Is Trump's plea for unity taken seriously?

Change in politics?

Reinhard Wolf

To person

is Professor of Political Science with a focus on International Relations and World Order Issues at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main.
[email protected]

The election of Donald Trump as US president at the latest has aroused doubts in many people that liberal democracy is unrivaled in the long run. More recently, populists have been on the rise in many developed democracies. In the presidential elections in Austria in 2016, the right-wing populist FPÖ's candidate, Norbert Hofer, received almost half of the votes. In 2017, a good third of the French voted for Marine Le Pen from the right-wing extremist Front National. Political elites and the educated middle class are dismayed at the dramatic electoral successes of radical parties and politicians who offer supposedly simple solutions to an insecure population. With emotional slogans they apparently manage to mobilize broad support.

Rational arguments based on scientific knowledge hardly seem to interest the followers of these movements. Such statements bounce off highly emotionalized voters who see themselves in conflict with the "establishment" and who no longer believe its representatives. Blanket criticism of "the experts", mistrust of the established media (the "lying press") and the increasing exclusive use of alternative Internet portals promote the formation of one-sided worldviews and deep-seated resentments towards alleged "traitors". [1] The talk of the "post-factual age" only underlines the perplexity of the established opinion makers.

Liberal democracy, many believe, is increasingly at risk because the reasonable part of society can no longer reach the frustrated and emotionalized "masses". Problem-oriented deliberation seems to be endangered by the fact that society is drifting more and more apart: The enlightened citizens who are looking for the truth and the best politics in a factual exchange are apparently confronted with a growing circle of fellow citizens who are no longer open to deliberation are capable because they are only looking for confirmation of their preconceived notions and identity-based feelings.

Blinders of intelligence

However, this condescending view of the "ordinary people who can be manipulated" is as wrong as it is dangerous. It speaks of an arrogance and complacency that fails to recognize how strongly even the supposedly more sensible and educated citizens and opinion makers are guided by irrational points of view. [2] Perhaps they are a little less prone to populist ideas. [3] Emotionalization and tribalistic blinkers can also be found among those who see themselves as part of intelligence. This was certainly also the case in the times when liberal democracy did not yet seem to be in danger. However, it is to be feared that these deliberative deficits will continue to increase even among the so-called intelligentsia - and this at a time when society needs an objectification of the political debate more than ever. Everyone must do more to ensure that a rational, open discussion remains possible.

That intelligent and educated people are by no means immune to an emotional denial of reality, we have probably all already seen in political debates and many of us certainly also in ourselves. This subjective experience will hardly surprise any psychologist. Numerous studies confirm that personal convictions, especially on ethical and political issues, are seldom based on rational considerations. Rather, we usually choose them unconsciously according to whether they fit our moral intuitions, our affects and our social identities. It almost always starts with a subjective opinion. We only look for convincing reasons in retrospect so that we can justify our position towards our environment. [4]

Anyone who believes that this works differently in more intelligent people is mistaken. It is true that people with a higher IQ are usually better able to justify their beliefs. However, this is not because they chose their opinions on the basis of more thorough consideration, but rather because it is easier for them to find supporting arguments. As part of a study, educational scientist David Perkins and his colleagues asked their test subjects to give both arguments to a controversial question that confirmed their own position and those that spoke in favor of the contrary. More intelligent test subjects differed from the rest only in that they could make more arguments for their own position. However, there was no difference in the number of counter-arguments found. [5]

The results of a research team led by law professor Dan Kahan, who examined the connection between science education and attitudes to climate change, are similarly sobering. It found that Americans with better knowledge of science and mathematics are by no means more inclined to view climate change as a serious risk. On the contrary: Overall, the data even showed a slightly positive correlation between science education and the underestimation of climate risks. The reason for this surprising finding is evidently that egalitarian and collectivist-oriented Americans are convinced of climate dangers simply because of their political and cultural identity and regardless of their scientific knowledge. Conservative US citizens, on the other hand, tend to be skeptical. This is most pronounced among the educated among them - presumably because they are better able to find and understand the isolated objections to the predominant scientific position. [6] Similar effects can be seen in studies of attitudes towards firearms possession. [7]

These studies prove once again that all people have a so-called confirmation bias Subject: They shy away from cognitive dissonance and therefore look unilaterally for information and arguments that support their current opinions. And from an individual's point of view, this also has advantages: If I correct my wrong opinion on a political issue, the social benefit is extremely low. After all, my vote will hardly influence the outcome of the next election. However, this learning experience probably weakens my self-esteem, as it shows that I have long held an erroneous view. So it forces me to make an admission that is particularly uncomfortable for people who consider themselves reflected and enlightened and who have already "invested" a lot in their political opinion. In addition, such a rethinking makes us easily outsiders in our - usually similarly thinking - circle of friends or at least triggers arguments and irritations there, which reduce our well-being. [8]

It is therefore very much in the individual's interest to treat facts and arguments unequally, i.e. to question more critically those who contradict our views and those of our friends, and to look specifically for those that confirm our views. Intelligent and educated people are particularly adept in this regard. This makes it easier for them to find confirmation of their beliefs. However, when it comes to critically reviewing or even revising one's own positions, they are by no means more open and willing to learn than the rest of the population.