Philosophers Discuss Trump
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a “Trump Issue” (may be paywalled) in which several academics, including three philosophers, comment on the U.S. presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. They include Jason Brennan (Georgetown University), Aaron James (UC Irvine), and Matthew Meyer (University of Scranton).
From Brennan’s “Pox Populi“:
How did Donald Trump become a serious contender for president of the United States? It’s the question everyone is asking, but it’s the wrong question. Instead, given how ignorant and irrational voters tend to be, we should be asking how it is that someone like Trump—a candidate seemingly as ill-informed as he is uninterested in policy—hasn’t already made it to the Oval Office… The rise of Trump should challenge our faith in democracy. That’s because the presumptive Republican nominee is not an anomaly so much as a symptom of a disease deep within democracy’s bones…
Brennan is a proponent of epistocracy, not because it is problem free, but because he thinks it is a better alternative to democracy, which is plagued by the following problems:
In general, scholars have found that voters are ignorant, misinformed, and irrational…
Experimental work in political psychology reveals that most people process political information in a way that is biased and partisan, not dispassionate and rational. They pay attention to evidence that confirms the views they already hold…
Decades of social-science research suggest that political engagement tends not only to fail to educate or ennoble us, but also often to stultify and corrupt us…
Contrary to what Mill expected, getting citizens to deliberate together typically backfires. Deliberation does not bring us together; it leads to polarization and anger…
Though Americans are better educated, and though political information has never been easier to acquire, people are as ignorant about politics today as they were 40 years ago….
Voters are dumb because democracy makes them dumb. Democracy spreads power among a vast number of people; everyone gets an equal but tiny share — expressed through our vote — so small that none of us have an incentive to use our power wisely.
From James’ “The Jerk’s Political Moment“:
[Trump] doesn’t see that his claim of being a brilliant businessman might invite the question of whether selling steaks for $50 a pound (he even touted the high price) at the Sharper Image was a sound business proposition. (Jerry Levin, former CEO of the Sharper Image, has said, “We literally sold almost no steaks.”) Plus he was so serious. Oblivious and very serious. Behold the ass-clown, who is telling the joke but somehow not in on it.
The ass, among types of persons, is slow to understanding. Perhaps he’s dull, stubborn, entrenched in his position, or just plain stupid. The clown, by contrast, seeks to entertain an audience with playful pretending or comedic exaggeration, with sharp sensitivity to what others find amusing or delightful or shocking. Putting these two types together, there is such a person as an ass-clown, someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.
Trump is amusing, and we can all relate to feeling like an ass. This makes the man relatable, as a fellow human, and even likable, for a moment. His display of the asshole arts—as schoolyard bully, as cut-down boxer—is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. This is part of his appeal for many. The question is why we—enough of us—are not flatly revolted. The answer is that we—most of us—really like an ass-clown. Trump the ass-clown is partly oblivious, and this is genuinely funny, and in a way all too human; he’s like slapstick, a pure form of comedy. We are thus drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle, and our confusion about his type, leave us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes…
Trump, surely without intending it, has been a wake-up call to the republic. He has forced us to reckon with much that was previously hidden. He has brought what used to be implicit racism out into the open, for sunlight and criticism, ending (for the moment) the dog-whistle racist politics invented by Richard Nixon. Despite our real insecurities, Trump’s depiction of Mexicans and Muslims is vile and has been rightly condemned. That condemnation has in turn upheld their status as moral equals, affirming publicly the inclusive principles on which our country was founded. However mixed our feelings, we can be grateful that the fog has lifted. I must say, the clearer air is rather pleasant. William Burroughs captured our time of rueful clarity in his definition of “naked lunch”: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
From Meyer’s “I, Donald“:
The ancient Greeks… were less ambivalent about the threat narcissism poses to democracy—and one figure in particular deserves close comparison with Trump. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides narrates the decline of Athenian democracy at the hands of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and playboy. In Plato’s Republic, a regime ruled by benevolent philosopher kings undergoes a steady decline until democracy finally breeds a narcissistic tyrant—left unnamed in the text, though the allusions throughout suggest that it is Alcibiades.
Robert Garland, a classicist at Colgate University, has recently argued that Trump and Alcibiades are a lot alike. Both were born into positions of privilege and power—Trump the son of a wealthy businessman, Alcibiades the nephew and ward of Pericles, the ruler of Athens. As children, both loved to fight and win. As an adult, Alcibiades excelled as a military general, while Trump supposedly mastered the art of the deal. Both are known for boasting of their sexual exploits, and both show little loyalty to anything beyond themselves. Indeed, Alcibiades is said to have wanted his name and influence to extend to everything. The parallel to Trump—with his Trump Plaza, Trump Tower, Trump Entertainment Resorts—could not be more evident…
For Plato, democracy merely creates the conditions for tyranny. The cause of democracy’s downfall, however, is a narcissism that animates figures like Alcibiades or Trump.
Those concerned about the fate of our own democracy ought to be worried about the narcissism Trump embodies—and that our culture has increasingly embraced. This gospel of self-love has many of us falling for ourselves. It could, in turn, have many of us falling for another Alcibiades.
“Experimental work in political psychology reveals that most people process political information in a way that is biased and partisan, not dispassionate and rational.”
As someone familiar with the literature, it also reveals that the epistocrats also process political information in a way that is biased and partisan.Report
While all these comments are amusing and perhaps accurate, they give the kind of arrogant, elitist dismissal of ordinary voters that guys like Trump use against “the elites” to further his/their agendas. It has long been the case that liberals dismiss voters as unintelligent when they vote for candidates not favored by academic elites. After a while the ordinary folks, who are, sorry, not stupid, rebel and we get a backlash like Trump. As an academic (retired) I have long rebelled against this tendency of academics to decry the general populace as stupid, uniformed, etc… when they choose other than the academics’ favored candidates. We hurt our own cause by dismissing voters as uninformed, stupid, not critical thinkers, etc… It creates the anti-intellectual attitude that has characterized the US for two centuries.Report
Question for Brennan: Amartya Sen has argued that democracy prevents famine; the data clearly indicate that democracies don’t go to war with each other. Is there evidence that epistocracy has these benefits too? The problems you point to (polarization, stupid people voting) seem to me to pale in comparison to those of famine and war.Report
The kinds of epistocracy I’d want to experiment with have inclusive enough political systems that I’d expect them to have the same results. I’m very much a follower of Acemoglu and Robinson, so everything was written with standard institutional economics in mind.Report
Sorry, should read “would have” after “experiment”.Report
“In general, scholars have found that voters are ignorant, misinformed, and irrational”
Yeah, well, scholars have found that scholars are ignorant, misinformed, and irrational. What’s the alternative, then, robots? Libertarians? I really don’t see Trump as an interesting test case for Brennan’s hypothesis. Trump hasn’t been elected to office. He’s been nearly been nominated to run for office by a party in decline and my impression is that this party is in danger of being killed off by the democratic process. If you see Trump as both profoundly unsuited for office and an embodiment of what the GOP stands for, this is all to the good. (If our processes were more democratic, the GOP would have died off or evolved by now. The fact that the GOP coughed up this ‘touped fucktrumpet’ is evidence that the process is working in just the way it should. The GOP is nearly dead (and would be nearer to death if it weren’t for gerrymandering and the corrosive influence of money on politics) and it will now have to choose to die off gracefully or evolve so that it can start running electable candidates.)
If Trump were elected to office, Brennan might have a point (although the idea that no alternative to Democracy would lead to an outcome in which some ‘witless cocksplat’ is elected to office is pretty silly (a swallow doesn’t make Spring and Democracy can survive the occasional ‘eejit’ and ‘wazzock’), but as it looks like we’re about to hand the GOP a massive defeat and force them to adapt or kill them off as a national party, this particular case looks like some evidence that this democracy is doing the sorts of things democracies are supposed to do (i.e., exert selection pressure against bad parties so that they either have to adapt or die).Report
Clayton, thanks for your thoughts. To be bluntly honest, Trump (and now Brexit) are good for me in that they get the popular press more interested in what I do. But my objections to democracy are based on systematic patterns of behavior over the past 60 or so years. Trump, Sanders, Brexit, etc., aren’t what’s driving the view. In Against Democracy, I don’t argue democracy is a disaster. Indeed, I argue that it “works because it doesn’t work,” i.e., that part of why it performs as well as it does is that elites and others can stop the public from just getting what they want at any given moment. Still, I try to get readers to conclude the choice between epistocracy and democracy is purely instrumental, and that epistocracy would probably perform at least a bit better.Report
Can we have a Philosophers Discuss Clinton post?Report