The illusory stupidity of politicians

post politics media

American media has a long history of portraying politicians, and people of power more generally, as stupid and naive. Saturday Night Live’s political skits are wonderful examples of this. SNL has a distinctly liberal lean, and so tends to focus on GOP figures, but there are many examples of analogous media portrayals from the conservative side of the Overton window, too. Articles and TV segments abound from all across the political spectrum that propound the blatant idiocy and plebeian nature of the other side’s figureheads.

Despite the media portrayals, are politicians actually stupid and naive? I think the answer is a resounding hell no. Take someone like Steve Bannon, who has been pilloried by the media (see here, here, and recently here). It seems to me that the general characterization of Steve Bannon is as a naive, corrupt, sometimes idiotic, and boring guy. If you’re politically liberal and reading this, I’d guess that you agree (if you don’t, send me an email or a DM!). Now, try to gently put that conception aside for a moment and watch this video of him discussing China.

When I first saw it, I was blown away at how articulate he was and how parsimonious some of his explanations were. Surely there was a mistake. This was Steve Bannon, a known dumbass, a ‘lying, fascist prick’! That fool couldn’t possibly be referencing 老百姓 and Chinese political philosophy! He just, you know, spends all day reading the shit that Breitbart writers spew… he, he…

I implore you to try this exercise with any politician you think is stupid and/or naive (with the exception of Trump – Trump seems to either be (1) a counterexample to this pattern, or (2) very secretly intelligent). Try and find a longer interview or piece of writing from the politician that was created during a period when they weren’t in the heyday of their political career. I suspect that you’ll be surprised by their cogency.

The question then becomes why? Why are we deluded by the media about the intelligence and ability of our politicians?

One explanation is that it’s just another example of partisan conflict. The powers that be on either side of the political spectrum want their political opposition to seem stupid, naive, weak, etc. so that voters are less inclined to vote for said opposition. While perhaps correct, this is uninteresting. It’s the same story we’ve heard for years.

A more interesting question to ask is not just ‘why are we deluded by the media’, but rather why do people eat it up? The media can propagate whatever messaging it wants, but at some fundamental level, the populace has to swallow what it’s being fed. Various psychological tricks are routinely used to make the act of swallowing easier on us poor bastards, but there must be some degree of deep acceptance of the information.

In the case of the illusory stupidity of politicians, I’d chalk it up to an innate desire to feel as though one is smarter than one actually is. It’s tempting to believe that you could be doing what the politicians are doing. It’s tempting to tell yourself that if circumstances had been a bit different, if you had really given it a good college try, you could totally have gotten elected. In the safety of your own head, it’s all too easy to ‘know’ that you’re an expert on the issues that face the nation and the difficulties of becoming an elected official.

The Dunning-Kruger effect rears its ugly head here – most Americans simply aren’t conscientious enough to realize that the world of foreign affairs and public policy is extremely difficult to think about and act competently inside of.

Perhaps most things are like this! Perhaps the world is a bit more complex than how the media portrays it!