It's not enough to bemoan that we are given to irrationality. We need to nurture an environment that allows rationality to regain its place.
The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s great boulevards. Officially designated a national park, its tree-lined expanse runs from the Lincoln Memorial in the west to the Capitol in the east, punctuated by the Washington Monument almost square in the middle. It provides a grand setting for America’s great national institutions, museums, and memorials, and it is where over 24 million tourists come every year to bask in the glory that is the United States of America.
It is also where a great many Americans come to complain about their government.
There have been thousands of rallies, great and small, over the years, but in October 2010, the National Mall was the scene of perhaps its most peculiar event to date. On the day before Halloween, close to a quarter million Americans gathered, not for civil liberty or equal rights, and not to oppose the war or support the troops. Instead, they rallied for sanity.
Led by Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program The Daily Show, the rally was intended as a call for more reasoned discussion in American politics, outside the cacophony of partisan extremism that dominates America’s news media. And while Stewart insisted that the rally was not a partisan event, it was widely interpreted as a response to the Reclaiming Honor rally hosted two months earlier by then Fox News personality Glenn Beck. Intended or not, the Rally to Restore Sanity quickly turned into a mass protest against the extreme craziness that had erupted on the American political scene after the election of Barack Obama.
It was the first time, perhaps since the French Revolution, that reason had become the object of large-scale political mobilization in the West. This says a lot about the changes that have occurred in American political culture in the past few decades.
The big tent of the American right has always sheltered its share of crazies, particularly gun nuts and religious conservatives, but in recent years they have been joined by the anti-tax Tea Party movement, the birthers (who deny that Obama was born in the United States), the truthers (who believe that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers was an inside job), and a dog’s breakfast of antiscience denialists who believe in neither evolution nor global warming and who are highly suspicious of much else besides. There came a point, however, when the sideshow began to take over center stage. Americans woke up to find that their political system was increasingly divided, not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy. And what’s more, the crazies seemed be gaining the upper hand…
Some people like to find “balance” whenever discussing politics, to see the left and the right as mirror images of one another. When it comes to attitudes toward truth, however, there are clear differences. Democratic Party politicians in the United States may manipulate, exaggerate, and lie, but they are not unhinged from reality. When they debate policy, they still make some attempt to discuss the actual issues. The debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the subject of health care during the Democratic primaries in 2008, for instance, provided a fairly reliable sense of what each candidate actually intended to do with that file. At no point did it degenerate into the sort of display that has become commonplace among Republicans, with each contender competing against the others to say how many government departments he would close down upon being elected — when no one could believe for an instant that any of them would do any such thing.
The difference is that conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it’s about “gut feelings” and “values.” Elections are decided by appealing to people’s hearts, not their heads. So, for example, when a Republican candidate says that he is going to “close down the Department of Energy,” he doesn’t really mean that he is going to close down the Department of Energy and fire all of its employees. After all, the U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for maintaining the nuclear reactors in U.S. military submarines, among other things. What it really means to say that you’ll close down the Department of Energy is just “I feel very strongly that the federal government hates oil companies, and I want to change that.” The objective is to communicate your feelings, not your thoughts.
This privileging of visceral, intuitive, gut feelings is central to the movement known as “common sense” conservatism, which has become a powerful force everywhere in the Western world, not just the United States. The central characteristic of common sense, according to Republican communication strategist Frank Luntz, is that it “doesn’t require any fancy theories; it is self-evidently correct.” To say that it is self-evident is to say that it is known to be correct without argument and without explanation. Thus, making common sense the core of one’s political ideology amounts to a pure privileging of intuition over rational thought, of “gut feeling” over deliberation, and of heart over head. Indeed, one can see in Luntz’s description the explicit downgrading of rationality. Common sense is independent not just of “theories,” but of “fancy theories” — the kind proposed by effete East Coast intellectuals. The crucial thing about fancy theories is that you can feel free to ignore them, precisely because they are fancy. You don’t have to worry about the actual content of what the person is saying.
The phrase “common sense” itself has of course been test-marketed, and picked because it maximizes positive resonance. Who doesn’t like common sense? And yet it is also quite apt at describing the most important unifying idea in contemporary conservatism. If the plan that you’re proposing needs to be explained, then it’s not common sense. If it doesn’t sound right, then it’s not common sense. And if it requires some sort of data or study, then it most certainly isn’t common sense.
Part of the popularity of this brand of conservatism is that it generates a set of incredibly powerful electoral strategies. Appealing to the gut rather than the head plays well on television, not to mention on talk radio. Indeed, the major channel through which this American style of conservativism has spread is not its intellectual expression, but the hiring of Republican campaign strategists during the off season. (Tellingly, Conservative governments in both Canada and the United Kingdom have made significant use of Republican campaign strategists.) This is what explains the otherwise mysterious fact that conservatives — supposedly the guardians of old-fashioned values like honesty and forthrightness — have been the most aggressive at employing “post-truth” political strategies. It’s because these coincide with their political ideology.
According to the “common sense” conservative view, most of the problems in the world today are caused by intellectual elites, who chronically overestimate their ability to understand and control the world. It is these so-called experts who built the public housing projects that became magnets for crime, initiated the “war on poverty” that created an epidemic of welfare dependency, introduced the trade policies that led to the evisceration of U.S. manufacturing, negotiated the treaties that undermined U.S. military supremacy, introduced the environmental regulations that destroyed the competitiveness of U.S. industry, brought in the education reforms that left American children unable to read and write, did all the hand-wringing and second-guessing that led to the loss of the Vietnam War, and promoted all kinds of feminist ideas that undermined parental authority, producing several generations of rude and disrespectful children. If these overeducated elites with their fancy college degrees had just spent a bit more time listening to their “heart,” rather than their “head,” and stuck to good old-fashioned traditional values, then none of this would have happened…
The Tea Party movement, sparked…by an off-the-cuff rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, had at the time been incredibly successful at steering the entire agenda of political debate in America to the right. In the 2010 midterm elections, it managed to get thirty-one affiliated members elected to the House of Representatives. More importantly, by staging successful primary challenges against Republican incumbents, it was able to scare a solid majority of sitting Republican legislators into catering to their demands. This was an important factor in the inflexibility that Republicans exhibited during Barack Obama’s first term of office.
By contrast, the Occupy movement has seen no such success. Far from electing any legislators under the “Occupy” banner, it has not even succeeded in applying any sort of effective pressure on elected Democratic politicians. The movement has, of course, had many defenders, willing to offer the usual excuses — that the movement refused to be “co-opted” by participating in mainstream democratic politics, or that its participants were anarchists, refusing to have any truck with existing power structures. But this is obviously sour grapes. If the inability of the Occupy movement to achieve any political gains whatsoever for the left in America is not a stunning political failure, it is at the very least a huge missed opportunity. Democratic politicians would find it easier sticking to their guns if they could even claim to be under some pressure from the left, regardless of whether it were true.
Why this difference in outcome? Why is the right so much more effective than the left, particularly in America? How was it able to take the catastrophic failure of deregulated markets and turn it into a powerful social movement against government? It will be a central contention of this book that the problem is not just that the left missed its opportunity, or that it was inarticulate, or that its leaders were craven. Rather, there is a fundamental asymmetry between right and left that comes to the fore in times such as these. Progressive social change is inherently complicated, difficult to achieve, and requires compromise, trust, and collective action. It cannot, therefore, be achieved on the basis of “heart” alone — it also requires a huge amount of “head.”
Collective action also requires institution building. Undermining collective action is, by contrast, much easier to do. Since the primary function of government in modern societies is to solve the most intractable collective action problems, anti-government activists have an inherently easier time of it than pro-government activists. The Tea Party had no trouble translating the rage and frustration of its members into concrete political action. Tax resistance, for example, can be framed in a number of highly intuitive, viscerally appealing ways (e.g., “They’re taking your hard-earned money!”). The case for paying taxes, on the other hand, is difficult to present in a way that gets anyone excited. This is not an accident. The logic of taxation — the reason why markets fail to provide certain goods, so that the state must do the job instead — is something you work out in your head, not something you feel in your heart…
Needless to say, trying to do something about the distribution of wealth and opportunity in America is also going to be extremely complicated. Occupying a park near Wall Street does nothing to diminish the power of the great investment banks. It is possible to change the way that banks operate and to punish them for their misbehavior, but this is all accomplished through regulation. And to demand action on that front, one must know what to demand. Figuring that out requires getting involved in a lot of boring, nitty-gritty details. Yet who among the occupiers had the patience to work out the ins and outs of capital reserve requirements or credit default swaps, or the difference between an exchange and a clearinghouse? Even something as simple as redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor quickly gets complicated, involving boring debates about the tax code (the treatment of capital gains, the alternative minimum tax, etc.).
The problem with the Occupy movement was not that it lacked good slogans. The difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement is that the Tea Party’s slogans were also its policies, and so the Tea Party had an easier time motivating its followers to get involved in the political process in order to make very specific demands of their representatives. The problem with Occupy is it never got beyond slogans — and not for want of trying. It’s because the type of changes its participants wanted were intrinsically more complicated, more controversial, and could not so easily be derived from its slogans.
All of this lends support to the idea that progressive social change is going to require more than just a new set of policies; it will also require a change in the mental environment, so that a more reasoned discussion of policy questions has a chance of taking place…
If the mental environment is dominated by propaganda, it is not obvious that producing counterpropaganda will improve things in any significant way, just as when someone is yelling, yelling back at him may not be a useful way to respond — it may just increase the noise level. To bring about real change in the mental environment, a more fundamental transformation may be required. We may need to change things so that the voice of reason can prevail, so that a more dispassionate, informed, civilized debate can take place. The only problem is, we seem to have no idea how to do this.
One of the most striking things that could be observed at the Rally to Restore Sanity was a desire on the part of many to change not the content, but rather the tone of political debate in America. Many of the signs, for example, criticized the practice of comparing political opponents to Hitler (“Obama is not Hitler, Glenn Beck is not Hitler, Hitler is Hitler”). Others called for less anger (“Use your inside voice,” “I’m with reasonable”) or to dial down the rhetoric (“Honest, I don’t mind paying my taxes,” or “France seems nice enough”). Some people even complained that the protest seemed to have become a rally to restore politeness rather than a rally to restore sanity…
What the polite protesters understood is that people must be in the right frame of mind in order to think rationally. When people are angry, you need to get them to calm down before you can talk to them. And yet one might wonder what it is about rationality that makes it incompatible with anger. Why do strong emotions prevent us from thinking straight? These are all questions that it would be nice to have some answer to if we wanted to develop a strategy for “restoring sanity” in our culture. Unfortunately, there is no off-the-shelf concept of “reason” or “sanity” that we can pull down and put to use to answer these questions.
Indeed, it is a bit rich for the progressive left to all of a sudden want everyone to calm down and start thinking rationally. From the ’60s counter-culture through ’70s feminism and ’80s postmodernism, the “left” seemed united in the conviction that “rationality” and “truth” were part of a plot to impose a hegemony of white, heterosexual male thought on anyone who dared to be different. Over the course of the twentieth century, the left was not a particularly faithful friend of either science or reason. It’s difficult to turn around and rally for “sanity” after films like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which convinced an entire generation of American liberals that the whole concept of “sanity” was nothing but a plot perpetrated by “the system,” designed to control those who challenged mainstream beliefs…
The current mood within the liberal academy remains one of intense antirationalism, motivated not only by political ideology, but also by the last several decades of research in psychology, which have shown that we are all, in general, much less rational than we take ourselves to be. Literally dozens of major books have been published in the past decade, echoing the same theme: that we are fundamentally not rational animals…
It’s all well and good to have a mountain of psychological research detailing the different ways in which we routinely fail to think and act rationally. But the obvious practical implication is not that it’s okay to be irrational: it’s that we need to work a lot harder at becoming rational, and that where we fail, we need to develop systems and strategies that insulate us from the consequences of these failings. It is important to remember that rationality is not some alien set of rules imposed on us from on high; it is, rather, the basis of human freedom and autonomy. It is the set of rules that we follow when we want our beliefs to correspond to reality, when we want to avoid failure in the pursuit of our objectives, and when we want to agree on principles for living life in common. It is through the exercise of reason that we have been able to escape from the social conditions that prevailed throughout 99 percent of the history of our genus — that of small-scale societies ruled by superstition, threatened by violence, living at or near the subsistence level. So while it is important not to have any illusions about the power of human reason, it is just as important not to have any illusions about the alternative.
Whether our society has actually become “less rational” over the past few decades is difficult to say. People were pretty crazy in the past as well. The world that I grew up in was subject to the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, based on a great-power rivalry that would be difficult to describe as entirely sane. Furthermore, people have been complaining about the decline of public discourse for decades — stridently since the dawn of television — and yet the sky has not fallen. What I have tried to show, however, is that there is the potential for a hazardous dynamic to develop in the way that cultural systems as a whole are reproduced, with irrational memes pooling in the population in much the same way that viruses and addictive substances do. In order to avoid civilizational decline, we need to be concerned not only about changes at the institutional level, but also about these tendencies within the culture.
All of this is exacerbated, of course, by the rise of a political movement explicitly committed to assigning intuition priority over reason. Furthermore, unlike the “irrational left,” which has been almost entirely excluded from political power in Western democracies, the “irrational right” has actually enjoyed significant electoral success. Many people are rightly pessimistic about the possibility of changing this, particularly in the United States. There are so many different institutional failures in American society right now, all of them mutually reinforcing, that it does seem difficult to picture a way forward. It is no accident that there has been a huge resurgence of interest in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels among American liberals. These books speak to the question that has been troubling many: What is the responsibility of intellectuals, faced with a civilization in irreversible decline that has no interest in listening to intellectuals? Asimov’s answer, unfortunately, is to secede from society, let everything collapse, then spend the next thousand years putting things back together.
With any luck, we will be able to do better than that. At very least we — friends and allies of the Enlightenment — must change our tactics and give it a second try.
This excerpt is taken from Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives (Toronto: HarperCollins Canada). © 2014 Joseph Heath. Used by permission.