The shocking events of last week in Washington underline what we have known for a long time: the label "United States" is a kind of misnomer. America remains a deeply divided society, and nowhere is this more evident than in the popular response to the sight of a deluded mob instigated by the lame duck president Donald Trump who invaded the House and Senate to stop Trump's crucial certification Election defeat.
The signs of division are evident. President-elect Joe Biden and others may hold to the notion that "this is not who we are," but even after the mob was driven out, more than 120 Republican officials have declined to confirm the election results. Six Republican senators voted with them. They did so despite Trump's attempts to challenge the election in court more than 60 times out of hand and refuted by representatives of the Republican Party in several key states. Immediately after the attack on the Capitol, a YouGov poll found 45 percent of Republican voters supported the attack and 29 percent said they supported it "strongly". Other polls aren't quite as blatant, but even they show that a significant segment of the population believes that what happened was a defense of democracy, not an attack on it.
The usual representation of the current polarization of America shows this as a gap between left and right with a decreasing number of moderates. Another way to characterize the current divisions, however, might be to distinguish between “reasonable people” and “unreasonable people”. What threatens the nation is not ideological differences, debates on specific political issues, or even deep constitutional issues. The real danger is the growing number of unreasonable people in American public life. By "unreasonable" I mean those who are either unwilling or unable to be influenced by facts or honest discussions and who prefer to build and live in dream palaces of their own imagination.
The presence of unreasonable people is important as the basic principles of democratic politics – and in particular the commitment to free speech, unrestricted media, freedom of association and the like – assume that citizens (and especially their leaders) are receptive to rational discourse in the EU " Marketplace of ideas. " This assumption is perhaps best expressed in the chapter "On Freedom of Thought and Discussion" found in John Stuart Mills On Liberty. No matter how much our initial preferences may differ, a liberal society rests on the belief that open expression and discussion will bring new facts to light, identify what is working well and what has gone wrong, and injustices or other deviations from core principles reveal. Over time, open debate and discussion will eventually root out inaccurate information and change enough opinions to change course.
But when unreasonable people become too numerous within body politics, this model of democratic politics breaks down quickly. When influential personalities, regardless of the consequences, are solely concerned with self-interest and willing to make false claims to advance their fortunes and careers, no argument or evidence to the contrary will convince them to change course. When self-serving partisans flood the information ecosystem with myths, falsehoods and crazy conspiracy theories, rational discourse becomes difficult if not impossible. Taken far enough, even previously robust democracies, as America seems to be today, may be at risk.
So how do you recognize an “unreasonable person” in public life? Here are five warning signs.
Warning sign # 1: Facts don't matter (to you)
John Maynard Keynes reportedly responded to a complaint that he had changed his mind by saying, “When the facts change, I will change my mind. What are you doing sir "A telling sign that you are dealing with an unreasonable person is that they don't care what the facts are, that they refuse to change their minds, even when evidence strongly suggests they are wrong or that they prefer to invent the “facts” that support this position they currently hold.As economist Paul Krugman and others have shown, there are many such people in public life today, including some with formidable academic backgrounds Qualifications such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
This characteristic can show up in a number of ways. The most obvious manifestation, as Trump has repeatedly shown, is a willingness to lie and do so openly and repeatedly. Constructing an alternate reality in this way is the hallmark of an unreasonable person, and American public life has seen too many of them in recent years. It is also a defining characteristic of most tyrants.
However, indifference to facts can be more subtle. It also shows when someone continues to advocate the same guidelines, even after having failed repeatedly or when circumstances have changed dramatically. If conservatives are calling for tax cuts, whether the economy is booming or in recession, whether the budget is in deficit or surplus, or whether unemployment is low or may skyrocket, they are unreasonable. Similarly, for hawks like Pompeo or the de facto challenged lobbyists of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the right response to anything Iran does is "more sanctions". If Iran pushes back it shows how dangerous it is and therefore further sanctions are needed. However, if Iran offers a concession or shows reluctance, it proves the sanctions are working and the United States should clap for a few more. Evidence that this policy is not working is irrelevant to unreasonable people.
Warning sign # 2: inability to admit their mistakes
Everyone is fallible, and even if they strive to find the right answer or do the right thing, reasonable people will realize that they have misjudged the situation and need to revise their views or actions. (This was Keynes' point) Sensible people can be lazy, or careless, or just screw it up, but they have the integrity and strength to admit it and try to fix the problem. In contrast, unreasonable people cannot and will not admit that they were wrong, let alone learn from their mistakes and adjust their behavior.
You can see the difference in the behavior of different media organizations. Like all legitimate news organizations, the New York Times makes mistakes – even when its authors report accurately, the portrayal of events can be problematic and some of its editorial comments irritating. Fair enough. But the Times (and other responsible parties) are usually quick to make corrections and stand ready to uncover the dirty laundry behind some of their larger journalistic mistakes. It's not perfect, but for the most part it's run by reasonable people.
Compare that to Fox News, whose embarrassed former boss, the late Roger Ailes, once boasted that Fox "never wrote a story because it was wrong". Ailes lied when he said this, of course (see # 1 above), but unless legal action is threatened, Fox and branches like Newsmax or One America News Network are far less willing to accept the false information they provide correcting it, even if it does, may have had dangerous consequences. How many times have you heard people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson admit they made a mistake?
This does not mean that unreasonable people never change their positions, but not because they have really considered the merits of their previous beliefs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not change his position on approving Supreme Court candidates in the final year of a president's tenure because he had changed his mind on his previous refusal to allow the Senate to consider the Supreme Court candidate from Barack Obama to Merrick Garland. He rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett last fall just because he wanted another Conservative on the field. Similarly, the officials responsible for the S.S. Leaving Trump now as he slides under the waves that they have finally seen the light on Donald Trump. These are convenient epiphanies of the eleventh hour, not a true admission of mistakes.
Warning sign no. 3: Refusal to compromise
Sticking to your principles and refusing to compromise is sometimes a sign of integrity. Therefore, it is not necessarily a reliable warning sign that someone is being unreasonable. Indeed, we honor certain political figures – Nelson Mandela immediately comes to mind – whose unwavering and costly commitment to principle was ultimately confirmed. But a repeated refusal to negotiate with political opponents for the common good can be a sign of unreasonableness, especially when the only principle at issue seems to be ego, the desire for attention, or some other form of self-interest.
For example, supporters of Ralph Nader or Jill Stein may view their Quixotic presidential campaigns as brave gestures against a corrupt two-party system, but the consequences – the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump – have done enormous damage. Neither Nader nor Stein ever acknowledged that they could have been wrong. Their behavior could be contrasted with that of budding Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who responded to his primary losses to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by advocating and working particularly actively to vote each one. Sanders is a die-hard iconoclast whose political views are far from the center, but he's not unreasonable.
Warning sign # 4: “My side is always right; Yours is not only wrong, it is evil. "
Unreasonable people tend to see themselves (and their political allies) as invariably right and believe that opponents are not only wrong but also evil. They are not inclined to give the other side the benefit of the doubt or to consider the possibility that rivals might have good intentions despite their other differences of opinion. Reasonable people, on the other hand, acknowledge that their political opponents can have real, legitimate and well-considered beliefs – even if they do not share them – and do not immediately assume that opponents are motivated solely by hatred, bigotry, and myths. or purely selfish motives.
I believe this particular warning sign is more widespread in the Republican Party than it is among Democrats, but the latter is not entirely lacking. Some Democrats were all too ready to believe that Trump was a willing tool of the Kremlin and that Russian President Vladimir Putin was keeping him a secret rather than recognizing that Trump's behavior toward Russia could be the result of a real desire for better relations with Moscow. It was perfectly reasonable to question Trump's actions, less to believe that they could only be based on basic motives.
Similarly, some forces on the left have been quick to condemn those who do not share each of their beliefs about what needs to be done about racism, police injustice, bigotry, and some of the other evils in American society. To believe that these problems need to be addressed more effectively is perfectly reasonable (in fact, long overdue); believing that there is only one way to do it or condemn those who question some of the suggested remedies is not.
Warning sign # 5: "It's a conspiracy!"
The final warning sign – and probably the most telling – is a willingness to indulge in conspiracy theories. As I have previously written, conspiracy theories are intended to explain events by claiming that a clandestine but immensely powerful group of people (or in some cases a single person like George Soros) is secretly manipulating a multitude of institutions for their own nefarious purposes. In addition, the supposed ringleaders are said to be so skillful and omnipotent that they can almost always cover their tracks. If there is no real evidence of the alleged conspiracy (s), it only proves how powerful the conspirators really are and how skillfully they have hidden their dark machinations. In this way, the typical conspiracy theory cannot be falsified: the less evidence there is, the more powerful the conspiracy must be.
There is a huge difference between typical conspiracy theory and legitimate arguments about the power of corporations, wealthy political donors, the military-industrial complex, interest groups of all kinds, or the many other entities that shape politics in the United States and elsewhere. Critics of these various groups do not assume the existence of secret machinations, dark conspiracies, or hidden control mechanisms; They focus on activities that take place in public and through legitimate political channels. Regardless of the particular strengths or weaknesses of such analyzes, they are extremely reasonable lines of investigation.
Unfortunately, the events of the past few decades have allowed a number of conspiracy theories to re-enter American life, fueled by deepening inequality, a highly permissive information environment, a contactless elite and, most recently, an overtime president who has been gathering his own Followers to his banner and legitimize their views. In case you missed it, some of the people who broke into Congress last week, jerseys and insignia associated with various anti-Semitic, racist and overtly insane movements (e.g. QAnon) were groups that at times had at least been marginalized within American political life. Today these groups have open supporters who have been elected to Congress and are active in local politics.
These five warning signs may help you identify who is sensible and who is not. However, identifying inappropriate people will not solve the underlying problem on its own. Trump has shown all five warning signs (and more) since the beginning of his political career and was still elected one more time. It is possible that last week's events may seem sobering, and that Trump's departure from the White House will remove some of the oxygen that is currently fueling America's crippling national division. Perhaps some of the politicians and media outlets whose careers have benefited from fueling these fires will recognize the danger and will stop feeding the fire. Perhaps replacing the most unreasonable president with Joe Biden will restore the basic notions of courtesy and lively but reasoned debate in our civil life. Fingers crossed.
However, there is no guarantee that these developments will be sufficient. If the pandemic continues, the deadlock persists despite the Democrats' little control over the House and Senate, economic inequality continues to worsen, and those who have enriched themselves with unfounded falsehoods continue to put personal profit before principle, then that will Epidemic of Unreason Be with us for a long time. And because a society that does not listen to reason cannot hope to successfully navigate a complex and dangerous world, the continued influence of proudly unreasonable people may still be the greatest danger America faces.