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The politics of stupidity

Stupidity is failure’s mental scaffolding: those in its grip worsen problems even as they try to think them through. 

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One characteristic of contemporary politics is that your opponent is not simply wrong but stupid. For one side, this stupidity stems from a lack of education: if only graduates voted, there would be no Trump, no Brexit. For the other side, those same universities churn out what Newt Gingrich, following Nassim Taleb, called “Intellectuals Yet Idiots”, a generation who have studied themselves thick, adrift in a sea of capital-T “Theory”. 

Seeing politics in terms of stupidity has far-reaching consequences. The mass of opposing voters are considered fools: at best naive dupes, at worst blind to all reason. At the same time, opposing economists, think tanks and so on are surely too intelligent to believe anything so manifestly idiotic – hence they must have some sinister, concealed agenda. Ironically, a tendency to see each other in terms of these tropes, the mass of fools and the leadership of conspirators, was one of the few communalities between Brexiteers and Remainers. Needless to say, such framing does not foster democratic dialogue.   

But what exactly is stupidity? And how might we go about addressing it?   

The place to start is with what we might call “dumbness”, a brute lack of intelligence, the kind of thing that might be picked up by an IQ test. You might think dumbness and stupidity are the same. But if that were true, intelligent people wouldn’t regularly do such stupid things. So, if stupidity’s not mere dumbness, what is it?    

There is a psychological literature devoted to this problem, neatly exemplified by Robert Sternberg’s collection Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. One oft-cited case in that literature is Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was friends with the illusionist Harry Houdini until a bitter falling out over spiritualism. Houdini not only told Conan Doyle that seances were nonsense, he patiently explained the tricks behind them.    

Conan Doyle responded with Holmesian ingenuity: in the face of each exposé, he contrived an elaborate counter-explanation involving genuine spirits. As the psychologist Ray Hyman sees it, this is stupidity: Conan Doyle “used his smartness to outsmart himself”.    

But was Conan Doyle’s behaviour really stupid? Motivated partly by the death of his son after the Battle of the Somme (his interest in spiritualism pre-dated this tragedy), Conan Doyle used his intellect to weave a path through grief that, although obviously false, was personally restorative. Is an act stupid if it gets you what you want? To make progress, we need a better example – and the Somme may yet be the place to find it.    

Looking back at the trenches, one of Field Marshal Haig’s contemporaries, Ian Hamilton, remarked that Haig had understood the Somme as “halted mobile operations”. Hamilton’s point is that the framework Haig used to understand the Western Front was taken from the cavalry war of his youth – it was a “mobile operation”, with the tiny caveat that nothing budged for months.    

Haig’s outmoded framework for warfare meant he lacked the conceptual resources to make sense of what was actually happening around him. Such an inability to understand is not the same as mere error. We make errors for all kinds of reasons: if, in haste, I misread my watch, the cause is simply impatience. Haig’s misjudgements, on the other hand, assuming that Hamilton’s diagnosis was right, proceeded from his lacking the right conceptual tools for the job. This conceptual inadequacy is, for me, a paradigm form of stupidity – and here, one with tragic consequences.   

[see also: Why thinking as a team is more important than ever]

Such systematic failures of understanding are a stubborn problem. If the difficulty at the Somme had been laziness, that could have been easily fixed: there was no shortage of energetic generals. But if Haig worked himself to the bone within the intellectual prison of the 19th-century military tradition, then solving the problem becomes harder: one would need to introduce a new conceptual framework and establish a sense of identity around it and military pride in it.    

Defining stupidity as a lack of conceptual resources allows us to separate it from other shortcomings. To know if, say, Neville Chamberlain’s signature at Munich in 1938, authorising Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, was stupid as opposed to reckless or self-serving, we need to know what drove it. One prime explanation is a conceptual failure: an inability to grasp the concept of fascism and its difference from nationalist conservatism.    

Of course, our concepts are never perfect. But there is imperfection and there is inadequacy. One classic symptom of the slide to stupidity is a failure to keep pace with systemic change: Haig’s framework became stupid with the invention of the machine gun, and it became culpably so as others, such as Willy Rohr on the German side, began to spell out a new strategic language.    

How might thinking about stupidity as conceptual inadequacy help our understanding of politics?    

To begin, what’s condemned as dumbness is often actually stupidity. You can see how this might work in the Brexit case. It’s implausible that most of Brexit’s leading proponents are dumb – that is, hampered by low IQs. But Remainers might have reason to regard them as stupid – that is, beholden to a maladaptive concept distorting their reasoning (a 19th-century model of sovereignty being one good candidate).    

Key Trump enablers, from the attorney general William Barr to the secretary of state Mike Pompeo, are likewise anything but dumb. Denied that explanation, their opponents frequently jump to stock slurs to explain their behaviour: they are "corrupt" or "cowards". But it is a little too convenient if our political opponents always turn out to be monsters.    

Instead, a key part of the story must be the presence, within American conservatism, of a concept of Marxism capacious enough to include chunks of Wall Street. It is this which drives what Anne Applebaum rightly called “Vichyite apocalyptic thinking”. It’s not that they don’t see Trump for what he is; it’s rather that, thanks to their model of Marxism, every vote becomes another "Flight 93 Election" in which the supposed extremism of the centre-left licenses any remedy.    

In Haig’s case, the problem was missing conceptual resources. For key figures on the American right, the issue is not an empty toolbox, but one jammed with blunt distinctions. Stupidity occurs when such problematic concepts come to dominate.     

Treating stupidity as conceptual inadequacy also captures its ambiguity, the way in which that which is stupid is partly defined by context. Trump’s conceptual equipment is perfect for certain jobs: this is the truth in his retort that he can’t be that stupid if he took the presidency. If stupidity is lacking the right conceptual tools for the task, then it depends on what your task is. In Trump’s case, race-baiting is one, effective administration another: his competence at the former is as lethal as his stupidity in the other. 

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If what I have said is right, how might we start addressing the problem?  

If the root of stupidity is an impoverished conceptual stock, we need to look beyond any individual. This is because most of us take our concepts from the societies and cultures around us. Rather than thinking in terms of individuals guilty of “vices”, we should think at the population level: particular intellectual or social traditions may be reservoirs of stupidity, stuffed with maladaptive concepts, and liable to infect anyone trained within them. In short, we need to treat stupidity itself as a public health issue – a point worth remembering next time you hear libertarian arguments against face mask mandates.   

Naturally, stupidity does not explain every failure, any more than smarts explain every success. The more jaw-dropping the misjudgement, the more causes it will have: perfect storms of inadequacy, such as the Trump administration’s pandemic management, blend stupidity with resentment, delusion and more. But stupidity is failure’s mental scaffolding: those in its grip worsen problems even as they try to think them through, tightening knots they need to unpick.   

That said, my aim here has been to tell you what stupidity is, not what is stupid. But one can see that no “side” is likely to have a full monopoly on it. Strands of both conservatism and progressivism constitute such reservoirs: just as outdated schema can hold us back, innovative outbreaks of stupidity will occur as new, inadequate concepts are coined, become fashionable and achieve dominance. After asking why our opponent is so stupid, it’s sometimes worth asking why we’re so sure we’re not.   

Sacha Golob is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London. He is the Editor of "The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy" and the director of the Centre for Philosophy and Visual Arts.   

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @ajwendland

[see also: How Britain and the US became trapped in the nationalism of decline]