Max Boot: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?

by Bob Schwartz

 

“Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.”
Max Boot

In an era of unlimited writing heads and talking heads, Max Boot stands out as a public intellectual. Born in Moscow, educated at Berkeley and Yale, celebrated writer and analyst, former opinion editor of the Wall Street Journal, world-class expert on global affairs and national security. And once a conservative Republican, until he left the party, and wrote The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (2018), a book described as a “devastating dissection of conservatism’s degeneracy in America”.

Max Boot is a now a columnist for the Washington Post, and today published a column specifically about the anti-vaccination movement, but more generally about growing irrationality among a segment of the American electorate. He asks a question that may be on the mind of many observers, but for media seems insulting or extreme to ask: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?:

The case for democracy is that voters in the aggregate will make better decisions than a lone monarch or dictator would. But does majority rule still work when so many people believe so many things that simply aren’t so?

Many people, of course, have always been irrational. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as many as 60,000 people were executed in Europe as suspected witches. But it would be nice to think that centuries of advances in science and education have made people less prey to phantasms and falsehoods. I suppose it’s progress that the “witch hunts” today are strictly metaphorical.

But the Internet hasn’t delivered on exaggerated expectations that it would spur universal enlightenment. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” the Internet evangelist John Perry Barlow vowed in a 1996 declaration. You don’t hear that kind of techno-utopianism anymore, and for good reason.

It’s true that the Internet has put a lot of information online. Anyone anywhere — as long as you live in a country that does not censor the Internet — can now read this newspaper. But like diners passing up a healthy salad for an artery-clogging cheeseburger, many information consumers are instead digesting junk news. One study of the 2016 election found that the 20 top false articles combined on Facebook were shared, reacted to or commented on more widely than the 20 top mainstream news articles combined….

Can it get any crazier? Actually, yes. Researchers at Texas Tech University found an increasing number of people have been convinced that the Earth is flat by YouTube videos with titles such as “200 proofs Earth is not a spinning ball.” So a belief that should have disappeared 500 years ago has been given fresh life on the Internet. This isn’t the Information Age. It’s the Misinformation Age. There is a seemingly endless supply of suckers online — and just as many grifters and cranks eager to dupe them.

Granted, Flat Earthers remain a tiny minority. They aren’t taking over the country. But do you know who has taken over? The 38 percent of respondents who in a Washington Post-ABC News survey said President Trump is “honest and trustworthy.” Yes, this is the same president whose 10,000th falsehood was recently recorded by the Post Fact Checker. Whether you support Trump or not, his dishonesty should not be a matter of dispute. But roughly 40 percent of voters seem to have suspended their critical faculties to get on the Trump train.

Irrationality may be more prevalent in the party of climate denial, but it isn’t limited to Republicans. One of the leading anti-vaxxers is Democratic scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and liberal actress Gwyneth Paltrow has made a fortune peddling “jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex ‘dust,’ and body stickers that ‘promote healing’ ” despite scientific exposés showing that these New Age tchotchkes don’t work. Quack remedies retain their allure even in an age of gene therapy.

Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.

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