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Why We (Still) Make Bad Political Decisions
A little over three years ago, I wrote a book about bad political decision-making. Since then, things...have not improved. There's still time to do better, but the clock is ticking.
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“There was no way he was going to win.” That’s how my book opens. You know who I’m talking about. I don’t need to give you a hint. I don’t need to let you buy a vowel. You know exactly who I’m talking about. That’s the magic, and burden, of broadly shared political knowledge.
“He was just running for the attention,” I continue. “He was in it for his own ego. He couldn’t help it. He was there so that when he lost, he could start a cable news channel. All Trump, all the time…”
My book Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones came out in the spring of 2019. I toured the country on and off in the following years, talking about all the things, big and small, that keep us from choosing—and having—nice things. I broke down the blockages into three categories: capacities, institutions, and resources. I didn’t quite put it that way at the time, but that’s what I was going on about.
We make bad political decisions all the time. For the purposes of this post, and my book, I don’t define “bad” in terms of the substance of the decision, but the process. (Of course, there are substantively bad political decisions—lots of them—but that’s another matter for another time.) Bad political decisions are those that are inconsistent with our stated values or preferences, ill-informed, non-rational, non-autonomous, illogical, or even nonsensical. By that I mean bad political decisions are those we can’t give our own honest, consistent reasons for. Bad political decisions are those that fail to reflect more or less what we want and that we can communicate in ways people can understand and respond to.
We make bad political decisions because we don’t have time to make better ones and we lack the material resources, time, and opportunity to improve our efforts. We make bad political decisions because we are poorly informed. We make bad political decisions because our institutions lead us to believe things that, upon deeper reflection, we might not otherwise believe but give us little opportunity to correct our course. We make bad political decisions because we rely heavily on emotional, social connections that are essential to life, and rewarding to our lizard brains, but can often lead us astray. We make bad political decisions because we are encouraged to be workers and consumers but not citizens.
In the years since I began to draft my book, we have lived through the rise of new authoritarian populists, a surge in contemporary fascism, another financial crisis, a pandemic, the further decline of global democracy, and a handful of persistent and/or worsening conflicts, one of which has skirted the borders of an escalation that could bring about nuclear war. It’s not great.
Meanwhile, global inequality is persistent and, for many, growing. On top of that, climate change remains an existential threat to humankind as we head towards 2.5 degrees of warming or more by the year 2100. Worst of all, many of these crises overlap and intersect, meaning they’ll make one another tougher to bear and tougher to beat.
It’s remarkably difficult to make good political decisions under conditions of stress, anxiety, fatigue, duress, information overload, rampant mis/disinformation, and lack of practice. And yet, those are precisely the conditions we face more and more each day. We are alienated from the political process and rarely invited to take part in any meaningful way. At the same time, we are overworked and exhausted. For many, getting through the day is a big win, forget trying to use the few precious free moments you might have to try to sort out the political news of the moment and engage with policymakers and representatives, take a dive deep into the life of civil society, or join a protest.
When we are overburdened and bereft of time, often the best we can do is rely on cognitive auto-pilot. We take cheap and easy mental shortcuts to do the best we can to make political decisions about what’s good, what’s bad, who to vote for, or who to vote against. That approach may take the form of listening to our gut, following the lead of a friend or celebrity or politician, or simply going off of the last thing we read. Sometimes that works well, but often it falls short and we end up coming to conclusions and taking actions we wouldn’t choose if we had more time, energy, resources, and capacities. In many cases, that may leave us working against our material or other interests.
Solving the problem of how to make better political decisions is harder than it’s been in a long time. And it was hard before. First and foremost, making better political decisions is a material problem. People can’t exercise their political rights—or, at least, it is much harder to exercise them—if they don’t have the time and money to do so. If you’re caring for an elder or a child or constantly working to make ends meet, you have little time to take part in political life. That’s why talk about democracy must be talk about economics, too. The two are so deeply interrelated as to be functionally inseparable in many, if not most, cases. So, making good political decisions requires ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met day to day. That includes sufficient time to act as citizens and not just workers and consumers. During a pandemic and affordability crisis, that challenge is bigger than usual.
Beyond material resources, people need opportunities to engage in acts of self-government. That means politics ought to be open to citizen participation as a rule. Citizen assemblies, participatory budgeting, political party democracy, social movements, unions, protests, and so forth are critical points of political engagement that need to be open and inviting by default. Far too often, those in power prefer the grassroots to stay out of the conversation and let them do their thing. They have a job to do and they should be able to do it, but so do we. After all, we share the social, political, and economic life they are making decisions about. We can strike a balance.
Resources and opportunities help develop political capacities that lead to better political decision making. Accordingly, capacities are the other key element of good political decision making. The example I like to use to illustrate this point is baseball. Have you ever tried to hit a fastball? It’s hard. Really hard. Some even say it’s the hardest thing to do in sports. Well, making good political decisions is a bit like trying to hit a fastball. Or bowl a strike. Or hit the bullseye in darts. Or play a Bach partita. Or, well, you get the idea.
Making good political decisions takes practice and the skills that emerge from practice. Those skills include the ability to accumulate reliable information, critical analysis, synthesis, reason-giving, listening, and deep reflection. All of that takes time and effort to develop and requires both feedback and an environment conducive to producing better results. And yet we’ve custom built so many of our online and offline spaces to be the utter opposite of that. Hello, Twitter. Hello, toxic partisan politics. So, better political decision making remains an uphill battle. That struggle has not improved much since I started touring the country to shill for my book. Again, if anything, it’s worse now. But, once more, it’s a fight worth fighting.
Hope, sweet hope
I try very hard to end these pieces on a high note—a hopeful note. Right now, that’s very hard to do. And yet, hopelessness serves no one. Or, rather, it serves a minority of folks who are served by the majority checking out of the political process. It serves those who’ll be best off with the status quo. Instead, a kind of tempered hopefulness is an essential act of self-preservation and, indeed, bravery, that I recommend adopting.
We ought to be hopeful as we put in the work to demand a change in the material condition of people so that they have the resources they need to get through the day and to take part in political life as equals. Our work ought to also move beyond making sure people have material resources. It ought to include opportunities to engage and chances to build the capacities people need to effectively take part in self-government. Finally, we must challenge our institutions such as social media, political media, legislatures, political parties, and schools, to be better spaces for welcoming political discussion, deliberation, debate, and decision-making.
In the long run, we’ll all be better served by better political decision-making and broader participation in public life. That way lies higher trust, greater happiness, more social capital, a more equal world, and a sustainable space in which we can all live together. The alternative is worse.
When I give talks, I sometimes say this moment feels a bit like France in 1788. Or at least what I think it might have felt like. You know, that moment when the people knocked on the door of the Palace of Versailles, asking to be let in—if I may take a slight historical liberty. Would that Louis XVI had opened the door then in good faith; decades, perhaps centuries, of suffering might have been avoided or, at least, mitigated. We aren’t staring down the contemporary equivalent of the French Revolution today. Probably not, anyway. Nonetheless, our leaders ought to recognize that now is the time to open the door and invite the people in.