Stuck in Stupid

Democracy rests on the Jeffersonian premise that voters are willing to sort fact from fiction. Would that this were happening.

By Tim Connor

I enjoyed a weirdly charmed life in the late 1960s. I lived on a tropical hillside with my parents, my younger brother, four sisters, and a couple large iguanas that feasted on hibiscus blossoms and poinsettia berries. Diablo Heights Elementary School was a two minute walk to the next hill, so close that my brother Tommy could reach it with tennis balls fired from his lighter fluid-fueled cannons. From the window in my room I could look out over the runways of Albrook Air Force base and, beyond that, the disorganized skyline of Panama City.

In 1969, when I started seventh grade, we (the Diablo kids) would ride a school bus around the perimeter of the Air Force base to a modernistic junior high school in Curundu. The new Curundu Junior High “cafetorium” was a huge geodesic dome that looked like a smaller version of the Tacoma Dome. Along that route, we would pass right by one of Panama’s largest shanty towns, “Little Hollywood,” which was separated from us by a tall chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.

It was hard for twelve year olds to know what to make of “Little Hollywood,” but you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to live there, especially when the Curundu River flooded. You also couldn’t help but wonder what our big yellow school bus looked like from the other side of the fence.

What I took from it, at the time, is that I was lucky to have been born into a tribe of relatively well off people who really knew how to impose their will on the world around them. As the French learned so gruesomely in the 1880’s, nature in the mountains of Panama–with malarial clouds of mosquitos, torrents of rain, and unbelievably thick and deep muck virtually anywhere you disturb the ground–can eat you alive. That we succeeded where the French failed is, at the very least, a testimony to American creativity and ingenuity. Mostly, though, it’s a decent lesson on the importance of acute reality-based thinking and problem-solving. Not to overlook the importance of brawn, but Americans didn’t conquer the jungles of Panama with technological muscle so much as they did so with their brains.

I raise this to wonder, aloud, when Americans decided to lose their minds. Or, to put it another way, I don’t know of a time in history, let alone American history, where knowledge and expertise is so clearly out of favor. Our politics is increasingly defined by a movement in which scientists and others with the education and experience to address complex problems are scorned, even demonized, as elites. Never mind the obvious benefits we all derive from advanced technology. A central grudge in the populist wave washing up from the American heartland is that people who see complexity in the world around them are essentially a menace, that they simply can’t be trusted not to use their education to out-smart common folks into giving up their freedoms.

By itself, this mix of fear and intellectual reductionism is a toxic combination.  But then you add to it the buckets of cash being poured into populist Republican/Tea Party campaigns by oil and banking interests (whose purpose—of course—is to avoid regulation and taxation) and it’s become what the French would call a force majeure. It does not bode well for us.

I’m ready to concede that my faith in reason is, at best, badly shaken. Still, I’d like to know: where’s the bottom to this lunacy? How far can we go as a viable society when we can’t have serious, reality-based debates about the biggest challenges we face?

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan articulated the basic rule of civic debate when he said that one is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. This may still be axiomatic in some tighter circles of law, academics and business where lying and just making stuff up are still disqualifying. But this is a rule increasingly detached from our politics, mainly because those who poison the well with bad information are more likely to achieve their desired effects than to be held accountable.

To cite a recent example, the fierce opposition to health insurance reform was fertilized with blatant lies about what was actually in the legislation. It wasn’t just the whole cloth fiction of “death panels”—concocted to frighten seniors—but the fundamental and successful effort to cast reforms to private insurance coverage as a “government takeover” of health care. As ABC’s long-time chief medical correspondent Dr. Tim Johnson vehemently points out, the bills Congress debated, and the one the President ultimately signed, never came close to resembling a “government takeover” of health care. Rather, the reforms were based on ideas largely championed (in the past) by Republicans as alternatives to the “single-payer” reforms being proposed by Democrats.

President Obama said he favored a single-payer system (like the popular Medicare program for seniors) but meekly explained that the political reality is that it was off the table. And it was. His major concession to Republicans and conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats was to oppose single-payer and work for moderate reforms that left private insurance companies in control of the industry. Inasmuch as he outraged a good part of his base, Obama expected at least some Republican support for this compromise. He not only didn’t get it, but Republicans proceeded to red-bait the compromise as “socialized medicine.”

Incredibly, it worked. The misinformed populist backlash against the supposedly socialistic “Obamacare” health reforms was a main ingredient in the Tea Party-fueled, Republican resurgence this fall.

This is a good place to pause and make three honorable concessions to those who argue that the problem with mass stupidity has less to do with the ignorance of American voters than it does with how voters are being concertedly misled and manipulated. I agree that an amped-up and irresponsible media (not just right-wing media) has played into the hands of Republican demagogues. I agree that the Roberts Supreme Court in Citizens United has the opened flood gates for corporations to pump unlimited money into political campaigns. I also agree that there is a nihilistic shamelessness to the Boehner-McConnell brand of Republicanism, wherein every move, pronouncement and legislative obstruction is calculated to bringing down the Obama presidency so that the GOP can regain control of Congress and the White House.

And yet, the American experiment in democracy inevitably rests on the Jeffersonian premise that citizen/voters are ultimately willing and capable of using their own brains to sort it out.

Would that this were happening.


A central grudge in the populist wave washing up from the American heartland is that people who see complexity in the world around them are essentially a menace, that they simply can’t be trusted not to use their education to out-smart common folks into giving up their freedoms.

One of my favorite headlines this year is on a lengthy piece written by Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe last summer:

“How Facts Backfire, Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains.”

Keohane’s piece goes beyond the frightening (but hardly new) findings by researchers about how badly misinformed American voters are about hugely important facts, i.e. the widespread belief that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq when, in fact, they hadn’t. Digging deeper, he reports on recent research showing that when people are informed that they have their facts wrong, they only tend to further entrench themselves in their beliefs in order to avoid admitting that they’re wrong.

Keohane writes: “Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.”

It’s one thing to read about how this phenomenon reveals itself in academic research. In the hands of a probing journalist, like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, the anecdotal evidence is darkly humorous, as in his account of angry, elderly Tea Party types in Kentucky driving their Medicare-subsidized scooters to rallies condemning socialized medicine. Where these examinations converge is in the way both Taibbi and Keohane describe the “cognitive shortcuts” (Keohane’s term) our brains use to by-pass the ordeal of actually doing our own fact-finding. Taibbi, as is his style, describes this phenomenon in terms that are bitingly profane, whereas the researchers quoted by Keohane draw more polite conclusions, e.g. “it’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

But it amounts to the same thing. Among the Tea Party crowd, Taibbi sharply observes that people are much more inclined to respond to a communicator’s “emotional attitude” rather than syllogisms constructed with factual premises.

It’s certainly a fair point that the seductions of emotional/political body language work from either direction, and that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Still, it’s not the political left, or center, in the U.S. that’s declared a culture war on science and intellectuals. It’s the political right. Sarah Palin (who recently stressed the importance of “standing with our North Korean allies”) is the most visible leader of this movement and is a rock star among the Republican base. But the depth of the movement includes most of the Republican Party, as amplified by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the constellation of other right-wing broadcast personalities. What they’ve learned is that there is little downside to just making stuff up, especially if it strikes a visceral chord with an uninformed electorate. Once that happens, the fact checkers don’t matter. The bogus claim or allegation has what comedian Stephen Colbert jests is the gloss of “truthiness,” (a falsehood that polls well) and this is all that’s needed for the political pay-off.

Consider Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant and pollster who also works for Fox News. Luntz has become famous for pulling out slogans from focus groups that will resonate with voters.

In a column last February, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift recounted how Luntz mined the hot-button phrase “government takeover” from an angry woman at a focus group in St. Louis. Never mind that it was a bogus accusation. Luntz correctly saw that it would work and primed it for his Republican clients.

“Luntz’s poll-tested language lands like an IED in the public discourse, exploding any possibility of civil debate,” Clift wrote.

Skip ahead eight months after the Republicans had won back the House in an election that hinged, in large part, on punishing the Democrats who supported the health insurance reform bill.  Researchers found something interesting in exit polling. While a majority of voters said they favored repeal of the new law,  when they were asked about the specific provisions of the bill (you know, what was actually in the law, as opposed to the purposely deceptive “government takeover” branding) the numbers switched. In other words, once the angry voters  were told what was in the law, they actually supported its major provisions, even though they’d just voted against the people who helped pass the legislation.

What the health care debate reinforced is just how effective a lie can be if its jammed home with gusto. Another good example is global climate change. Recently, John Boehner (the man who will be the Speaker of the House of Representatives, come January) told ABC News that the idea carbon dioxide is harmful to the environment “is almost comical.” As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza points out, Boehner and his party are now alone among parties in the world’s major democracies in contesting, and even denying, the science on global warming.

“It’s really an amazing development,” Lizza said in a recent New Yorker podcast. He went on to point out that the solidifying Republican rejection of climate change science was primarily a response to President Obama declaring that fighting global warming would be one of his main policy objectives. In other words, if Obama and the Democrats saw global warming as a problem, the reflexive political imperative was not just to downplay the problem, but to cast the problem itself as a fraud cooked up by the world’s smarty-pants scientists. Thus, according to the National Journal’s Marc Ambinder,  the Republican approach to combating catastrophic climate change will be to haul scientists before investigating House subcommittees to question them about the “scientific fraud” of global warming.  Who needs pinhead scientists when you’ve got the balls-on-accurate swagger of common sense?

Our politics is increasingly defined by a movement in which scientists and others with the education and experience to address complex problems are scorned, even demonized, as elites.

Turning to a more tangible subject that clearly effects most voters, the economic crash of 2008 cost most American households dearly. But it is now dissectible. The only difficulty is that it is just complicated enough that you have to focus a bit to understand it, to see how the slop and fraud in the sub-prime mortgage market became the blasting cap for the utterly corrupted, unregulated trading in collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. The resulting crash has had continuing devastating effects on American Main Streets while—thanks to government intervention—the financial sector was rescued and continues to flourish as if nothing much really happened.

The journalism on this debacle since 2008 convincingly crushes any notion that the financial markets are somehow inherently capable of regulating themselves. Even Alan Greenspan—the high priest of unfettered capitalism—candidly admitted to his “state of shock and disbelief” that lending institutions couldn’t be counted on to protect investor’s interests. You could take his word for it, or you can read one of the more vividly documented accounts such as Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short. Either way, it’s no contest, the debate should be over and reforming the system should have been a bipartisan cake walk.

“I think compared to health care reform this is a breeze,” Lewis told Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter last March when Carter asked Lewis if Obama’s team could bring the banking system “to heel” with serious reforms.

“There is no credible defender of the Wall Street status quo,” Lewis explained.

But, as we know now, the Wall Street reforms of 2010 were muted to the point that even the so-called Volcker Rule—which Obama (eventually) said he supported—was killed before the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 was passed. Observed Matt Taibbi: “It was Congress at its most cowardly, deceptive best, with both parties teaming up to subject reform to death by a thousand paper cuts – with the worst cuts coming, literally, in the final moments before the bill’s passage.”

The irrational and surreal disconnect in our politics is now so pronounced that even the hollowed out Wall Street reform law has become a rallying point for Republican Congressional leaders who, rather than wanting to strengthen the law, actually want to repeal it. That’s right. Despite all the evidence that unregulated trading in mortgage-based securities and derivatives became the E. coli for our economic dysentery, we’re now told that imposing new regulations on banks would make matters  much worse. It’s as though there’s no better solution to a food poisoning epidemic than to make sure the health department doesn’t get to inspect kitchens any more. Sure, it’s crazy. But it’s also ideologically pure in its sound-bite simplicity, and thus packs the punch of “emotional attitude”  that connects so powerfully with the Republican base and Tea Party movement. After all, what’s really the difference between a health department inspector, or a bank regulator, and a Nazi SS officer?

To take another large and complicated problem that government must solve, let’s pick up the unsustainable explosion in public debt. In 1992 and again in 1996, Texas businessman Ross Perot became a phenomenon primarily for his folksy warnings about runaway federal budget deficits that were threatening the nation’s long-term economic viability. At the time, the federal portion of the national debt was approximately $4 trillion. By 2008, in the wake of two wars and the Bush Administration’s tax cuts, it had surpassed $9 trillion. (The only downward dip in the escalating debt came near the end of the Clinton Administration, just before George W. Bush took office). In the too-worked-up-to-read-further wisdom of the Tea Party movement, the main cause of the federal deficits is runaway domestic spending, i.e. Congressional “earmarks” for pork barrel projects. But like so much of what this delusional movement subscribes to, it’s just flat wrong.

“This debt explosion,” David Stockman wrote last summer, “has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.”

If Stockman’s name sounds familiar, it’s not because he’s a flaming liberal, funded by Glenn Beck’s bogeyman George Soros. Rather, he’s Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). When Stockman wrote his N.Y. Times op-ed piece last summer, Four Deformations of the Apocalypse, he opened with an attack not on Obama, but on Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. His problem with McConnell is that at a time when the nation’s total public debt is approaching $18 trillion, the Senate’s Minority Leader was still insisting that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans be made permanent.

“If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians,” Stockman wrote, “the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”

The steam rising from Stockman’s column is mostly due to the Republican Party’s ideological contortions on behalf of the “prosperous classes” of Americans who were the prime beneficiaries of the tax cuts. In one breathtaking insight into the mind of the Republican leadership, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican’s Minority Whip in the Senate, told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that when it comes to attacking the deficit it’s a mistake to think that tax cuts have to be counted the same way as expenditures. Wallace was simply trying to get Kyl to deal with the math. It didn’t quite take and even the Fox News interviewer looked and sounded as though Kyl had taken leave of his senses.

“This is much crazier than anything you hear from Democrats,” observed the Washington Post’s economic and domestic policy columnist Ezra Klein about the Wallace/Kyl interview. “Imagine if some Democrat — and a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, no less — said that as a matter of principle, spending should never be offset. He’d be laughed out of the room.”   But, of course, Kyl spoke with great gusto about what is, after all, the Republican position on federal tax and budget issues. So even though what he said would be financial suicide if it were applied, say, to a household budget, it still (I guess) has enough of the ring of truthiness to it to persuade American voters to cast their lot with Republicans.

I have a book on my nightstand by cognitive scientist George Lakoff that explains why appeals to reason so often fail in politics, and why the radical right has been winning the battle for the American brain.  He persuasively disputes my Jeffersonian world view that freedom and access to information is the great disinfectant and rudder for a successful democracy; that people empowered with access to facts will inexorably make the best choices. Lakoff says that the cultural narratives in which people locate themselves matter far more facts, and far more than appeals to reason. He says that the radical right gets that, and has managed to control the terms of American politics as a result.

Suffice to say, I take his point and am ready to concede that my faith in reason is, at best, badly shaken. And, still, I’d like to know: where’s the bottom to this lunacy? How far can we go as a viable society when we can’t have serious and reality-based debates about the biggest challenges we face? When is the day of reckoning? What will it look like?

When I went fishing with my childhood friends in Diablo, we often wandered down to a spot where we could see the Bridge of the Americas, near the Pacific entrance to the canal. Our fishing pier, if you could call it that, was a long rusted chunk of one of the old French ladder dredges that was abandoned just offshore of the Diablo Spinning Club. As such, it was part of a visible monument to one of modern history’s great failures.

The French tragedy in Panama was worse than the 22,000 lives lost. It was also about the huge sums of borrowed money (nearly $1.5 billion francs) that could never be paid back to French bondholders and the devastating evisceration of French pride and honor. It might not have ended that way, for the French, had not Ferdinand de Lesseps—a national hero in France for his leadership in building the Suez Canal—been so stubbornly committed to the impossible task of building a sea level canal, like the one at Suez, at Panama. De Lesseps, the “Great Engineer,” was not actually educated as an engineer. Despite ample warnings from real engineers that building a sea-level canal with 19th century technology was a fool’s choice, de Lesseps was romantically committed to the idea until it was too late. The result was what was then considered to be the greatest failure in modern times, so crippling to France, according to historian David McCullough, that even Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto Von Bismarck, “lamented that so heavy a tragedy had overtaken so gallant a people.”

And, yet, it was a tragedy driven by magical thinking. The French had bought de Lesseps’s narrative, and, at his urging, had fatally ignored facts in plain site. A hundred and twenty years later, I can’t help but wonder if the deepening American penchant for ignoring and distorting reality will lead us to a fate similar to being hopelessly stuck in the muds of Panama.


Editor’s note: The author’s opinions are his own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.

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