Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The American Hive Mind

Tonight is apparently the night where I blog about Stupid Things That Pundits Do. Here is another one.

To hear pundits talk, the American voting public is one massive throbbing brain, inconceivably complex. Politicos, particularly the successful ones, talk about The American Public like it was a real person, processing thoughts, hopes, and fears, just like you and me. "The American people want X!" they'll say. "That means they've rejected Y, the opposite course!"

Then invariably some poll comes out showing that many voters want both X and Y, and commentators are overcome with befuddlement and turn mental somersaults trying to resolve the unresolvable contradiction. "What is America thinking?" they'll ask.

I call it the Hive Mind Theory.

Everbody ignores the obvious answer: giant groups of people don't think. Individual people think. But they have thoughts that contradict the thoughts that other people are having. When you poll the whole group, the topline numbers disguise as much as they reveal. People who agree might have started with different assumptions, and people who disagree might be starting from the same place. As a result, you can't ascribe normal chains of thought to a mass of people. A nation, full of individuals coming at a problem from different directions, is literally incapable of saying to itself "I believe A, which leads to B, which leads to C."

If that seems obvious to you, then congratulations, you're more sophisticated a thinker than two-thirds of our political class.

The Hive Mind approach to political commentary also naturally leads to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a moderate consensus that is being distorted by the ideologues in each party. Pundits look at polls saying a majority of voters reject both Democratic ideas and Republican ideas, and, as usual, treat these somewhat contradictory results as if they were two ideas coming out of a single inscrutable mind. They then expend enormous energy trying to understand the train of thought that the American hive-mind has adopted. Invariably, they decide that "Real America is in the middle!" Au contraire, Davids Brooks and Broder. This is not insight. This amounts to nothing more than an observation that the United States has two parties and both of them will get votes from a decent number of people.

Virtually all mainstream political commentary engages in the Hive Mind charade to some degree, and is therefore worthless and unenlightening to exactly the same degree.

Not that I expect anyone to drop it anytime soon. The swollen class of pundits relies on its ability to plumb the depths of the American psyche. It gives them an endless topic for discussion. Because it isn't real, their ideas about it can never be wrong. Because they made the subject up, they're automatically experts in the field. Because every data point in American Collective Psychology can be immediately be countered with another data point, there's no risk of ever conclusively resolving any question. It's a puzzle without an answer, perfect for occupying the minds of pundits and the televisions of viewers until the end of time.

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