Skip to comments.Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?
Posted on 06/09/2012 8:04:42 PM PDT by neverdem
The best hope for democracy still lies in the unregulated marketplace of ideas, in which the maxim Let the buyer beware remains the surest safeguard against cheats and charlatans, including those waving their PhDs in your face.
Are Americans too dumb for democracy?
Of late, there has been a spate of articles and op-ed pieces that suggest the answer to this question is an emphatic yes: The majority of Americans are simply too hopelessly ignorant to make the kind of intelligent decisions that are necessary to preserve a healthy democratic system.
Judging from the tone of these articles, America is currently suffering not only from an epidemic of obesity, but an epidemic of stupidity.
True, many of these complaints are apt to strike the neutral observer as suspiciously partisan, as when liberals lay the blame for the dumbing down of America on the doorstep of the Republican Party, and especially its Tea Party wing. But some advocates of the “too dumb for democracy” thesis have taken the higher and presumably non-partisan path of objective science—a fact brought to my attention some months ago by an article intriguingly entitled: “People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say.” Who were these scientists, and why were they saying such a thing?
What the learned elite feared was the emergence of cunning and charismatic demagogues who would play on the ignorance of the people in order to obtain sole power for themselves.
The scientists were a team of psychologists working under Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University, who concluded after their research that “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.” Because it takes an expert in taxation to intelligently assess the worth of a proposed tax reform, for example, the average person will obviously lack the competence to make a judgment on the reform in question. Worse, he will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason. And what is true of a proposed tax reform will be true of any of the complicated challenges that face a modern nation like our own, from healthcare, to national self-defense, to fiscal policy, to global warming.
Underlying this argument are two assumptions. First, Dunning and his team assume that dumb ideas are the exclusive privilege of dumb people—or, more generally, that dumb people have bad ideas, while smart people have good ones. Second, they assume that dumb people are dangerous to the American democratic system. Both assumptions, however, are open to challenge.
To begin with, let us agree that there are a lot of dumb ideas floating around. Is this any proof that Americans have gotten stupider? Not at all. Extraordinarily intelligent men have held extraordinarily dumb ideas. George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Thorstein Veblen, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all brilliant individuals. All of them thought that the USSR under Stalin was a genuine worker’s paradise. A very dumb idea. On the other hand, during the same period, many unschooled dolts regarded the Soviet Union with an irrational and even paranoid horror—and they were quite right.
From time to time, extremely intelligent people become infatuated with ideas that later generations of equally intelligent people look back upon with shudders of revulsion. Consider the enormous number of progressive intellectuals who supported eugenics programs at the beginning of the last century, in contrast to the attitude towards eugenics of progressive intellectuals in the post-Holocaust generation. It would be silly to try to explain this difference by arguing that the pro-eugenic intellectuals were less intelligent than the anti-eugenic intellectuals.
Judging from the tone of these articles, America is currently suffering not only from an epidemic of obesity, but an epidemic of stupidity.
Only someone abysmally ignorant of the history of ideas could believe for a moment that high intelligence is any guarantee against the lure of dumb ideas. The dumbest idea you can think of almost certainly owes its origin to an intellectual. Most people are born natural slaves? The wise Aristotle. Aryan supremacy? The erudite Arthur Gobineau.
Even if we concede that intelligent people often have dumb ideas, doesn’t it seem rather self-evident that stupid people will invariably have stupid ideas—assuming that they have any ideas at all? And doesn’t this preponderance of stupid ideas doom popular democracy to failure, just as the Cornell psychologists claim?
Proponents of American exceptionalism have an obvious rebuttal to this argument. It is called history. Even if we grant that Dunning et al have made a strong a priori case why democracy shouldn’t flourish, the historical evidence is that American democracy has flourished quite well. Could it have flourished even more? No doubt—but the relevant question is one of historical comparison. What nation has a better track record of success, measure it any way you wish? If Dunning is defining a successful form of government as one in which the leaders invariably adopt “very smart ideas,” then the United States clearly fails to meet their standard of success. But that is like arguing that multi-billionaire Warren Buffet is not a successful businessman because, by his own admission, he has made some bad investment decisions.
More decisively, a little reflection on our nation’s past suggests that if the dumb were going to do democracy in, they would have done it long ago.
The dumbest idea you can think of almost certainly owes its origin to an intellectual.
Here’s a thought experiment: How much could the men who voted for Andrew Jackson in 1828 tell you about Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, Lord Kelvin’s thermodynamics, Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, Keynesian economics, Turing machines, cybernetics, or the Internet? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
Of course, they had a good excuse for not knowing about these things. No one in 1828 could possibly know about them because none of them had as yet come to pass. Yet, back in 1828, there was still plenty of ignorance to go around. Indeed, the election of Andrew Jackson was seen by many as the test case of a democracy so indiscriminately inclusive that everyone, even the most illiterate buffoon, was allowed to cast his ballot, no matter how drunk he was, provided, of course, that he was a drunk white male.
Even in the Age of Jackson, America had its learned men. But in those days, to be learned meant knowing how to read the classical languages, and being reasonably familiar with the canonical texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This had an advantage. It was easier for the learned to judge the learning of other learned men, because the domain of learning was so much smaller than it is today.
During the first half-century of America’s democratic experiment, the concern of the learned class was not the ignorance of the masses as such. They expected the masses to be ignorant—except, of course, about what was of immediate concern to their happiness and livelihoods. What the learned elite feared was the emergence of cunning and charismatic demagogues who would play on the ignorance of the people in order to obtain sole power for themselves, and who would thereafter behave exactly like the series of dictators who had left their fatal mark on Greece and Rome.
The average person will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason.
In 1828, many of America’s learned class, though not all, were convinced that Andrew Jackson would turn out to be a demagogue right out of the pages of Plutarch—a military hero, like Sulla or Caesar, head-strong and impetuous, who would set himself up as a dictator and abolish the rule of law. The learned were right up to a point: Jackson was head-strong and impetuous. Yet, at the end of his two terms as president, Jackson stepped aside and the bland, but politically artful, Martin Van Buren took his place. For the remainder of the 19th century, the main complaint about America’s democratic electorate was not that they handed power to demagogues, but to non-entities. Lincoln, who was elected as a non-entity, was transformed by events beyond his control into a great man; but he wasn’t elected because anyone thought he already was one.
It is true that various American presidents have been called demagogues by their opponents, including Lincoln. But, judged by the standard of Plutarch’s classical demagogues, not to mention the far more odious demagogues of the 20th century, such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao, the United States has an outstanding record of refusing to entrust too much power into the hands of any single individual. Some might want to explain this by referring to the checks and balances of the United States Constitution, but the real credit for this achievement should go to the homespun pragmatism of ordinary Americans, familiarly known as common sense.
This, however, brings us to the strongest argument that can be made in support of the “too dumb for democracy” thesis. Mere common sense might have been enough during the Age of Jackson and, indeed, for several generations following. But common sense is simply not enough to deal with the complexity and challenges of the 21st century. This is why we need to rely upon experts to make decisions for us.
Let us recall that the Cornell psychologists offered up their research as if they were engaging in a purely scientific study. Perhaps they even thought they were. Yet their findings provide obvious ammunition to those who advocate that the United States should adopt the so-called European model of government, in which virtually all the major issues facing our nation would be decided by experts in the relevant field, and not by the ill-informed popular electorate. This argument, decked out in the latest psychological apparel, actually goes back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all of whom believed that the common people, the demos, were not intelligent or dispassionate enough to govern themselves. Indeed, the Cornell psychologists under Dunning are only updating the classical political argument for elite rule.
The historical evidence is that American democracy has flourished quite well.
There is, however, a serious problem with this update. From the time of the ancient Greeks up until the Age of Jackson, proponents of political elitism have championed the rule of the wise man, and not the rule of the highly specialized expert with advanced degrees. This makes a critical difference. Wise men, by nature, can recognize other wise men. As we noted earlier, the same was true of the learned men who lived in the Age of Jackson, who could recognize each other thanks to the shared knowledge of classical literature. But the same isn’t true of the highly specialized experts of today.
The “too much to know” argument doesn’t just apply to the average guy; it also applies to today’s experts. An outstanding scholar in one particular field, after all, is bound to be a complete ignoramus in many others. Take the case of someone we’ll call Frank. Frank is one of the world’s most brilliant neurologists. Obviously, Frank is in a position to pass an expert judgment on the views of his fellow neurologists, but what about the ideas of an economist? In dealing with areas outside his own field of specialization, Frank would appear to have no cognitive advantage over his automobile mechanic, George.
The Cornell psychologists would probably respond to this objection along the following lines. Unlike his mechanic George, Frank will be able to recognize who the real experts in other fields are. Following the maxim, “It takes one to know one,” Frank will be able to detect a genuine expert in economics by asking the right questions. Do they teach economics at a prestigious university? Have they won the Nobel Prize? Were their articles and books favorably reviewed by their peers?
Admittedly, there is something persuasive about this response. After all, this is how many of us actually go about deciding how much respect to give to someone’s opinion. But respecting a man’s opinion is not the same thing as verifying its truth for yourself. Indeed, to replace the question, “Is Dr. So-and-so right about the economy” with the question, “What is Dr. So-and-so’s standing in the field of economics?” is a clear example of the seductive cognitive blunder that Daniel Kahneman addresses in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
A little reflection on our nation’s past suggests that if the dumb were going to do democracy in, they would have done it long ago.
In a chapter entitled “Answering an Easier Question,” Kahneman explains that when human beings face a question that is too difficult for them to answer, they often substitute an easier question for it. The easy question naturally provides them with an easy answer, but this easy answer does not really address the actual question facing them, luring people into making irrational decisions.
Many years before I became acquainted with Kahneman’s work, I was given an excellent lesson in easy question substitution by my mother. Whenever I took her to see a new doctor, she would invariably ask me the moment we left his office, “Did you like him?” She didn’t ask me this question out of curiosity or politeness. She was trying to decide whether she should see this particular doctor again. What she really wanted to know was, “Is this doctor a good doctor?” But because she lacked the expert knowledge to answer this question, she substituted another question that was far simpler: Did I like him?
I used to tease my mother for posing this question. I patiently explained to her that it was irrelevant whether I liked her doctor or not. My personal feelings about him said nothing whatsoever about his medical qualification, especially since I knew nothing about medicine myself. Yet my mother was only doing what we all do when we substitute an easy but irrelevant question for the dauntingly complicated question that actually faces us. But the danger of this approach is obvious. What if I had been charmed by a dangerous crackpot, whose treatment might have shortened my mother’s life?
Frank, our hypothetical neurologist, will probably not behave like my mother when it comes to appraising the policy recommendations of an economist. Instead of asking his son whether he likes the economist personally, Frank will ask questions such as: Do other economists respect him? How often have his articles been cited? Where does he teach? Yet what all these questions have in common is that they are easy-to-answer substitutes for the real question—is the economist actually giving good advice? True, Frank’s substitute questions may appear more sophisticated than my mother’s much simpler one, but in truth they are no more rational. Investigating the credentials of a policymaker fails to address the real question: Will the economic policy actually work? So while experts in one field may be able to identify experts in other fields, they will be in no better position than the average Joe to judge whether these experts are giving good advice.
Let us agree that there are a lot of dumb ideas floating around. Is this any proof that Americans have gotten stupider? Not at all.
Ironically, it is modernity’s very demand for expert opinion that most threatens experts’ status as cognitive authorities whose judgment can be implicitly relied upon by the general public. The more we call in the experts to help us out, the more we discover that experts are by no means unanimous on any of the topics that are of serious importance to us. Worse, there seems to be a law that as the number of experts in a field increases, so too does the number of conflicting expert opinions.
To take only the latest example, consider the question of whether men should take the PSA screening test for prostate cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has said that they should not, while most urologists say they should. Faced with this disagreement among experts, how is the ordinary man to decide this question? And if experts can’t agree about an issue as completely devoid of political significance as the PSA test, how much faith can we put in their objectivity when it comes to politically charged questions? In these cases, an expert in one field will tend to agree with an expert in a different field, not because they agree on the scientific facts, but merely because they share the same political alignment, which is a quite different thing.
In the final analysis, it is as foolish to blame the experts for not agreeing as it is to blame the average guy for not being an expert. The difficulty we human beings face in making the right decision is not owing to our lack of smarts. The challenge we face is one we all face together—it stems from the maddening complexity and relentless perversity of the world we live in. It is cognitive hubris to think that any degree of intelligence or expertise can do away with this most stubborn of all stubborn facts. The best hope for democracy still lies in the unregulated marketplace of ideas— though, as in any market, the cautionary maxim “Let the buyer beware” remains the surest safeguard against frauds, cheats, and charlatans, including those waving their PhDs in your face.
Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.
Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group
And that’s how Florida ended up with the High Speed rail that the voters approved in a referendum 15 years ago but still haven’t implemented due to the exorbitant cost —and also approved a constitutional amendment to treat mama pigs better — thank you to PETA for that one.
Not if we had the system our founding fathers gave us which was only land owners (those that pay taxes would be fine to) can vote.
Still, I pose this question: if 67% of those polled opposed ObamaCare (an actual number from several polls at the time) should their representatives in Congress vote yes on it, since we are as we say a “representative republic”, implying, if I’m not mistaken, that our representatives are wiser and better informed than us, the 67%?
Because opinion polls, if they are accurate, are if nothing else is, akin to direct democracy, no?
Some noteworthy articles about politics, foreign or military affairs, IMHO, FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.
No mention of integrity, just knowledge.
Democracy is when the lions lie down with the lambs. And you know the lambs ain’t getting any sleep that night.
When forming a government for the protection of Creator-endowed individual rights, America's Founders rejected the idea of pure democracy as being dangerous to liberty.
John Adams' son, John Quincy, was 9 when the Declaration of Independence was written, 20 when the Constitution was framed, and from his teen years, served in various capacities in both the Legislative and Executive branches of the government, including as President. His words on this subject should be instructive on the subject at hand.
In 1839, he was invited by the New York Historical Society to deliver the "Jubilee" Address honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington. He delivered that lengthy discourse which should be read by all who love liberty, for it traced the history of the development of the ideas underlying and the actions leading to the establishment of the Constitution which structured the United States government.
His 50th-year summation of America's history seems to be a better source for understanding the kind of government the Founders formed than those of recent historians and politicians. He addresses the ideas of "democracy" and "republic" throughout, but here are some of his concluding remarks:
"Every change of a President of the United States, has exhibited some variety of policy from that of his predecessor. In more than one case, the change has extended to political and even to moral principle; but the policy of the country has been fashioned far more by the influences of public opinion, and the prevailing humors in the two Houses of Congress, than by the judgment, the will, or the principles of the President of the United States. The President himself is no more than a representative of public opinion at the time of his election; and as public opinion is subject to great and frequent fluctuations, he must accommodate his policy to them; or the people will speedily give him a successor; or either House of Congress will effectually control his power. It is thus, and in no other sense that the Constitution of the United States is democratic - for the government of our country, instead of a Democracy the most simple, is the most complicated government on the face of the globe. From the immense extent of our territory, the difference of manners, habits, opinions, and above all, the clashing interests of the North, South, East, and West, public opinion formed by the combination of numerous aggregates, becomes itself a problem of compound arithmetic, which nothing but the result of the popular elections can solve.
"It has been my purpose, Fellow-Citizens, in this discourse to show:-
"1. That this Union was formed by a spontaneous movement of the people of thirteen English Colonies; all subjects of the King of Great Britain - bound to him in allegiance, and to the British empire as their country. That the first object of this Union,was united resistance against oppression, and to obtain from the government of their country redress of their wrongs.
"2. That failing in this object, their petitions having been spurned, and the oppressions of which they complained, aggravated beyond endurance, their Delegates in Congress, in their name and by their authority, issued the Declaration of Independence - proclaiming them to the world as one people, absolving them from their ties and oaths of allegiance to their king and country - renouncing that country; declared the UNITED Colonies, Independent States, and announcing that this ONE PEOPLE of thirteen united independent states, by that act, assumed among the powers of the earth, that separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitled them.
"3. That in justification of themselves for this act of transcendent power, they proclaimed the principles upon which they held all lawful government upon earth to be founded - which principles were, the natural, unalienable, imprescriptible rights of man, specifying among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - that the institution of government is to secure to men in society the possession of those rights: that the institution, dissolution, and reinstitution of government, belong exclusively to THE PEOPLE under a moral responsibility to the Supreme Ruler of the universe; and that all the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed.
"4. That under this proclamation of principles, the dissolution of allegiance to the British king, and the compatriot connection with the people of the British empire, were accomplished; and the one people of the United States of America, became one separate sovereign independent power, assuming an equal station among the nations of the earth.
"5. That this one people did not immediately institute a government for themselves. But instead of it, their delegates in Congress, by authority from their separate state legislatures, without voice or consultation of the people, instituted a mere confederacy.
"6. That this confederacy totally departed from the principles of the Declaration of independence, and substituted instead of the constituent power of the people, an assumed sovereignty of each separate state, as the source of all its authority.
"7. That as a primitive source of power, this separate state sovereignty,was not only a departure from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but directly contrary to, and utterly incompatible with them.
"8. That the tree was made known by its fruits. That after five years wasted in its preparation, the confederation dragged out a miserable existence of eight years more, and expired like a candle in the socket, having brought the union itself to the verge of dissolution.
"9. That the Constitution of the United States was a return to the principles of the Declaration of independence, and the exclusive constituent power of the people. That it was the work of the ONE PEOPLE of the United States; and that those United States, though doubled in numbers, still constitute as a nation, but ONE PEOPLE.
"10. That this Constitution, making due allowance for the imperfections and errors incident to all human affairs, has under all the vicissitudes and changes of war and peace, been administered upon those same principles, during a career of fifty years.
"11. That its fruits have been, still making allowance for human imperfection, a more perfect union, established justice, domestic tranquility, provision for the common defence, promotion of the general welfare, and the enjoyment of the blessings of liberty by the constituent people, and their posterity to the present day.
"And now the future is all before us, and Providence our guide."
In an earlier paragraph, he had stated:
"But this institution was republican, and even democratic. And here not to be misunderstood, I mean by democratic, a government, the administration of which must always be rendered comfortable to that predominating public opinion . . . and by republican I mean a government reposing, not upon the virtues or the powers of any one man - not upon that honor, which Montesquieu lays down as the fundamental principle of monarchy - far less upon that fear which he pronounces the basis of despotism; but upon that virtue which he, a noble of aristocratic peerage, and the subject of an absolute monarch, boldly proclaims as a fundamental principle of republican government. The Constitution of the United States was republican and democratic - but the experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived; and it was obvious that if virtue - the virtue of the people, was the foundation of republican government, the stability and duration of the government must depend upon the stability and duration of the virtue by which it is sustained."
This country was founded as a constitutional representative republic. We have degenerated into a democracy, or better put a mobocracy. When the politicians figured out that all they had to do to get elected and re-elected time after time was offer the mob bread and circuses they knew they hit the jackpot. Those people who have no skin in the game are allowed to vote no matter how stupid they are; they just have to be breathing, and that’s not necessarily the case in all precincts. It is my opinion and I have stated it often; if you are not legally and gainfully employed and paying taxes you don’t vote, if you have not served your country under arms in the uniformed military forces of the United States you don’t vote, (that eliminates people who just went to college to become law enforcement or firefighters), if you are not and are not trying to became a real property owner you do not vote, if you can not pass with an 80% or better score on the American Civil Literacy test you do not vote. Alright; all you lazy, irresponsible, nanny stater’s out there flame away. I will be back to the site in about 2 hours, after I clean up and feed myself.
The only “dumb” Americans are the ones who still call this government a democracy instead of its constitutionally mandated republic!
Indeed. Benjamin Franklin was one of my favorites.
25 years ago, we had Ronald Reagan, Johnny Cash, and Bob Hope.
If you can't appreciate the pure beauty of the violin after hearing this, something's wrong with your ears.
Or you can get raw with these strings.
How about this gamechanger from America's Got Talent (which they SHOULD have won).
Either way, the violin is sweet yet lethal.
Excellent point, Rcat.
Until this moment I had never thought about that.
Re: “Swiss Democracy”
As I recall, women could not vote in Switzerland as recently as 1990.
I am guilty of that and frankly, I don’t believe our founders ever understood that voting for Senator’s would be changed or districts would be gerrymandered to insure both parties an equal slice of the pie.
What we have now is a republic that our founders would have difficulty recognizing beyond the three branches.
Our lack of understanding for the 10th Amendment and the liberal interpretation of the general welfare clause have led to no limits for the Federal government in direct opposition to our constitution. Our father’s father’s allowed it and not a single generation has done anything to reverse course since the Great Depression when the progressive movement jumped into the driver’s seat.
As a republic this nation was wildly successful and as we adopted democratic ways we became less successful. We are currently ignorant and stupid enough to think democracy is workable. That stupidity is accorded as a success by the progressive public school system. For those of you in Rio Linda, that means it was very deliberate.
That struck me too. This country is not a “democracy”, it is a “constitutional republic”.
I agree but then I am sitting here a twenty year veteran having all ready earned my franchise. I also own land and even though my taxable income was only 13K, uncle Sam still got 36 dollars last year. And I know I could pass that test!
You have to be pretty dumb to fall for a democracy. Like, not able to tie your own shoes dumb. Dumb as a freshman in Womyn’s Studies.
It takes a culture of thinkers to keep a representative republic going and healthy.
I know I sound a little extreme about it but I enlisted in 67 and didn’t go back to civies until 73. I saw an awful lot of lowlifes that were waiting for a free ride back then and a lot of politicians that were willing to sell it to them. To bad they were willing to barter away their freedom to get a few perceived perks; considering the number of American patriot men and women who were willing to give the last full measure to preserve that freedom. I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States of America in 1967, not to a political party or any individual and that oath did not suddenly dissolve 6 years later. It is as true today as it was then. To you sir I say well done and SEMPER FIDELIS; regardless of you branch of service, we all were and still are brothers in arms. Hope you are doing well on your land; it looks like a short harvest for me this year, a few warm days and everything bloomed but still to cold for the bees, so low counts on the orchard and minimal vegetable production. I’ll get by, always do.
My wife and I just returned from three weeks in Britain. We hired a taxi driver to take us back to our house after the return flight. He was white and looked to be in his mid thirties. I live in Wisconsin. The taxi driver, who was very friendly, got around to asking me about the gubernatorial election after my wife mentioned Walker’s name. The driver, who was from my area of Wisconsin, did not know Walker was the governor and had not voted in the biggest gubernatorial election in the state’s history. In fact, he mentioned a friend who had told him Walker (”he’s the governor I think my friend said”) that Walker had lost. So is the driver ignorant or just stupid? I guarantee you there are many more like him.
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