Back in 2008 only weeks away from the election of Barack Obama as president, British journalist George Monbiot wondered how U.S. politics had come to be “dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance.” Riffing on the rise of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and reflecting on the acceptance of morons like former vice president Dan Quayle, Monbiot wondered how it was that we had allowed our political scene to be dominated by “screaming ignoramuses.”
Eight years later it seems clear that we were only just getting started.
If there has been one constant this election it is that our collective political decision-making process suffers from profound ignorance. And while the award for stupidity goes directly to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s important to note that there is plenty of stupid to go around.
Back in November 2015 as the primaries were hitting into gear, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, wrote a piece titled “America Is Too Dumb for TV News.” Taibbi focused on how this election had ushered in the era of lies without consequences. He talked about Trump’s lie that he had seen thousands of people cheering after 9/11, Carly Fiorina's claiming that she had watched the harvesting of fetal brains and Ben Carson's making up classes that didn’t exist at Yale.
“In all of these cases, the candidates doubled or tripled down when pestered by reporters and fact-checkers and insisted they'd been victimized by biased media,” Taibbi wrote.
Political satirist Lee Camp honed in on the stupidity of this election early on. His show, "Redacted Tonight," has used the sharp irony of satire to try to challenge the flawed thinking that has dominated the political conversation. In one segment aptly titled “This Election Is an Insult to Our Intelligence,” he called on viewers to reject the narratives they are being fed and think for themselves.
Camp has been joined by a chorus of political satirists — Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Stephen Colbert, and others — that has aimed at using smart comedy to counter stupid politics. The sad thing is that when politics is already a joke, it is really hard to joke about it.
While the GOP clown car made hay of the lie-driven campaign this cycle, it is important to note that we saw our own share of lies from the Democrats, too. The Democratic National Committee didn’t play it straight with the U.S. public — and it took a leak of internal documents to get its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign.
The #BernieOrBust and #DemExit movements were a sign that supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential run were tired of what felt like constant lies and deceptions. Their intensity then led to backlash against Bernie himself over his eventual endorsement of Hillary Clinton and then over his decision to launch his own 501(c) group. Had Sanders lied to his supporters or was he making important compromises?
We hear a lot about how smart Hillary Clinton is, but it’s important to point out that she has been caught in plenty of lies, too. Blaming the fact that we know about these lies on Russia is yet another sign of flawed thinking. It’s a classic example of a “red herring,” where you avoid dealing with an issue by creating a distraction. Since Clinton had to deal with a lot of false accusations, she used those unwarranted attacks to avoid talking about any of the valid concerns the public had.
Never in our history have we had such a low bar for falsehoods as part of the everyday business of politics. But here’s the real problem. Its not just that we don’t have our facts straight. It’s that we have collectively lost our ability to process information and make good judgments. To be truly stupid, you need to have poor reasoning skills. So our problem isn’t just that we have lies substituted for facts; it is that we don’t even know how to process information anymore.
Thus far we have tended to focus on the lying and on the fact that these lies are making us all dumb. We know, for instance, that once Fox News was launched under the banner of “fair and balanced” and with the intent of reporting news in a biased and inflammatory way, the intelligence of the U.S. public dropped.
Politifact has claimed that only 10 percent of what Fox News reports is true. Its viewers have suffered as a consequence and we have multiple reports that prove that Fox News viewers are less informed than those who consume other news outlets. One study showed that Fox News viewers know less than those who watch no news at all. Another study by Bruce Bartlett demonstrated that Fox News offers viewers misinformation and propaganda disguised as “news.”
We also know that the George W. Bush administration consistently substituted lies for facts. It put forth no less than 935 lies in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
After consuming these lies, a Gallup poll showed, the U.S. public remained completely clueless about the war.
So lying has become a common part of our political life. Now some 15 years into the era of constant political lying, it is time to realize that we don’t only have a war on truth; we have a war on logic. If we focus only on the lies and miss the faulty logic, we get only part of the picture of why we have gotten so stupid. To be truly stupid, you have to have no grasp of what legitimate evidence looks like and no ability to process the information you do have.
If you want to have some fun, check out this list of the most common types of logical fallacies. You’ll see that we have had plenty of examples of exactly these sorts of errors in reasoning throughout the 2016 campaign.
It’s not just that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level; it’s that he lacks basic reasoning skills. This is a man who has repeatedly claimed that the best way to deal with undocumented immigration is to build a wall. It’s an almost laughably simplistic response to a real problem. The fact that a substantial number of U.S. citizens bought into the wall as a logical plan should frighten us all.
The Trump campaign is literally a lesson in stupidity and poor logic. Besides not being able to remember his own stance on the war in Iraq, Trump has blamed Clinton for starting wars in the Middle East, despite the fact that she wasn’t the one to make those decisions. Even better, when asked about his own poor decisions and lewd behavior, he responded by offering a red herring and talking about ISIS. Then there is the claim that China has created the climate change “hoax” so that it can beat us in manufacturing. Again and again we see that Trump doesn’t just have his facts wrong; he can’t make sense of them either.
So if you listen to Trump long enough — and you think what he is saying makes sense — you will soon suffer from a crippled brain that has come to accept faulty logic as commonsense.
Flaws in logic are taking place outside of the Trump camp too. The corporate media kept treating him like a legitimate candidate — a move that displays the poor logic of a false equivalency.
We also had Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson admit stupidity when he couldn’t identify Aleppo. But that error morphed into catastrophically poor logic when he claimed that it was a good thing that he couldn’t identify any world leaders because that would mean he wouldn’t go to war with them. His claim was that if he couldn’t find a place on a map, then he couldn’t start a war there.
It was not just that he had no facts; it was that he had appallingly stupid logic skills. Of course, he also has no sense of history either since our former president George W. Bush failed a foreign affairs quiz on international hotspots and had no trouble starting wars.
We have an outbreak of stupid logic and it is affecting all political quarters. For instance, many Clinton supporters have swallowed the slippery logic that since some of Clinton’s critics are misogynists, therefore all her critics are misogynists. Or there’s the idea that if someone is critical of Clinton, then he or she ipso facto supports Trump. Even better is the poor logic that argues that if you are critical of the two-party system, then you lack political pragmatism.
Our political conversations have become dominated by either/or thinking, false binaries, hasty generalizations, slippery slopes, circular arguments, straw men and red herrings.
But it’s worse. As Monbiot pointed out, for some time the U.S. public has become suspicious of intelligence. As we have moved towards greater fundamentalism — market fundamentalism, political fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism — we have lost the ability to practice critical reasoning. Everything we think now is a belief rather than a reasoned judgment. Ideas can’t be questioned, critiqued or debated because to do so would be to shake the foundations of our mind palace.
If you want to test my point, try to discuss sensible gun legislation with a Second Amendment fundamentalist. This is an area of political debate that has lost all access to critical reason. But you can also flip this and see no room for reasoned debate on the left side of the spectrum, too. Try raising any concerns over Clinton’s record with a Clinton supporter and you aren’t likely to get much rational thinking there either. As I’ve said, this is no longer a partisan problem; it’s a national epidemic.
In our current political climate, any correcting information is considered suspicious and threatening. Facts are no longer to be trusted. We live in echo chambers where our biases become truth claims. Any effort to point them out feels like an affront and leads to conflict rather than conversation. Rather than hone our skills of debate, we sharpen our spears to fend off our challengers.
How many “friends” have you blocked on Facebook because you can’t tolerate another second of their stupidity? How many times do you think one of your “friends” has done it to you? Rather than cultivate a rational conversation, we block and delete and ignore. And it’s all making us stupider.
Here’s the thing: The election is quickly approaching and the outcome is looking increasingly clear. While we may well avoid Armageddon, we aren’t going to avoid the havoc created by an election cycle that has been an insult to our intelligence.
We are going to have to start asking ourselves if we want a nation of extremist thinkers incapable of critical reflection or we want to start recovering our collective brainpower. As Monbiot put it, “Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people.” Democracies are only as smart as the people in them. So the real question we have to face is: Are we with stupid or not?