Title: RED GENES, BLUE GENES: Exposing Political Irrationality
Author: Guillermo C. Jimenez
Cover price: 15.99 USD
Dimensions: Trade paperback (6 x 9), 304 pp.
Pub. Date: July 4, 2009
Human political cognition is characterized by "political irrationality," the tendency to make biased political judgments instinctively and affectively while attributing such judgments to reason and logic. Political irrationality is exhibited in our most common and widespread political behaviors, including: partisan bias, gullibility, over-confidence, and partisan hostility. Political irrationality is shielded from view by self-deception, so that it is difficult to observe in oneself. The existence of political irrationality is confirmed and corroborated by findings from a number of scientific disciplines, beginning with the cornerstone “heuristics and biases” literature from cognitive psychology which suggests that self-serving bias and partisan bias are universal human tendencies. Political irrationality is partially innate, as has been established by twin-based studies based on modern behavioral genetics. The evolutionary psychology of political behavior further suggests that political irrationality was adaptive throughout human evolution. The likely evolutionary origins of political irrationality are confirmed by observations from primatology, particularly in studies of the “political” behavior of troops of chimpanzees. Neuroscience has provided additional corroboration of the existence of political irrationality through brain-scan (fMRI) experiments which show that political debate engages the emotional centers of the brain rather than the analytical or reasoning centers. Cultural anthropology and cross-cultural studies have provided a framework of “cultural dimensions” which is highly-useful in identifying the origins and contours of political conflicts between liberals and conservatives; i.e., both internationally and domestically one is able to identify red cultures and blue cultures. At the national level, political irrationality sustains patriotic “social myths,” erroneous beliefs which have become widely adopted because they are self-serving. One example of a pervasive social myth is the popular misconception amongst American citizens that their Founding Fathers set the United States up as a “democracy,” which the historical record clearly indicates is false. Rational choice economics has contributed key insights on the essential irrationality of voting behavior through its analysis of the “Voter’s Paradox”: people vote even though they obtain no benefit from doing so. Modern electoral politics and presidential elections are discussed in the media within a framework of irrational assumptions. Thus, for example, the conventional view of presidential elections holds that the citizenry elects the candidate who presents the most appealing mix of policies and personal competence, while the empirical evidence suggests that elections are determined almost entirely by economic factors. The author concludes by proposing innovative political structures to help counteract political irrationality. These structures are based on the concept of the citizen panel or citizen jury. This citizen-based approach is situated within modern democratic theory as an experimental form of deliberative democracy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS/SYNOPSIS
Chapter 1 — The New Science of Political Irrationality
Introduces the concept of political irrationality and its scientific basis in the disciplines of cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, rational choice political science, neuroscience and other disciplines. Sets forth the ability of political irrationality to explain and illuminate a number of political mysteries (e.g., Why do people argue endlessly about politics? Why do surveys always show that voters are ignorant of politics? Why do conservatives and liberals seems to hate each other? Why do people vote, when they derive no benefit from doing so? Why do people vote differently depending on their race, age or gender?).
Chapter 2 — The Psychology of Political Irrationality
Argues that political irrationality is rooted in near-universal human cognitive bias. Presents research by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky which suggests that humans are routinely irrational in their everyday lives. The essence of political irrationality is partisan bias masquerading as neutral rationality. Confirmation bias, self-serving bias and overconfidence bias just make things worse. Philip Tetlock’s research is presented to demonstrate that so-called “experts” are just as subject to political irrationality as everyone else.
Chapter 3 — War, Ruin, Panic: Cases of Irrationality
Three cases are presented of the ability of human irrationality to negatively impact the course of human affairs. Research from Dominic Johnson and Daniel Kahneman is presented which suggests that political leaders are highly subject to cognitive bias in the preparation and conduct of war. Bryan Caplan’s research reveals that the electorate is almost completely unaware of modern economic consensus on a number of economic issues, in particular those related to international trade, immigration and out-sourcing. The financial crisis revealed that experts, economists and political leaders are just as subject to dangerous levels of over-confidence bias in the management of financial markets.
Chapter 4 — The Biology of Political Irrationality
Reviews the twin studies conducted by John Hibbing, Robert Alford and Carolyn Funk which first suggested that human political ideology was genetically-based and heritable. Presents the fMRI research of Drew Westen which suggests that the brains of political partisans are constrained by an innate confirmation bias. Reviews the implicit bias and implicit attitude research of Anthony Greenwald and Mazarin Banaji, particularly as derived from their famous online IAT tests.
Chapter 5 — The Evolution of Political Irrationality
Presents an evolutionary framework within which modern political irrationality derived from highly-adaptive in-group bonding and solidarity throughout the 1.5 million year period known as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA.
Chapter 6 — Culture and Political Irrationality
Presents the concept of “cultural dimensions” and the cross-cultural research of Geert Hofstede, which suggests that human cultures fall along a left-to-right, or red-to-blue spectrum, and this is true both internationally and domestically.
Chapter 7 — Partisan Irrationality
Argues that based on the scientific evidence presented so far, partisanship is largely irrational. Despite its numerous defenders, partisanship is usually not rational, and is quite often harmful.
Chapter 8 — Voting and Political Irrationality
Reviews the irrationalities of the voting process, and in particular examines the attempts of the Rational Choice school to solve the “Voter’s Paradox.” It is suggested that the rational choice explanations fail because voting is in fact irrational from an instrumental point of view, but does provide social returns which explain why so many people vote. These social mechanisms also have evolutionary underpinnings, which explain why the desire to vote can be so intense.
Chapter 9 — Placebo Democracy
Reviews the historical record which suggests that the Founding Father set the U.S. up as a “republic” in part as a firm and explicit rejection of what they termed “democracy.” According to the terminology of the Founders, the U.S. should not call itself a democracy. The explanation for our linguistic evolution lies in campaign manoeuvres of the 1830s. Andrew Jackson found that pro-democratic rhetoric was successful in his second attempt at the U.S. Presidency, and within 20 years every other American politician had jumped on the bandwagon.
Chapter 10 — The Irrational Politician
Examines evidence that politicians routinely defraud the public and that despite their public-serviced rhetoric they are principally motivated by selfish ambitions for self-aggrandizement and financial gain.
Chapter 11 — Irrational Elections
Explores the pervasive irrationalities of the U.S. Presidential election, not the least of which is the refusal by the media to acknowledge that presidential elections are almost invariably decided by economic conditions.
Chapter 12 — Obama Zen: The Color of Hope
Seeks to gently deflate some of the naïve, triumphalist rhetoric coming from the liberal wing after President Obama’s 2008 victory.
Chapter 13 — Creating Rational Democracy
Proposes that citizen-based schemes are the best way to combat and overcome our current system’s penchant for irrationality. These innovations are sometimes referred to as “citizen panels,” “citizen juries” or “citizen auditors,” but the basic idea is the same, that small groups of ordinary citizens are given the opportunity to hear evidence, deliberate and ultimately decide policy issues on behalf of the public. We can trust citizen panels in a way that we could never trust politicians and legislatures.
Epilogue — The "Ten Suggestions": Tips for the Rational Voter
Common-sense suggestions for battling our own political irrationality, and for minimizing its social impact.
EXCERPTS FROM "RED GENES BLUE GENES: EXPOSING POLITICAL IRRATIONALITY"
CHAPTER 1: The New Science of Political Irrationality
Political irrationality is the tendency to arrive at biased political judgments emotionally and instinctively, while nonetheless attributing such judgments to logic and evidence. Political opinions come from the heart, so to speak, but the head claims the credit.
The first grand (or grandiose) claim I will make in this book is that coping with political irrationality is one of the world’s most important challenges. All attempts to manage humanity’s other problems (war, disease, environmental degradation, poverty, etc.) will be hampered by ineffective government. Government failure, in turn, is an inevitable by-product of political irrationality. An irrational electorate is like sand in the gears of democracy, and irrational politicians make things worse. If we want to tackle the world’s problems effectively, we will have to learn to overcome, or at least minimize, political irrationality.
First, though, we need to understand it. Political irrationality is exhibited primarily as follows:
Partisan bias: In any political debate or dispute, we assume that our political “side” is the “correct” one;
Political gullibility: People tend to adopt the political beliefs of their peer group, regardless of the existence or strength of the supporting evidence;
Over-confidence: We are very sure we are right (again, regardless of the evidence);
Hostility: We don’t like our political adversaries and disdain them as morally or intellectually inferior;
Self-deception: We fool ourselves by denying and ignoring the existence of the above tendencies within ourselves (though we are able to detect them in others).
Social mythology: The above tendencies combine with patriotism to generate a number of national political myths (e.g., patriotic citizens tend to believe that their nation’s system of government is superior to all others).
If you doubt the power and reach of irrational emotion in politics, and are willing to try an easy thought experiment that may reveal the depth of your own red vs. blue divide, attempt the following. If you tend to consider yourself a conservative or otherwise lean towards the Republicans, imagine yourself going through a whole day admiring and supporting everything Hillary Clinton says or does (or choose another liberal standard-bearer). If, on the other hand, you place yourself on the liberal side and usually vote Democratic, try to do the same, but with Sarah Palin (or another conservative archetype) — imagine yourself enthusiastically approving her every utterance. If you are like most Americans, you will find the above to be an excessively demanding task. We all pay lip service to the concepts of tolerance and bi-partisanship, but asking us to love and admire the buffoons who lead the opposition political party — that is asking too much.
“I’d rather kiss a toad,” might sum up the sentiment of many Americans asked to perform such an experiment. Why do we find opposition political leaders so disgusting? They are, after all, Americans, too. Yet, despite their extremely impressive resumes, we cannot shake the feeling that they work for the “Dark Side.”
* * *
In my view, the biggest cost of our innate group-bias is that it sustains America’s two-party duopoly. The Democratic Party exploits hostility to the Republicans to monopolize liberals. The Republicans exploit hatred of liberals in order to monopolize conservatives. Americans become like the citizens of two parallel, Soviet states, with most voters turning out at every election to vote for the same party that they did in the previous election. Consequently, our Congressional incumbents are re-elected at the Soviet-style rate of 95%.
* * *
The Mystery of Futile Debate: Why do we engage endlessly in futile political debates? We can argue politics forever, with nary a hint of progress. The probability of anyone changing his or her mind as the result of a political argument is negligible; but we debate anyway. Whether on the street corner or Meet the Press, political discussions go on and on, and are only rarely resolved by polite compromise. As comedians have pointed out, it would be astonishing if a Presidential candidate were to decide, mid-debate, that the other candidate was right:
Candidate: “You know, Senator, I never looked at it that way before, but you’re actually completely right. Since it’s such an important point, I guess I’ll just concede the whole election to you right now — you are definitely the better candidate. Congratulations!”
If a candidate actually did say something like that, he or she would soon face overpowering citizen anger – at having violated the unspoken rule that debates are supposed to be futile. By convention, political debate is regarded as a logical process. However, the studies cited in this book suggest that in the political arena we do not respond to each other’s logic so much as we express and defend our sense of personal and group identification. Our political opinions emanate from deep cultural and biological sources. It is therefore about as easy to change our overall political orientation as it is to change the shape of our bodies or our taste in clothes (not impossible, but extremely difficult, especially as we get older). This explains why we get so emotional about politics and why political compromise is generally impossible. When someone criticizes our politics, they attack our very being. Political debate is futile because it is based on the naive premise that we can be convinced by the logical arguments of our enemies to change our inner selves.
CHAPTER 2: The Psychology of Political Irrationality
When we say one someone makes a “rational” decision, we mean that in our opinion they have made the right decision, and that they first thought about the problem (by implication this takes time), using logic and evidence. When we say someone has acted “irrationally,” we mean that they have made a bad decision through a kind of self-contradiction (acting contrary to their knowledge or professed objectives).
We say of those who have acted irrationally that they have “weren’t thinking,” “were thoughtless”, “didn’t think it through,” or “didn’t think straight” (or sometimes we just ask ourselves, astonished, “What were they thinking?”). Underlying our conception of irrationality is the conviction that people could have made the right decision. If you make a bad decision purely out of ignorance, strictly speaking that is not irrational — you just didn’t know better. Academics say that such decisions have been made under conditions of “bounded rationality,” (meaning limited rationality, due to a limited access to perfect information). Scholars who focus on bounded rationality argue that we are generally as rational as we can be, given our limited knowledge, so we shouldn’t use the term “irrationality” at all.
Irrationality is always in the eye of the beholder. We call someone irrational when we can see that their actions contain some element of self-contradiction, but the person who is accused of irrationality must either be unaware of that irrationality (otherwise, they would stop) or they must be acting under some sort of compulsion.
When we use the term “irrationality” in politics what we really mean is “different rationality.” People are motivated by different reasoning systems and different objectives. What we usually call irrationality in others is more accurately described as bi-rationality. Most people follow a social rationality (partisan loyalty) in politics but when questioned will pretend to be following an abstract, theoretical rationality. I will distinguish these two types of rationality by referring to the first as social rationality and the second as abstract rationality. Political irrationality is usually a matter of social rationality masquerading as abstract rationality. We blindly follow the party line but pretend that we are servants of logical truth. Now, in the final analysis, is such behavior rational or irrational? Strangely, one cannot say. In fact, it is rational from one perspective, but irrational from another. I use the term “political irrationality” to describe such behavior because I deem it irrational to act out of instinct and pretend that you are acting out of reflection. However, this is the voice of abstract rationality speaking. I must concede that those I accuse of political irrationality are, from another perspective, completely rational. Such individuals prefer social rationality, which is easy and fun, to political rationality, which is difficult and dangerous. Their choice is also arguably quite rational.
Consider, for example, that psychologists have recently discovered that the human face generates thousands of different "micro-expressions," fleeting gestures that are usually not perceived by others at the conscious level (unless they receive special training), but which are excellent indicators of whether someone is lying or not. This explains why we sometimes are able to sense that someone is not being honest with us, though we cannot say what aroused our suspicions. When citizens react emotionally to a political figure, perhaps they are actually performing a highly-accurate but subconscious analysis of the candidate's facial micro-expressions? Perhaps the feelings of emotional trust generated by some politicians are an accurate reflection of their political integrity? I am not convinced. I will argue that on the whole emotional reactions to political figures are not wise, because they are so heavily conditioned by pre-existing partisan bias. It is hard to imagine now what else, other than bias, could have prompted Democratic voters to cheer enthusiastically for Dukakis or Mondale, or Republicans to root fervently for Ford or Dole. Emotions can be genuine, but they can also be manufactured, manipulated, feigned and counterfeited. Emotions can be wise, but they can also be astoundingly stupid.
If voters are such wonderful intuitive analysts of candidates' facial gestures and other non-verbal communication, how is it that Americans elected Richard Nixon to an overwhelming landslide victory in 1972? Nixon's face was such a twitchy, quivering, sweating, conflicted mask of repressed dishonesty that the sobriquet "Tricky Dick" was nothing if not inevitable. America would never have bought a used car from Dick Nixon, but they voted for him by the tens of millions. In many important areas of life, you should definitely trust your emotions. Politics is not one of those areas.
The human brain continually uses two different modes or ways of thinking, a fast way (intuitive and emotional) and a slow way (reasoning). By convention, psychologists refer to these as System 1 (the fast, easy, intuitive or emotional way) and System 2 (the slow, difficult, rational way). The dual structure of human thinking provides our first clue to an understanding of the puzzle of political irrationality:
System 1 — The fast way of thinking has been inherited from our ancient ancestors (hence, it is sometimes referred to as our “reptilian brain”), and is popularly associated with our limbic system. System 1 is always turned-on and ready for action. Its lightning speed allows us to interact with our complex environment in real time. All higher forms of life share some kind of System 1 capacity, because it is so useful. If one of your prehistoric ancestors came across a tiger, System 1 got your progenitor safely up into a tree long before System 2 had a clue as to what was going on. System 1 is extremely fast, but that virtue is also its vice — because System 1 has a nasty habit of coming to hasty, erroneous decisions. System 1 is also sometimes quite thick-headed. Thus System 1 quickly acquires new habits, bad as well as good, but then refuses to budge from them. Our core political problem is that most of our political thinking is governed by System 1, the realm of intuition and emotion, while we all pretend that it is subject to System 2, the realm of logic.
System 2 — The slower type of thinking, reason, is uniquely human — our evolutionary siblings, chimpanzees, might have a little capacity for it, but no other species on the planet has anything like the System 2 capacity that humans possess. System 2 processes occupy the neo-cortex, the surface layer of brain tissue which was the last part of the brain to develop in evolutionary time. System 2 is conscious, deliberate, methodical, and requires a huge amount of effort (which is why we are so lazy about using it). System 2 is just plain hard work. System 2 is good at doing things like solving algebra problems, making sense of Ikea assembly instructions, or organizing a wedding — all things we would rather not do. Since System 2 is so painful, effortful and ungainly a form of cognition, we only call it into play when absolutely necessary. There has to be some message from the environment telling us that it’s time to rev up the Brainiac. Usually this message comes from System 1, when it finds itself in dire straits. A sense of anxiety, urgency or panic coming from System 1 is like the Commissioner’s call to Batman — “We need you now, masked avenger!”
System 2 likes to think that it controls System 1, but this is wildly unrealistic, as anyone knows who has ever tried to quit smoking, stick to a diet, or fulfill some other such “New Year’s resolution.” Most of us conceive of our rational brain as a kind of CEO in charge of our life. We believe that orders issued by the CEO (e.g., put down that beer, close the fridge) will be followed. However, a better analogy is proposed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who likens the rational brain to an ineffectual jockey riding on the back of an unruly elephant. The jockey likes to think it is in control, but in reality the emotional elephant tramples anywhere it pleases.
Despite the rational brain’s hubris, our lives our largely ruled by the unconscious urges and impulses of the intuitive brain and it would be naïve to think it could be otherwise. System 1 was there first and is never going to go away. We are all basically animals and a healthy System 1 allows us to express our natural animal vitality. That’s a good thing, because all enjoyment of life depends on System 1. As we saw with the patient who suffered damage to his amygdala, life without System 1 isn’t worth living. Thus the great skeptical philosopher David Hume keenly observed, “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
We arrive at our political opinions through System 1 processes but, like the self-deluding jockey on the back of the unruly elephant, we pretend that it was System 2 that came up with our political philosophy. In truth, when we bring System 2 into play it is usually to help defend the initial positions taken. The System-2 jockeys may believe they are involved in a logical debate, but the truth is that the elephants they are riding on are just happen to be angry and spoiling for a fight. The battle is futile because, as we will see, System 1 beliefs are impervious to rational argument.
CHAPTER 3: War, Ruin, Panic: Cases of Irrationality
In the case of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration interpreted Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors as evidence that he had W.M.D. (weapons of mass destruction). Actually, Saddam Hussein had dismantled his W.M.D. capacities but left the impression even amongst his own senior command that he had hidden weaponry. Hussein probably felt that the illusion that he still possessed some weapons would both intimidate enemies and cower his own people. If so, Hussein could have thought that a complete show of cooperation with inspectors would have revealed his deception. Reasonably or not, Hussein may have felt himself constrained by circumstances to maintain some level of doubt as to whether he still had W.M.D. Falling prey to fundamental attribution error, the Bush administration took Hussein’s intransigence as a sign of his determination to keep and eventually use W.M.D. (viz. Condoleeza Rice’s ominous references to the danger of a mushroom cloud).
The Bush team compounded this error with a large dose of overconfidence bias. In retrospect, Vice President Cheney’s assurances that the conflict would be quick and easy and that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators seems absurdly overconfident. Sadly, though, it is typical. Military history is strewn with examples of spectacularly unrealistic optimism. In his book Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, Dominic Johnson cites a number of examples.
At the beginning of the Civil War, residents of Washington D.C. brought picnics to the first major battle, expecting to celebrate a decisive Union rout which would promptly end the conflict. In a darkly comic example of optimism, Union General John Sedgwick inscribed his name in military history when, watching enemy artillery, he calmly predicted: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance…” (sentence permanently interrupted when an enemy bullet penetrated the General’s highly optimistic brain). At the outset of World War I, the leaders of every nation involved predicted a quick and complete victory, in what turned out to be history’s bloodiest war.
The war bias not only helps start wars, it keeps them going and prevents the negotiation of peace. There is evidence that we tend to reject compromises made by an adversary even though we would have found the same compromise acceptable if it had come from our side. Our tendency to believe that “my compromise is better than your compromise” is known by psychologist as the bias of “reactive devaluation” (sometimes known as the “not-invented-here" syndrome).
* * *
Anti-foreign bias — We don’t like and don’t trust foreigners, though we are loath to admit it. A number of popular economic misconceptions stem from a general anti-foreign bias, which is but a patriotic expression of partisan bias. Caplan’s survey showed that the biggest disagreement between professional economists and the general public was over the proposition, “Foreign aid spending is too high.” Citizens overwhelmingly agreed, economists disagreed. Citizen ignorance appears to explain the divergent opinions. Citizens estimate that 10% of the U.S. government budget goes to foreign aid, while the true figure is closer to 0.7%. Aware of the true figures, economists are not at all concerned about foreign aid spending, while the average citizen is convinced that America is too generous.
Similarly, the proposition “There are too many immigrants,” was widely supported by the public and rejected by economists. Caplan attributes the disagreement to the public’s anti-foreign bias combined with a failure to appreciate the positive economic impact of immigration. For economists, immigration is a form of international trade in labor, which theoretically must increase the wealth of the country receiving the immigration.
CHAPTER 4: The Biology of Political Irrationality
…Carolyn Funk, Alford and Hibbing published a ground-breaking 2005 paper entitled “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted.” The research paper was based on analysis of pre-existing survey data concerning cases of identical and fraternal twins (the researchers relied principally on a survey of 30,000 twins conducted under the auspices of Virginia Commonwealth University). The research team used the twin survey to estimate the extent of genetic influence on political attitudes. Using standard correlation analysis which compared the rate of agreement on political issues between DZ and MZ twins, the research team was able to estimate the influence of genetics on ideology. Their conclusion has transformed our current view of human political behavior. Genetics accounted for about 53% of differences in ideology, an extremely strong influence. In particular, attitudes on such issues as school prayer, property taxes and the draft were strongly influenced by inheritance.
The data further suggested that genes affect not only individual political opinions but rather “clusters” of political attitudes on a number of issues. As a result, the report concluded that people probably fall into “broad but distinct political phenotypes”. A “phenotype” is a term for the physical expression of a genetic trait, while the genetic code itself is called the “genotype.” Thus, if you have blond hair, the section of your DNA that codes for that blond hair is the genotype; the blond hair itself is the phenotype. Alford and co. are suggesting that liberalism and conservatism are the outward behavioral expressions — phenotypes — of two different genotypes. The research paper’s description of the two genetic groups is reminiscent of (and inspired by) our own red vs. blue cultural divide:
One [phenotype] is characterized by a relatively strong suspicion of out-groups (e.g., immigrants), a yearning for in-group unity and strong leadership, especially if there is an out-group threat (“Do not question the President while we are at war with terrorists”), a desire for clear, unbending moral and behavioral codes (strict constructionists), a fondness for swift and severe punishment for violations of this code (the death penalty), a fondness for systematization (procedural due process), a willingness to tolerate inequality (opposition to redistributive policies), and an inherently pessimistic view of human nature (life is “nasty, brutish and short.
The other phenotype is characterized by relatively tolerant attitudes toward out-groups, a desire to make a more context-dependent rather than rule-based approach to proper behavior (substantive due process), an inherently optimistic view of human nature (people should be given the benefit of the doubt), a distaste for preset punishments (mitigating circumstances), a preference for group togetherness but not necessarily unity (“We can all get along though we are quite different”), suspicion of hierarchy, certainty, and strong leadership (flip-flopping is not a character flaw), an aversion to inequality (e.g., support for a graduated income tax), and greater general empathic tendencies (rehabilitate, don’t punish).
Alford, Funk and Hibbing's research leads to the conclusion that many if not all of us are simply born liberals or conservatives.
* * *
Neuroscience has now provided us with the equivalent of photographs of political irrationality in flagrante delicto. Dr. Drew Westen, Director of Clinical Psychology at Emory University, conducted a ground-breaking 2004 study in which the brains of partisan voters were subjected to fMRI-scans while the voters were asked a series of political questions. Functionall magnetic resonance imaginge (fMRI) scans allow us to literally “watch people think.” We can see which parts of the brain are activated when people are asked about certain topics, and we can determine whether or not the subjects were reasoning or merely reacting emotionally (because we know which part of the brain is associated with emotional reaction, and which part is associated with logical reasoning).
In Dr. Westen’s experiment, the subject’s brains were monitored while they reflected upon political issues and were asked to evaluate information from the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign. Westen reported:
We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion. None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.
Apparently, when humans participate in political discussion they are first careful to disconnect the thinking parts of their brains. This is like the elderly husband who when informed that his irate wife “wants to talk,” calmly unplugs his hearing aid and says, “OK, honey, go ahead.”
Chapter 5: The Evolution of Political Irrationality
Studies of chimpanzee societies provide us with an intriguing perspective on the origins of political behavior. Primatologist Frans De Waal has eloquently depicted the rich social life of a captive troop of chimpanzees. In one particularly dramatic episode, the power struggles of three male chimps assume a sort of Shakespearean majesty. In order to appreciate De Waal’s “Chimp MacBeth,” we need to know the following cast of primate characters (this is a true story):
Yeroen: A wily old leader, this alpha male chimp had enjoyed for many years all the perquisites of power (mainly, sexual) at the chimp colony of the Arnhem zoo.
Luit: This powerful upstart grew big enough to knock Yeroen off the top position, replacing him as alpha male and leaving Yeroen to nurse the brooding grudge of the dispossessed tyrant. As the new alpha male, Luit was described by De Waal as the “most magnificent” chimp he had ever observed, a natural leader. In contrast, the defeated Yeroen was described as utterly forlorn and deflated, rather like Nixon after impeachment.
Nikkie: This younger competitor was described by De Waal as “dopey but brawny.” On his own, he was no match for the magnificent Luit, but the cunning Yeroen detected some raw potential in the youngster and forged a strong partnership with him. Backed up by Yeroen, Nikkie was able to dethrone Luit for top position. Working together, the wily Yeroen and the mediocre Nikkie were able to exclude Luit from power for a period of four years.
The final drama involving these players exploded one tense summer, triggered by an act of treachery. Normally, the alpha male’s main perquisite is to have first sexual rights to attractive females in heat. As the new leader, the dopey Nikkie could have claimed his droit de seigneur. However, realizing that he owed his victory to a partnership with Yeroen, he prudently agreed to share mating privileges with Yeroen. And so things passed for a very long time, until one day Nikkie became ungrateful and stopped sharing females with Yeroen. Outraged, Yeroen abandoned Nikkie, leaving him vulnerable to a renewed attack from Luit, which promptly occurred. Luit quickly toppled the solitary Nikkie. Luit once again reigned supreme, but his reign was a nervous one because he clearly remembered the collaboration that had reversed him before. He became extremely agitated whenever he saw Yeroen and Nikkie approaching each other. Luit’s dominant position depended on Yeroen holding his grudge against Nikkie. As if to teach his former partner Nikkie a lesson, Yeroen kept him at a distance for some time, allowing Nikkie to learn what it felt like to be toppled from power. Apparently, it feels terrible. When the time was ripe, he approached Nikkie again, showing he was ready to resume their old partnership.
This rapprochement threw Luit into a panic, as well as the human zookeepers who were watching the drama unfold. The potential danger was clear to everyone, especially Luit, who tried to stay between the two conspirators. One evening the three males were practically clinging to each other as they were put into the same cage at night. The next morning Luit was found fatally wounded, his body a mass of wounds. Toes had been bitten off, bones broken, testicles mashed and squeezed out of his scrotum. The attack had been coordinated and vicious, with Yeroen holding Luit down while Nikkie pounded and bit from the other side. Murder most foul, with political ends. Two mediocre leaders got together for selfish purposes to defeat a brilliant rival. Instructively, they were successful. As Jonathan Swift tartly observed, “When a true genius appears in this world you will know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.” The morning following the attack Nikkie was harassed by outraged females who had witnessed the incident, but he was able to wait out the storm. Nikkie and Yeroen resumed shared leadership, and Luit’s battered remains were disposed of
De Waal draws several lessons from this drama. First, De Waal believes that human males are subject to the same power lust that drove these chimpanzees (he cites amusing personal examples from the world of academia, but this is probably not the only place that men act like chimps). The power drive is not only visible in large scale politics but also in everyday confrontations between males. “Pecking order” is a relevant concept in biology derived from the behavior of chickens. Two chickens never waste time pecking at the same grain of food because each chicken has learned its relative hierarchical status and subordinate chickens automatically yield to a higher-status rival. De Waal observes that human and chimp males act similarly. When males meet, they first bluster at each other as if to determine their pecking order in a dominance hierarchy. Chimps do this by hooting, stamping and charging at each other. Human males do it by arguing, often about politics. Once the hierarchy is established, things can relax.
Our astonishingly capacious human brain is in part the evolutionary by-product of a million Machiavellian power struggles fought by our scheming ancestors. We are wired for politics, and well-wired.
It made great sense in the EEA for every tribe member to be well informed on upcoming group decisions and social events (“We will be moving to a new tree tomorrow; Grok is now mating with Yarp”). It seems likely that we have evolved a “celebrity gossip module” in our brains, an innate sensitivity to the actions of high-status individuals. In the life of a small tribe, the actions of a particular political celebrity could have a very real impact on our lives. For hundreds of thousands of years, it was prudent to gossip about politics. Now it just seems natural to us, and rather irresistible. Even when we get disgusted with our tawdry political apparatus and disappointing candidates, we still cannot help being fascinated by their struggles and foibles.
The theory of a genetic component to political participation has been confirmed by a number of recent studies. Political scientists James Fowler and Christopher Dawes, for example, established that possession of a variant of two genes correlated significantly with voter turnout. They also found in a separate, twin-based study that the predisposition to vote is highly heritable. Matching public voter turnout records in Los Angeles to a twin registry, they demonstrated that up to 70% of the variance in turnout figures can be attributed to inheritance. Fowler and Dawes suggest that a specific brain mechanism accounts for at least part of the variance in people's desire to participate in politics. Serotonin is a brain chemical that is released by neurons when they fire (as in response to stress or fear). Normally, the neurons have a mechanism for re-absorbing the serotonin. However, in some people, this mechanism doesn't function well, either for genetic reasons or due to trauma. The inability to regulate serotonin levels has been linked to anti-social and aggressive behavior. Animals that have a defect in their serotonin-processing mechanism have a tendency to react impulsively and fearfully to social stressors. Fowler and Dawes established that people who have genes which are linked to less efficient re-uptake of serotonin are also less likely to vote. By implication, if you were born with serious anti-social tendencies, you probably don't give a damn about elections.
Serotonin mechanisms may prove to be the magic key to understanding not only variation in participation, but all left-to-right political variation. If one compares humans to other social animals, like bees, ants or wolves, we see that humans are a uniquely disobedient species. We accept the chains of society, but only up to a point. The degree to which we tolerate, or need, social cohesion is probably genetically based. As bands of humans spread across the planet, two divergent social strategies emerged. Sometimes it made sense to be very tight and close-knit with the members of your band, showing absolute loyalty and deference to power figures. Conversely, at other times this must clearly have been a bad strategy; such as when your group was threatened by larger rivals, or when your leader was evidently exploitative or incompetent.
The human brain has probably evolved cerebral mechanisms -- very likely involving the maintenance of a serotonin balance -- which allow us to calculate the trade-offs between obedience to group norms and individualistic defection to pursue selfish goals. People with a sensitive serotonin mechanism, from this perspective, will feel relatively more disturbed by actions that threaten social harmony. These people are more likely to become conservatives. Other people's brain chemistry leaves them less sensitive to social harmony, and they are more likely to subvert rules, traditions and hierarchies, and to leave the group to pursue individual goals, and to permit others to do so as well. These people are more likely to become liberals. It may be that even our neurons are tinted red or blue.
CHAPTER 6: Culture and Political Irrationality
...[C]ultural anthropology in the 20th century was a vast, global enterprise of cultural analysis, as armies of anthropologists sought to chart the entire social world. Anthropologists insinuated themselves into thousands of micro-cultures around the planet, from primitive villages to boardrooms and bureaucracies. They carefully observed and meticulously recorded the rituals, customs and habits of each society.
Eventually, enormous databases of human behavior were assembled for comparative analysis. In the mid-1960s, Stanford anthropologist Robert Textor gathered information on 400-plus societies around the world and classified them according to nearly 500 traits. He then fed all this information into a computer which cross-correlated all the data. Textor’s mammoth “Cross Cultural Summary” is the 3,000 page record of the most significant correlations. At the broadest scale, Textor discovered that most cultures could be classified as belonging to one of two large groups, desert cultures or forest cultures. Desert cultures tended to be monotheistic, hierarchical, sexist and warlike. Forest cultures, conversely, tended to be polytheistic, egalitarian, gender-neutral and peace-loving. The reasons for the cultural differences can be traced to the different demands of each environment. The desert is a harsh, unforgiving environment where the law of scarcity rules. Human groups living in the desert operate on a tighter margin of error than groups in luxuriant environments. Rules are more tightly enforced and cohesion is more important. A solitary human may survive a while in the forest, but not in the desert. Far-flung groups of male goat and camel herders may have been the original warrior castes. In the desolate landscapes of the desert, the alternating dominance of sun and moon led naturally to monotheistic or dualistic religions.
In the forest, by contrast, food is plentiful and there are myriad forms of plant and animal life that can be either helpful or dangerous. In such a chaotic, teeming profusion, polytheistic religions arise. Simple rules are not as helpful as is an appreciation of complexity. Since the danger of ostracism from the group is lower, group cohesion and respect for hierarchy is less important. The greater abundance of food permits a lower intensity of work and therefore less need for separation of labor, so that the sexes more often work and live together. Which culture would you prefer to live in? At least one biologist, Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, has bemoaned the relative success of desert cultures:
Desert cultures, with their militarism, stratification, mistreatment of women, uptightness about child-rearing and sexuality, seem pretty unappealing. And yet ours is a planet dominated by the cultural descendants of the desert dwellers. At various points, the desert dwellers have poured out of the Middle East and have defined large parts of Eurasian cultures. Such cultures, in turn, have passed the last five hundred years subjugating the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. As a result, ours is a Judeo-Christian/Muslim world, not a Mbuti-Carib/Trobriand one.
In Sapolsky’s view, it seems that the original red vs. blue divide was between desert cultures (conservatives) and forest cultures (liberals) — and the desert cultures won. Sapolsky, a bushy-bearded professor from San Francisco who likes to hang out in jungles watching baboons, leaves no doubt as to his preference (forest). He finds the enforced conformity of desert culture appalling: “Only one way to think, to do, to be. Crusades and jihads, fatwas and inquisitions, hellfire and damnation.” Presumably, Dr. Sapolsky will not be moving to Tucson anytime soon, nor voting Republican.
Cultural dimensions allow us to map the contours of the cultural divide between the red states and blue states. Below, let us review the common cultural stereotypes of conservatives (authoritarian, community-minded, tradition-oriented and masculine) and liberals (egalitarian, individualistic, future-oriented and feminine), from the perspective of international survey data on cultural dimensions:
Red-State / Conservative Stereotype: People from tough cultures are deferential to authority and tradition,suspicious of individualists and outsiders, are relatively sexist, and place great value on the acquisition of social status.
Blue-State / Liberal Stereotype: People from soft cultures are more egalitarian and individualistic, less attached to traditions and gender roles, and less materialistic.
In individualistic countries, the individual’s interests are allowed to prevail over the group's. Individuals are allowed to choose their own life paths, even if they are not approved of by the group. In countries that rank low on individualism (Hofstede calls them collectivist), the group’s values are considered supreme. The U.S. ranks number one in Hofstede’s studies on individualism, beating out 73 other countries in the study. Although we are the champions, other individualistic countries include Australia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and France.
On the collectivist side, where conformity to the group’s wishes is more important, we find Ecuador, Pakistan, China, Mexico and Greece.In the U.S., the blue states are individualist while the red states are collectivist. Citizens of the blue states insist on protection of individual freedoms, whether they include a woman’s right to choose, a gay couple’s right to marry, or a protestor’s right to burn the flag. Citizens of red states lament the decline of small-town, communitarian values, where neighbors could count on each other. Red state residents view the individualism of the blue states as being reckless, selfish and unpatriotic. For red-state culture, the ultimate act of citizenship is to give up one’s life for one’s country in military service. For blue-staters, in contrast, a brave protest against repressive laws is more heroic and admirable.
For several of the cultural dimensions listed below we only have international comparative data, with nothing to allow us to compare the U.S. states internally. However, when it comes to the culture of individualism, we do have an additional set of helpful data from social psychologist Robert Levine, presented in his highly-readable book A Geography of Time. Levine's international travels left him with the conviction that there is a relationship between a culture's health and its pace. He sought to measure this relationship by establishing a number of simple metrics for social health. These involved the willingness to perform a small act of altruism, such as helping a blind person cross the street, or helping return a lost letter. When people are too rushed and pressed for time, Levine reasoned, they start to abandon traditional altruistic practices, and become more selfish. Levine's data suggests that blue states, and blue cities in particular, are individualistic (selfish) while red states are collectivist (helpful). Amongst the most individualistic cities we find New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. Amongst the most helpful cities we find Rochester, Nashville, Memphis, Houston and Kansas City.
CHAPTER 7: Partisan Irrationality
There is nothing wrong with Kansas, despite the plausible central argument in Thomas Frank’s best-seller. Frank argued that poor and middle class Americans (represented by the typical Kansan) are illogically voting against their own economic interests when they vote Republican, because Democratic policies would be more favorable for them. The Kansans may well be guilty of illogical political analysis, but this apparent self-contradiction should not be surprising to the reader of this book, given the existence of innate political irrationality. One implication of the bio-cultural model is that each political party can always count on solid support from about half the voting public, regardless of whether that party’s policies are actually good for its supporters. Biology and culture make sure that most citizens are tilted either to the left or to the right — and cognitive bias guarantees that we stay that way.
The Republicans in Kansas are going to remain Republican, regardless of the success of policies adopted or implemented by the Republican leadership. If the Kansas Republicans should ever be confronted by evidence that their party is acting against their interests, it is likely that they would filter such evidence through their own confirmation bias until they reached an even greater conservative militancy, as we have seen from Drew Westen’s brain scan research. The stronger the opposing arguments a partisan faces, the more thoroughly the partisan reinforces his biases. Frank is thus hoping for an impossibility: that the great mass of people will suddenly decide to use their reason to over-ride their bio-cultural programming. It is not going to happen. By defining economic self-interest as the primary test of voter rationality, Frank wants to expose the illogic of Kansas's middle-class Republicans, but he does not seem to realize that he is opening up wealthy liberals to the same logical attack. If poor people "should" be Democrats, then rich people "should" be Republican. Yet there are many wealthy liberals, proving that, at least for wealthy people, choice of political affiliation is not purely a matter of finance. Why should we not allow poor people the same dignity of choice?
Frank’s book is interesting as an example of the almost invariably red-or-blue tint to popular political books. Virtually all our popular pundits follow a similar line of reasoning, beautifully exemplified by the title of a James Carville book: We’re Right, and They’re Wrong! Popular political books, whether written by Franken, Limbaugh, Coulter, Huffington or whoever else, follow the same script. These pundits are all peddling a childish form of wishful thinking -- that ultimate victory is almost in sight.
“If only the other side will just learn to see things our way, they will give up,” seems to be the underlying premise. Arch-conservative Ann Coulter suggests that Democrats are a sort of vile disease, kind of like a social form of gonorrhea, of which the homeland could be cured by application of enough conservative penicillin. Similarly, Al Franken, in his series of humorous diatribes against the Republicans, repeatedly gives in to the speculation that some day all Americans will just “wake up” to the fact that the Republicans are, to use Franken's technical terminology, "full of shit." Partisan screeds roll off the presses at a lively clip. As I worked on this section, a new one, written by Peter Beinart, arrived to much fanfare: The Good Fight : Why Liberals—-and Only Liberals—-Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. There will be another one out next week. These books are the romance novels of the political class: Harlequin plots in which everything comes out all right in the end.
These pundits are hoping for an impossibility (which, if it arrived, would put them out of business anyway, since they are all fundamentally profiteers from political polarization). The natural distribution of human political leanings across a broad left-right spectrum ensures that we will always have liberals and conservatives. We will never have a country indefinitely governed only by “tough daddies” or only by “loving mommies.” Given its current structure, the American polity is destined to remain governed by a rough average of Democratic and Republican administrations, as Ralph Nader has pointed out repeatedly to unfair derision. Half the populace will tend conservative, half will tend liberal, and political machinations and skullduggery will determine who pulls the swing voters in any given election. Each party will win some, then lose some. The political winners will always get cocky, bogged down in scandal, and then lose their majority, as we have already seen a dozen times in our history. The political tables will turn, then turn again. Rock, paper, scissors. In the ebb and flow of American political tides, there can be no final victory or defeat.
Today, most Americans identify themselves with one of the two main political parties and prefer to socialize with people of similar politics. When Democrats talk politics with Democrats, they express their frustration at the idiocy and corruption of the Republicans. When Republicans socialize with Republicans, the political insights expressed are similarly one-sided. Over the years, those of us who participate in this game are forced to seek an explanation for the strangely persistent stupidity of the other political party.
“How can they possibly be so dumb?” we ask ourselves in astonishment. “Are they doing it on purpose?” The other party seems to get everything wrong — whenever a new issue comes up, they predictably take the wrong approach. Time after time, they always do the wrong thing. “At least they’re consistent,” we conclude, shaking our heads. Both sides seek explanations for the habitual erroneousness of their opponents, and find it in the other’s self-deception. Democrats observe: the Republicans just can’t admit that they represent wealthy corporate interests to the detriment of the whole community, that they’re closet racists, that they’re too cheap to cough up the taxes that build schools and hospitals, etc. Republicans assert: Democrats refuse to confess that they’re not patriotic and that they want to tax all our money and spend it on midnight basketball for illegal immigrant crack addicts.
Apples arguing with oranges, dogs debating with cats — upon this curious custom have we founded the edifice of our republic. No one gets anywhere in political debates, but they never stop. Next Sunday, America will be debating politics again, on TV, in the barbershop or nail salon, or at the dinner table. After each political debate, we come away with renewed respect for the intelligence and wisdom of those who share our views, just as we are once again discouraged by the stubbornness of the fools on the other side. Like a perpetually-feuding husband and wife in need of marital counseling, bi-partisan America is a couple that cannot get along because the two sides do not know how to listen to each other. The bio-cultural model tells us what to what to listen for: deep underlying predispositions that are almost impossible to change.
The scientific research cited in the book suggests that political beliefs are the outward manifestation of deep cultural and hereditary biases, and are therefore not accessible to arguments based on logic or facts. Over time, our inherited tendencies become petrified by reinforcement from family and work environments, and then are further hardened by lifetime habits of biased perception. If you consider that the bio-cultural model also applies to you (yes, I’m talking about thee, gentle reader), then you must face the disheartening possibility that your own political views are not necessarily the fruit of logic, research and deliberation, but are to some extent an accident of birth or affiliation, like your pretty blue eyes or the prestige of your home address — attributes which you may be proud of but hopefully don’t take too seriously.
If we accept that Democrats and Republicans have been shaped by biology and culture to become fundamentally different kinds of people, and if we follow this concept to its logical conclusion, we will arrive eventually at a surprising humility. We realize that we have become accustomed to artificially boosting our vanity through partisanship. It is human nature to flatter ourselves when we feel superior to someone else because they are of the “wrong” political party, but if we are all just born or brainwashed into one political orientation or another, such self-flattery is not only misplaced and unjustified, it is a tiny bit ridiculous.
CHAPTER 8: Voting and Political Irrationality
Why do people vote? The answers are remarkably obscure. The logical puzzles underlying individual voting behavior were first systematically explored in Anthony Downs’ classic 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy, one of the founding texts of the rational choice school. Downs began with the neo-classical assumption that voters, like consumers in the marketplace, are rational and self-interested.
Downs found that his rationalist assumption led to a frustrating paradox. Since voting is not a perfectly “free” activity for the individual, because it requires a minimum of time to actually vote, and requires even more time if one wants to be well-informed on the issues, it follows that rational voters must derive some significant benefit from voting. Otherwise they would not spend their valuable time on it. However, Downs found that it was strangely hard to identify what benefit rational people could expect from voting. In any electoral system in which only one candidate can win, the only way that your vote can change the outcome is if there is a tie vote and your vote either makes or breaks the tie. In all other cases, your vote was either superfluous for the winning side (they would have won anyway, whether you voted or not) or insufficient for the losing side (they would have lost anyway).
Since a single vote can have no possible effect on the outcome of an election unless there is a tie or one-vote victory, and since there has never been a tie or one-vote victory in any presidential election anywhere in the world at any time in history (to my knowledge), the likelihood that your vote will affect the outcome of a U.S. presidential election is actually (according to my own rough calculations), about one in fourteen trillion gazillion bazillion. Unfortunately, as the contested 2000 US presidential election demonstrated, the reality is actually worse than those semi-imaginary numbers indicate. If, by some freakish arithmetic coincidence, the Democratic and Republican candidates actually did tie, and your vote was the deciding vote, there would inevitably be a recount and extended litigation until a final count would determine a winner with a margin of victory in the hundreds or thousands (hello again, Supreme Court). Therefore, I would argue that an individual voter’s chances of affecting a U.S. national election are effectively zero. The election results will be the same whether you vote or not. The only difference is that if you vote, you must expend a minimal amount of effort, whereas if you don’t vote, you save yourself that slight but unproductive effort.
Strangely enough, though, people do vote. Lots of them! Thus we arrive at the so-called Voter’s Paradox: either people are not rational when they vote, which upsets our cherished assumptions about the citizenry, or there is some other mysterious explanation for voting.
Why is the myth of individual voting efficacy so widespread? Why are citizens everywhere unwilling to believe that their individual vote does not matter? Evolutionary psychology provides answers where rational choice fails. As noted earlier, humans evolved for thousands of generations in groups of no larger than 150 (and usually much smaller than that), in which individual acts of expression (precursors of voting) could make a difference in group deliberations. The contrast between such societies and our modern nations is total. Our brains are not wired to comprehend how minuscule we are in comparison to our huge contemporary societies. As individual citizens, we are like single grains of sand on an enormous coastline. Although our society repeatedly tells us that a single individual can make a political difference, this is almost always not true (unless you become a politician). The harsh truth of modern society is that in a political sense, at least, a single individual does not matter. Depressing? That’s why we don’t believe it.
It wasn’t always that way. Let us recall the example of the chimpanzee alpha-male contests observed by Frans de Waal, as an indicator of possible behavior in early proto-human tribes. In Chapter 2, we saw that alpha-male contenders used a combination of violence and strategy to defeat their opponents. Importantly, though, De Waal identified another crucial element to chimpanzee politics — partisan support from females. De Waal observed that it was difficult for the alpha male to achieve or maintain power without the support, or at least non-interference, of the troop’s leading females. Whenever a conflict between alpha male pretenders would arise, the females would play a crucial role as chorus, hooting and stamping, and sometimes intervening physically, to indicate their preferences. It is clear that the males kept track of who supported them and who didn’t, and punished defectors whenever possible.
There is a telling photograph of the chimp named Luit jumping up and down on top of a female — she had “betrayed” him politically by befriending his alpha rivals. Vote or die, indeed! Thus, it seems plausible that members of chimp troops would have evolved in such a way that individuals felt an evolutionary imperative to “vote” by hooting and stamping to indicate their support for one alpha male candidate over another. In these contests, it would make sense for females to support those males to whom they were most closely related. Thus, the evolutionary origin of political parties, and of partisan bias, can be traced to family-supported campaigns for tribal leadership. Those who “abstained” from voting not only failed to promote their own genetic interests (your own chances for reproductive success would be increased if your close relative became the tribal boss), they cost their families a valuable ally. If the analogy from chimp society to proto-human society holds true in this regard, it follows that humans would have evolved a hard-wired propensity to believe that our political input matters — because, for hundreds of thousands of years, it did. Equally important, we would have evolved a tendency to punish those lazy family members who refused to help out.
CHAPTER 9: Placebo Democracy
It is hard for us to appreciate today how pejorative the term democracy was at the time of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787. The word “democrat” was used as an aggressive epithet when one wanted to tarnish a political opponent as advocating mob rule, chaos or the abolition of private property…
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It was said that Alexander Hamilton lobbied for the Constitutional Convention largely out of his fear that the States were indulging the people’s irrational “fondness for democracies.” It should not be surprising that a good deal of discussion at the Constitutional Convention revolved around the “turbulence and follies of democracy” and the “vices of democracy.”
Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin contrasted Athenian democracy with the system devised by the Founding Fathers, referring to the latter as “electoral democracy.” Wolin pointed out that the American version was actually carefully designed to counteract the power of the people, which was supreme in Athens. Since the majority of the early American citizenry were poor, it was thought (in Philadelphia) that Athenian-style democracy would inevitably result in the rich losing their property. Virtually all of the delegates to the Convention were men of property and most were quite wealthy. They believed they had much to fear from Athenian democracy, so they built their system as a series of bulwarks against it…
CHAPTER 10: Irrationality and the Politician
I sometimes refer to our current system of government as “elective oligarchy,” but a more pungent equivalent might be “politocracy” — government by politicians. All so-called democracies in existence today are really politocracies. In fact, we are so ingrained to think that politocracy is the only possible form of democracy that it is very difficult for us to conceive of an alternative. Whenever the news media talk of “spreading democracy” they measure its progress in terms of “free and fair elections.” For the press: elections = democracy. Given the evidence presented in preceding chapters, however, there is good reason to believe that this popular view is irrational. My task in this chapter is to explore the ramifications of a more accurate equation: elections = oligarchy.
In my view, elections are fundamentally anti-democratic. I wish I could claim credit for developing this seemingly-radical viewpoint, but in fact it was already widely understood and accepted in ancient democratic Athens. The Athenians, far wiser than we, knew that government by election inevitably becomes government by the wealthy and powerful. Therefore, they chose most of their public officials through a system of lottery in which all free male citizens were eligible. Any Athenian citizen could wake up one day to find himself a magistrate or chair of an important public committee. I do not advocate a return to that Athenian system, but I recall it here merely to indicate that a full 2,500 years ago a highly-intelligent people had come to an important understanding about electoral politics which we appear to have entirely forgotten.
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Why do we accept to be governed by an elite oligarchy? Sadly, one of the main reasons is that we think the powerful deserve to be powerful. Perhaps the most pervasive myth in our society is the unspoken one that high-status people are better than low-status people. Few people will own up to this belief, but it underlies so many of our social structures that it is impossible to deny. Indeed, social status is such a powerful factor in a person’s life that there is medical evidence that it affects life-span. Higher-status men live longer and age in better health. In America as in so many other cultures, status is literally a matter of life and death.
However, though higher-status people may lead healthier and even more enjoyable lives, that is certainly no reason for concluding that they are morally superior to lower-status people. All citizens deserve equal respect from our society and our government. There is no valid reason to discriminate politically against low-status people.
Nonetheless, we do. Our government is composed almost entirely of high-status people who rule on the basis of the unspoken assumption that low-status people are somehow inferior, intellectually or morally. The growing economic inequality in American society and the increasingly precarious position of our cognitive and social underclass, are in part due to the habitual tendency of politicians to make laws which reward the privileged while they neglect the unfortunate. Politicians, like everyone else, "see" the world in a way that maximizes their self-esteem. Since politicians are viewed by society as "winners," they are inevitably predisposed to legislate in favor of other winners.
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Half of all Americans will always be below average in height, intelligence, looks, musical and athletic talent. It’s not hard to end up in the bottom half of any of the above categories. It can happen to anybody. The problem is that in our capitalist society the below-average citizens make so much less money than the above-average. In our globally competitive economy, a few lucky breaks and a few IQ points may represent the difference between living in a mansion or in a trailer park. In the “old” societies of Europe, the accumulated wisdom of the ages has informed society that you never know when your kids are going to end up in the bottom half. Hence, the strong European safety net. The American middle class is different — like a gambler at the blackjack table who still hasn’t lost hope. We hesitate to support “tax the rich” strategies because we still secretly hope to become rich ourselves.
The meritocracy myth prevents us from seeking a more just society because it provides us with a plausible justification for the inequity around us. Meritocracy is our excuse for inequality. If there are outrageously rich people who spend their money lavishly, we tell ourselves that is because our markets must provide such incentives for creativity and risk-taking. If there are poor people, it is because those people, to their discredit, lacked a sufficient respect for education, thrift and hard work. However, behavioral genetics forces us to challenge the meritocracy myth. If the twin studies are correct, we must face up to the reality that achieving a match between one’s genetic inheritance and one’s environment is largely a matter of pure luck. To be lucky in the genetic lottery is its own reward. To wake up tall, beautiful, athletic, and intelligent, is really to start the day off on the right foot. Do we need political power and social privileges thrown in for extra measure?
CHAPTER 11: Irrational Elections
The American Presidential election is the world’s most important political event, the Academy Awards and World Cup rolled into one. The winner of this election can plausibly claim the title, “Prince of the World.” If ever an election demanded a full, balanced and informative discussion of the most important issues facing humanity, it would be this one. If ever we dreamed of seeing the glory of democracy on display, it would be here. Given the height of our hopes, our disappointment is extreme.
Why is the world’s most important election decided so superficially and irrationally? As before, evolutionary psychology provides helpful clues. As a rational method of determining voter preferences and setting national policy, the election is worse than useless — it is preposterous. However, as an extremely entertaining combat for tribal supremacy, reminiscent of the millions of similar struggles that occurred throughout human evolution, it makes perfect sense.
We have been hard-wired by the evolutionary process to pay great attention to struggles for power that may impact our lives. We are also hard-wired to express our preferences in such battles — not on the basis of logic or reason, but rather as an expression of our underlying genetic and cultural affinities. We vote for the candidate we like best, and we tend to like best that candidate who is closest to us on the genetic, cultural and socio-demographic spectrum. Thus evolution has bequeathed us a wiring which a) makes political contests irresistibly interesting, b) makes us want to participate in them, and c) makes us prefer candidates who are culturally or genetically similar to ourselves. Our modern political behavior is like an apartment building with an archaeological site just underneath it. In many ways, our current behavior is the continuation of the everyday activities of our ancestors over the past 1.5 million years.
Of course, I agree that the economic performance of the nation is to some extent the President’s responsibility. However, given the difficulty in ascertaining the President’s responsibility, the state of the economy should not be enough to determine the preferences of rational voters. A truly rational voter would scrutinize the candidates’ prospective economic platforms more than the economy’s current performance. But that would be so hard! To a large degree, the incumbent President or party is simply lucky to inherit a good economy the year before the election. Conversely, the challenger is lucky when the election cycle coincides with an economic downturn. Since it is not rational simply to reward the lucky, the evidence from the economic forecasting models supports the general theory of an irrational election process.
Rational or not, though, the economy matters, and the forecasting models suggest that it is generally decisive. By mid-2008, an election year, it had become clear that the American economy was in such bad shape that a Republican victory in November was extremely remote. The most well-respected forecasting models (such as Ray Fair‘s of Yale), predicted a 2-point Democratic victory, a very large margin. The media, however, did not make such predictions widely known. Doing so could have spoiled interest in the election, which the media was counting on to fill the role of top-rated reality show of the year. Perhaps the most subversive implication of the success of the forecasting models is they suggest the existence of a “campaign fallacy” — an erroneous belief that campaigns matter. However, if the economic forecasts are accurate, political campaigns become meaningless. When forecasting models accurately predict the winner with data from the year before the election, we are hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that campaigns are irrelevant in terms of persuading the voters
We love hating the other side. In most of our recent presidential elections, American voters have been more motivated by anger and disliking for the other side than by true admiration for their own candidate. In 1996, if you had been able to plumb the soul of the average Republican voter, you would have discovered that they were far more motivated by dislike for Clinton more than by love of Dole. Again, in 2004, Democratic voters were more motivated by their dislike for Bush than by their admiration for Kerry. Anger gets us to the polls. Love doesn’t.
Anger is energizing — it releases catecholamines, neurotransmitters which act as energy stimulants, your brain’s own version of Red Bull. In short, we get a pleasurable little kick of out of political indignation, an anger buzz. It should not be surprising that anger and indignation are amongst the principal commodities of the political marketplace. In the political sphere, parties and politicians manufacture indignation and the media distribute it efficiently to eager consumers in the various markets. The next time you feel yourself getting angry during a televised documentary or news report on a political theme, ask yourself whether the broadcaster is peddling more than just a quick fix for indignation junkies.
The presidency is a mirror held up to the face of American society — we are defined by our Presidents. Our schoolchildren learn a history paced in presidential administrations, as if history marched to a four-year beat. Thus, to most Americans, the Civil War is as much a tale of Lincoln’s leadership as it is of the nameless 600,000 dead and wounded. Perpetually succumbing to the narrative fallacy, we use presidents to make sense of the inscrutable weave of history. Did America survive the Great Depression? Thanks to FDR’s sweeping vision. Were the 1950’s calm and tranquil years? Due to Eisenhower’s serene but uninspiring leadership. Were the 1960s exciting times of change? Ushered in by JFK’s bold new style. Was America confident in the 1980s? Reagan’s inspiration. Is American power resented around the world today? Bush’s arrogance.
The political world is infinitely, disturbingly complex, so we simplify it with an easy formula. When our party’s President is in power, we are living the good times. When the opposite is true, we are in the bad times. Our large chaotic world is condensed into a single, affectively-weighted symbol.
CHAPTER 12: Obama Zen – The Color of Hope
Every committed political rationalist must come to accept that rationality is often about as welcome as a cold shower. When the opposition political party is in power, we are applauded by fellow partisans when we satirize the irrationalities of government. However, when our own President is in power, those governmental irrationalities become much less interesting, and our friends would rather not hear so much about them. As a rationalist with liberal inclinations, therefore, it was with a paradoxical measure of regret that I watched President Barack Obama succeed President George W. Bush. President Bush, for all his defects, had been one of history’s greatest promoters of the concept of political irrationality. While he was in office, it was not difficult to persuade my fellow Americans that there was something fundamentally irrational about our political system. President Obama, on the other hand, presented a new challenge. His victory appeared to symbolize the opposite of political irrationality.
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The overpowering hunger for celebration was certainly understandable. With two costly wars underway and an economic recession looming, Americans were starved for good news, which explains in part why Obama’s inauguration became such a national obsession. While I do not challenge the liberal consensus that President Obama is the most impressive politician the country has seen in decades, as a committed rationalist I feel obliged to cast a few drops of cold rain on this happy parade.
Despite the new President’s undeniable qualities, the American political system remains today exactly what it was before his election. Our government is an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. The election of a single inspiring leader cannot possibly change that. One enlightened politician is not enough to redeem a flawed system. This was amply demonstrated by the corruption scandal which broke out after the election, in which Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was charged with attempting to sell Obama’s newly-vacant Senate seat. As I have argued in the preceding chapters, our current system will always tend to produce more politicians like Blagojevich than like Obama.
It was on the issue of race that Obama’s election was taken to be most symbolically inspiring, and it is here that we will find the greatest self-deception. In the 2008 election Barack Obama dominated almost every single demographic, yet gained only 53% of the final vote. Obama received over 95% of the black vote, 78% of the Jewish vote, 68% of the Latino vote and 62% of the Asian vote. Why, then, was the winning margin so narrow? The answer lies in the fact that Obama soundly lost the nation’s largest demographic: whites. Obama received only 43% of the white vote and only 41% of votes from white men. Although Obama actually did better among whites than John Kerry had in 2004, the results in 2008 are regrettably quite consistent with a substantial residue of anti-black prejudice from whites. Between 2000 and 2008 the U.S. Hispanic population grew by 32 %, the Asian population by 30%, the black population by 9% and the white population by 2%. The proportion of whites who harbor racist prejudice has therefore probably diminished, but there is little evidence that the historical effects of racism are fading.
As President Obama began his administration, African-Americans represented approximately 13% of the American population, but they accounted for 55% of federal prisoners. In early 2009, as the economic recession began to take its toll in lost jobs, unemployment was 6.6% among whites and 11.9% among blacks. From the point of view of statistical equality, the U.S. Senate in 2009 should have included 13 African-Americans and 50 women. Instead, there was 1 African-American and 18 women. It would be naïve and unrealistic to believe that the election of Barack Obama could have any major positive impact, in the short term, on the above-cited statistics. Indeed, the incoming President announced specific goals and time-tables on ending the Iraq War and on achieving energy independence, but made no specific promises as to when Americans would begin to achieve racial equality. As the above statistics show, that time is not likely to come soon. America’s racial problems are far from over.
With Obama’s election America will have to confront the growing chasm between symbolic racial victories and racial realities. Although Obama’s election was undeniably a huge symbolic victory, it is an impossible act to follow. As the journalist Gwen Ifill has noted, this is the end of the line for African-American “firsts” (i.e., first African-American professional ballplayer, first African-American Academy Award winner, first African-American Supreme Court Justice, first African-American Secretary of State, etc.). The success of individual African-Americans can no longer be taken as a symbolic proxy for true equality. Symbols of equality can be enormously attractive and inspiring, but true equality would be even better.
The racial over-simplifications described above contribute to the persistence of prejudice. One of the themes of this book is that is impossible to address problems that aren’t perceived. Thus, for example, one of the most insidious forms of skin-based discrimination is almost never discussed: the self-inflicted form of discrimination known as “colorism.” It is a common secret amongst African-American and Latino families that subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) preferences are expressed for the lighter-skinned members. In fact, both whites and blacks in America discriminate against darker-skinned black people. For many dark-skinned blacks and Latinos, the most painful prejudice they ever face in their lives comes from their own peers.
The impact of colorism is not trivial. Studies show that dark-skinned black Americans have lower economic status, diminished social prestige, receive harsher treatment from law enforcement and have a lower likelihood of holding elective office than light-skinned blacks. In one study of male felons incarcerated for their first offense in the State of Georgia, it was found that light-skinned blacks received sentences three months longer than those of whites, medium-skinned blacks received sentences six months longer than light-skinned blacks, and dark-skinned blacks received sentences six months longer than that. The difference in average sentence between the whites and dark-skinned blacks was 571 days (and in the Georgia penal system, those are undoubtedly some very long days) – about a year and a half. Another study found that black defendants in capital cases with a white victim are twice as likely to receive the death penalty if they have dark skin and Afrocentric racial features. People with darker skin color are more likely to have grown up in poor families, less likely to finish their education, less likely to marry, and if married, have spouses of lower socioeconomic status.
Colorism is rampant in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, as has been attested to by generations of black actors who have had to learn the type-casting that goes with their skin-tone and “look.” Actor Mel Jackson was quoted as saying that light-skinned men like him tend to get the role of the "business executive" : "If the character's supposed to be more successful or more articulate or have a better background, they'll easily cast me in that character." Actress Wendy Raquel Robinson made a similar observation: "I've never been offered, you know, the crackhead or the distressed mother. I play the very upscale, educated young lady. I do have some peers that are a lot darker than myself. They don't get the opportunities."
American black politicians are predominantly light-skinned. A study of all African Americans elected to the House of Representatives, Senate or a governor’s office since 1865 revealed that “light-skinned blacks have always been considerably over-represented and dark-skinned blacks dramatically under-represented as public officials.” When the American press touts a “promising” young African-American politician, the odds are they are speaking of a light-skinned candidate. In a survey experiment that varied the skin tone of black candidates in a hypothetical election for Senate, the light-skinned hypothetical candidates beat their dark-skinned rivals by 18 points. Respondents rated the light-skinned candidates as being more intelligent, more experienced and more trustworthy than their dark-skinned opponents.
It is not the fault of America’s light-skinned blacks that they receive favorable treatment from both whites and from other African-Americans. However, it would be welcome if our most successful African-Americans (such as the President) would begin to admit that they have benefited from different kinds of favoritism, and in particular from what political scientist Jennifer Hochschild refers to as the “Skin Color Paradox.” The skin color paradox is that blacks are aware of colorism but do not resent light-skinned blacks because of it:
Engagement with colorism would war with a strong sense of racial identity. Black racial identity is premised on recognition of primary marginalization, whereas skin color differentiation is a form of secondary marginalization. In an environment in which members of a group feel deeply threatened by institutional or individual racism, it is very difficult for members of that group to protest internal differences…[I]ntense concern for disfavored group members seems like a luxury that cannot at present be afforded…or even like a betrayal of the comradeship and collective spirit needed to fight the external threat.
In other words, colorism has been allowed to persist because racism has always been a more pressing problem.
CHAPTER 13: Overcoming Political Irrationality
If we are to create a rational democracy we have to work like doctors trying to devise an anti-viral medicine for the syndrome of political irrationality. We need to come up with mechanisms that counter or block the metabolic activity of the irrationality virus. We must therefore propose political structures that are: 1) non-partisan, 2) free of feel-good mythology, and 3) truly democratic. Are such structures even possible? I believe that rational democracy is not only possible, but that the baby steps necessary for creating it have already been taken.
Instead of entrusting all our political decisions to the politicians, which leads always to a system mired in partisan conflict and corruption, we need to give more power to the citizens. However, we need to do so under conditions that minimize political irrationality. Practically, this means giving power to small groups of citizens who are given the time to really learn about a given issue, and who are expected to debate and discuss the issue before voting.
Despite the birthing pains of citizen juries in the U.K., the device appears destined to make a large impact on democracies worldwide. Similar approaches have also been referred to as citizen panels, citizen councils, deliberative polls, consensus panels, and by a variety of other terms. The two most influential methodologies are the Deliberative Poll, developed by James Fishkin, and the Citizen Jury, developed by Ned Crosby.
In both methods citizen-participants are expected to “deliberate” — that is, to receive information and then discuss and debate amongst themselves — before coming to a final decision. Note the contrast with ordinary surveys and elections, in which participants are allowed to respond instinctively and without information (i.e., irrationally). The deliberative poll and citizen jury provide a context in which people are encouraged to activate System 2, the reasoning module of the brain. With deliberative polls and citizen juries we are looking to create an ideal micro-polity — a group of informed and concerned citizens — to help guide the rest of us.
The idea has been catching on around the world. In 2007 the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Sergei Stanishev, pledged that his government would make use of the results of a Deliberative Poll on the plight of the impoverished ethnic minority known as the Roma (more commonly known as Gypsies). The inability of Bulgarian society to integrate the Roma has been one of the country’s most intractable problems. Following the procedure devised by Professor Fishkin, the Bulgarian government first surveyed 1,344 people on a variety of issues related to the Roma, including housing, crime and education. From the initial survey group, 255 were selected to participate in a two-day conference. All participants received briefing materials, including proposals from political parties and non-governmental organizations. During the conference, participants broke into small groups to discuss issues and raise questions, which they later posed to experts in a full session. Six hours of the proceedings were broadcast on national television.
Some of the initial discussions were brutal, revealing widespread antagonism against the Roma. “They should be given just bread and water,” said one woman. However, by the end of the process, it had become clear to most participants that the further integration of the Roma was not only possible but necessary. Participants were surveyed again at the close of deliberation. The percentage who thought that the Roma should live in separate neighborhoods had declined from 43% to 21%. Those supporting an increase in the number of Roma police officers increased from 32% to 52%. Most Bulgarians appeared willing to support the integration of Roma into society, despite the divisive rhetoric of nationalist politicians. The Deliberative Poll results were evidence of the underlying tolerance of the Bulgarian people.
Also in 2007, a group of 400 Australians came together in Sydney to use the Deliberative Polling method to explore ways for Muslims and non-Muslims to live together without prejudice. In 2006 Taiwan held what it called a “deliberative democracy debate” in the election for Mayor of Taipei. Citizens and citizen representatives participated directly in the televised debate. In 2005 in Zhejiang Province in China, a Deliberative Poll was used to determine public attitudes toward spending priorities. In Greece in 2004, former Foreign Minister George Papandreou helped organize a Deliberative Poll which actually decided an issue (albeit a relatively minor one) — the selection of a Socialist candidate for the mayor of Marousi, an Athens suburb.
Deliberative Polls, Citizen Juries and other forms of citizen panels have also been widely used throughout the United States. The Public Utility Commission of the State of Texas, for example, has used Deliberative Polls to determine service satisfaction with 8 of the state’s publicly-regulated utilities companies. Recently, federal wildlife officials announced a controversial plan to use a citizen panel for the management of grizzly bears reintroduced into the Bitterroot Mountain range of Idaho and Montana. If citizen panels can effectively govern grizzly bears, management of humans may not be far away.
A careful review of the pro’s and con’s of citizen panels suggests that they are a valuable new instrument in democracy and that their use should be expanded. As stated earlier, the principal improvement that could be made to citizen panels is to give them real power. Here, however, is a paradox. Citizen panels can only acquire true power if politicians are willing to give it to them, but that is unlikely — because politicians won’t want to vote themselves out of a job. I propose a way of allowing voters to break the impasse. The easiest way to put the citizen panel to a general vote is create a political party based entirely on the citizen panel. I have dubbed this theoretical party the Let’s Try Democracy, in recognition of the basic structural irrationality of our system of government – namely, that we call it a democracy when it is not.
The Let’s Try Democracy Party Concept. The proposed Let’s Try Democracy Party will be the first political party to be based entirely on the promise to submit all legislative votes to a panel of constituents. The Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator agrees in effect to be remote-controlled by the constituency. Let us consider the hypothetical case of first Let’s Try Democracy Party candidate elected to the U.S. Congress. After being elected, the Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator immediately creates a citizen panel of 100-200 citizens, each of whom will be invited to serve a term of one year. When the time arises for a vote on a particular issue, the citizen panel will deliberate and decide (most of their deliberations will be accomplished on-line, through a secure web-site), and the Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator will follow the orders of the panel regardless of his or her own preferences. The people will be in charge.
How it Would Work. The Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator will help prepare, structure and coordinate the deliberations of the participants, but in the end the panel will decide. The Let’s Try Democracy Party thus voluntarily transfers power from the political class to the citizenry. While most politicians claim to speak for the people, but in fact are heavily influenced by their financial stakeholders, the Let’s Try Democracy Party politician is immunized from undue influence by being rendered powerless. Unlike other politicians, the Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator actually does have some claim to the term, “public servant.” Even though Let’s Try Democracy Party candidates may still be motivated by the usual combination of personal self-love and lust for glory (assuming they are human and not saints or robots), when it comes to legislative votes — their most important activity — they would be forced to act as public servants.
Key Benefits: neutrality and rationality. The Let’s Try Democracy Party not only provides us with a more rational way to make political decisions, it provides us with an avenue of escape from the red state / blue state culture war. As political scientists like Morris Fiorina have established, most Americans fall in the middle of the political spectrum, but our two-party system creates an artificial barrier in the center. For years, surveys have shown that Americans are unhappy with harshly negative, polarizing political campaigns, and are therefore disgusted with the two main political parties. However, there is no place for these disgusted moderate voters to go. If they retreat into apathy, they are harassed and chided by self-righteous college kids. If they choose one of the two main parties, they perpetuate the polarizing culture war. If they choose an alternative party, such as the Greens or Libertarians, they are roundly derided for “wasting their vote.” The Let’s Try Democracy Party finally provides a home for these disgruntled rationalists.
Legislative Focus. The Let’s Try Democracy Party deals with the vote-wasting argument by focusing exclusively on legislative elections, which are of much lower interest to the general public than presidential, gubernatorial or mayoral elections. Most Americans cannot name their congressional representative, much less their state representative or city council-person. The Let’s Try Democracy Party candidate says to the voter: “Vote for whomever you want for President, Governor or Mayor. But since you don’t know who your legislator is anyway, go ahead and vote for the Let’s Try Democracy Party for Congress, the state legislature and the city council. By doing so, you vote for direct democracy and reduced power for politicians.” Alternative parties have failed to gain traction in the U.S. mainly because they always seek to establish a foot-hold in the impossibly competitive presidential election. The only kind of third party could that could seriously compete in the presidential election would be one led by a telegenic billionaire. This will not be the Let’s Try Democracy Party’s approach. Consequently, the Let’s Try Democracy Party willingly foregoes the presidential campaign. It would be harder to structure a remote-controlled executive than a remote-controlled legislator, anyway. The Let’s Try Democracy Party concept is better suited to legislative than to executive elections.
A Non-partisan Party. Unlike other alternative political parties, the Let’s Try Democracy Party does not compete on the ideological spectrum. There is only one issue on the Let’s Try Democracy Party platform: direct democracy through citizen panels. This is neither a left-wing nor a right-wing point of view. Citizen panels will produce conservative recommendations as well as liberal ones. Moreover, surveys show that conservatives support greater democracy as much as liberals. Consequently, the Let’s Try Democracy Party has a true claim to the vacant position of Middle Party. The Let’s Try Democracy Party will provide a refuge for those citizens who don’t want to be polarized. In fact, for such people, the Let’s Try Democracy Party will be the only rational option. All other parties place you somewhere on the ideological spectrum, open to red vs. blue sniping. In a Let’s Try Democracy Party campaign the main strategy would be to sell the virtues of the citizen panel concept, not the virtues of the candidate or of a particular platform. The candidate’s personal beliefs and preferences would be quite unimportant, since they would not necessarily be carried out. If one wanted to know what the candidate would do in office, one would have to consult the citizens — they would be the ones doing the deciding. Since the Let’s Try Democracy Party will preach no particular platform, there is no need to attack the other side’s platform. The Let’s Try Democracy Party campaign would be completely open and welcome support from Democrats and Republicans, even those actively campaigning for their party’s presidential candidate. Instead of phony campaign events, the Let’s Try Democracy Party campaign could be organized around a series of Deliberative Polls. Instead of a campaign in which the politician announces his or her policies, it would be one in which the politician listens as the policies are dictated by the citizens.
Impact. Let us imagine that a small percentage of legislative seats around the country, perhaps 10%, eventually became held by the Let’s Try Democracy Party. What impact could we expect on society? First of all, thousands of ordinary citizens would be drafted into an intensive civics-training program. After service on a legislative panel, citizens would return to their communities with deep, practical knowledge of how our government works, and of the key challenges facing our society. As opposed to regular citizen panelists, who deliberate on a single issue, members of a Let’s Try Democracy Party panel would become true policy experts after their year of service. During their deliberations, the citizen panelists could be expected to discuss issues with family and co-workers, bringing knowledge of legislative issues to a broader public.
Criticisms. The Let’s Try Democracy Party concept is open to most of the criticisms which have been leveled at the citizen panel, and to a few more as well. The most obvious objection is a pragmatic one — could it work in practice? After all, modern legislators spend much of their time in negotiations, conferences and committees. Many votes take place at the last minute, sometimes late at night, and many votes are on re-drafts or minor amendments to prior legislation. How could a citizen panel follow this labyrinthine process, much less provide effective and timely decisions when needed? How could a citizen panel participate in a drafting committee? How could it originate legislation? My answer to these general objections is blithe: these impracticalities can be overcome. Attorneys represent complex corporate interests in negotiations without having to check with the Board of Directors on every edit to every clause. Citizen panels could set clear parameters on what would be acceptable legislation. It would even be possible, using modern digital technology, for large numbers of panelists to participate in last-minute decisions on revisions to legislation. As for the drafting and development of legislation, citizen panels could appoint sub-committees to carry out these tasks. It is true that the Let’s Try Democracy Party legislator would have much less freedom of action than Republican and Democratic colleagues. But then, that is the whole point.
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THE "10 SUGGESTIONS": FOR GREATER POLITICAL RATIONALITY
Order a purge for your brain, it will be much better employed than upon your stomach. -- Montaigne, Of the resemblance of children to their fathers
1. Be humble with respect to your political knowledge.
You should be humble about your political knowledge because studies show that if you are an average citizen, you don’t have much. Even if you are a fanatical news junkie and fervent C-Span watcher, your knowledge of issues is probably no deeper than a sound-bite. If you are highly-partisan, your confirmation bias has probably effectively shielded you from a great deal of data. The odds are that you haven’t listened to contrary evidence for years. There is a lot out there, politically speaking, that you don’t know. As Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom comes in a person’s realization that “I only know that I don’t know.”
2. Accept that your community will always contain people very different from you.
If you are a Democrat, you must learn to accept that Republicans are not going away. America’s future has Republican presidents in it, and your fellow conservative citizens are going to abide as well. If you are a Republican, similarly, you must come to grips with the likely future health of the Democratic Party. In a large society, people will always have views based on radically different cultural premises. Sometimes, the views of our fellow citizens will shock us, but we should be cautious about reacting with contempt. Instead, we should look at their behavior as a puzzle, asking ourselves, what is so different about their value systems that it drives them to come to such a strange viewpoint? How can we negotiate a compromise?
3. Weaken your partisan attachments.
There is a good chance that you are genetically predisposed to be either liberal or conservative. Strangely, however, that predisposition does not necessarily correlate with your choice of party. Many people are in the “wrong” party — natural conservatives in the Democratic Party, natural liberals in the Republican Party. That this is possible suggests that most people are strongly susceptible to childhood partisan indoctrination, the primary method of acquiring a partisan perspective. What would happen if you were to change political party tomorrow? I wager that you would be embarrassed and uncomfortable in front of many of your friends and co-workers. But is that a good reason for remaining in your political party? Why do you need to feel allegiance to any political party? This book has argued that it is simply irrational to have strong loyalties to the Democratic or Republican parties — neither of which has an internally consistent ideology. The Democrats do not always support liberal politics, and the Republicans do not always support conservative viewpoints. Since you cannot rely on these parties to provide consistent ideological positions, you shouldn’t blindly follow them. Think for yourself.
4. Don’t despise those people who hold political views contrary to your own.
There is disturbing evidence that humans are innately susceptible to racial and xenophobic hatred and intolerance. In modern, secular society, partisanship unfortunately becomes one of the principal means for the expression of these atavistic, destructive impulses. If you find yourself despising other people because of their political opinions, run to the mirror and ask yourself what has become of you. What is the point of becoming involved in politics if it makes you a hateful human being? The costs to you and to society of your animosity far outweigh any imaginary benefits from the potential victory of your political party.
5. Don’t pay too much attention to Presidential elections.
The irresistible spectacle of the Presidential election offers a fascination which is out of proportion to the slender opportunity it provides for a rational discussion of the issues. Becoming greatly interested in Presidential elections is no substitute for acquiring informed political opinions. For many citizens, coming to a vote in a Presidential election is a good excuse for not doing any political thinking otherwise. Don’t be one of those lazy citizens. By all means, have fun following the electoral spectacle, but don't delude yourself: watching the televised Presidential Survivor show is no substitute for becoming an informed, rational citizen.
6. Leave the non-voters alone.
The choice between Democratic and Republican parties is a sterile one. In either case, a detached political elite will continue to run the country. In such a context, non-voting is perfectly rational. A rational understanding of voting allows us to appreciate that in any event, voting is primarily a symbolic act. Non-voting is therefore an acceptable way of symbolically expressing one’s refusal to accept the choices presented. A true democracy should accept such symbolic expressions of disagreement.
7. Learn about something.
Studies show that most people don’t learn about political issues in depth. When someone does get riled up enough to want to research a political issue, it is pretty likely that partisan bias and confirmation bias will lead that person to highly-biased sources. Thus we have a polity that is principally composed of citizens who are either ignorant or irrevocably biased. Don’t fall into this trap. Learn about a political issue in depth, making sure to give equal time to opposing viewpoints.
8. If you want more representation of women and minorities, you will have to be willing to experiment with new democratic mechanisms.
I have argued that there is an inherent sexist bias in electoral politics. An analogous bias exists against racial minorities. If we want more representation of women and minorities, we will not soon achieve it through traditional electoral means. When qualified women and minority candidates appear, they will tend to face rationalized objections, a cover-up for subterranean sexism and racism. Citizen panels and direct democracy provide a necessary alternative to government by a biased elite.
9. Don’t try to export democracy.
In the Founders’ terminology, we are not a democracy, we are a republic. Since we don’t have democracy, we cannot really export it. Indeed, our attempts to “export democracy” have been hampered by our own linguistic self-hypnosis. So-called modern democracies are really enlightened oligarchies. Those countries that we call most “advanced” are the ones where the oligarchies play by the rules. However, for republican government to work the law-abiding oligarchies themselves must already be in place, and if they are not ready for the importation of republican power-sharing, the results will be disappointing. Thus in the late 20th century we have seen the growth of sham democracy and even democratically-induced civil war. It is not the citizens are not ready for democracy, but that their oligarchs are too immature to share power.
10. Build utopia slowly.
Public disgust with the failures of our current system often leads to broad, utopian proposals to “turn government over to the citizens.” However, all our research indicates that the citizens as a whole are genetically-predisposed to partisan conflict, and are therefore susceptible to demagoguery. Reformers should therefore learn to accept the constraints of biology and human nature. Moreover, the protean capacity of powerful elites to manipulate government reforms to their advantage suggests that we should proceed carefully, lest we make things worse than they already are. The best way forward is to experiment cautiously with different ways of increasing the participation of ordinary citizens in real democratic decision-making. From amongst the alternatives available, the increased use of citizen panels seems like the most promising experiment.