Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.
T. Harry Williams opens his celebrated biography of Huey Long with a story about the time Long went to campaign in “rural, Latin, Catholic, south Louisiana.” A local boss was worried because Long was from Protestant north Louisiana. But when Long stood before the crowds he began by telling a reassuring story: “When I was a boy, I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would take my Baptist grandparents to church.” The local boss afterwards appreciatively told Long: “Why Huey, you’ve been holding out on us. I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.” “Don’t be a damn fool,” Long chided him. “We didn’t even have a horse."
This is not the kind of story that is going to upset a lot of people concerned with politicians’ lying. But it’s worth understanding what even this charming tale says about voters. One lesson is that they easily can be hornswoggled.
Some social scientists have argued in recent years that through the miracle of aggregation the judgment of the crowd is usually wise. But nothing in history suggests there’s a reason for believing this to be true about voters. Voters make mistakes all the time.
There’s no pattern in politics as clear as this one. In the thirties millions were duped by Huey Long into believing that the federal government could guarantee every family a $5,000 a year income, a free college education, a 30 hour work week, and a month’s vacation. But for an assassin’s bullet Long might well have been elected president
A few decades later voters cheered as Joe McCarthy tarred the reputations of innocent people while spreading rumors that the government was infested with spies. (There were spies, but he wildly exaggerated their number and influence.)
More recently a majority of Americans according to well-regarded scientific surveys succumbed to the belief that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for the attack on 9-11. They cited this misinformation when explaining their reason for supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Wise voters wouldn’t have (twice) given the keys to the White House to a man as unbalanced as Richard Nixon or rewarded George W. Bush with a second term after he started the Iraq War.
The trouble is knowing what to do when voters err. This question has taken on added urgency in 2016. While the presidential election has yet to be decided, we already have abundant evidence that millions have reached a mistaken conclusion in supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy. By many measures he’s unprepared for the office and by the judgment of many officials, both Republican and Democratic, he’s unqualified by temperament as well.
While some GOP leaders have been courageous in calling out Trump for his lies and innuendos, they haven’t been willing to say that his voters are at fault, too. Here’s Paul Ryan after Trump had made yet another embarrassing comment: “We are a party where the grass-roots Republican primary voter selects our nominee. And I think there’s something to be said about respecting those voters.” In effect, he’s saying that out of a passionate commitment to democracy we need to defer to the judgment of voters even if we believe they’ve made a gigantic, monstrous blunder. That’s some commitment. If a healthy respect for voters means you can’t criticize them in a year when they’ve nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate then it is hard to know when you could ever call them out. (Yes, only a small minority of voters voted for Trump. But some 70 percent of the party’s voters currently support him.)
But we aren’t paying homage to democracy when we decline to criticize voters. Actually, we’re betraying it. Democracy only works when everybody’s honest about the failings of both politicians and voters. This is for a very practical reason. You cannot fix a problem you don’t acknowledge.
Refusing to admit the obvious — that voters failed — undermines democracy’s chief advantage over dictatorships. In a dictatorship problems pile up because the people at the levers of power aren’t held to account. In a democracy, where both voters and politicians have hold of those levers, they are — or should be. But this can only happen when a spirit of honesty suffuses the body politic. In our dishonest times the voters are being given a pass. They don’t deserve it.
It’s understandable why a politician wouldn’t want to rebuke voters he might need to turn to in the next election, but the rest of us shouldn’t be taking our cues from politicians and we shouldn’t be shy about saying what needs saying.
But what exactly should we be saying? This is the hard part. It’s not easily apparent what might prompt Trump voters to recognize they’ve made an error. The media have tried fact checking. That obviously and predictably hasn’t worked because most people don’t come by their political opinions through logic and reason. While I am all in favor of fact-checking I hold out little hope it alone will move committed Trump voters to reassess their views.
What then can we do? One temptation is to scream at them to try to break through. But that won’t work either. Screaming just raises the political temperature and in that in turn is likely to lead Trump voters to double down on their commitment to Trump. They’re angry enough to begin with. Making them more angry is only going to further freeze their views in place. That’s one of the clearest lessons of political psychology. We should heed it.
So we know what we shouldn’t do. But what should we do then? One answer is offered by the Theory of Affective Intelligence. This theory, developed over the last two decades, rests on studies that show that human beings most readily change their views when they grow anxious. In that moment we become willing to set aside fixed beliefs and stare facts in the face. This happens because of the way our brain works. We privilege existing information in our heads about the way the world works until we get a funny feeling that suggests a mismatch between the idea in our head and the world as it actually exists. When our brain’s unconscious surveillance system detects a mismatch it sends a signal to our conscious brain to make a fresh assessment.
This suggests that what we should be doing is pointing out over and over again where Trump’s views depart from reality. Expert opinion must lineup in unison against his plans to build a wall, block Muslim immigrants, or monitor intrusively Muslim communities. To be sure in this year of the outsider and populist anger leaders are held in contempt by many. But voters will be reluctant to go against experts if they hear time and again that they believe Trump’s policies won’t work.
The problem we face is that the dominant feeling in our politics right now is anger. And anger sabotages our surveillance system. When we’re angry we are on automatic pilot. We don’t think. We react. Anger has its uses, to be sure. Angry people feel empowered when they’re angry. In small groups anger can help fuel social change. But when a whole society is angry compromise, the lifeblood of democratic politics, is impossible.
Trump, whether he knows about these scientific findings about anger or not, is acting as if he does. His incendiary language helps keep American politics burning red hot. This keeps his voters in an angry state.
The self-evident solution is for everybody else to stop playing his game. Fighting fire with fire doesn’t work. Instead, the Democrats and GOP moderates should be lowering the temperature so that Trump voters’ brains don’t default to instinctive commitments.
As the social scientist George Marcus, one of the founders of the Theory of Affective Intelligence, says, voters are likely to reassess their views when the burden of holding onto their existing beliefs becomes greater than the cost of changing them.
The truth is democracy failed us in this election. Voters should be told this. When they go wrong they need to know it. But how we go about it is vitally important. The first step is to stop yelling.