Magical Thinking Makes Us Vulnerable

A bulwark against Russian information warfare is better, smarter, and more empirical punditry.

Since the election, I’ve been concerned (OK, OK—obsessed!) about the quality of information voters use to make decisions, how they get that information, and why they consider it important. Put another way, I was scared to death by the collective psychic break from reality we saw in the weeks and months before November 9, 2016.

We now know, of course, there was good reason to freak.

So the cockles of my heart are warmed by the sight of a press corps paying more attention to what I call “literal madness,” meaning conspiracy theories that motivate and rationalize the behavior of so many of President Donald Trump’s supporters.

This week saw coverage from a variety of outlets of what’s apparently called QAnon, which is as far as I can tell the 21st-century equivalent of a medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars, in Southern France, who believed the material world was an illusion created by Satan, and that Jesus was the only way of breaking free.

Instead of Jesus, so-called believers follow Q, an unknown person or persons claiming, via the internet, to have secret government knowledge, which is evidently enough for some to believe Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not investigating Trump’s complicity with Russia, but instead “working in tandem with Trump to take down a murderous cabal of liberal elites.” (The Washington Monthly has more.)

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I said I’m heartened by the press corps paying more attention to this literal madness, but I should have said paying more serious attention to it. Curiosities have always been news staples, but the literal madness on display at Trump rallies is not something we can afford to laugh at. As Cambridge scholar David Runciman has noted, democracies can tolerate irrationality as long as it resides on the margins of power. We have arrived in a new era in which irrationality resides at power’s very center.

Still, there’s something shortsighted about paying attention to literal madness, even if seriously. Conspiracy theories are obviously not the only source of mis- or disinformation. We inhabit a media universe in which smart well-intended people paid good money to explain politics don’t know much about politics, judging by what they write. And in not knowing, but appearing to know, they lend credence to things that should be discredited from the start. In the end, they encourage magical thinking of a kind that I think is necessary for literal madness to take root and flourish.

Columnist David Brooks’ latest, in the Times, is called “The Third-Party Opinion: National politics needs a leader devoted to redistributing power downward.” His goal is to bring awareness to something he calls “constitutional localism.” It sounds interesting. Worthy of debate. My problem is that Brooks believes it’s possible for someone outside the two-party system to seize on the idea and make it go national.

Never gonna happen.

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I know this while understanding nothing about “constitutional localism.” I know this, because there is no room for third parties. The founders decided how to structure the government. That structure prevents third-parties from having any place in politics.

This is not my opinion.

If Brooks had consulted at a Government 101 college textbook, as I’m about to do, he’d see that—where is it? Ah, here it is—“the winner-take-all system has helped create our two-party-dominant system, and third parties have historically not won seats in Congress or the presidency.” In other words, America doesn’t do power-sharing. There can be only one winner, and the winner with the most votes wins all the votes.

This is as fundamental to talking about politics as home runs are fundamental to talking about baseball. If you’re talking about better ways for teams to run the ball and score more touchdowns, you’re not talking about baseball anymore.

I think Brooks is a decent person, a nice guy eager to invent new ways for people to get along, but by using the authority of one of the world’s most powerful newspapers, he’s encouraging readers to believe things that can’t exist short of chancing election rules.

Brooks is peddling in magical thinking.

To be sure, what Brooks is doing is not as destructive, I think, as what Alex Jones does every day. (He’s the conspiracy theorist who said the parents of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre are “crisis actors”; thanks to Jones, they get constant death threats.) But by encouraging magical thinking, Brooks is helping to weaken the electorate, making it vulnerable to Russia’s goal of poisoning public opinion.

We can do better. We must.

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Bonus material!

Joshua Holland is a writer for The Nation and host of the Politics and Reality podcast. We talked last week about topics discussed here at the Editorial Board. I recommend following Josh and getting to know his work. He’s a realist lefty. My fave.

Click below to see audio of our conversation. Let me know what you think.

Joshua Holland 🔥@JoshuaHol

RADIOPLUG2: John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) and I try to get a handle on all the shoes that dropped in the #Kremlingate scandal this week.https://t.co/3ob5ZoZ45K

July 29, 2018

An important note to readers

Due to technical incompetency (mine), I sent Wednesday’s newsletter in the evening instead of the usual early afternoon. (My goal is to publish between 1 and 2 p.m.) I think I have things figured out now. I apologize for any inconvenience.

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