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A Preference for Demagogues - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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February 3rd, 2010


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01:45 pm - A Preference for Demagogues
Here’s a disturbing article about politics on why people vote against their own interests. The following quote seems to me like it get at the heart of the insane mess that modern US politics has become.
Thomas Frank, the author of the best-selling book What's The Matter with Kansas, is an even more exasperated Democrat and he goes further than Mr Westen.

He believes that the voters' preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.

The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest…

As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.
The problem seems to be a mixture of the sort of anti-intellectualism that has been popular in the US for well more than a century, and a preference for emotions over anything resembling actual thought in voting patterns. This sort of widespread emotion-driven idiocy is quite literally the same force that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. However, what I don’t understand is why it’s so much worse in the modern US than it is in most of the rest of the first world, and also why it’s so much worse now than it was more than 30 years ago. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected because most US voters thought he was “sincere”, despite a number of them actually disagreeing with his positions (when polled about these positions, separate from about Reagan). However, for the previous 30 years, this preference for emotion over sense seems to have been somewhat less powerful. In any case, results like this make me very much doubt the desirability of democracy.

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Comments:


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From:slothman
Date:February 3rd, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)
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I think the problem is that the issues that matter are too complex for most people to follow— it requires a lot of tedious policy-wonkery to figure these things out, and there are a lot of people with incentive to crank out well-produced lies to support their desired outcome. I think the thing we need to do is lower the cost of making wise choices; my own small-scale attempt at that has been to post my election research results to my blog for friends and coworkers and neighbors to read. (I’m informed that I was actually influential among independents in my home town in the last election.) We also need more public humiliation of liars and deceivers; I want to find a news network with the guts to take a Presidential debate and give it the Pop-Up Video treatment after a rigorous fact check.

The task I perform in my election research should be mostly automated, though; there’s no fundamental reason your ballot can’t have a QR code on the cover that you photograph with your phone’s camera and it brings up all the same articles that I take many hours to assemble into a page of links.

[User Picture]
From:aekiy
Date:February 4th, 2010 03:41 am (UTC)
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I've wondered before how much things like these might be related to intellectual stratification. I'm not aware of any statistics relevant to it, but it seems as though the supposedly increasing average intelligence would also lead to greater intellectual stratification, such that the machinations of those with above average intelligence (by our own measurements) would become that much more alien and incomprehensible to those at the lower end of the scale. And of course, being poor tends to skew one's cognitive potential in a variety of ways (growing up in poor areas with many health hazards, lacking access to education, et cetera).
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From:heron61
Date:February 4th, 2010 07:01 am (UTC)
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Interesting thought, especially in light of the fact that IQ is variable with experience, and thus people with greater opportunities will on average have higher IQs.
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From:erelin
Date:February 4th, 2010 05:16 am (UTC)
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Aristotle got it wrong. Man is not a 'rational animal.' Truth be told, the motivations that people have are seldom rational- and even rational motivations usually have their basis in some irrational behavior.

Give me your most rational person, and a couple months of prolonged contact. I will find what motivates his rationality, the reasons behind why he thinks what he does. I will warp and pervert his true, hidden motives away from whatever intellectual ideals he may hold during that time. It doesn't matter how smart you are, because smarts isn't what counters manipulation.

All that has happened is that the Republicans have decided to manipulate the people in the country, while the Democrats have decided to manipulate the people in the city. It's far more complicated than that, but that's all it amounts to. Everyone is always being manipulated, it's a matter of deciding how it's going to happen.
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From:heron61
Date:February 4th, 2010 06:56 am (UTC)
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All that has happened is that the Republicans have decided to manipulate the people in the country, while the Democrats have decided to manipulate the people in the city.

I agree, except that it's more of a case of rural areas and suburbs (Republican) vs. cities (Democrats) than a straight rural/urban divide - if it was that, we wouldn't have had a Republican president since the 1950s, the US isn't as urban as Western Europe, but it's not far from it.
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From:autopope
Date:February 4th, 2010 10:28 am (UTC)
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What makes you think people don't have it "in the rest of the world"?

Here in the UK it's definitely a force in politics. The way it's expressed is different, cultural authenticity manifesting itself in different ways over here, but it's still a major problem.
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From:heron61
Date:February 4th, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
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That makes sense, but it's unclear to me why US politics is so barking mad compared to the rest of the first world. My best guess is that the persistent anti-intellectualism of the US is a major reason for this difference, since I know that the US level of anti-intellectualism is significantly higher than in almost all of the rest of the first world. If this is a major contributing factor, then it makes sense that emotional over rational thinking will be a larger force in US politics.

In short, the worst of your crazies are found in small parties like the BNP. Our crazies are a major political force.
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From:cusm
Date:February 4th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
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Sales 101: People make decisions emotionally, then justify their decision with logic. If you want to sell something, give them an emotional reason to buy it.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 5th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
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Europeans have a long history of being ruled. They got angry about that, so now they vote angrily and their representatives get into fistfights in parliament.

The US has a history of independence (not quite the same thing as equality, but definitely not the same as being ruled, per se). Americans are used to coming up with ideas, generating political parties, causes, and candidates. There is a social expectation to Think About the Future. Of course, thinking about the future is menacingly scary to the unprepared. This results in stress, worry, and obsession. Eventually, the strain becomes too much, the logic turns off, and out comes the relief of unalloyed emotion.

I think it's no accident that the US is remarkably prude, and has been shown in research to be orally fixated in just about any way you can measure.
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From:krinndnz
Date:February 5th, 2010 05:29 am (UTC)
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I think that there's a significant omission there: pretty much every extant European nation can point to a period in the past where they were kicking everyone else's ass. And then that period passed, and they had to deal with not being on top of the heap. America has not yet had that experience of having to cope with not being the top of the heap - and after the experience of full-on empire, imperial privilege, the adjustment might get pretty ugly.
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From:krinndnz
Date:February 5th, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
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Reinforcing some earlier comments - being more easily swayed by emotional appeals than by logical ones is part of the human condition. I'm not comfortable making it so nakedly partisan - the leadership of the Democratic Party are barely more appealing to me than the GOP leadership. I do worry about the underlying cultural factors, though. If we can't produce people who can think critically, we can't function as a democracy. We also can't function as a democracy if we're determined to be an empire, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are going to stop America from staying an empire.

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