Recently, Fox revived “The X Files” and in the latest show there was a lesson for people who follow politics. The episode featured a horror-movie scene in which billions of people come down with life-threatening illnesses traceable – ready conspiracy nuts! – to an evil vaccine. This a laughable storyline. Fox would have been within its rights to refuse to broadcast the show on the grounds of implausibility. But in modern-day America there’s a ready appetite for anti-science thinking of this sort. The lesson for political junkies is that ignorance runs rampant through our society.
Years ago I wouldn’t have been bothered by a TV series that exploits our darkest emotions anymore than I worried about the tabloids being sold at check-out counters with crazy headlines like the one featured above: “ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A WOMAN! Shocking pix found in White House basement.” It was just entertainment, right?
But after what we’ve seen in this campaign cycle who can now rest easy? There’s every reason to worry that millions of people take sheer nonsense seriously. Their ignorance is making them sitting ducks for politicians like Donald "I love the poorly educated" Trump. Election 2016 is turning into a civics teacher's case study from hell.
From the moment he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower at the launch of his improbable presidential campaign back in June, Trump has been offering simplistic solutions to complicated problems. To wit, to take just two examples: To stop Mexicans from crossing the border he’d build a wall. To prevent terrorist attacks on the United States he’d stop all Muslims from coming here.
Each proposal has been eviscerated in the media based on the critiques of experts who have pointed out that his proposed solutions barely withstand cursory analysis. His wall wouldn’t be beautiful and the Mexican government won't pay for it. Muslims can’t be excluded without wrecking havoc with our alliances in the Middle East, making us less, not more, safe.
But his voters haven’t cared. Nor have they worried when the media have caught him in one lie after another. Politifact has called him out for lying more than any of the other candidates, but to little effect. This has prompted some to think that Trump is the Teflon candidate and it appears he can get away with saying anything. As he himself remarked, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
Eight years ago I wrote a book to draw attention to the problem of gross public ignorance. It carried an attention-getting title: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. The book is filled with statistics like these:
● A majority of Americans don’t know which party is in control of Congress.
● A majority can’t name the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
● A majority don’t know we have three branches of government.
The reaction I often got when I presented these statistics at lectures was that people don’t need to know a lot of facts. The posted comments on an interview I did on CNN when the book came out – an interview that has drawn more than a million views – indicate that a lot of people hold facts in low regard.
Alas, though my book made the Amazon bestseller list I didn’t convince the mainstream media that ignorance is a threat to our democracy. Then, Donald Trump came along.
Now suddenly mainstream media pundits have discovered how ignorant millions of voters are. See this and this and this and this. More importantly, the concern with low-information voters has become widespread. Many are now wondering what country they’re living in. They cannot believe a politician can make all the false claims Trump has – like saying that thousands of Muslims danced on the roofs of apartment buildings in Jersey City as they watched the Twin Towers collapse on 9-11 – and get away with it.
This is, however, no time to moan. We’ve gotten a profound lesson about the limits of American democracy at a relatively cheap price. Ordinarily countries facing a hard truth like this (think Germany) have to sustain a period of deprivation and disaster over an extended period before seeing the light. Thus far we’ve only had to put up with Donald Trump for the past seven months. Trump may still wreck the GOP but with a little luck we won’t be calling him Mr. President. (I do shudder to think what might happen if terrorists strike. We could be one 9-11 away from a Trump presidency.)
But what exactly is the truth we need to face? The answer science gives us (the title of my last book and this essay notwithstanding) is not that people fall for slick charlatans like Trump because they’re stupid. The standard issue human comes with a brain filled with 86 billion neurons, which is more than enough to digest the political questions that come before the public. Indeed, by many measures we’re smarter today than our grandparents’ generation. The problem is that we humans didn’t evolve to live in the world in which we find ourselves. As the social scientists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it, the human mind was “designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others.”
I argue in my new book, Political Animals, that there are four failings common to human beings as a result of our Stone-Age brain that hinder us in politics.
First, most people find it easy to ignore politics because it usually involves people they don’t know. As human beings we evolved to care about people in our immediate vicinity. Our nervous system kicks into action usually only when we meet people face-to-face. Reading about them or seeing them on television doesn’t trigger the same focus and response: our eyes don’t widen, our nostrils don’t flair, and our heart doesn’t speed up. While a good TV debate can inspire us for a moment to pay attention, it’s unlikely to provide the sustained interest in politics needed for deciding urgent and complicated matters happening at a distance.
Second, we find it hard to size up politicians correctly. The reason for this is that we rely on instant impressions. Studies show we begin making up our mind about people in less time than it takes to blink. This is something our Stone-Age ancestors found was useful when out on a hunt or sitting around a campfire. But our situation is different from theirs. They lived in small communities where everybody knew everybody. Under those circumstances an instant impression was all one often needed at a particular moment since an individual likely already knew plenty about the person with whom they were interacting. Alas, voters often don’t know much of anything about the politicians they see on television. But the act of seeing them tricks their brain into making an instant and confident assessment. This stops voters from worrying that they need to bolster their impressions by consulting experts and reading news stories from a broad array of ideological viewpoints. Why study when you can rely on your gut instinct?
Third, we aren’t inclined to reward politicians who tell us hard truths. You don’t need to study science to know this, to be sure. Walter Mondale taught us this in 1984. He thought the American people would reward him for telling them that he was going to raise their taxes. Instead, they re-elected his opponent Ronald Reagan in a landslide. But why are we this way? Science suggests that one reason is that we evolved to win in social settings and in such situations the truth doesn't matter as much as sheer doggedness. We don't want the truth to prevail, as Harvard's Steven Pinker informs us, we want our version of the truth to prevail, for in the end what we're really concerned with is maintaining our status or enhancing it. What happens when our beliefs come into conflict with reality? We experience cognitive dissonance. Because this is very unpleasant we do everything we can to make it go away. Sometimes, we do this by changing our opinion. But most of the time we return to a state of well-being by simply ignoring the evidence we find discomforting. This is known as Disconfirmation Bias and it afflicts all of us, both the ignorant and the educated. (So does its cousin, Confirmation Bias, which leads people to look for evidence that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.)
Fourth, we frequently fail to show empathy in circumstances that clearly cry out for it. This is easy to explain. We evolved to show empathy for people we know. It takes special effort to empathize with people who don’t dress like us or look like us. And heaven help people who live in a place Americans can’t find on a map. Should they suddenly be deemed a national threat the call will go out to bomb them back to the Stone Age with no consideration given to the toll this undoubtedly would take on civilians in the vicinity.
What can be done? We can hope and pray that Donald Trump isn’t elected president, for one thing. But long-term we need to teach voters not to trust their instincts in politics because our instincts often don’t work. That's the clear lesson of the Trump campaign, which has been drawing support by playing on voters' fears and anger, feelings that come naturally to them when Trump triggers ancient instincts (like fear of The Other) that swamp more thoughtful responses. Doing politics in a modern mass democracy, in other words, is an unnatural act.
Teaching this lesson doesn’t sound like a job for historians, but in one way it is. Studying history is all about putting events into context. And as it turns out, voters need to learn the importance of context. Given the mismatch between our Stone-Age brain and the problems we face in the 21st century, we should only trust our political instincts when those instincts are serviceable in a modern context. If they aren’t (and most of the time they aren't), then higher order cognitive thinking is required.
I don’t have much confidence that people in general will be willing on their own to undertake the effort. As Daniel Kahneman teaches us, our brain is lazy. We look for short cuts (like relying on our instincts) to avoid thinking. But cultural norms can be established to help.
Just why mass ignorance seems to be afflicting our politics at this moment is a complicated question. But here again history can be helpful. The answer seems to be that the institutions voters formerly could turn to for help have withered. Few today, for example, can turn to their union for guidance as few Americans belong to a union. Nor do churches for the most part offer the kind of guidance they used to. This has left millions of voters on their own. Lacking information, millions do what you would expect. They go with their gut.
Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.