The 2015 election campaigns are under way, and it’s clear that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to political success. Unfortunately, there are several psychological mechanisms that lead to apparent idiots being elected into powerful positions.
Politician enacts a bad policy? They’re a terrible person. They change their mind and reverse it? They’re weak and not fit to lead. Politicians promise improvements (cut taxes, increase spending)? They’re obviously lying. Politicians promise to do something unpopular (raise taxes, cut spending)? A cast-iron guarantee it will happen.
It’s a lose-lose situation, so why do they bother? Many politicians are clearly in it for themselves, but there surely are plenty who really do want the best and just put up with the negative opinions they get.
So, for the record, not all politicians are idiots (although your definition of idiot may vary). But plenty are. The US seem particularly afflicted with them; Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, these people were/are contenders for the presidency. And the archetype George W Bush WAS the president. For 8 YEARS. The man whose idiotic musings managed to sustain businesses had a nuclear arsenal at his command.
Not that the UK can feel smug, with the amount of demonstrable idiocy in our own system. Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Grant Shapps, Jeremy Hunt, David Tredinnick, a ridiculous Labour party (complete with mugs), the rise of UKIP, and the beloved bumbling mayor Boris Johnson.
Plenty of people are quick to point out that Boris Johnson is actually very intelligent/dangerous, that he’s only pretending to be a buffoon. But this underscores the point; an intelligent person has to feign stupidity to achieve political success.
What’s going on here? Logically, you’d want an intelligent person who understands the best approach and methods for running a country in the best possible way. But no, people seem drawn to demonstrations of questionable intellectual abilities.
There are a wide variety of ideological, cultural, social, historical, financial and other factors involved, because politics incorporates all of these things, but there are also some known psychological processes that may contribute to this phenomenon.
Confidence inspires confidence
Confident people are more convincing. This is has been demonstrated in many studies. Most studies focus on a courtroom setting, and suggest a confident witness is more convincing to a jury than a nervous, hesitant one (which obviously has worrying implications for justice), but it can be seen elsewhere.
Effectively running a country of tens of millions, all of which have different requirements and demands, is an incredibly complicated job. There are just so many variables that need to be considered.
One of the often-cited qualities of George W Bush was that people felt they could “have a beer with him”. Ergo, they felt they could relate to him. By contrast, elitism is a negative quality. The idea that those running the country are outside the norms of society is alarming to many, hence constant efforts by politicians to “fit in”.
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.
It’s an unfortunate situation, but it just seems to be the way people’s minds work. There’s a lot more to it than what’s mentioned here of course, but including that would make the whole thing more complicated, and that’s no way to get people to like something, as should be obvious by now.
Dean Burnett thinks democracy would be perfect if it weren’t for all the people involved. He’s on Twitter, @garwboy