September 26, 2012 columns

Witch Doctor Politicians

Powell encourages skepticism about politicians and their claims.

On the book jacket for Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical, we’re told that “America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name.”

Maybe, but certainly not when it comes to our politics. We Americans are all too unphilosophical in our approach to politicians and policy, relying instead on tribalism, moral posturing, motivated reasoning, and everything that leads to politics making us worse.

In fact, everyday American politics looks a lot more like villagers supporting and condemning rival sets of witch doctors than it does ancient Greeks conducting symposia in the Lyceum.

Imagine you’re living long, long ago. Your crops fail. This could’ve happened for a number of reasons, from bad soil to insects to poor weather. If you understood how any of those causes work, you might be able to address them. But you don’t. So, instead, you decide some agent must be at fault.

Who? Why, that nasty neighbor always giving you the evil eye. In fact, he probably put a curse on you! So, in desperation, you turn to your tribe’s witch doctor. He waves his arms around, chants a few chants, and tells you to slaughter some livestock. Problem solved. Except it isn’t, because next year your crops fail again. Who’s to blame this time? Your first thought is maybe your witch doctor didn’t do a good job. His spell was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, after all. So you storm over to his hut and ask him to explain himself.

But he’s got a convincing response: It wasn’t me, he said. It was that neighbor. The guy must’ve gone and got his own wizard to cast a new spell—a more powerful spell—on your crops. The witch doctor says you have to give him another chance—and another paycheck—and he’ll take care of it. For real this time.

This ought to sound familiar. It’s depressingly similar to how politics all too often works in America. Low-skilled, high-paying manufacturing jobs are disappearing? Why that’s happening is complicated, especially if it has something to do with underlying shifts in the economy and social structure of the United States that lean towards more economic value being found in knowledge-based, creative fields. Better to blame our neighbors in China for giving us the evil eye and turn to the guy who promises to “get tough” with them. Health care costs rising? Must be because insurance companies are evil, and so we need to turn to someone who will tell them to be nice.

This isn’t good, and it contributes to politics making us worse. We distinguish rival witch doctors not by how effective they really are or will be but by which set of specific incantations we prefer. We may like the witch doctor who talks about “fairness” and “social justice.” Or we may prefer the one who likes mentioning “American exceptionalism” or “the middle class.” Once these incantations have been spoken, we rarely bother to examine their effectiveness thoroughly.

Here I should note that it’s probably not correct to think all (or even most) politicians consciously mislead the public about their abilities or necessity. Most of them likely believe that (1) they are capable of solving policy problems and improving the lives of citizens and (2) are necessary for both to occur. But just because they believe that doesn’t mean it’s true. Witch doctors actually thought their spells helped and that appeasing spirits (a task only they could accomplish) was a sine qua non of a functioning community.

The thing is, politicians have every reason to believe in the effectiveness of politics. It’s difficult to sell a product you have no faith in, after all. What’s more, politicians self-select: if you don’t think politics can solve problems, chances are you’ll have little motivation to enter politics in the first place.

So we shouldn’t take the claims by politicians that we need them as dispositive. Neither should we accept at face value similar claims from those dependent on politicians for their livelihoods. We humans are awfully good at convincing to believe absurd things, and we’re particularly good at it when we count on those beliefs to put food on the table.

What’s needed, then, is some way of evaluating the effectiveness—and even necessity—of politics outside of the claims of politicians. This is how witch doctors eventually lost their influence. As we became better able to understand the causes of crop failure, disease, and so on, we came to see that the witch doctors’ spells simply didn’t work. Knowledge drove out superstition.

Such evaluation can and does occur in the realm of policy, of course. But the simple fact is that it’s really difficult—especially given how complex the interaction is between policy and society, and how impossible it often is to compare the performance of alternatives in the real world.

But that’s not the real problem. The real problem isn’t that most of us try to independently evaluate political claims and do a poor job of it. It’s that we don’t bother trying at all. Instead, we emotionally invest ourselves in particular politicians or parties and then take their words as gospel—even going so far as to evaluate independent claims on the standard of how closely they align with what our favored politicians say.

Which all makes politics still look an awful lot like witch doctoring. We identify a problem and then turn to our witch doctor for help. He says he’ll take care of it if only he gets the support he needs. He then mouths incantations—or writes them down and channels them through the impenetrable, eldritch rituals of Congress. If things get better, we praise our witch doctor and pledge to return for more spells in the future. If circumstances fail to improve, we blame the opposing witch doctor and pledge to never let him exercise such pernicious power again.

Most of us in the western world eventually saw through the charlatanism of witch doctors, shamans, and patent medicine hucksters. It’s high time we include politicians, regardless of party, among their lot.