How Can We Save Democracy from Our Own Irrationality?

Wrecking ball labeled "politics" destroying a monument to civility

Recent studies confirm that when people holding false beliefs are confronted by facts contradicting those beliefs, not only do they fail to reject their false beliefs, but they believe them even more strongly than before.*

Philosophers, political scientists and social psychologists have long noted the irrational aspects of human nature. Nonetheless, one of the cornerstones of classical democratic theory is faith in reason. The focus on reason in democratic thought reflects the Enlightenment view that reason is a kind of light that dispels the darkness of the world; a faculty of the mind that advances knowledge and, despite the shortcomings of human nature, provides a source of optimism for human progress. If reason fails to function, as suggested by the conclusions above, democracy must confront a major challenge.

Democratic thinkers have long held that because people are rational, they can come together and review the facts of any situation. Through public discourse and debate they can discover the proper course of action based on a rational analysis of the facts. The conclusions of this process are then ratified through a vote that reflects the will of the majority. Classical democratic philosophers, most notably John Stuart Mill, argued that truth is discovered through an open airing of opinions and debate. In his famous essay, On Liberty, Mill identified at least four reasons to permit the liberty of thought and discussion. The first of these was that the popular point of view, the received opinion of the day, might in fact be false, and an open hearing from all points of view would be the procedure most likely to discover the truth. Because we are rational creatures, the community would adopt the truth and reject the false point of view.

Some have argued against the fundamental rationality of human beings, especially when they turn to politics. And if we are to believe the contemporary social psychologists who conducted the studies mentioned above, the cornerstone of rationality in our democracy collapses and the voting process institutionalizes irrationality. This is not something in which we should take pride. There are few areas of life where we would endorse irrationality as the best way to solve problems. We certainly don’t want irrationality in the operating room. We fear it if it appears in the cockpit of a passenger jet. And we assume the rationality of others as we drive our cars and trucks on our roads and highways. The business of life requires rational guidance, not domination by irrational impulses or false information.

How can we save democracy from our own irrationality?

There are no easy answers to this question. There are many sources of irrationality in life. Included among these are the influence of social relations, personal worldviews that do not fit the facts, general ignorance, and threats to self-esteem. Attempting to deal with all these at a national level is probably not possible.

I think the best hope for for keeping irrationality to a minimum lies in the restoration of civility in political life. The decline of civility in recent years both in politics and in society at large is obvious and many have written about it. In today’s political environment political messages frequently contain extremist rhetoric and personal insults. Political discussion seems at an impasse. It is a common observation that the volume of a discussion and its rational content vary inversely with each other. Add personal insults to the mix and reason has no chance to determine the outcome. Digging in one’s heels when under attack is normal. The point of view that one is defending becomes identified with one’s very sense of self. This scenario is doomed to failure. We cannot continue like this.

The rules of civility serve to support the more rational and reflective features of our natures. Perhaps a national campaign toward their restoration might be conducted by members of our national leadership. This is an effort worth undertaking. If civility perishes, so too reason. Without reason, democracy is but a facade for blind allegiance to ideology and ignorance.

*See, for example, Nyhan, Brendan, et. al. “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial,” Pediatrics, March 3, 2014 (published online), and Nyhan, Brendan and Reifler Jason. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior, June 2010, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp. 303-330.



3 thoughts on “How Can We Save Democracy from Our Own Irrationality?

  1. So true – this is why a move to consensus politics vs simple majority rules, would be a step towards more rationality. Sure, it is unwieldy and a difficult process, but instead of winners and losers, we create a civilization that have more positive outcomes. Good post.


    • Thanks Bruce. I appreciate the comment. It seems to me that the current environment, which is filled with so much vitriol, is destroying (if it hasn’t already) any sense of community and common purpose.


  2. I share your goals of civility and rationality–only sociopaths don’t, but unfortunately neurological sociopaths make up about 4% of any population, and the intelligent ones really dominate civic discussion! So, yeah, unfortunately we need to be explicit that both rationality and civility are Good Things, and that not having them is a Bad Thing.

    That said, I am surprised to find myself disagreeing with a few of the basic assumptions/assertions in this post, but unfortunately I don’t have time today to retrieve all my sources. My apologies for this cheap-and-easy summary of my thoughts:

    1) John Stuart Mill’s idea that both individuals and societies make decisions by gathering facts and applying logic makes good philosophy, but very bad neurology. On matters large and small, human brains are HARD-WIRED to reach nearly instantaneous value judgments (is this thing good or bad?) and only then to engage the reasoning brain–not to reason based on the fact, but to come up with justifications for the snap judgment!.

    It only FEELS to us as if we have reasoned our way into–for example–our (acceptance/rejection) of the research that established thimerosal’s safety as a vaccine preservative before the CDC allowed it to be used for infants and children, but in reality we are very unlikely to have reasoned our way to that choice–we either trust CDC on that point or we don’t. Again, sorry for not getting up from my keyboard to go retrieve the book and make sure, but I think a very good review of the neurological research on this phenomenon was in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast And Slow,” and another good discussion was in the first half of Jonathon Haidt’s “The Righteous MInd.”)

    Cautionary note, just in case: It’s not worth any of our time to bemoan our innate snap-judgment reflex. It’s nothing evil or good; it’s how we work. We just need to figure out how best to take it into account.

    2) This post and both of the links (I think; sorry I had time only to skim the second) seem, IMHO, to focus too exclusively on facts/reason, and seem unaware of the critical, decisive role of feelings in our political beliefs.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that none of us—right or left, right or wrong–developed our political beliefs or preferences through facts and reason. Every single one of us came to hold the beliefs and value we do based first on innate personality traits (such as level of authoritarianism) and other sub-rational feelings, and then on social acculturation. Reason, in political debates, is used almost exclusively by everyone regardless of political persuasion, to come up with justifications for things we already believe or simply want to believe.

    All is not lost; there’s a lot of room for reaching operational agreement by discussing things like options, the significance/irrelevance of certain facts rather than their truth; priorities, etc. Americans have gone through periods of more and less agreement. My belief is that once you set aside the approximately 20% of the population who are always going to be right-wing authoritarians because of in-born amygdala characteristics, we can work well with the remaining 80%–including people from all over the political spectrum, which brings me to…

    3) Civility is necessary, but far from sufficient in reaching agreements with our fellow citizens who are neither neurological authoritarians nor sociopaths–who are all we need to reach for successful self-government anyway.

    We need to understand and engage their VALUES before we tangle over facts–that is, the general concepts for which they have strong positive feelings–freedom, justice, liberty, family, fairness, compassion, safety, self-government, that sort of thing. (You’ve probably read some of George Lakoff’s work–read his work for what he says about the importance of values, and ignore all his right-left caricatures of people, which are more divisive than helpful.)

    For example, after reading the description of the methods used in the study of vaccine-messaging, I was not the slightest bit surprised that they got bad results. The authors seem to have assumed that the mothers’ resistance to vaccinations was based entirely on a belief that the MMR vaccination causes autism–the received-opinion caricature of “anti-vaxxers”.

    In fact, acceptance of falsehoods about vaccinations is based on a myriad of active values: Mothers value ‘natural’ things for their babies, and have negative reactions to ‘artificial chemical’ things. Mothers value authenticity when it comes to things that directly affect their babies’ health, and distrust big pharmaceutical corporations with profit motives, and are very suspicious of the control that those corporations have over the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule and the FDA’s regulatory oversight. Mothers value consistency and tradition, remember vaguely how many shots they got as kids, and are taken aback by the very rapid expansion of CDC’s recommended schedule in recent years.

    I could go on, but I hope you get the point of this example: The researchers had NO CHANCE of causing the mothers to reject beliefs consistent with their active values simply by presenting them with information. I am not at all surprised that the mothers’ suspicion was increased, not reduced, by exposure to what probably looked like a sales pitch, which not only seemed oblivious to their active values but merely repeated talking points they had almost certainly heard before,

    If you want to get mothers to be more accepting of vaccinations: 1) Work to understand the mothers’ active, current values that shape their beliefs about vaccinations (that is, don’t mindlessly accept the received-opinion caricature of “anti-vaxxers”); 2) Explicitly acknowledge and affirm those values; and only then 3) provide to them a factual explanation of how vaccinating their children is consistent with those values.


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