Political Opinions Are Based On Bias and Emotions
WASHINGTON – The most stunning feature of Hillary Clinton’s vast popularity is that even her most loyal supporters are unable to name anything she has accomplished while serving as a US Senator and later on as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term.
What is Clinton’s record?
Interviewees usually argue that they want her to be President because of her stellar record. As we all know, she has done a great job as a public servant. But when asked to name any accomplishment (major legislation she promoted eventually passed by Congress, and/or any landmark US foreign policy achievement she promoted while Secretary of State) in most cases they do not know what to say.
The first woman President
And yet, this obvious inconsistency invites no additional reflection. Clinton’s supporters remain fiercely loyal supporters, even though obviously they do not know why. And this tells us that political preferences, even when strongly felt, are based on impulses, emotions and other assorted irrational components. (In Clinton’s case, the fact that she may become the very first woman President in US history created some kind of a magic aura around her candidacy. Millions of voters want to make history by electing her, this way showing how a factor that has nothing to do with real qualifications for office may determine the outcome of a presidential election).
All in all, it would appear that political preferences seldom are the consequence of a reasoned analysis of the issues, the positions taken by various candidates and an evaluation as to which proposed approach seems more viable.
Thomas Jefferson argued long ago that there is a direct connection between an educated citizenry and a vibrant republic. Indeed, as a republican form of government is all about active participation in self-government, it follows that the system cannot work very well if the people are ignorant about the issues being debated, and who stands for what; while they lack a good understanding of the process to be followed in order to get to lawful policy decisions.
A republic cannot function if the citizens are ignorant
Jefferson and his peers did not mandate tests aimed at verifying a minimum level of knowledge and proficiency. They simply indicated that, while an educated person most likely would be a better and more responsible citizen, a republic in which most citizens are ignorant could not possibly function well.
No civic education
Sadly, if we fast forward to today, we see that Jefferson’s wise exhortations have been ignored. In today’s America there is very little focus on civic education. Most people know little. They have a vague and usually incomplete knowledge about issues, what’s at stake, who is for or against this, and why.
And the information universe, while incredibly rich, is mostly bad. It is mostly a cacophony of biased opinions mixed with utter falsehood. Worse yet, even traditional media have blurred the lines between information, opinion and entertainment. In the past we had news, political satire and editorial pages. But there were recognizable boundaries. Now all this is increasingly blurred.
The general public is mostly uninterested in all this and therefore ignorant. Large numbers of those who are engaged are increasingly prisoners of ideological bias reinforced by partisan media that repeat this bias on a constant basis.
Mostly opinion, little news
Take Fox News, for example. Each and every evening, starting at 7:00 pm, this openly conservative cable news network dishes out 4 hours of (mostly conservative)commentary. Yes, 4 hours –every evening. Each hour is led by a different commentator who picks and chooses topics, interviewees and slant. Very often the same topic reappears throughout the evening. The difference is that it is served in a different sauce.
Mind you, all this is quite open and transparent. In other words, Fox is not pretending that these are actual “news programs”. Still, 4 hours of opinionated commentary? Every night? Isn’t it a bit much?
How do we form our opinions?
Needless to say, all Americans have a right to their opinions. But Jefferson would have liked these opinions to be arrived at after a careful vetting of the issues and a rational evaluation of the possible impact of this or that proposed solution. Of course, thinking hard about policy choices with an open mind is no guarantee that we shall reach wise decisions.
But now we have millions of voters who strongly embrace biased opinions, rejecting as a matter of course any facts that would contradict what they believe in, while watching or listening only to those who repeat the same biases they already hold. At the same time, voters of both parties will strongly support candidates for the highest office without even knowing why. This cannot be good.