It may be hard for many Americans to hear, but politics has most likely blinded them, obscuring their view of significant facts and all but blacking out the portion of their brains devoted to critical thinking. As law professor Ilya Somin points out in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance, studies consistently show people systematically discount or completely tune out information that would tend to contradict their prior beliefs, turning instead to sources that confirm them. And even when they do face up to facts that tend to challenge their positions, people nevertheless tend to treat those facts as somehow validating their existing, established opinions.
It is no secret that confirmation bias finds a genial home in our eristic thinking about politics, but recent scholarship such as Somin’s book indicates a problem that’s deeper and more dangerous than many have in the past suspected. Despite the wealth of information available to almost all Americans through the power of the internet, ignorance, especially when it comes to politics and policy, stubbornly persists.
Political ignorance, it turns out, is extremely widespread, even among those who consider themselves well-informed. In a 2006 study at Emory University, psychologists wanted to see just how much this process of confirmation bias warps our ability to sort out political information. Psychology professor Drew Westen used neuroimaging to measure activity in different areas of the brain, while the subjects — evenly divided among “strong” Republicans and Democrats — evaluated various political propositions. Discussing the study in an article for Scientific American, Michael Shermer noted that, during the experiment, “The part of the brain most associated with reasoning — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was quiescent,” while other parts of the brain were quite active. Critical analysis and inquiry took a backseat to the parts of the brain that process conflict resolution, emotions, and questions of moral accountability.
It turns out, when politics comes up, partisans literally, albeit quite unconsciously, turn off certain parts of their brains — and their ability to think carefully and critically along with them. Westen’s book on the topic, The Political Brain, describes the process: When “potentially troubling political information” enters the scene, “[t]he brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.” The failings and contradictions of one’s own candidate or party are readily excused or rationalized — if they’re registered at all — whereas those of the opposing side stick out impertinently, begging to be argued down.
In a way, this irrationality makes perfect sense. It is, after all, uncomfortable to have one’s strongly held beliefs called into question, especially when those beliefs have a moral character, and it is much easier to maintain objectivity when dealing with questions that ostensibly have determinate answers such as issues related to cancer treatment, carpentry or carburetor engines. These subjects don’t tend to result in strong emotional responses, in part because most people admit, rather unashamedly, that knowledge of these topics is a matter of specialized expertise. Politics seems to inhabit a more nebulous space, however, populated by constellations of vague sentiments, social mores and ethical values.
To make matters worse, the very language used to talk about politics is arguably unintelligible, an accidental jumble of self-contradictions and confused taxonomies. As a mechanism for explaining or providing useful information about political philosophy, the standard left-right political spectrum leaves much to be desired, placing very similar political phenomena at opposite ends and grouping together very different systems. Why, for example, is the totalitarian socialism of Nazi Germany poles apart from totalitarian socialism of the Soviet Union? And why is economic liberalization treated as right wing? Today, the general premises of liberal, democratic government — the market economy, constitutionally limited government, federalism — are somewhat inexplicably associated with the political right.
Most traffickers in political ideas abide these incoherent rhetorical shortcuts simply because they can conceive of no other way to think about political dialogue, habituated to a narrow left-versus-right debate. As political philosopher Crispin Sartwell observes, “The left-right divide might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different political ideas.” Ignorant of basic facts and lacking a functional language of politics, we wander blind and illiterate, hopelessly ill-equipped to appraise current political institutions. People are quite confidently using politics as a proxy for their moral values, only with both intellectual hands tied behind their backs; they are neither taking advantage of the best-available information nor exercising the capacity to think critically about political candidates or issues.
Such a state of affairs is, of course, not without its consequences, manifested in harmful policies that pander to ignorance and an inane political discourse dominated by largely empty culture-war contretemps.
Having diagnosed the policy problems caused by political ignorance, Somin’s book suggests the mitigative potential of smaller, decentralized government. Political decentralization allows citizens to vote with their feet, to express their dissatisfaction with their government more directly and decisively by moving to a jurisdiction whose governance better reflects their values. More local government, furthermore, allows citizens to actively participate in and shape the political system. When policy decisions are more localized, citizens are better able to assess and develop an accurate picture of the government for which they are paying. Local bodies are more transparent, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than their federal cousins, in large part because they are constrained by close proximity to their voters.
Dividing power among several smaller political units also accounts for the particularities of place. Given the size and diversity of the United States, to govern all 320 million of its people in one crudely totalizing way is to invite social discord, to needlessly limit the possibilities of experimentation. This is the idea expressed in Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous description of the states as “laboratories of democracy,” in which diverse policies may be tried and tested at the state level. Localism and federalism appreciate that face-to-face human relationships count for something — that a government that is anonymous, distant and opaque cannot be accountable or democratic in any meaningful sense. A government that is narrowly confined to the protection of person and property is less susceptible to the perils of our distorted thinking about politics. Alert to the many mistakes that infect the political mind, we might all agree that no one has the right to make decisions for anyone else, that self-government is the best, safest government.
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