Does politics make us stupid and mean?

Many of us get heavily involved in politics. In addition to voting, we form confident political opinions on highly complex issues that we express—often passionately—in conversations and arguments with others, both in real life and on social media. We watch the news and shout at the tv. We put up stickers advertising our political affiliations. We go to protests. We base our decisions on who to be friends with and who to be more than friends with based in part on which pollical opinions they hold.

From the inside, most of us feel that our political involvement is good and reasonable. It is good in that it is motivated by moral concerns and a sense of obligation. Of course, we would rather be doing other things, but duty obliges us to get involved—to protest, to tweet sarcastic take-downs of our political enemies, to support our favourite political party, and so on. Our involvement is reasonable in that each of us feels that the opinions that we hold on such political topics are grounded in evidence. Any reasonable person, we think, would come to hold the same views that we hold on the basis of the available evidence. The fact that many people don’t come to hold such views is just evidence that they are not reasonable.

I have always been dimly aware that this conception of political involvement is mistaken—in fact, ridiculous. After all, people enjoy getting involved in politics. There are many simple things that we could do to improve the world, but most of us don’t do them because they require effort, time, or sacrifice. Politics, on the other hand, is frequently something that people love to do. They can’t help themselves getting into political arguments, and they often have a jolly old time at political protests. And even though, of course, I am rational, impartial, and unbiased, I have always noticed that other people—people just like me, in fact—are deeply tribal and irrational.

I have recently finished two books that attempt to vindicate this cynical view of political participation: Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter” and Jason Brennan’s “Against Democracy.” Both make a compelling case that when it comes to our political opinions and political involvement, many of us–most of us, perhaps–are stupid and often selfish, indulging our biases and prejudices in a way that treats politics more like a team sport than a sincere strategy to improve the world. In fact, both go further: contemporary democracies, they argue, positively incentivise this kind of behaviour.

At the core of both books is the following simple observation: when it comes to our political opinions, we have no practical incentive to get things right. Why? Because as individual citizens we have pretty much no effect on the issues that we vote on. In this sense political beliefs are very different from most ordinary beliefs. If you believe that there is milk in the fridge when there isn’t, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you go to make a cup of tea in the morning. On the other hand, if you believe that the idea of human-made climate change is a Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Western capitalism, the falsity of this belief will have pretty much no effect on the climate. In popular parlance, politics is a domain in which we rarely have any skin in the game. Unlike in most other contexts, Reality will not punish you for holding false beliefs.

The upshot of this is that we can form pretty much whatever political beliefs we want to form. We can indulge our biases and prejudices without accountability. We can hold those beliefs that best enable us to win friends and influence people—that advertise our membership of and loyalty to our in-group—irrespective of whether those beliefs are most likely to be true.

That’s all theoretical speculation, of course, but both Caplan and Brennan argue that the data support it. An enormous empirical literature now attests to just how ignorant we tend to be when it comes to basic political, social, and economic facts. In fact, people are often not merely ignorant but systematically misinformed: an alarming proportion of the population do worse than chance when it comes to answering multiple-choice questionnaires on basic political facts. And that’s not to mention the nearly universal ignorance of more complex bodies of expert and scientific knowledge.

Further, Brennan points to a large body of research in political psychology that highlights the way in which individuals most engaged and interested in politics seek out and process information more in the manner of hooligans for their respective political tribes than impartial truth-seekers:

‘Hooligans consume political information, but in an extremely biased way. They tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions, but ignore, evade, and reject out of hand evidence that contradicts or disconfirms their pre-existing opinions. They are overconfident in themselves and what they know. Their political opinions form part of their identity, and they are proud to be a member of their political team.’

So what should we do in light of this highly depressing—but I think largely accurate—view of political participation? One obvious answer is that we should try to be less biased, to learn more, and in general to take the job of forming political opinions more seriously. I’m not sure that this will help, though. After all, most of us already feel that this is what we do. Further, Caplan and Brennan are right that the incentives are all wrong here: politics is a domain in which there are few personal costs associated with being wrong and often strong emotional and social rewards associated with irrationality, bias, and tribalism.

Ultimately I’m not sure what to say here. One thing that seems undeniably right, however, is the sentiment expressed in the following quote from Philip Tetlock:

“When the audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of [today], their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials.”


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