The benefits of being dumb in politics

It is natural to think of our political leaders as either superhumanly clever and benevolent when we agree with them, or else dumb as dishwater and evil when we don’t agree with them. Yet, if one takes our own group-loyalty out of the picture, we can ask the simple question what kind of mental qualities are likely to thrive in our Western political environment.

The political environment we have is highly competitive and combative, with constant media scrutiny and constantly shifting political factions. This gives rise to particular psychological demands and pressures: anyone who can’t keep their story straight or buckles under the relentless psychological pressure put on by the opponents from both within their own political parties and outside, is dead on arrival in politics. Hence the minimum requirement is to be very tough mentally and to have a pretty good memory and ability to keep a straight story. This is of course why so many politicians are lawyers, for the legal profession trains people to be careful with words and to keep a line of argument, irrespective of whether they agree with it or not. So successful politicians certainly need to be in, say, the top 5% of their population in terms of smartness. This tallies well with the estimates of Simonton for the IQ of US president who assigned scores by analysing the intellectual content of their written and spoken works. He puts the average US president at an IQ of 142, with Clinton close to the top, easily 20 points ahead of Bush Junior. This indeed puts even the dumber US presidents in the top 5% of their population.

A completely different pressure that operates in our political environment is that a good politician must sound sincere towards the population, even though the story told changes constantly due to the changes in the political winds. Preferably, he must inspire. Politicians must thus constantly flatter the population, say they will quickly sort out problems they have no actual power to influence, and sell compromises. To be able to sell such dubious stories with a straight face requires a special mental adaptation: either the politician must be a superlative actor who can feign sincerity with ease, or he must truly be sincere even though the story he has to sell makes no real sense and shifts constantly. In the latter case, there is a benefit to being a bit dumb.

Consider what politics would do to someone who truly is sincere and yet reflective enough to see all the elbowing, compromising, back-flips, lies, manipulations, and U-turns that are the normal fare of everyday politics. It would offend his or her senses, make them feel dirty and make them lose their faith in humanity. They simply would be grind down by the relentless pressure towards mediocrity and short-term thinking. Hence politics is not the place for the truly sincere and reflective, certainly not in the modern age. For a similar reason will the meek and the sensitive fail in politics: they are not up to the job of backstabbing when they need to.

I would thus argue you get two types of politicians who thrive in our Western democracies: on the one hand you have people who are really smart and great actors as well, who thus have no problems with telling outright lies and with backstabbing, either for some greater good or their own personal glory. From history, names like Bischmark and Churchill come to mind. The Germans, Italians and French seem to have a history of sophisticated charming actors leading them (like Schmitt and Mitterrand). Many UK prime ministers who survived the ruthless training grounds of Eton would fit in that category too. In America, I would think of people like Clinton (with a reported IQ of 150!) and Nixon. Within the recent Australian context, it would seem to me that Paul Keating and John Howard also fit this bill.

On the other hand, you have those that are sincere because they truly do not see the inconsistencies and selfishness in their own actions and those of others. These would be people with iron self-esteems (egomaniacs?), but who lack the critical reflection needed to recognise their own words and actions for what they are: their sincerity is oriented outwards and not inwards, reminiscent of autism. From history, I would say Thatcher and Bush Junior are examples of this, as are Kevin Rudd and, thinking of Queensland, Peter Beattie. Of the well-known politicians today, Obama seems to somewhat fit this bill too. They have above-average smartness, but they combine it with a kind of blindness for their own bullshit, a combination that allows them to be sincere when they promise the impossible and defend the unbelievable. I believe the term for them is ‘conviction politicians’.

Which kind of politician is better for the population? Hard to tell. I would say in a real emergency (like a world war) you want the sophisticated ones at the helm who are better at reading the situation, but when times are dull a bit of sincere conviction adds spice to life.

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21 Responses to The benefits of being dumb in politics

  1. Gummo Trotsky says:

    their sincerity is oriented outwards and not inwards, reminiscent of autism

    Minor nitpick – that sounds more like sociopathy/psychopathy to me. Outward charm wrapped around a core of total self-centredness.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I am not sure that that is true, ie that these conviction types are totally selfish. I can imagine that they are almost the exact opposite: caring sensitive types who have been so numbed by the brutality of political reality (or perhaps already in school) that they no longer reflect because they just cant handle the answers they would get if they would reflect. Their convictions are then a flight forward, a means of finding goodness in a bad situation.

      • Gummo Trotsky says:

        ‘self-centred’ and selfish are almost synonymous but not quite. I might as well throw self-serving into the mix too. It’s quite possible, for example, to behave ‘altruistically’ in a self-centred and self-serving way. Brian Harradine’s frequent horse-trading of his Senate vote for anti-abortion measures provides a historical example.

        I can imagine that there might well be a few caring, sensitive types in politics behaving – or thinking – in the way you describe but if that’s dumb, it’s a self-inflicted dumbness, adopted (without conscious intent) as a defense – and maybe not so dumb at all.

        On the other hand the dumbness of someone with no capacity at all for critical reflection on their own behaviour – like Bush Junior, who really was as dumb as dishwater – that’s something else.

        On Thatcher and Rudd – Thatcher I’ve long considered a sociopath. Rudd, maybe, you could place somewhere on the autism spectrum.

  2. “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
    Think your classification of sincerity is a bit too binary.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      “Do I contradict myself?
      Very well then I contradict myself,
      (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

      I would classify that under sophisticated!

      The classification is a bit simplistic though, agreed. I was trying to keep the point simple. Can you suggest an extended one?

      • You are overemphasising one quality : IQ Brilliance, wisdom and so on, without Love is just ash and dust.
        Wisdom Courage and Compassion/ Faith Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is Love .

        • Sure, there are many other mental traits selected for in politics and important in politics. I simply wanted to focus on the IQ and self-reflection aspects of the situation. By quickly talking about sensitivity, mental toughness, and ruthlessness I tried to give some indication of being aware of other things of importance.
          Would you say unequivocally though that compassion and bravery are selected for in our most successful leader?

  3. Tel says:

    Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence.
    Talent will not;
    nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not;
    unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not;
    the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
    The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

    Calvin Coolidge

  4. Tel says:

    Consider what politics would do to someone who truly is sincere and yet reflective enough to see all the elbowing, compromising, back-flips, lies, manipulations, and U-turns that are the normal fare of everyday politics. It would offend his or her senses, make them feel dirty and make them lose their faith in humanity.

    Andrew Wilkie is a sincere guy who made a poor politician. He didn’t face any particular problem brought on by politics though. He faced the very common problem of deciding when to take action given limited information. If you fart around thinking about it, you end up like Hamlet, and if you don’t consider carefully enough you end up like Othello. Looks like Wilkie preferred the Hamlet option, while hindsight wonderfully points out he should have crossed the floor and waved goodbye to the Gillard government a lot sooner.

    I don’t see how being dumb would have helped him.

    • Tyler says:

      What is the superior outcome that he would’ve achieved by installing an abbott government? The liberals never pretended to have any interest in the sort of Pokie reforms he’d bargained for

  5. derrida derider says:

    In my experience politicians have to have the same qualities as any good salesman – and the first requirement for that is a huge capacity for self-deception. Only true psychopaths can sell to others without first selling to themselves and true psychopaths are exceedingly rare, even among politicians. They are usually more a Brutus than an Iago.

    They all have a wonderful capacity for telling themselves they’re doing the right thing – “after all, I went into politics to make a difference”. Hence the universal propensity for retired politicians to rewrite history in their memoirs – if you want some fairly extreme examples of that then follow Kerry O’Brien’s current interview series with Paul Keating on the ABC.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I dont think that is quite true: politicians have to change their story too often and too quickly, and also too much at very short notice, to be able to completely self-deceive. To a large extent, it has to be ‘business as usual’ to talk about the huge success of policies that are obviously failing, to sell the compromise that was reached five minutes ago that you did not really agree with, and to keep saying how wonderful the people are that you actually intend to screw over as soon as you can. Apart from those that lack almost any self-reflection (the second group: the conviction politicians), the other politicians must be very pragmatic ones of which the better actors are more successful.

      As Machiavelli already said, a good leader has to be able to feign as well as deny. He needs to do it all the time.

  6. Sancho says:

    Barack Obama is often labelled a “technocrat”, which seems about right. He’s smart and competent, but excited more by successfully implementing processes and structures than by grand leadership and ideological victory.

    • Paul frijters says:

      A technocrat in office, yes, but his appeal to voters came from grand and passionate speeches ill befitting a technocrat. I classified him under conviction because he had me convinced he believed his own earlier rhetoric. Perhaps he ‘lost his innocence’ once in office?

      • Sancho says:

        I don’t think it’s quite so clear-cut. Certainly, his campaign cast him as MLK reincarnated, but even on the trail he never turned out to be the angry black mascot either his supporters or enemies wanted.

        • Paul frijters says:

          He certainly made suspiciously few false moves when campaigning. But his efforts in his first term to negotiate with the Republicans and have some of them on his team certainly seemed genuine to me, even though they were completely ineffective. Perhaps he was just feigning. If so, he feigns very well.

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