In Presidential Politics, Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

willard romney

Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle. — Woody Allen

When Willard Romney fibbed about his first name during last week’s Republican debate, chances are his target audience of Fox fans and Tea Partiers were as blissfully ignorant of his white lie as they are about his Big Lies.

Sadly, Romney and his fellow GOP hopefuls — with the exception of John Huntsman, whose knowledge-based candidacy by definition dooms him — can take comfort in new research indicating that on the pressing issues of the day, their coveted conservative cohort seeks nothing more than to know nothing.

One survey shows that the less people know about important complex issues, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed. And the more urgent the issue — e.g. the economic crisis, energy independence — the more people cling to their ignorance.

More to the point, a Farleigh Dickinson University poll finds that Fox News viewers are less informed about affairs both domestic and foreign than those who don’t watch any news at all! If this seems counter-intuitive, check out the network’s wall-to-wall discussion of president Obama’s “Godless” message in his Thanksgiving address. Or spend a few minutes with Fox and Friends, the popular morning show which recently informed its audience that Donald Trump has once again not ruled out a 2012 bid for the presidency.

Of course, know-nothingism didn’t begin with this election cycle’s crop of yahoos. The great anti-anti-intellectual H. L. Mencken said Warren Harding’s 1921 Inaugural Address “Reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line: it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

Wesleyan professor and author Elvin Lim traces the long history of faux-populist presidential rhetoric in his book The Anti-intellectual Presidency. Lim published his tome in 2008, and so he focuses on George W. “Gentleman’s C” Bush as the latest exemplar of what he calls “the denigration of the intellect” in the discourse of our presidents.

Anti-intellectualism in politics has only accelerated since then, giving us such proud pea-brains as Sarah “Putin rears his head” Palin, Rick “I was tenth in my class… out of thirteen” Perry and Herman “We need a leader, not a reader” Cain.

The ignorance-is-bliss phenomenon may have a neural underpinning, according to Drew Westen, a psychologist whose 2007 book The Political Brain argues that we are biologically predisposed to operate on feelings rather than thinking — that for many people thinking actually follows as a rationalization of feeling. A fact-free attitude, then, should apply to any group; but Westin shows that the Right recognized this early and beats the crap out of progressives on this front.

The glorification of ignorance can be tied to the so-called Kruger-Dunning effect (posited by pointy-headed Nobel laureate scientists Justin Kruger and David Dunning), which appears when “difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”

The inflated self-assessments of the information-challenged tend to replace scientific knowledge, not to mention common sense. To many Fox viewers and GOP presidential hopefuls, Charles Darwin — who observed, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” — is a suspiciously secular figure whose scientific explanation for evolution is just an opinion. In fact, a 2010 Gallup Poll found that 52 percent of Republicans said they believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. (Fully a third of Democrats and independents shared this belief, a chillingly high percentage.) If you believe that, you may find yourself in a universe in which climate change is a hoax and pepper spray takes its rightful place next to ketchup and pizza on the list of vegetables.

michael sigmanDarwin’s revolutionary mid-19th Century findings coincided with the rise of the original “Know nothings,” a wingnut bunch whose platform featured daily Bible readings in public schools, a requirement that only Protestants could become teachers and a virulent anti-immigration stance. Sound familiar?

The Founding Fathers — with whom right-wingers are so fond of identifying themselves — understood that authentic populism celebrates knowledge, logic and openness to new ideas. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” And George Washington observed, “Knowledge is in any country the surest basis for public happiness.” Both used their real names.

Michael Sigman

Republished with permission from Huffington Post.


  1. says

    Up to a point the ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude is in fact rational – and not merely a capitulation of reason to bias or emotion.

    So this attitude should NOT be snidely dismissed as merely a ‘gop’ phenomenon.

    In fact, its nigh-inevitable prevalence is a clue to what is inherently dysfunctional about our political system today.

    Life is short. Your time – as for every person – is limited – even for learning about and becoming expert in what really interests you. Therefore, a political system is suspect if it is based on presumption that your adequate participation in it requires that you must (or anyhow should) know about all major issues of the day. But unfortunately, our political system does so presume – and needlessly and dangerously so.

    A president is supposed to make intelligent or anyhow passable well-deliberated decisions on a humongous number of public issues – and voters are given the even more difficult task of figuring out who would most likely be a good long-term decision-maker on all these public issues, present and near-future.

    These presumptions and assignments are utterly unrealistic, and vesting hopes in them is asking for failure.

    Back in 1787, when the US constitution was written and prescribed a highly oligarchic Roman-republic-style political structure, our entire society was far less complex: far fewer people, far less info-flow, far less knowledge and science (by factors of 1/100 or less). With relatively little danger, public decision-making could be left to a political oligarchy comprising a few relatively educated people working over long multi-year terms. But today, no small <1% group of decision-makers – even those with the best possible combination of brains, scientific training and public-spirited good will – can properly deliberate and decide on all public affairs. The job can and should be shared among many citizen teams, not limited to a few oligarchs.

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