Is democracy a race to the bottom?

Maybe we need a better way of managing ourselves

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by Mike Meyer

Most people realize their own ignorance. Even if they don’t fully understand the true extent of what they don’t know and can’t do they give it the benefit of the doubt to be safe. This is the proverbial situation of saying, “I probably don’t know what I am talking about but that does not seem like a good idea.”

In that situation it might be better to simply say, “I don’t know shit about that”, but we are social animals and communication is our only unique skill. We usually feel somewhat reassured in that we are not being given the final word and it is safe to ignore whatever is said in those situations.

It’s also important to note that the major qualification on knowledge in the topic under discussion is a mildly negative statement. We are, after all, professing a lack of knowledge and a lack of certainty. The point is that we are usually more comfortable with that level of professed self awareness.

The problems start with someone who is an absolute but totally self professed authority on something. In most cases this produces an immediate level of discomfort unless you happen to be talking about molecular biology with a noted Nobel prize authority on that. It is definitely not comfortable if your neighbor, who does little beyond drink beer behind his garage, is holding forth on genetic engineering. We know who to take with a large grain of salt.

We may listen out of politeness or because we know he makes outlandish claims as a form of humor. In either case we are not at all likely to take what is said as valuable or even worth remembering.

All of this, of course, leads us to the Dunning Kruger effect. And that leads us to Donald Trump. It would be hard to find a better example of that effect as someone so ignorant as to not know they are ignorant than Trump. He has never, as far as I know, ever admitted ignorance on anything even if he didn’t know what it was let alone how to spell it.

The question is how do people ever come to believe someone like that? Almost instinctively we know bullshitters when we see or hear them. A great deal of our humor is based on these unfortunates who insist on making fools of themselves. Trump hold true to form as he does it almost daily.

Almost every comic tradition is based on or includes a Ralph Kramden from the classic Jackie Gleason and Art Carney skits of the Honeymooners still available online. Of course a Ralph Kramden requires an Ed Norton. Some sucker needs to buy the bullshit for the comedy to work. Oliver Hardy needs a Stan Laurel. American humor would not exist without Dunning Kruger.

Perhaps this explains the election of Donald Trump as president. A significant percentage of the American electorate has decided to become Ed Norton. The punch drunk half of an ignorant pair.

The nature of those roles require absolute ignorance with no doubt of complete knowledge. This makes it almost humorous to hear that Trump was thankful for himself on Thanksgiving. “Norton, you know I’m going to make us rich. Here is how we’ll do it . . .”

Everyone laughs knowing what will happen. But we’re not laughing.

Trump is incredibly intelligent so he knows more than all the scientific experts on the planet. Right. But he can say it with a straight face because we know such people have no clue.


It’s fairly obvious what we are dealing with but it is not obvious why this continues. Why are we powerless to correct a ridiculous situation? Do we really want the butt of a million jokes as president? The embarrassment is intense but the danger is frightening.

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We have a Ralph Kramden with a whole cohort of Nortons who are struggling to pretend they know what they are doing when they blatantly don’t. We’ve had years of Republican members vying for the title of stupidest person in Congress. It is not funny.

This is telling us something and we need to pay attention and fix it.

Some of the contestants for stupidest person in Congress are simply shameless politicians playing for the bottom of the voter pool. Do we need people pandering to ignorance or do we need people who can work as leaders to bring us the best solutions for everyone’s benefit? No one even mentions this anymore.

This may be the fundamental reason for the loss of interest in democracy by our newest generations. It becomes a contest between dumb and dumber. Liars, buffoons, and losers are what you end up with driving your society into the ground.

Tragically America has shown that anyone with intelligence and some ethical standards must play to the lowest element or they will be undercut and destroyed by the liars and fools who are willing to pander to that lowest element.

Our species is up against the the wall of climate change that will take the best that we have to survive. Now we have idiots shouting denial of science to keep the money coming from people too ignorant and frightened to know what to do. That is moral collapse. That is not democracy or perhaps it is.

The power that the Chinese are showing is the power to avoid the death from stupidity. Perhaps the answer is to eliminate the pretense of democracy and, instead, hold those that work their way to the top responsible for bad decisions. The Chinese are focused more and more on corruption and incompetence as the indication of failure.

If your management is conscious of maintaining standards and advancing the whole society and willing to bring down anyone who gets corrupt, maybe that is a better way. The pretense of democracy will kill us quicker by denying reality than administrators held to tight standards with a quick trial and prison for those who don’t perform.

Perhaps corruption and pandering to ignorance is what we need to work to eliminate. And the versions of democracy that we have are unable to meet that standard.

We are never going to eliminate ignorance and corruption. We need to live with the reality of what we know or don’t know. Once it didn’t really matter if some of the people we elected were willfully stupid and ignorant. But once you’ve lost the ability to hold people to a higher standard it doesn’t seem possible to recover that standard when you really need it.