How to Know You’ve Lost Your Grip on Reason

The shocking events last week in Washington underscore what we’ve known for a long time: The label “United” States is something of a misnomer. America remains a deeply divided society, and nowhere is that clearer than in how the population has responded to the sight of a deluded mob, incited by lame duck President Donald Trump, invading the House and Senate in a violent attempt to stop the certification of Trump’s decisive electoral defeat.

The signs of division are apparent. President-elect Joe Biden and others may cling to the notion that “this is not who we are,” but even after the mob was expelled, more than 120 Republican representatives opposed certifying the election results. Six Republican senators voted with them. They did so even though Trump’s attempts to challenge the election in the courts had been summarily rejected more than 60 times and refuted by Republican Party officials in several key states. Yet immediately after the assault on the Capitol, a YouGov poll showed that 45 percent of Republican voters supported the attack, with 29 percent saying they supported it “strongly.” Other polls are not quite as stark, but even they show a substantial fraction of the population thinks what happened was a defense of democracy, not an attack on it.

The usual framing of America’s current polarization portrays this as a gulf between left and right, with a diminishing number of moderates. Another way to characterize the present divisions, however, may be to draw a distinction between “reasonable people” and “unreasonable people.” What threatens the nation are not differences in ideology, debates over specific policy issues, or even deep constitutional questions; the real danger is the growing number of unreasonable people in U.S. public life. By “unreasonable,” I mean those who are either unwilling or unable to be swayed by facts or honest discussion, and who prefer to build and live in dream palaces of their own imagining.

The presence of unreasonable people matters because the core principles of democratic politics—and especially the commitment to free speech, unfettered media, freedom of association, and the like—assume that the citizenry (and especially its leaders) are receptive to rational discourse in the “marketplace of ideas.” This assumption is perhaps most clearly expressed in the chapter “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. No matter how much our initial preferences may differ, a liberal society rests on the belief that open expression and discussion will bring new facts to light, identify what is working well and what has gone wrong, and spotlight injustices or other departures from core principles. Over time, open debate and discussion will eventually weed out inaccurate information and change enough minds to produce a change of course.

But if unreasonable people become too numerous within the body politics, this model of democratic politics breaks down quickly. If influential figures care solely about their self-interest regardless of the consequences and are willing to manufacture false claims to advance their fortunes and careers, no amount of argument or contrary evidence will convince them to change course. If self-interested partisans swarm the information ecosystem with myths, falsehoods, and crackpot conspiracy theories, rational discourse becomes difficult-to-impossible. Taken far enough, even previously robust democracies may be imperiled, as America’s appears to be today.

So how does one spot an “unreasonable person” in public life? Here are five warning signs.

Warning Sign No. 1: Facts Don’t Matter (to Them)

John Maynard Keynes is said to have responded to a complaint that he had shifted his views by retorting, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” A telling sign that you’re dealing with an unreasonable person is that they don’t care what the facts are, refuse to alter their views even when evidence strongly suggests they are wrong, or prefer to make up whatever “facts” will support the position they currently hold. As the economist Paul Krugman and others have shown, there are a lot of people like that in public life today, including some with impressive academic credentials, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

This trait can reveal itself in several different ways. The most obvious manifestation, as Trump has repeatedly demonstrated, is the willingness to lie, and to do so blatantly and repeatedly. Constructing an alternative reality in this way is the hallmark of an unreasonable person, and American public life has seen all too many of them in recent years. It is also a defining feature of most tyrannies.

Indifference to facts can be more subtle, however. It is also revealed when someone keeps advocating the same policies even when they have repeatedly failed, or when circumstances have changed dramatically. When conservatives call for tax cuts whether the economy is booming or in recession, whether the budget is in deficit or in surplus, or whether unemployment is low or skyrocketing, they are being unreasonable. Similarly, for hawks like Pompeo or the factually challenged lobbyists at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the proper response to anything Iran does is “more sanctions.” If Iran is pushing back, they say, that shows how dangerous it is, and therefore more sanctions are needed. If Iran offers a concession or shows restraint, however, that proves sanctions are working and the United States ought to slap on a few more. Evidence that this policy isn’t working is irrelevant to unreasonable people.

Warning Sign No. 2: Inability to Admit Their Mistakes

Everyone is fallible, and even if they tried hard to get the right answer or to do the right thing, reasonable people will realize they misjudged the situation and need to revise their views or actions. (This was Keynes’s point). Reasonable people can be lazy or careless or just screw up, but they have the integrity and fortitude to admit it and try to fix the problem. Unreasonable people, by contrast, cannot and will not admit they were wrong, much less learn from their mistakes and adjust their behavior.

One can see the difference in the way various media organizations behave. Like all legitimate news organizations, the New York Times makes mistakes—even when its writers report accurately, their framing of events may be troublesome, and some of their editorial commentary might be irritating. Fair enough. But the Times (and other responsible outlets) is usually quick to offer corrections and willing to air the dirty laundry behind some of its larger journalistic blunders. It’s not perfect, but it is for the most part run by reasonable people.

Compare that to Fox News, whose disgraced former chief, the late Roger Ailes, once boasted that Fox  “had never taken down a story because it was wrong.” Ailes was lying when he said this, of course (see No. 1 above), but unless threatened with legal action, Fox and outlets like Newsmax or One America News Network are far less willing to correct the false information they purvey, even when it may have had dangerous consequences. How often have you heard the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Laura Ingraham, or Tucker Carlson admit they made a mistake?

This is not to say that unreasonable people never alter their positions, but it’s not because they have genuinely reconsidered the merits of their prior beliefs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell changed his position on confirming Supreme Court nominees in the last year of a president’s term not because he changed his mind about his earlier refusal to allow the Senate to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland; he rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett last fall solely because he wanted another conservative on the court. Similarly, the officials now abandoning the S.S. Trump as it slides beneath the waves are claiming that they’ve finally seen the light about Donald Trump. These are convenient eleventh-hour epiphanies, not a genuine admission of error.

Warning Sign No. 3: Refusal to Compromise

Sticking to one’s principles and refusing to compromise is sometimes a sign of integrity, so it’s not necessarily a reliable warning sign that someone is unreasonable. Indeed, we honor certain political figures—Nelson Mandela comes immediately to mind—whose steadfast and costly commitment to principle was ultimately vindicated. But a repeated refusal to strike bargains with political opponents for the sake of the greater good can be a sign of unreasonableness, and especially when the only principle at stake seems to be ego, a desire for attention, or some other form of self-interest.

For example, supporters of Ralph Nader or Jill Stein may see their quixotic presidential campaigns as valiant gestures against a corrupt two-party system, but the consequences—the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump—did enormous damage. Neither Nader nor Stein has ever acknowledged that they might have erred. One might contrast their behavior with that of would-be Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders, who reacted to his primary losses to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by endorsing each one and working especially actively to elect the latter. Sanders is a stubborn iconoclast whose political views lie far from the center, but he’s not unreasonable.

Warning Sign No. 4: “My Side Is Always Right; Yours Is Not Just Wrong but Evil

Unreasonable people are prone to see themselves (and their political allies) as invariably right, and to believe that opponents are not only wrong but evil. They are disinclined to give the other side the benefit of the doubt or to entertain the possibility that rivals may have good intentions despite their other disagreements. Reasonable people, by contrast, recognize that their political opponents may have genuine, legitimate, and well-considered convictions—even if they don’t share them—and don’t immediately assume that adversaries are motivated solely by hatred, bigotry, myths, or purely selfish motives.

I believe this particular warning sign is more pervasive within the Republican Party than among Democrats, but it’s not entirely absent among the latter. Some Democrats were all too ready to believe that Trump was a willing tool of the Kremlin and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had some sort of secret hold on him, instead of acknowledging that Trump’s behavior toward Russia might be the product of a genuine desire for better relations with Moscow. It was perfectly reasonable to question Trump’s actions, less so to believe they could only be due to base motives.

Similarly, some forces on the left have been quick to condemn those who do not share every one of their beliefs about what needs to be done about racism, police injustice, bigotry, and some of the other ills within American society. To believe that these problems must be addressed more effectively is entirely reasonable (indeed, long overdue); to believe there is only one way to do it or to condemn those who question some of the proposed remedies is not.

Warning Sign No. 5: “It’s a Conspiracy!”

The last warning sign—and probably the most telling—is a willingness to indulge in conspiracy theories. As I’ve written before, conspiracy theories purport to explain events by claiming that some hidden but extraordinarily powerful group of individuals (or in some cases, a single individual like George Soros) is secretly manipulating a vast array of institutions for their own nefarious purposes. Moreover, the supposed ringleaders are said to be so skillful and all-powerful that they can almost always cover their tracks. If there’s no real evidence for the alleged plot(s), that just proves how powerful the plotters really are and how adroitly they have concealed their dark machinations. In this way, the typical conspiracy theory is impossible to falsify: The less evidence there is, the more powerful the conspiracy must be.

There is a world of difference between the typical conspiracy theory and legitimate arguments about the power of corporations, wealthy political donors, the military-industrial complex, interest groups of all sorts, or the many other entities that shape politics in the United States and elsewhere. Critiques of these various groups do not assume the existence of secret machinations, dark plots, or hidden mechanisms of control; they concentrate on activities that are taking place in plain sight and through legitimate political channels. Whatever the particular strengths or weaknesses of such analyses, they are eminently reasonable lines of inquiry.

Unfortunately, events of the past several decades have allowed a raft of conspiracy theories to reenter American life, fueled by deepening inequality, a highly permissive information environment, an out-of-touch elite, and, most recently, a president who worked overtime to rally his adherents to his banner and legitimate their views. In case you missed it, some of the people who invaded Congress last week were sporting shirts and insignias associated with various anti-Semitic, racist, and frankly loony movements (e.g., QAnon), groups that had for a time been at least partially marginalized within American political life. Today, these groups have open adherents elected to Congress and active in local politics.

These five warning signs may help you spot who is reasonable and who is not, but identifying unreasonable people won’t solve the underlying problem by itself. Trump exhibited all five warning signs (and more) from the beginning of his political career, and he still got elected once. It’s possible that last week’s events will have a sobering effect, and that Trump’s departure from the White House will remove some of the oxygen that is currently fueling America’s paralyzing national division. Maybe some of the politicians and media figures whose careers have benefited from stoking these fires will recognize the danger and stop feeding the fire. Perhaps replacing the Most Unreasonable of Presidents with Joe Biden will restore basic notions of civility and vigorous but reasoned debate to our civic life. Fingers crossed.

But there’s no guarantee that these developments will suffice. If the pandemic lingers, gridlock continues despite the Democrats’ slim control of the House and Senate, economic inequality continues to worsen, and the people who have enriched themselves purveying baseless untruths continue to place personal profit ahead of principle, then the epidemic of unreason will be with us for a long time to come. And because a society that will not listen to reason cannot hope to navigate a complex and dangerous world successfully, the continued influence of proudly unreasonable people may still be the greatest danger that America faces.