The Trouble with Politics

Americans disagree about a lot. But there’s one point on which we are unanimous:

Our politicians are awful.

Let’s be honest: Except in the haze of partisan fervor, can anyone truly believe that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two best people to run for president in 2016?

How about Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer as leaders in the Senate? Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi in the House?

Give credit where credit is due: There are no dummies on those lists.

But if you want character, ethics, or dedication to the public good, forget it. They never heard of those things.

And it’s not just politicians. Our political discourse is equally awful:

“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Politicians and politics are awful for several reasons:

  • People who go into politics for idealistic reasons aren’t interested in power. People who get power are usually the ones who want it and who will do whatever it takes to get it.
  • The people who get power become the leaders. The idealists end up taking orders from the amoral power-seekers.
  • Humans are primates, and primate societies are hierarchical. They have a few leaders and a lot of followers.
  • Most people are followers, not leaders. They take their cues from people in power: how to act, what to believe, and whom to hate.
  • Politicians are expert at manipulating masses of people, who hate each other on cue and who believe at least three impossible things before breakfast.

That’s a description of the problem. There’s no perfect solution, but a few things can help:

  • Think. Propaganda uses images, narratives, and memes to bypass your intelligence and hook your emotions. Don’t let it.
  • Ask. What’s the evidence? Is it trustworthy? Does the story make sense?
  • Listen. Talk to people who disagree with you, and listen objectively to their arguments.
  • Remember. What’s really important for individuals and society? Don’t let memes and manipulation make you forget the things that make life possible.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews said that it’s an “impressively nuanced analysis … surprisingly accessible.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Trouble with Politics

  1. J P says:

    Another thing for your suggestions at the end: What I have learned as a lawyer and as a parent applies here too. There is always another side to the story. We must ask “what is it?”


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Agreed. John Stuart Mill said that “he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” We should try to test our own beliefs but it’s hard to do that on our own. People who offer thoughtful disagreement can be a great help to us. Thoughtful disagreement can even be found in politics, but it is frowned upon.


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