We demand an absurd level of certainty from our politicians – and this makes them stupid
It is said that intelligence is not static. Whilst we all are born with a certain IQ, it is possible that with curiosity to learn by reading, listenening and reflecting, one can improve her intelligence or indeed the lack there of could drive one the other way round. Whilst this is applicable to professionals in any field, this article by Ian Leslie brings out the fact that politicians in particular face the occupational hazard of waning intelligence given the inherent need to show their strongman side and hide any vulnerabilities including a lack of understanding of any subject lest your followers lose confidence in you.
“Politicians are not the only people who get dimmer over time, but they are in greater danger of it than most. Politics is a game in which the participants must purposefully blunt their own minds in order to win.
To stay intelligent, a person needs to stay alert to their own ignorance, and to the possibility that others have thought about things more deeply than they have – otherwise there is little point in listening, or thinking too hard. But this requires being comfortable with admitting that you don’t know, that you’re unsure, that you might be wrong. Everything about the culture of politics makes this habit dangerous and even self-destructive. To be a successful leader or activist, you must project conviction in your views at all times. We demand an absurd level of certainty from our politicians, and this makes our politicians stupid.
To stay intelligent requires independence of mind. It’s crucial to apply our critical faculties to propositions made by people whom we like and mostly agree with, and to be able to recognise value in ideas from people for whom we have no fellow feeling. But politics tells people this is a foolish way to behave. To clamber the heights of a political party, you have to value fealty over truth. You gain status by signalling your loyalty to the group, and lose status by questioning its received ideas. The more ingrained this habit becomes, the harder it gets to fire up the brain when it’s needed.
To stay intelligent requires a supple mind. An intelligent person habitually revises their assumptions in light of new evidence or better arguments. That requires a certain scepticism about your own beliefs; you can hold them firmly but you can’t enjoy them too much. Politics, at least in its most ideological form, makes a fetish out of beliefs, demanding that they be fixed, inviolable. We admire signposts, not weathercocks.
My definition of an ideologue would be one who has a rigid mental model of the world, and allows it to substitute for actual thinking. Every new question gets processed by a simple mental algorithm that spits out an answer. An ideologue might be highly intelligent to begin with, but over time, their capacity for thought withers away, and they end up like Redwood or Burgon. This is the crucial thing to understand about stupidity: it is not just the absence of intelligence, but the dogged adherence to a flawed set of rules for thought. Stupidity is a choice – and in politics, sadly, it’s often the right choice.”