Lessons from America
While most of us have experienced holding our nose as we vote, our American friends are, as usual, taking it to the next level. The stench is super-sized for this 2016 Presidential campaign. The thing is, in a democracy, this decline isn’t just the politicians’ fault, it’s the voters’ too.
Whatever happens, the US is in for a wild, messy ride. Historian Niall Fergusson wryly likens the choice ahead of Americans as between Hillary Snafu and Donald Fubar (the meaning of these military-derived acronyms are better imagined than googled). Snafu represents more of the same messed-up status quo, fubar a new and potentially catastrophic future—a train limping along a circular track versus one hurtling towards likely derailment.
In a scornful open letter, 370 economists (including 8 Nobel Laureates) recently warned against the wilder of the two rides. “Donald Trump is a dangerous, destructive choice for the country. He misinforms the electorate, degrades trust in public institutions with conspiracy theories, and promotes willful delusion over engagement with reality,” they argue. “If elected, he poses a unique danger to the functioning of democratic and economic institutions, and to the prosperity of the country.”
What is fascinating here is that their major beef isn’t with Trump’s economic policies, like a similar open letter written in September by a first group of 300 economists urging rejection of Clinton’s “ill-advised economic agenda.” This second group are concerned that a Trump presidency will undermine trust in key institutions. This is a legitimate concern, as trust is the cornerstone of both democracy and the economy.
Misinformation, conspiracies and delusion are not new to politics. What is new is just how darn effective they are—this is where the electorate shoulders some of the blame for this depressing state of affairs. Someone like Trump (and many would argue Clinton too) thrives in an environment that the Economist calls “post-truth politics,” where “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact” reign supreme.
Thinking, it seems, has gone out of fashion. Over the past decade linguists have shown how the usage of “I feel like” has skyrocketed, becoming a synonym for “I think.” As New York Times columnist Molly Worther writes, “in American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition.” The “reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch,” as she describes it, illustrates a general unwillingness to genuinely engage with the evidence. Psychologists call this confirmation bias: when faced with facts that contradict our deeply-held beliefs, we tend to rationalise the facts away.
A sound, democratic order depends on more than vague intuition. Feelings are important but not sufficient—we must square them with our reason. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” We must, as Worther puts it “argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.” Anything less, and well, we’ll get what we deserve.