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Hooligans, hobbits and vulcans – Oh, my! Why elections have become unpredictable

Surprised by the Brexit vote? Shocked by Donald Trump’s victory? Most analysts, investors and journalists failed to predict the outcomes of those elections, but the work of two political scientists offers valuable insight.

Read it on getAbstract

“Most democratic citizens and voters are, well, ignorant, irrational and misinformed nationalists,” Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan writes in Against Democracy.

Brennan’s bracing book was published before Trump won, and it makes no mention of Brexit. He was referring to voters in general, not the two recent surprises.

University of Michigan political scientist Arthur Lupia is equally unimpressed by the wisdom of the masses. He posits that political decisions are driven more by biology than by open-minded analysis of candidates and their positions. In his fascinating study, Lupia argues that the human brain just isn’t designed to take in new information, and it’s especially not suited for adapting to data that doesn’t comply with preconceived biases.

“We almost always prefer quick and simple explanations over more detailed and accurate ones,” Lupia writes.

Brennan, for his part, breaks down democratic voters into three groups:

1. Hobbits

These know-nothings typically don’t bother to vote, and they pay no attention to politics, policy or current events. Hobbits generally lack opinions about political matters. It’s not that hobbits are defective human beings; they’re just busy people with jobs and families and little time to follow politics.

2. Hooligans

The political equivalent of avid sports fans, these true believers form strong opinions and then cling to them, regardless of the facts. Hooligans stay informed, but they take pains to seek out information that confirms their views, and they reject information that contradicts their deeply held opinions. For hooligans, party affiliation and political identity are deeply connected to self-image. They dislike those who disagree with them, and hooligans are unable to accurately convey the point of view of someone with a conflicting position. Most people who are active in politics – including politicians, political activists and citizens who make a habit of voting routinely – are hooligans.

3. Vulcans

Unlike the ignorant hobbits and the emotional hooligans, vulcans are coolly logical. They are aware of their own biases, and they are able to calmly elucidate opposing points of view. They do not believe that those on the other side of the ideological aisle are foolish or misguided. Vulcans are a tiny part of any electorate.

In Brennan’s telling, humans’ innate flaws are an argument against the one-voter-one-vote ethos of modern democracy. He proposes an “epistocracy” where only voters who can prove their knowledge are allowed to vote. Such a system is unlikely to take hold in any major democracy, but Brennan’s analysis of human foibles offers a useful way to view voters’ decision-making.


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