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Crazy Talk

Can we restore sanity and reason to politics?

If you’ve noticed that politicians will say almost anything to get elected and rarely pay at the ballot box for misleading voters, you’re not alone. Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy and public policy, wrote a book on the subject: Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy and Our Lives. He spoke recently with Scott Anderson.

Not long ago, politicians who got caught lying suffered negative consequences. You point out that untruths often help them now. What’s changed?
Over the past five decades, communications strategists have learned that it doesn’t matter whether or not what a politician says is true. The question is whether what they say resonates with voters. Academics and media pundits often still respond to this kind of political communication the old-fashioned way, which is to jump up and down and say, “But that’s not true!” Often, though, it’s not true on purpose. What the politician has said is designed to annoy you. And every time you write a column or a blog post saying, “So-and-so just claimed x but it’s not true,” you’re unintentionally repeating and reinforcing their actual message.

We need to raise the level of sophistication of how we respond to these political strategies, and to flag the fact that it’s a general problem for democracy when you have a political debate in which no one is even trying to say anything true.

Among conservative politicians, there seems to be a widespread mistrust of knowledgeable experts – often disparagingly called “elites.” Why?
A trend that’s clearer in Canada than in the United States is the rise of “common-sense conservatism.” And what is common sense? It’s the things you know to be true without having to listen to an argument. Rob Ford’s common sense was that when you drive around Toronto, streetcars are in the way. Therefore streetcars are the source of Toronto’s traffic congestion. To explain why streetcars are not the source of the problem is complicated. I think the mistrust of experts – who have made many mistakes, by the way – poses an interesting challenge to intellectuals because it forces us to raise our game. We can’t just say, “I’m a university professor and I disagree with this,” because you immediately alienate people. It’s as if you’re saying, “I think I’m smarter than you.” Right there you just got five votes for your opponent.

You note in your book that a lack of civility contributes to declining rationality in politics. How?
Civility is a basic set of rules under which people deal with each other. If people are yelling or interrupting each other, they are being less rational because it takes time to present an argument. One of the key characteristics of reason is that it’s slow. To present an argument out you have to lay it out step by step. Interruption undermines this process. Television has changed enormously in terms of how much people interrupt each other. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News gives people about 10 seconds before interrupting them. If you can’t say what you want to say in 10 seconds, forget it.

What do you see as the longer-term repercussions of this trend?
The real dilemma is for people who see the need for complex policy responses to our problems. Take Rob Ford saying that he is going to end the “war on the car” in Toronto. That’s a super-powerful slogan. And when you’re sitting in your car in Toronto in bumper-to-bumper traffic and you see new bike lanes being put in, it’s easy to feel that there’s a war going on against you. But if you actually want to solve the problem of traffic congestion in Toronto, making it easier for people to drive a car is not going to work. You have to make the case for public transit – and that is a more complex case to make.

To restore reason we have to look to the environment in which these debates and discussions are being conducted. A mayoral debate in which everyone is yelling at each other or a newscast in which people are constantly interrupted are not environments in which you can present complex policy positions. The kind of free-for-all debates held prior to the last mayoral election in Toronto actually favours common-sense conservatism, which doesn’t need to present an elaborate theory.

What specifically could we change to enhance collective rationality?
There are some big things and some small things. In the last Ontario election, the conservative party said “we’re going to create a million jobs.” That number was plucked out of a hat. But even parties that don’t pluck their numbers out of a hat make their own assumptions about what’s going to happen in the economy. In the Netherlands, the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis creates a baseline scenario for the economy’s performance, which all political parties must use in their platforms. This impartial body also analyzes each party’s platform for its impact on the Dutch economy. That’s a huge enhancement in how political debate is conducted on economic questions. Smaller things could be done with respect to political advertising, such as removing music, which appeals to emotions rather than reason.

At the end of the book, you lay out a manifesto for slow political discourse.
That’s kind of a joke. It’s a parody of the slow food manifesto. The details are not serious, but the general idea is. Reason is slow, and speed is the enemy of reason. What this means is we need to be at least aware of how our accelerating culture can impair the quality of deliberation and debate. For example, in Canada people want to abolish the Senate. But one of the features of the Senate is it prolongs the process of legislation: it takes months for a bill to pass. There was a huge shift in public attitude toward Bill C-51. Why? Because we spent months debating it. It’s important to recognize that slowness is a virtue in the political process.

A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in print.

Watch Joe Heath on TVO’s The Agenda, with Steve Paiken

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Crazy Talk ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    This interview with Prof. Joseph Heath is blatantly biased. While the professor’s comments themselves are reasonable, he only provides examples of untruths or lack of civility from the conservative side of the political spectrum. I’m sure it would be easy to find examples from all sides and thus present a balanced critique of our political affairs. This bias unfortunately erodes the credibility of U of T Magazine and the university, which should be teaching students to think critically in general, not just about one side.

    Robert Torok
    BComm 1985

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Prof. Heath responds: The published interview may give the appearance of bias. In my book, Enlightenment 2.0, I provide an extensive analysis of the problem of “truthiness” in politics, and why it is much more prevalent, at the moment, on the right wing of the political spectrum. In other words, what is being perceived as bias is, in fact, a reasoned position; it’s just that I did not have an opportunity to present those reasons in a short interview.