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Book Reviews

Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones

by David Moscrop

America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation

by Dan Meegan

On Feb. 7, 2019,
The Globe and Mail published a front-page story alleging inappropriate influence from members of the Prime Minister’s Office – up to and including the PM, Justin Trudeau – with the intent of convincing then–Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to reconsider prosecuting Quebec-based company SNC Lavalin on criminal charges. Numerous takes on the scandal have been floated from various positions on the political spectrum, all motivated by attempts to influence the popular perception of who did what when and who is at fault.

The collision of partisan politics, media manipulation, and cognitive biases makes the SNC Lavalin affair a perfect test case for the kind of influences that serve as the bedrock for political theorist David Moscrop’s Too Dumb for Democracy?, an examination of how our unconscious (or even preconscious) brains determine our political actions and decisions, often resulting in disastrous outcomes (Brexit and President Trump being only two examples from recent history). Psychology professor Dan Meegan focuses on similar material in America the Fair, about the ways in which opposing liberal and conservative values act as drivers of political affiliation and how voters’ minds could be changed or persuaded in alternative directions.

Of the two, Moscrop’s book is the more general, encompassing a broader scope and wider frame of reference. He is interested in the reasons why we make bad – that is, thoughtless, error-driven, or manipulated – political decisions and how we can guard against them in an environment of heightened partisanship, information overload, and bad-faith actors. Meegan, an American expat teaching at the University of Guelph in Ontario, confines his analysis to the economic realm and focuses tightly on the divergent impulses driving liberal and conservative U.S. voters to support their preferred candidates, parties, and ideologies.

One significant distinction between the two books is their respective authors’ approaches to morality or values. Moscrop is careful to point out that his definition of a “bad” political decision is morally neutral; Meegan, by contrast, insists that liberal and conservative decisions are motivated by competing sets of values. In particular, in Meegan’s conception, liberal voters in the U.S. are driven by a focus on the needs of others in society, while conservatives are driven by a focus on equity. Liberals, he suggests, are satisfied with a certain amount of unequal treatment if it results in what they perceive to be a situation in which the neediest are taken care of. Conservatives, by contrast, rail against any attempt to treat citizens differently, regardless of those citizens’ relative wealth or material well-being. The way to change the minds of the latter group, Meegan argues, is by appealing to their sense of fairness rather than by attempting to impose a self-righteous morality over them.

It’s a persuasive argument and Meegan unpacks it well, though his strict focus on economics renders his analysis vulnerable to accusations that he ignores broader structural issues and those outside an individual’s personal control (unconscious racial motivators in hiring practices, for example, or social policies that reinforce and repeat a systemic subjugation over women’s bodies). Such issues are implicitly bundled into Moscrop’s analysis, which proceeds in a highly determined fashion, beginning with an examination of the way our brains operate and proceeding through his impression of what constitutes good and bad political decision making, then concluding with suggestions as to how we can promote the former and suppress the latter.

The arguments in both books benefit from their authors not subscribing to any particular party or ideology; Moscrop examines cognitive biases and unconscious prejudices outside the context of any prescribed political philosophy and Meegan explicitly identifies himself as an independent (he tilts toward the Democrats but has some harsh criticisms of Obamacare, for instance).

Neither Too Dumb for Democracy? nor America the Fair will appeal to readers who suppose that a political system based in European-style liberal democracy and capitalist free markets is hopelessly corrupted and should be dismantled altogether. What these books will do is point out the various ways in which our modern democracies are vulnerable to being undermined by bad actors or a voting populace that lacks the curiosity or understanding to appreciate the ways in which they are coerced into making decisions – conscious or otherwise – that work against their own best interests.