Magical thinking is what's wrecking our country

When asked to identify the single greatest strategic threat to America, participants in the recent Democratic debate offered China, Russia, Iran, climate change, even Donald Trump, but they were all wrong.  The greatest threat to America's future is the rapid proliferation of "magical thinking" among the populace and electorate.

Magical thinking is adherence to ideas that are deeply held despite the absence of any evidence that they are correct or in the face of evidence that they are wrong.  It ignores basic concepts, like cause and effect, and replaces logic with emotion.  For those engaged in magical thinking, beliefs always trump facts.

The ideas magical thinkers espouse are often utopian, so evidence that they are irrational, or just plain wrong, leads to labeling those who thwarted the desired outcome, or just pointed out that it wasn't rational, as evil, because they stand in the way of the magical outcome.  Since Jews have often exposed the irrationality of such thinking, anti-Semitism appears wherever magical thinking proliferates.

Examples of such thinking, even today, abound.  Many are religious, even eschatological in nature, but there are non-religious examples as well.  Included here are the advent of communism bringing about a workers' paradise; the notion that giving vast amounts of money to Iran — the real purpose of the JCPOA — would moderate its behavior, the Palestinian belief that if they just "resist" a little longer, Israel will be destroyed; and even Hillary Clinton's entitlement to become president.  Intersectionality is based on magical thinking, as is the reduction of people to simple representatives of their identity groups.

What makes these ideas so dangerous, beyond the frustration they cause when the ideal isn't achieved, is that the two sides of the political spectrum can readily recognize that the other side's "magical" ideas can't work and are therefore not just undesirable, but ridiculous.  What they can't see is that their own magical ideas are equally unworkable and ridiculous.  As polarization worsens, the electorate is increasingly being offered a choice between two sets of unworkable and undesirable ideas.  Elections become a lose-lose proposition.

Social media are almost tailor-made for promoting magical thinking.  People can close themselves off to the evidence that their ideas are nonsensical and, by communicating primarily or exclusively with people who share their magical ideas, convince themselves that there is widespread support for these ideas.  Then there is an election.  If their ideas lose, they are left with no recourse other than rage.  If they win, the results can be even worse when reality intrudes and it proves to be impossible to implement their thinking or implementing it makes the underlying situation worse, as with Obamacare.

The remedy for magical thinking is better education, with students being taught actually to think, rather than indoctrinated with the magical ideas of their teachers.  Exposure to clashes between ideas, rather than being swaddled in "safe spaces," will help.  Evaluating ideas on their merits, rather than on whether they are politically correct, would point future citizens and voters in the right direction.  But we won't see any of this as long as education is controlled by people who have their own magical ideas.

Perhaps the problem of magical thinking should be put front and center as an issue in the 2020 elections.  That would present a challenge to both parties.  It would also clarify for Americans why they are increasingly frustrated with the workings of the political system.

When asked to identify the single greatest strategic threat to America, participants in the recent Democratic debate offered China, Russia, Iran, climate change, even Donald Trump, but they were all wrong.  The greatest threat to America's future is the rapid proliferation of "magical thinking" among the populace and electorate.

Magical thinking is adherence to ideas that are deeply held despite the absence of any evidence that they are correct or in the face of evidence that they are wrong.  It ignores basic concepts, like cause and effect, and replaces logic with emotion.  For those engaged in magical thinking, beliefs always trump facts.

The ideas magical thinkers espouse are often utopian, so evidence that they are irrational, or just plain wrong, leads to labeling those who thwarted the desired outcome, or just pointed out that it wasn't rational, as evil, because they stand in the way of the magical outcome.  Since Jews have often exposed the irrationality of such thinking, anti-Semitism appears wherever magical thinking proliferates.

Examples of such thinking, even today, abound.  Many are religious, even eschatological in nature, but there are non-religious examples as well.  Included here are the advent of communism bringing about a workers' paradise; the notion that giving vast amounts of money to Iran — the real purpose of the JCPOA — would moderate its behavior, the Palestinian belief that if they just "resist" a little longer, Israel will be destroyed; and even Hillary Clinton's entitlement to become president.  Intersectionality is based on magical thinking, as is the reduction of people to simple representatives of their identity groups.

What makes these ideas so dangerous, beyond the frustration they cause when the ideal isn't achieved, is that the two sides of the political spectrum can readily recognize that the other side's "magical" ideas can't work and are therefore not just undesirable, but ridiculous.  What they can't see is that their own magical ideas are equally unworkable and ridiculous.  As polarization worsens, the electorate is increasingly being offered a choice between two sets of unworkable and undesirable ideas.  Elections become a lose-lose proposition.

Social media are almost tailor-made for promoting magical thinking.  People can close themselves off to the evidence that their ideas are nonsensical and, by communicating primarily or exclusively with people who share their magical ideas, convince themselves that there is widespread support for these ideas.  Then there is an election.  If their ideas lose, they are left with no recourse other than rage.  If they win, the results can be even worse when reality intrudes and it proves to be impossible to implement their thinking or implementing it makes the underlying situation worse, as with Obamacare.

The remedy for magical thinking is better education, with students being taught actually to think, rather than indoctrinated with the magical ideas of their teachers.  Exposure to clashes between ideas, rather than being swaddled in "safe spaces," will help.  Evaluating ideas on their merits, rather than on whether they are politically correct, would point future citizens and voters in the right direction.  But we won't see any of this as long as education is controlled by people who have their own magical ideas.

Perhaps the problem of magical thinking should be put front and center as an issue in the 2020 elections.  That would present a challenge to both parties.  It would also clarify for Americans why they are increasingly frustrated with the workings of the political system.