The Anglophone world is dominated at the moment by two campaigns that pit total insanity against an uninspiring but also not-disastrous continuation of the status quo. This week, the United Kingdom will vote on whether it’s actually a good idea to be part of the world’s largest market (spoiler alert for non-economists: it is); in five months, the United States will choose between the least qualified, most publicly narcissistic, and least responsible major party nominee in American history and a career politician who lacks novel ideas or an inspiring message, but is probably a reasonably effective manager.
Neither of these choices should be hard. The outcomes should not be close. The polls, however, indicate that they are. The explanation is pretty simple—rule #1 of politics is never underestimate the stupidity of the average voter (if you think I’m being rude or elitist, ask the average voter a few substantive questions about politics and policy and see how few they answer correctly). Remember, Americans and Britons have cast ballots for a long string of incompetent, self-serving fools to inhabit their high public offices. But there’s something more interesting going on here.
Both of these campaigns have seen a greater separation from observed reality than many observers would have thought possible. Put another way, they have been full of not just the standard grandstanding political garbage and weasel words, but straight up lies. Many pairs of pants (or trousers) should currently be in flames. The Leave campaign in the UK has based its main pitch on a figure for Britain’s contribution to the EU which is a total lie. The number they have spouted endlessly (and virtually spent in advance) and painted on the side of their campaign bus has no reasonably articulable relationship with the truth. There’s also a long litany of additional mendacity about the EU, most amusingly about controls on the shape of bananas, but more seriously about Turkish accession. Donald Trump, meanwhile—well, he speaks for himself. And, in doing so, he manages to take all sides on an issue within the space of thirty seconds, while denying that he has ever changed his view. His campaign is not just fact-free, but fact-averse.
Leave may well win. Trump, while his chances are considerably worse, cannot be ruled out. Even defeats for both will come with at least 40% vote shares. Or, put another way, at least 40% of American and British voters will cast ballots for a candidate or a campaign which has made lying the centerpiece of their campaign. Whether out of ignorance or denial of the facts, a very significant share of each country has now decided that reality ought not to be the basis for national decision-making.
When the electorate has moved from arguing about the facts to arguing (with at least one side) entirely separate from or directly against facts, we have gotten to a pretty bad place (we have). Having read about 450 words of this piece so far, you are probably expecting that I have a genius solution to this problem. Unfortunately, I must disappoint you. As far as I can tell, only adverse results (such as war or a recession) are likely to shake people from a disdain for the truth. If you think your doctor is lying when she tells you that punching yourself in the face is a bad idea, you may only be swayed by your sensory impulses in the moment after knuckle smashes cheek.