as well. Absent a biblical miracle, hope at meaningful progress during this administration must be shelved.
By way of analogy, as mentioned, our most admired modern American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wasn’t an ideologue either. He was a rational pragmatist within the tradition of Benjamin Franklin. He best summed up his lack of political ideology by saying, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” He changed the course of American and world history in his first 100 days in office by implementing pragmatic policy solutions during the darkest days of the American experiment, jettisoning those that didn’t work and making permanent those that did. Trump’s lack of political ideology is best summed up in his own words as well: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.” His is the ideology of a petty cult of personality.
And that sums it up. Political ideology is a palliative, not a cure. Not everyone within the political media can be a Krugman or a Reich, but everyone can talk about progressive policy ideas that work, and conservative policies that do not. We consigned the Ptolemaic model of our solar system to the dustbin of history 500 years ago for the heliocentric model. We openly and rightly ridicule people who think spirits cause disease instead of germs. We trust engineers to build our airplanes and not imams. There is no reason in principle or practice that we cannot apply science and reason to politics and public policy. FDR was right – a democracy will fail without an educated electorate. There will always be conservative media outlets the cynically selling the seductive pap of obscurantism and a failed ideology, and the advantage is theirs: fear, tribalism, and greed sells (sometimes you can’t keep it on the shelves). We’re genetically predisposed to it. But we’re also capable of learning.
Yes, liberal media, you were right about Trump as his first hundred days in office have indubitably proven. Yes, he is a monster, a fraud, a liar, a dunce, a bad businessman, and a wholly incapable national leader. But at some point the back patting must stop and the educating must begin in earnest. I can hear the objections already: “Our job is to report, not educate!” No, your job is to inform people about what is true. That means saying that while not all Trump voters are racists, all racists voted for Donald Trump; that the roots of tribalism and racism are partially biological; that the principles of economics is mostly dogma; that most socialist democracies have a higher standard of living and a larger middle class in proportion to their population than America; that too many conservatives unwittingly vote against their own interests; that what you believe based on intuition is almost always bound to be wrong; that voters are not yet powerless against plutocrats; that our problems have nothing to do with immigration; that climate change is real and we’re slowly killing our planet (and ourselves with it). That we can solve the problems that we created by educating ourselves and implementing good public policies that work for all Americans and not only the wealthy. And many more things besides.
With the notable exceptions of immigration, race relations, and the environment, Trump supporters are not significantly different from the supporter of Bernie Sanders on almost every other policy position: neoliberalism, the economy, wealth inequality, maintaining Social Security and Medicare, and avoiding more foreign military adventures. Indeed, many people who ended up supporting Trump had voted for Obama in the prior presidential contest, and seriously flirted with the Sanders campaign. Had Sanders been the Democratic nominee instead of Clinton, he would have won. That gives me hope.
[i] For an excellent, delightfully readable overview of these philosophical works, see, e.g., Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher (New York: Radom House) 1998.
[ii] Greer, Thomas H., A Brief History of Western Civilization (5th Ed.), (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987), p. 6.
[iii] See, e.g., Kringelbach, Marten L. and Berridge, Kent C. (Eds.), Pleasures of the Brain, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
[iv] If there were a single book to put to rest the feckless idea that we are somehow not the products of evolution by natural selection, it would have to be Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. But, alas, willful ignorance is a too-powerful force.
[v] See, e.g., generally, Grossman, Matt and Hopkins, David A., Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, Oxford University Press, 2016.
[vi] See, e.g., generally, Gross, Niel and Simmons, Solomon (Eds.), Professors and Their Politics, John Hopkins University Press, 2014 (a series of studies indicating that the political leanings of professors have very little correlations with beliefs of their students upon graduation).
[vii] Kanai, Ryota, et al., “Political Orientations Are Correlated With Brain Structure in Young Adults,” Current Biology 21(8), p 677-80, April 26, 2011.
[viii] See, e.g., generally, Wood, Gordon S., Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different, New York: Penguin 2006.
[ix] Henry, William A., In Defense of Elitism, New York: Doubleday, 1994.