Ignorance and the Decline of Responsible Government in America

Since at least the time of Julius Caesar's coup in 49 B.C., man has surrendered his freedom to various strongmen who have offered to compromise liberty in exchange for swift political results.  This tradeoff, a lapse in that "Spirit of Liberty," which Edmund Burke felt was the "greatest security of the people," is the despot's quickest and most ordinary way to power.

As Burke wrote in his 1791 "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly":

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites ... in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption – in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.

Without caution and self-control, and a reverence for the principles of the law, true liberty is impossible – even, and perhaps especially, when the pursuit of greater liberty is the goal of those needlessly spurning the law.  Society's need for self-control becomes fulfilled by dictators and strongmen in proportion to the citizenry's decrease in self-sufficiency.

It is ignorance, the wellspring of tyranny, which most often makes a population unable to practice good government and able to avoid demagoguery.  When "soundness and sobriety of understanding" give way in the face of "vanity and presumption," social rot inevitably ensues.  And, unfortunately, the American body politic is, according to years of poll taking and studies, exceptionally ignorant on the topics of geography, politics, and history.

In 2011, the World Values Survey reported that 44% of non-college graduates and 28% of college graduates in the Unites States supported "having a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with congress and elections" – a sign, if nothing else, of widespread exasperation with the conventions of Western representative government.  Yet America itself was conceived, as John Adams declared in the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as "a government of laws and not of men," and therefore the precedence of principles before personalities is at the very heart of the American experiment – as it is, ultimately, at the heart of all good government.  The results of this survey point to an unfamiliarity with what can happen when representative societies entirely reject what Max Weber described in 1922 as "rational-legal legitimacy" in favor of "charismatic," personality-based legitimacy.  In light of other studies that show a widespread ignorance of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and even who the current vice president is, we can see at least in part why these views are so pervasive.

Perhaps the most noteworthy finding among the studies that examine the political knowledge of Americans is that the confidence of a subject's opinion often increases as familiarity with the issue in question decreases.  For example, in 2014, in the aftermath of Putin's invasion of Crimea, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative reported a survey study carried out by three political scientists, which discovered that respondents' support for military intervention in Ukraine increased in a direct correlation with their difficulty in locating Ukraine on a map:

The further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily[.] ... [W]e found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests[.] ... Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.

In fact, as a 2017 article in Foreign Affairs said about this same survey, "[o]nly one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles."  "It shouldn't come as a surprise," Larison later wrote in a 2017 reworking of his 2014 American Conservative piece, "that less knowledge about a foreign country corresponds with a preference for more destructive and irresponsible policies in relation to that country. If someone doesn't even know where a given country is, it is unlikely that he knows much about the surrounding region or the probable consequences of military action."

It should not take a sociological genius to see that this phenomenon, especially combined with the forces of the internet and modern mass media, makes for a polity ripe for mass manipulation and political demagoguery.

In a 2016 piece for the New York Times entitled "How Stable Are Democracies? 'Warning Signs Are Flashing Red," Amanda Taub wrote:

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is "essential" to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

While the article, which cites Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk's and University of Melbourne political scientist Roberto Stefan Foa's research on "democratic deconsolidation," is of course suffused with the standard anti-Trump and anti-conservative biases, it holds several useful pieces of information, if for no other reason than that it is an admission, straight from the horse's mouth, that the Millennial generation is historically disenchanted with representative and constitutional values.  Across Western nations, the citizenry has, with each succeeding age bracket, progressively lost faith in the democratic process.

Taub continues:

Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a "good" or "very good" thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

And, further:

The researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

America and other Western nations have scored as politically "deconsolidated" on what Taub describes as the "Mounk-Foa test."  According to this test, these nations exhibit several similarities to Venezuela during the period prior to the ascent of Chávez, including a decreased belief in democratic values, openness to non-democratic forms of government, and support for "antisystem parties and movements."  The idea that Trump's election was in fact a democratic response to the non-democratic impulses of Clinton – older Americans, who her study found were more democratic on average, had an especially important role in electing Trump – is, for some reason, never a serious consideration in her article.  For the arguments made by Harvard academicians and The New York Times in favor of liberal cultural superiority, the social milieu of this new "deconsolidated," "social justice warrior" generation could hardly be described as one of traditional conservatism.

In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby the ignorant or those of "low ability" are deluded into believing they possess expertise or wisdom in a given field.  The subject's very ineptitude and lack of experience is what prevents him from discerning his true level of ability.  As we have seen, if such a bias is allowed to range unchecked, it can grow from personal ignorance into a trend in the political life of an entire nation.  And if, as Edmund Burke said, we fail to "listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves," then we shall certainly no longer be "qualified for civil liberty" and will become, inevitably, unripe "for liberty on any standard."  We shall witness the decline of responsible government in America, drowned out by radical demagogues; our idiotic policy choices; and the increasingly blithe, unaware populace that supports both.

Jack H. Burke is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2017 and a former contributor to the Fordham Political Review.

Since at least the time of Julius Caesar's coup in 49 B.C., man has surrendered his freedom to various strongmen who have offered to compromise liberty in exchange for swift political results.  This tradeoff, a lapse in that "Spirit of Liberty," which Edmund Burke felt was the "greatest security of the people," is the despot's quickest and most ordinary way to power.

As Burke wrote in his 1791 "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly":

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites ... in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption – in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.

Without caution and self-control, and a reverence for the principles of the law, true liberty is impossible – even, and perhaps especially, when the pursuit of greater liberty is the goal of those needlessly spurning the law.  Society's need for self-control becomes fulfilled by dictators and strongmen in proportion to the citizenry's decrease in self-sufficiency.

It is ignorance, the wellspring of tyranny, which most often makes a population unable to practice good government and able to avoid demagoguery.  When "soundness and sobriety of understanding" give way in the face of "vanity and presumption," social rot inevitably ensues.  And, unfortunately, the American body politic is, according to years of poll taking and studies, exceptionally ignorant on the topics of geography, politics, and history.

In 2011, the World Values Survey reported that 44% of non-college graduates and 28% of college graduates in the Unites States supported "having a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with congress and elections" – a sign, if nothing else, of widespread exasperation with the conventions of Western representative government.  Yet America itself was conceived, as John Adams declared in the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as "a government of laws and not of men," and therefore the precedence of principles before personalities is at the very heart of the American experiment – as it is, ultimately, at the heart of all good government.  The results of this survey point to an unfamiliarity with what can happen when representative societies entirely reject what Max Weber described in 1922 as "rational-legal legitimacy" in favor of "charismatic," personality-based legitimacy.  In light of other studies that show a widespread ignorance of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and even who the current vice president is, we can see at least in part why these views are so pervasive.

Perhaps the most noteworthy finding among the studies that examine the political knowledge of Americans is that the confidence of a subject's opinion often increases as familiarity with the issue in question decreases.  For example, in 2014, in the aftermath of Putin's invasion of Crimea, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative reported a survey study carried out by three political scientists, which discovered that respondents' support for military intervention in Ukraine increased in a direct correlation with their difficulty in locating Ukraine on a map:

The further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily[.] ... [W]e found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests[.] ... Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.

In fact, as a 2017 article in Foreign Affairs said about this same survey, "[o]nly one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles."  "It shouldn't come as a surprise," Larison later wrote in a 2017 reworking of his 2014 American Conservative piece, "that less knowledge about a foreign country corresponds with a preference for more destructive and irresponsible policies in relation to that country. If someone doesn't even know where a given country is, it is unlikely that he knows much about the surrounding region or the probable consequences of military action."

It should not take a sociological genius to see that this phenomenon, especially combined with the forces of the internet and modern mass media, makes for a polity ripe for mass manipulation and political demagoguery.

In a 2016 piece for the New York Times entitled "How Stable Are Democracies? 'Warning Signs Are Flashing Red," Amanda Taub wrote:

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is "essential" to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

While the article, which cites Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk's and University of Melbourne political scientist Roberto Stefan Foa's research on "democratic deconsolidation," is of course suffused with the standard anti-Trump and anti-conservative biases, it holds several useful pieces of information, if for no other reason than that it is an admission, straight from the horse's mouth, that the Millennial generation is historically disenchanted with representative and constitutional values.  Across Western nations, the citizenry has, with each succeeding age bracket, progressively lost faith in the democratic process.

Taub continues:

Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a "good" or "very good" thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

And, further:

The researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

America and other Western nations have scored as politically "deconsolidated" on what Taub describes as the "Mounk-Foa test."  According to this test, these nations exhibit several similarities to Venezuela during the period prior to the ascent of Chávez, including a decreased belief in democratic values, openness to non-democratic forms of government, and support for "antisystem parties and movements."  The idea that Trump's election was in fact a democratic response to the non-democratic impulses of Clinton – older Americans, who her study found were more democratic on average, had an especially important role in electing Trump – is, for some reason, never a serious consideration in her article.  For the arguments made by Harvard academicians and The New York Times in favor of liberal cultural superiority, the social milieu of this new "deconsolidated," "social justice warrior" generation could hardly be described as one of traditional conservatism.

In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby the ignorant or those of "low ability" are deluded into believing they possess expertise or wisdom in a given field.  The subject's very ineptitude and lack of experience is what prevents him from discerning his true level of ability.  As we have seen, if such a bias is allowed to range unchecked, it can grow from personal ignorance into a trend in the political life of an entire nation.  And if, as Edmund Burke said, we fail to "listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves," then we shall certainly no longer be "qualified for civil liberty" and will become, inevitably, unripe "for liberty on any standard."  We shall witness the decline of responsible government in America, drowned out by radical demagogues; our idiotic policy choices; and the increasingly blithe, unaware populace that supports both.

Jack H. Burke is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2017 and a former contributor to the Fordham Political Review.

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