Irrational Populism

Irrational Populism
By Wade Lee Hudson

Intuitions provide insight, but “gut feelings” can lead to irrational dogmatism if they aren’t subjected to scientific logic and deliberative thinking. Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide our Politics concludes that the rising global populist threat calls for “an overarching theory beyond the idea that all elites and outsiders are bad and the people are good.” offers such a theory. Its aim is to counter scapegoating, demonizing, and counter-productive, misplaced anger.

Our primary problem is not the elite. Our primary problem is not how our economy and government are structured. Those problems are symptoms. Our primary problem is the System---our domination-based social system that weaves together all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System with selfish daily actions.

Enchanted America, by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, documents how “Intuitionists” are gaining ground against “Rationalists.” They write:

The Intuitionist/Rationalist split is not like other political divisions in the United States. Intuitionism poses an existential threat to democracy. It is neither benign nor temperate. It bristles against open inquiry, is intolerant of opposition, and chafes at the pluralism and compromise modern democracy requires. It is prone to conspiracy theory, drawn to simple generalizations, and quick to vilify the other.

Intuitionists reflect an “absence of conscious purposeful thought [and] rely on their internal feelings.” They just “know” that some things are right. One form of Intuitionism is “magical thinking,” which contradicts ideas “that are validated by testing and observation.”

Rationalists, on the other hand, “utilize abstract theories, philosophical deductions, and observable facts.” They view problems “in a dispassionate manner, seeking pragmatic, technical solutions.”

As Jesse Singal points out in a New York Magazine review of Enchanted America, “Those who critique [Intuitionsim] tend to make the same seductive mistake over and over: We often believe that if we could just give people the right information, they’d come around.” That strategy fails time and again.

After developing an “Intuitionism scale” that “measures how much people rely on their intuitions when making judgments,” Oliver and Wood conclude that most Americans harbor “a combination of Rationalist and Intuitionist proclivities,” but vary in the degree to which they rely on one or the other. Strong Intuitionists outnumber strong Rationalists two to one.

One’s position on the Rationalist/Intuitionist scale indicates likely beliefs concerning multiple subjects. People who rely heavily on intuition in one area tend to do the same in others.

The higher a person’s Intuitionism score, the more likely that person will:

  • Believe in paranormal ideas like reincarnation, ghosts, or ESP.

  • Be more easily swayed by emotional appeals and evocative symbols.

  • Mistrust their fellow citizens, the media, and civic institutions.

  • Embrace populist characterizations of money, power, and politics.

  • Be intolerant of basic democratic norms and civil liberties.

Fifty years ago, nearly all Americans believed in both God and science; today, Americans have become increasingly split between those who believe in only one or the other…. Historically, American liberals and conservatives...usually shared a common regard for reason, facts, and the basic ideals of democracy…. When Intuitionists were dispersed across the political spectrum, their antidemocratic tendencies could be kept in check by their Rationalist counterparts. But as they have come to dominate the conservative movement, their authoritarian impulses are more likely to be realized.

Intuitionists are less educated, less wealthy, and more financially stressed. They are more likely to be female, Orthodox or fundamentalist, less curious about the world, regular church attendees, and from strict families. They also tend to ponder fewer “deep questions,” identify politically as conservative, and believe in authoritarian values.

In their [Intuitionist] worldview, things are bad because some secret group of “others” is plotting against them. They believe that “the system is stacked against” them, and they’d much rather put their trust in “ordinary people” than “the opinions of experts and intellectuals.” Not surprisingly, they also embrace conspiracy theories…. Intuitionists are far more likely to affiliate themselves with national or racial categories and to use ethnic stereotypes to judge others…. [Their position on the Intuitionism scale] also predicts whether they oppose mandatory vaccines, use natural remedies, or believe in alternative medicine….

Political arguments about policy miss the mark. “Much of America’s ideological gap stems not from abstract considerations about the scope of government but rather from differences in worldview,they say. The impact of this division is powerful.

…. Compromise and deliberation are far less possible when citizens have different ways of perceiving reality. Intuitionism not only precludes the possibility of rational discourse, it also contests the basic principles of democratic governance. Pluralism, compromise, and tolerance of dissent run afoul of the Intuitionist worldview, which tends toward rigid absolutism, deep nationalism, and longing for strong authority. The political ascendancy of Intuitionism poses a deep challenge to American democracy.

Enchanted America raises questions about both “left-wing” and “right-wing” populism. It defines populism as a “rhetorical style” rather than as an ideology.

There is little theorizing among populists about what promotes the common good or properly regulates the market.... They make populist rhetoric the center of their campaign.... Populist candidates employ a simplistic style. All elites...are painted with the same thick brush…. Similarly, the people are portrayed as a single unified entity…, united in some primordial, organic way….

But most important is the apprehensive nature of populism. The populist candidate...must both stoke and validate voters’ anxieties. The populist depicts a world in chaos, where the nefarious elites have led the people astray and where doom is impendent…. By stoking voters’ anxieties, the populist then paves the way for other heuristics [problem-solving methods] common in intuitive reasoning.

Those methods include:

  • “Mental shortcuts found in other magical thinking.”

  • “Representative heuristics when they portray all members of a type as the same.”

  • “Contagious heuristics” when the people are deemed pure “tainted only by the influx of foreign or deviant elements.”

  • The tendency to “anthropomorphize political or social groups,” who are treated “more like a single individual, with a oneness of purpose and thought.”

Wood and Oliver assert that populists don’t “portray people in positions of wealth and power as having a variety of interests…. Populist orientation is rife with the same intuitive elements that animate other mythologies, religions, and folktales.”

Enchanted America defines a conspiracy theory as “any narrative about hidden, malevolent groups secretly perpetuating political plots and social calamities to further their own malevolent goals.” Mainstream media is “a ruse to distract the public from the hidden sources of real power.”

Conspiracy theories, as do many religions, attempt to order

an ambiguous reality. [They] explain events through definitive narratives with great dramatic reality…. As with the apocalyptic visions…, the conspiracy theory not only explains what happens but gives meaning to the life of the explainer…. Trying to talk conspiracists out of their beliefs is like trying to convince true believers that their religion is false---because it’s instrumental to their emotional balance, it’s held as firmly as a life raft.

Oliver and Wood devised a measure of Americans populist sentiment based on their degrees of political populism, cultural populism, and “national affiliation,” or identification with “the people.” They found that “taken separately, each of these scales suggest a strong populist sentiment lurking in the American electorate.” Roughly one-fourth of the population scored high in all three measures, which they call “total populism.”

Trump supporters scored highest in total populism. Supporters of Bernie Sanders scored lowest.

Although Sanders was often given a populist label, this description does not suit him well. Yes, Sanders supporters score higher in political populism, but they score very low in both cultural populism and national affiliation. Unlike populists, Sanders’s supporters don’t feel mistrustful of science, nor are they strongly nationalistic.

Analyzing their results, Oliver and Wood concluded:

Trump’s rhetoric was all aimed at visceral feelings…. Trump tapped into the intuitions shaping how many people comprehend politics, especially issues of money and power…. This is a politics far different from the ideological battles between liberals and conservatives or the partisan wars in Congress. This is the politics of intuition. And in 2016, it loudest voice was Donald Trump’s.

The red-blue divide involves pre-rational worldviews, not rational ideology.

Relying heavily on intuitions leads to ethnocentrism---prejudice based on race, religion, or creed. Humans have innate tendencies to place others in groups and evaluate those groups as lesser or higher. “The higher our status, the better we feel about ourselves. One way we achieve this is by identifying with higher-status groups.” Such categorizing can amplify those instincts and appear to make sense out of complicated realities. It helps to rationalize “whatever future competition we may have with [others]. In other words, ethnocentrism arises as much from the anticipation of future conflict as by whatever existing conflicts might exist.”

With the New Deal, the Left adopted “the technocratic spirit of its Progressive forebears” and expanded the federal government. Later, advanced civil rights by emphasizing “Enlightenment principles of individual equality and freedom” and “embraced a robust internationalism.” Through these developments, “a technocratic state…was at the center of the liberal movement.”

In response, by the late 1960s, many conservatives concentrated on attacking “social engineers” and scientific and technical expertise. They became increasingly conspiratorial, uncompromising, cult-like, fundamentalist, and “Christian” in their attack on the Rationalist order. Citizens began believing more strongly in the “magical” powers of charismatic leaders. Now, Intuitionism “has become thoroughly entrenched within the political Right.”

Acknowledging their research is “still a crude instrument,” Oliver and Wood decline to propose specific solutions and only offer some general principles. They argue:

Rationalists need to speak in terms Intuitionists their language….  It’s the language we spoke as children. It acknowledges the emotional power of uncertainty, fears, and apprehensions. It is structured around the primordial heuristics that underlie our naive judgments. It recognizes the appeal of gut impulses and common sense…. It means translating Rationalist values into terms that resonate with an Intuitionist worldview. It means recasting elaborate ideas into terms that are emotionally compelling. It means countering the bigotry, fantasy, and terror of Intuitionist rhetoric with competing ideas of equality, pragmatism, and hope. It means translating abstract notions like individual rights, due process, and civil liberties into compelling narratives that are easy to comprehend. In short, it means appreciating the dynamics of intuitions…. There are many areas where illiberal intuitions can be counteracted by simple messages that resonate with ordinary Americans’ apprehensions and commonsense ways of understanding the world….

Those suggestions are solid. How well do the stump speeches of the Democratic presidential candidates adhere to those guidelines?

Oliver and Wood fall short, however. They focus on how to talk to others, rather than how to talk with them. Monologues based on assumptions of superiority differ fundamentally from dialogs based on respect.

More deeply, they deal with outer behavior and neglect inner experience. They don’t affirm ongoing self-examination of one’s arrogance and other divisive tendencies. They don’t call for Rationalists to modify their own worldview by integrating an affirmation of intuition and spirituality. They don’t consider that the Right has good reason to question how the technocratic State operates, and the embrace of Enlightenment hyper-individualism. They don’t critically examine left-wing political populism.

And they don’t deal with the underlying social context. Establishing economic security, for instance, could reduce anxieties that inflame irrationality.

There’s a sizable kernel of truth at the heart of much conspiracy thinking. Everyone is a victim of the self-perpetuating System that corrupts the social fabric and undermines personal and communal fulfillment. Respectfully translating those conspiracy theories is important, as theologians have re-interpreted religious myths.

Without widespread support, the System would collapse. Massive boycotts or work stoppages focused on winnable demands could advance libertarian communitarianism with successive victories. A Purple Alliance that mobilizes compassionate supermajorities could nurture systemic transformation rooted in simultaneous personal, social, cultural, and political reform. A “purple movement” could build on our best traditions, repair the American Dream, and help everyone be all they can be---and serve humanity, the environment, and life itself.