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Political "Derangement" and Political Ignorance:

Co-blogger Orin Kerr is right to point out that many partisans are engaging in overheated rhetoric and unfair charges against their opponents. This problem is not unique to recent American politics. If you look at our very first contested presidential elections (Jefferson vs. Adams, 1796 and 1800), you will find ridiculous "deranged" charges every bit as ludicrous as those we hear today (e.g. - claims that Jefferson was a close atheist who would destroy all religion; accusations that he would betray the country to France; claims that Adams and the Federalist Party were secretly plotting to establish a monarchy, and so on).

I. The Role of Rational Political Ignorance.

Why this longstanding pattern of overheated and ridiculous political rhetoric? Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I think it has a lot to do with widespread political ignorance. Overwhelming evidence shows that much of the public knows very little about politics and public policy. For individual voters, such ignorance is perfectly rational because there is very little chance that your vote will actually influence the outcome of an election. But the less you know, the more you are susceptible to inaccurate and extreme charges. People who are familiar with the details of Barack Obama's biography are unlikely to believe that he is a secret Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists; not so those who know little or nothing about him. The same goes for similarly ridiculous charges against the Republicans. As a result, candidates and activists have incentives to make ridiculous charges because they know that many ignorant voters will believe them.

II. The Role of Biased Evaluation of Political Information.

Even some of those voters who do know more than the average citizen are still susceptible to overheated charges. Rational ignorance implies not only that people have little incentive to acquire political information, it also means that they have little incentive to make rational judgments about the information they do acquire. As a result, most of use evaluate political information in a highly biased way, overvaluing anything that confirms our preconceived views and resisting new information that seems to undercut them. This helps explain why many otherwise intelligent people come to endorse ridiculous political conspiracy theories. For similar reasons, it helps explain why otherwise intelligent political partisans embrace "deranged" accusations against their political adversaries.

Can any of this be changed? Maybe. But two centuries of political history suggests that it will be extremely difficult to do so. "Derangement syndrome" may be an inevitable aspect of democratic politics, especially when elections are closely contested and involve divisive issues.

neurodoc:
...claims that Jefferson was a close atheist who would destroy all religion...
"closet" atheist?
10.13.2008 10:14pm
neurodoc:
...claims that Jefferson was a close atheist who would destroy all religion...
"closet" atheist?
10.13.2008 10:14pm
EH (mail):
The key for me is for someone to say that some candidate is "going to" do something, these days likely something catastrophic. Any time I see some purport to divine the future a little switch in my brain turns on, looking for anything beyond bare assertion. If nothing further is offered in support I can safely disregard the comment/post/Brit Hume segment.

Charges of derangement are an attempt to delegitimize an opponent, dehumanizing and discounting anything the "deranged" person brings to the table. It's anti-intellectual (and anti-rational) in that it seeks to negate a position without having to work for it. I mean, why not just call your opponent "crazy?" It's closer to the goal. Mix in some "It is said that..." and have yourself a Derrida nightmare.
10.13.2008 10:16pm
Captain Ned:
I'm fully cognizant of Barack's life story and it's centered around his relationship with an unrepentant domestic terrorist. Does that bust your curve?
10.13.2008 10:30pm
U.Va. Grad:
Captain Ned:

Not really. Whatever the relationship between Obama and Ayers, it's a laugher to say Obama's life is "centered around" that relationship. For example, his relationship with his wife and kids is probably more important to him.
10.13.2008 10:32pm
David Warner:
EH,

sigh.

"dehumanizing and discounting anything the "deranged" person brings to the table."

Like, say, Brit Hume for instance?

Look, my take is that Obama got his values from his mom and grandparents, and those values informed his subsequent no-enemies-to-the-left career, that he was likely to critically engage the worldviews of Davis, Alinsky, Ayers, Cone, et. al. as he inevitably worked with them and/or those influenced by them. Thus, he also shows evidence of similar engagement with those from entirely different traditions as his status rose.

I don't find it productive the ignore:

(a) the extent to which the left, radical or otherwise, has marched through our institutions, making serious engagement with those institutions, especially from a minority background, inevitably entail association with that left.

(b) the extent to which (a) is true of Obama, and therefore the necessity to make sense of it.
10.13.2008 10:53pm
jccamp (mail):
I'd like to respectfully disagree with the OP re: this...
"Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I think it has a lot to do with widespread political ignorance. "


From my (limited) personal experience, people of either side tend to demonize the opposition. They aren't necessarily ignorant - they chose to believe the worst about the other side. They may be well-read and relatively informed. They simply filter the input, disregarding that which flies in the face of the preferred party line. I might add that the vituperative and sometimes obscene responses to posts on blogs like this one are more indicative of absolute bias than of ignorance. It may be more accurate to describe a mindset, a kill-the-heretics kind of thing.

Extremist attitudes may be the refuge of the ignorant and/or the stupid, but not every extremist is either of those. Maybe not even most of the extremists are such.

Just from this blog, I'd have to say that some of the extreme positions - in either direction - are held by persons with a genuine gift for the written word.

I might even suggest that the reality is the opposite of the OP, in some cases at least. Perhaps some, being bright and well informed, cannot conceive of anyone taking a different position. It's an ego thing from the high end that leads to derangement, not the trailer park residents and the National Enquirer.

Of course, I may not be the best to judge, being of a mobile home mentality myself.
10.13.2008 11:27pm
richard cabeza:
10.13.2008 11:36pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I am amazed at the lengths to which you will go to cover up John Adam's aspirations to found a monarchical dynasty, and Jefferson's taste for French pornography. Not to mention Aaron Burr's incestuous relationship.

PS: Millard Filmore was a commie.
10.13.2008 11:57pm
PDXLawyer (mail):
Could it be that Americans value politics mostly as entertainment? The British have football. We have politics.

If so, that's actually a good sign. If I really thought Obama was going to send the sheriff after me for deviating from the Party line, I'd take the whole thing a lot more seriously.
10.14.2008 12:09am
Randy R. (mail):
I blame political 'commentators' who whip up public anger to a frenzy merely for ratings. Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Rush and O'Reilly come to mind. I'm sure there are a few on the left, but I don't follow them that much. But all these people turn issues into a black and white ones, and every person into an evil/saint dichotomy.

It's hurts the body politic, and does nothing to actually enlighten the populace. But it sure does earn them a ton of money.
10.14.2008 2:38am
EricPWJohnson (mail):
Or the guy could brazenly be so bold to actually say what he intends to do - Note if you suffer from Fox News Whatever syndrom fast forward to the 30 second mark

Barack says to taxpayer toughies

Spread the Wealth around?

Okay so we keep moving the target where someone is a socialist -

I don't know I thought paying over 30% plus 15.3% Fica plus state and local taxes was doing my fair share.

Gee a couple working two jobs each saving and investing hiring people paying even more taxes...

Now they get to spread the wealth around?

All I want to know is - are they going to require the recipients of my former dollars to actually work?

Or is that being over the top?
10.14.2008 6:58am
TokyoTom (mail):
Ilya, the "highly biased" way in which we accept and use information is a simple consequence of both our tribal nature (we're good and right, and you're evil) and our mental inertia/conservatism (we reflexively fit information to our existing mental maps, and dismiss inconsistent information, so it may take considerable congnitive dissonance and an investment of energy to change one's mind).
10.14.2008 7:16am
geokstr:

If I really thought Obama was going to send the sheriff after me for deviating from the Party line, I'd take the whole thing a lot more seriously.

Perhaps you should take a look at this before you blithely make that flip statement:
The Coming Thugocracy

Obama is an admitted disciple of Saul Alinsky, a Marxist who wrote Rule for Radicals over 50 years ago, which is just a tortured, self contradictory rationale to justify any means necessary to achieve the Marxist goals. Alinsky created "community organizing", which for him was a euphemism for revolution.

Lying, cheating, smearing, coercion, intimidation, threats of violence, labelling your opponents as "intellectually deficient", these are all considered preferred tactics to Alinsky and his followers. ACORN is a direct outgrowth of Alinsky's principles, and Obama, despite his denials, has been intimately involved with this organization for decades, to this very day. His campaign gave $832,000 to ACORN this year to "get out the vote" and he originally tried to hide that fact.

The attempts to suppress speech they don't like has already been very heavy handed. With the full force of government about to be turned over to them, if I were you, I wouldn't be "deviating from the Party line" too loudly.

By the way, very little of the above is just simply my "biased" opinion, except for the conclusion that I very much fear is about to happen. It's all part of the public record, most of it from their own words.

Didn't see any of it in the NYT? Couric, Williams, Gibson, Lehrer, and Wolfie didn't tell you? What a coincidence.

I thought we got rid of communism when the Wall came down. But in reality it was already firmly established here in our country in university faculties, from where it has in turn infected much of our public discourse.
10.14.2008 9:42am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
One interesting thing I've discovered about the Jefferson Adams election &religion is that neither felt entirely free to "clarify" exactly what it was they believed on religious matters and hence they contributed to the ignorance. As it turns out Adams &Jefferson were virtually agreed on their personal religious creed. Jefferson wasn't as atheistic or deistic as the Federalist Clergy painted him to be and Adams wasn't as traditionally Christian as the Federalist Clergy thought he was.

Both however, believed (devoutly) in an active interventionist God AND the unitarian heresies. It was the latter which was not "safe" to publicly discuss. For more of my research see my group blog American Creation where all we do is discuss &research religion &the Founding.
10.14.2008 11:06am
Seamus (mail):
you look at our very first contested presidential elections (Jefferson vs. Adams, 1796 and 1800), you will find ridiculous "deranged" charges every bit as ludicrous as those we hear today (e.g. - claims that Jefferson was a close atheist who would destroy all religion; accusations that he would betray the country to France; claims that Adams and the Federalist Party were secretly plotting to establish a monarchy, and so on).

Also: the claim that Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves, who he kept as his concubine. Oh, wait. . .
10.14.2008 1:43pm
Isocrates:
Say, geokstr, speaking of infecting rational discourse, have you heard of McCarthyism? Deranged fear of *anything* having to do with the big 'C', to the point that you're no longer obliged to defend your critique by explaining what you find disagreeable about it but can instead rely on your audience to nod solemnly and accept the mere label of something as communist as sufficient proof of guilt? ('Communism, atheism, terrorism... it's all the same! Evil! Evil!')


I'm all for rational discourse, personally, yet I find it in depressingly short supply in this country. I'd be perfectly happy to hear rational debate around *why* so-called socialist / communist models are inherently unjust or unpalatable, or even an explicit discussion of why capitalism is so great, but we can't even discuss it. The terms are reduced to the level of unquestioned smears (think 'terrorist' for anyone on the left, 'warmonger' or 'hawk' for anyone on the right) and god-terms, same as the basic terms 'liberal' and 'conservative', depending on which "side" you're on.
10.14.2008 2:43pm