Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fools, Frauds and Politicians

Paul Krugman summarizes his "Fools and Frauds" theory of politicians, and its effect on the present Republican primaries:
I view the primary race through the lens of the FOF theory — that’s for “fools and frauds”. It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead.
FOF is a close cousin to the "stupid or lying" debate that has at times come up in comments to this blog - when politicians say things that are patently untrue is it because they're stupid (fools) or because they're frauds (lying). The fraud assumes either that you're uninformed, and not likely to become informed, or that you're too stupid to see the facts that are right in front of your face.

But here's the thing: even if it is a fine illustration of the phenomenon at work, FOF is not unique to the present primary campaign. In fairness, if that's the word, every politician is a little bit of a fool (asked to comment on issues that he doesn't fully understand, and bluffing his way through at risk of being accused of making a "gaffe") and a little bit of a fraud (making representations or campaign promises that he knows won't bear fruit, or that he knows are at best partial truths, because part of the problem is that the public often doesn't want the whole truth). To some degree, FoF stands as an illustration of the maxim that people get the government that they deserve.

One thing is certain, though, as long as fact checkers approach the issue of facts with fear of being accused of partisanship if they don't balance out their truth-telling between the sides, as long as the news media chooses not to "take sides" even when the truth is objectively determinable, and as long as the primary focus of "news analysis" is either partisan commentary or a battle between pundits who are often, themselves, fools and frauds, people will continue to have difficulty getting accurate information or separating the truth from fraud and fiction. And that's before we get into the foibles of the human mind, and how we tend to dismiss or diminish facts that get in the way of our beliefs, even when our beliefs are wrong or irrational.

I've recently commented on the bizarre impact that FOF is having on the Republican primary process, but I don't think it's so much the Republican candidates that are the problem. It's that they are dealing with a base of voters that has been trained and empowered to demand that candidates pass certain litmus tests, and that modern campaigns are driven by polls. The Democrats benefit, if you can call it that, from having a less cohesive base and thus far fewer "make or break" litmus tests, but the downside is that, at least historically, it's harder to unite the base behind a candidate.

It may be that polls are now so central to campaigns that we'll increasingly see candidates distinguishing themselves from each other in the manner of the present Republican campaign (or in the manner that Gore failed to distinguish himself from Bush during his campaign, lending credence to the myth that there was no significant difference between them).
That opponent is plain, ordinary supermarket vanilla. The candidate over there may taste like vanilla but he's vanillin, only pretending to be vanilla. The candidate in that other corner is Mexican vanilla. You may thing he tastes better than the supermarket brand, but don't be fooled. Oh, and my other rival? Vanilla bean paste - he's a little bit thick, if you know what I mean.

Me? I'm Tahitian vanilla. Strong, flavorful, aromatic (in a good way), and just what we need to bake a perfect Republic.
To the degree that this election is different from those that came before it, it's only a matter of degree.

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