Calling your political opponents ‘stupid’ is a stupid thing to do

Ass what you can do for your country. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

If there’s one word we’re likely to hear over and over again during the home stretch of this year’s US election, it’s “stupid”.

Some see Donald Trump’s campaign as a “cult of stupidity”; others claim Hillary Clinton is running a “painfully stupid campaign”. Still others lament a generalised decline into “post-fact politics”. A toxic mix of social media, postmodern relativism and populism means that all politicians are now rewarded by voters for their stupidity, wilful or otherwise. At least, that’s how we like to think of it.

It’s always tempting to call people on the other side of the political divide stupid. Denigrating our political adversaries as stupid comes with some big payoffs: it makes us feel smarter, boosts our sense of self worth, makes us more certain of our own opinions, and often bonds us closer with others on our side.

But constantly dismissing the other side as stupid can be dangerous. It’s unlikely to foster dialogue, and will instead drive political factions ever further apart. Politics will become a grudge match between factions who consider their opponents idiots and therefore refuse to listen to them. Whenever this sort of vicious partisanship kicks in, voters become more likely to follow their own politics when making a decision – no matter what the evidence says.

This politics of stupidity can only further divide the younger, educated, non-white, metropolitan population who favour Clinton and the older, less educated, white, regional folk who favour Trump. In short, it may inflame the deeper class conflicts that have been a constant, yet rarely acknowledged feature of American life for many years. Today, these class barriers are not dressed up in talk about the right family, the right manners or even the right amount of money; they are presented in stark terms of intelligence.

Dull knives

We all like to think we are smart – but when it comes to politics, most of us are pretty stupid in our own way. Issues which are at stake are complex and confusing. Most of us do not have all the information to to make perfectly rational decisions, and when surveyed about issues such as healthcare, voters on both sides of the political divide are remarkably ignorant.

Even the basic structures of government remain a mystery to many citizens. One survey found that only 42% of those asked could name the three branches of the US government. In contrast three quarters of Americans could name the three stooges: Larry, Curly and Moe.

Most of us assume that ignorance and stupidity is concentrated in one side of the political divide. In reality, it’s actually fairly evenly distributed across the political spectrum.

Sarah Palin’s intellectual reputation has been thoroughly trashed since she ran for vice-president. EPA/Tannen Maury

Take conspiracy theories – polls have shown these to be alive and well on both sides of the spectrum. For instance, one survey found that 36% of republican voters sampled believe that Barack Obama was not born in the US, while another in 2007 found 35% of Democratic voters believed that George W. Bush knew about the September 11 attacks before they happened.

Perhaps even more worryingly given the US’s divided political culture, swing voters are often the most ignorant. One study found that on average, “independent independents” could correctly answer 9.1 of 31 basic political questions – compared to 15.4 correct answers from “strong Democats” and 18.7 from “strong Republicans”.

What all this suggests is that as soon as the average citizen really starts thinking about politics, they come face to face with their own stupidity.

Idiot wind

Decades’ worth of research on cognitive biases has taught us that when this happens, we fall back on some fairly fast and dirty mental rules of thumb. We make snap political judgements about what is right or wrong based on completely irrelevant things like what someone looks like. Once we have made a snap judgement, we put our effort into collecting information that supports our own position. We also conveniently overlook information that does not support our position. This saves us time and mental energy and can help us come to a decision quickly. But it also means that we often ignore crucial issues.

But it is not just the uninformed voters who are stupid. Often stupidity lurks at the very heart of our great political institutions. After spending over a decade studying so-called “knowledge-intensive organisations”, Mats Alvesson and I realised that often these smart firms were driven by stupidity.

One of the greatest concentrations of intellect and talent in any developed economy is often found in its political institutions. Many of the best and the brightest graduates head for the halls of power – and yet institutions filled with smart people can consistently do deeply stupid things.

Some of the most infamous political blunders – such as Margaret Thatcher’s “poll tax”, which led to widespread rioting – were actually conceived and pursued by some of the smartest people in the government at the time. A recent study of British politics showed that political blunders seem to have been the rule rather than the exception, and that they were caused not by stupid individuals, but by a system which encouraged groupthink, amateurism, overconfidence, and created a “cultural disconnect” from the electorate.

I would hazard a guess that a study of blunders in US politics would come to a remarkably similar conclusion. As the 2016 election cycle cranks into top gear, allegations of stupidity will fly thick and fast.

It’s tempting to join in and decry the other side as a phalanx of idiots. But instead of castigating our political adversaries for their lack of understanding, we should take a moment to pause and reflect on our own capacity for political stupidity. If we don’t, the debates we urgently need to have about our collective future might never happen.

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