Of course my reading world is a bubble; with so much available these days, what’s the alternative? I don’t even visit major news sites any more; I read their stories through an aggregator that allows me to train it much like one trains Pandora or Spotify. As a result I get what I ask for.
So I can’t claim to have surveyed a representative sample of reporting on Rand Paul’s announcement of his Presidential campaign. But a large proportion of the center-left pundits I read this week took particular glee in highlighting not so much points of substantive disgreement as errors in execution. To some extent this might reflect a narrative in journalism of Southern politicians as perhaps a few fries short of a Happy Meal, a slightly unfair characterization in that, while technically true, this trait doesn’t distinguish them from their compatriots who hail from less muggy climes.
I grant that if Hillary’s made any spelling errors in her first-week campaign materials she’ll hear about it for weeks from the right-wing echo chamber. But I don’t regularly read writers whose strongest arguments are issues for which most people these days rely on word-processing software. True, it evinces a lack of professionalism in realms highly valued by political professionals and their journalist colleagues. But those are possibly the only two groups who believe that such things matter to anyone else.
In fact, as Dean Burnett’s enjoyable article explains, there are a number of good psychological reasons for how politicians approach us and how we evaluate them. Good, that is, in that they make solid logical and scientific sense. Practically speaking, their effects are generally bad. For example, confident people are known to be more convincing. It’s also known that less intelligent people are generally quite self-confident, because they don’t have access to the higher-level metacognitive abilities. Metacognition is how we think about our own ways of thinking, the patterns in our own behavior. If we don’t look at our own patterns we don’t tend to see our mistakes or areas of ignorance, which can lead us to be quite confident without solid reasons for being so.
In addition, people tend to be put off by subjects that seem complex or are presented as requiring expertise. Since practically everything involved in governing a country is inherently complicated, or at least refers to issues most of us don’t confront in daily life, democracy begins with a disadvantage. We like to feel we’re involved and affecting things, but we don’t like digging in to complexity; as a result we tend to spend a good deal more time talking about trivial stuff we understand than complex stuff we don’t. Thus someone who relates a wealth of detail and sees both sides of the situation will be thrown over for someone who says history is bunk and it’s really all quite simple.
Put all this together, and a less intelligent politician is likely to be supremely confident and ready with an oversimplified solution to any complex problem. But it also turns out that confident people who are proven to be either wrong or lying drop to the bottom of the credibility list. So politicians are encouraged by the system to promise a great deal and to do so confidently, despite the obvious impossibility of fulfilling those promises. When they fail to deliver, they’re massively devalued. Repetitions of this cycle convince people that politics is stupid and cannot be affected or improved. As Burnett puts it:
The majority of people are prone to numerous subconscious biases, prejudices, stereotyping and prefer their own “groups”. None of these things are particularly logical and invariably are not supported by actual evidence and reality, and people really don’t like being told things they don’t want to hear. People are also keenly aware of social status; we need to feel we are superior to others in some way to maintain our sense of self-worth. As a result, someone more intelligent saying complicated things that contain uncomfortable (but accurate) facts isn’t going to appeal to anyone, but someone demonstrably less-intelligent is not challenging to someone’s perceived social status, and if they’re going to say simple things that support inherent prejudices and deny uncomfortable facts, then so much the better.
Personally, I wonder if there isn’t something in the hilarity Rand Paul provokes among liberals that conceals a lack of understanding and an unspoken fear. Liberals in the US have tended to gather round an understanding of government as at least a potential force for good in the community as against the conservative view of government as inherently bad, with our visions reflecting our respective feelings about ourselves as much as anything else. But the current version of conservatism is quite far from opposing big government; it simply wants big government to be singularly focused on enriching the ultra-rich, and the only sustainable means to that end is constant, relatively low-level conflict and warfare, preferably as far from the US as possible.
To some extent, therefore, and regardless of rhetoric, Democrats and Republicans mostly agree on the need for big government, they just disagree on its purpose. Paul is differentiating himself from this crowd in clear and conscious ways. His positions don’t seem coherent in part because he’s not trying for a coalition that fits current categories. He really is against government, a stand that many Americans can relate to at the gut level despite intellectually rejecting it.
So am I trying to follow my successful prediction during the primaries in 2007 that Obama would be President with a similar one about Paul? In a word, no. He doesn’t have a realistic chance to be nominated by the GOP, who would prefer to lose with Bush or Walker or Rubio.
But if he were nominated, he’d be a fascinating candidate to watch, capable of snipping off a bit of left-wing support for his stances on war, drugs, voting rights, and prison reform, and at least attempting to reach out to constituencies Republicans advertise to but rarely actually converse with. He’s against so many things that practically everyone agrees with one or two of them. And his inability to hire staffers who can spell might not matter, given the precedent set by the most recent successful GOP nominee.
In the end, however much we might wish it were otherwise, intelligence isn’t necessary to be a winning candidate for President; in real life Jed Bartlet would lose to George W. Bush. And to those whose view of candidates is rather superficial, Rand Paul has many of the folksy qualities of W. without the baggage of his New England WASP family history or his interest in big government and war.
Rand Paul is not a threat precisely because his approach represents a threat to the existing structure of political coalitions. That’s what makes him so much fun to watch.