It’s a truism that we’re living in The Age of Morons. Morons are everywhere: Trump in the White House, Boris-the-Clown in 10 Downing Street, Erdogan in the Cumhurbaşkanlığı Külliyesi, Orban in the Sándor Palace, Duterte in the Malacañan Palace, and no doubt Le Pen in the Élysée Palace very soon. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In Brasil we have the cretinous Bolsonaro and in Italy the repellent knuckle-dragging Salvini will shortly become Prime Minister. Meanwhile across Africa there are very few leaders who are capable of tying their own shoe-laces and in India Modi thinks that being the sub-continent’s Trump is “smart and stable.” And don’t even ask about the state of politics in Bangladesh…
The question is: why? Why, nearly everywhere we look, do we see that representative democracy has resulted in the ascent of repellent morons who are busy destroying our fragile civilization and ushering in yet another period of horrors?
Turns out a fellow named Plato answered this question over 2,500 years ago. Plato pointed out that a very significant percentage of the population isn’t particularly clever and thus they are easily gulled by a blustering demagogue. The demagogue will offer simple-minded ideas that the not-clever eagerly embrace because complex reality is too much for them. Unfortunately, these simple-minded ideas will be catastrophically harmful and lead to major problems which in turn will send the not-clever folk rushing to support the nearest “strong man” whom they think can save them by, yes, you guessed it: offering even more simple-minded ideas as new “solutions.” And thus democracy always ends in tyranny, as indeed it did back in Plato’s day: the great Athenian experiment with democracy ended in tyranny after less than 80 years and never recovered.
Here’s how the process works in a modern representative democracy. (We begin by acknowledging the contribution of the Nixon campaign team because they were the first to formalize the winning formula.) Using the then-new techniques of market segmentation hot from Madison Avenue, the Nixon campaign team in 1967 broke the voting population into segments and looked for the segments most easily won over by easy-to-present arguments. What this meant in practice was targeting the gullible with simple sound-bites, repeated over and over, because that was the most cost-effective way to garner large blocs of reliable votes.
Simple people are deeply uncomfortable for much of the time because they vaguely sense that the world is complex and beyond their comprehension. So when someone gives them a simple-to-grasp idea they grab on and hold on forever and adore whoever gave it to them because now they can feel a little more secure and a little less inadequate. Over the years the Republican Party refined their targeting until they’d captured pretty much every voter with an IQ on the wrong side of the Gaussian distribution. They did it by proffering simple sound-bites and simple memes. Meanwhile the poor old Democrats never woke up to what was happening and continued to blunder around in the dark, as they are still doing today.
Let’s see the equation from the perspective of an ambitious and unscrupulous politician. You have a limited budget of money and time (even in the massively corrupt high-spending USA this is still true, although the limits are higher than anywhere else in the world). Therefore you need to prioritize. If you try to woo clever people you’ll need a lot of facts, your arguments will have to be good, and if new information appears then clever people are likely to take it into account rather than merely continue to vote for you out of habit. Wooing clever people is a very laborious business with a very uncertain payback. Plus, there aren’t many clever people. It’s a disturbing truth that because intelligence is distributed on a classic Gaussian scale (the so-called bell curve) only 14% of the population has an IQ above 115. If you’ve ever taken an accredited IQ test you’ll know this is a frighteningly low benchmark. So our aspiring politician knows that the road to success involves ignoring clever people because they are too time-consuming to capture, won’t stay captured out of sheer force of habit alone, and aren’t numerous enough to matter.
Conversely people with more modest IQs are the proverbial Mother Lode. These people are nearly effortless to capture because all it takes is repetition of a few simple sound-bites and a few simple memes. None will question the veracity of the claims our aspiring politician will make and we can be certain that not a single voter in this bloc will ever even think of fact-checking. Simple people rarely change their minds because of the mental effort this would require, just as sedentary people rarely run marathons — they just aren’t capable of it. So simple people, once captured, stay captured forever. Best of all, simple people are the majority of the population. Hence our eager thrusting politician will focus entirely on the less intellectually capable because that’s where the massive payoff resides.
This is why Republican Presidents have since Nixon been of what may charitably be termed “modest intellect.” Ford was well-meaning but notoriously dim-witted; Reagan was senile for most of his time in office; Baby Bush was, well, let’s just admit that he had someone to tie his shoelaces for him; and finally Trump is the logical progression in a declining series: he’s an ignorant infantile moron.
And that’s what makes him perfect: he’s just like the people who vote for him, only in Technicolor. Trump makes the dull-witted feel good about themselves because hey, if Trump can be Prez then maybe it’s not so bad not to understand anything about anything…
Of course, it takes a bit more to succeed than just telling pathetically obvious lies to dull-witted people. It also takes money. Ordinary people don’t have any, but the great thing is there will always be enough wealthy self-interested cynical people out there willing to give an aspiring politician of the right sort a nice envelope stuffed with cash in return for receiving huge tax cuts and other give-aways. And so our aspiring politician tells the gullible that he’s all for the hard-working guy and against socialism, he’s all for hard work and fair rewards and against welfare queens. Meanwhile he’s busy handing out trillions in tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy and doling out massive contracts to large (and generous) corporations with no questions asked. And no, there’s no “trickle down” effect. That was just a story perpetrated to justify the first in the now lengthy series of Republican giveaways to the super-rich. (The Laffer Curve has been thoroughly discredited more times than your average Republican voter has had a bowel movement.)
A recent analysis of voting patterns over the last 20 years shows that Republicans voted 86% of the time for laws that gave massive tax breaks and other advantages to the rich at the expense of ordinary Americans.
This is, of course, outrageous. Imagine you’re a rich Republican donor. You’d want to know what the hell happened the other 14% of the time? Were the Republican politicians off playing golf? Too busy interacting with young men in airport toilets? I mean, how would you feel if you’d bought a Maybach and they only delivered 86% of it? Or if your Gulfstream 550 ER only fired up 86% of the time when the pilot turned on the engines? Donors expect a good return on their investment so we can assume that Republican politicians will work a little harder in the years to come in order to drive that voting percentage nearer to an acceptable 100% in favor of the ultra-rich.
Republicans have succeeded with this game for decades because not a single ordinary Republican voter will ever think to check the actual voting record. Republican voters have been told that the GOP is for fiscal restraint and for the little guy so that’s what they will believe despite the fact every Republican administration since World War II has massively increased the US debt in order to hand cash to the super-rich, while the only time the US has run a budget surplus in recent decades was under the Clinton administration. But hey, those are just facts, and facts don’t count when an authority figure is telling you something in easy-to-understand monosyllables. Republican voters know that healthcare for all just means death panels; they know that climate change is just a myth invented by the Chinese to sell more solar panels or something, and they know Trump is rich and smart and stable because he told them so himself so it must be true.
As we’re not going to become significantly more intelligent as a species any time soon, we need to stop pretending representative democracy can deliver adequate outcomes. And no, please don’t quote the Flynn Effect as that’s been comprehensively discredited. To take merely one example, Flynn cites the Russian peasants who in the 1930s when tested by Alexander Luria were so cognitively limited that they couldn’t follow a logical sequence. Here’s the test the peasants were presented with by Luria: “There is snow at the North Pole; where there is snow, bears are white; what color are bears at the North Pole?” The peasants would reply along the lines of, “Well, I’ve only seen brown bears. And only if a person from came from the North Pole with testimony would I believe that the bears there are white.”
Rather than this “proving” that peasants couldn’t reason syllogistically, it turns out that those peasants — who were living under Stalin’s tyranny and terrified of saying anything that could potentially result in them being sent to the gulag, or worse — were merely being exceedingly cagey. They didn’t trust Luria; perhaps he was a KGB agent sent to trick them into making a confession that in some way would be interpreted as anti-Soviet. So they hedged. In other words, the peasants were significantly smarter than the psychologist Luria, who failed to grasp the essence of what was happening in front of his very eyes.
There are various other holes in the so-called Flynn Effect whereby our IQs are supposed to have risen over the last 120 years but the point of this essay isn’t to demolish Flynn, it’s to point out the obvious fact than in representative democracies the intelligent are ignored and the foolish are gulled so that the ultra-rich and powerful can get ever more of the pie.
So what are we going to do about it? Just carry on, focusing on the immediate present and hoping that if we get rid of Trump and Johnson and Erdogan and Orban and Kaczynski and Babic and Bolsonaro and Salvini and Modi and Duterte and all the hundreds of others then life will be just fine and dandy? Are we going to throw our weight into efforts to get “the good ones” elected in a system that is fundamentally structured to ensure that clever and reasonable and well-intentioned people rarely stand a chance?
Or are we going to wake up and recognize that representative democracy was never a particularly good idea to begin with, and see that we need to think about better approaches to governance in this fast-moving complex interconnected world we’ve built over the last 200 years?
Personally I suspect we’ll do the former, but if you’re interested in the latter I can point you to my book on the topic: Why Democracy Failed, available on Amazon. Because if we don’t start coming up with better ideas today, those who survive the horrors to come will have little to draw on when it comes time for them to rebuild and wish to avoid making the same mistakes we’ve been making all this weary time.