Here’s a scenario that’s not easy to conjure: It’s inauguration day. Your new president is being sworn into office. Unlike their now disgraced (and, dare we speculate, incarcerated) predecessor, they’ve worked at various levels of government for years, steeped in the intrigue and conventions of Congress.
Yet for all their investment in the system, they’ve canvassed on the promise of change. Instead of blarney and bluster, they spent the campaign diagnosing a malignant political landscape that you have long believed to be broken. You haven’t really bought their Damascene conversion. How could you? Politics, to pull an evergreen quote from Orwell, has always been “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia”.
But then they step up to the lectern to deliver their inaugural address, and to the surprise of everyone present, it goes something like this:
“Good people of America: it is my duty, as your newly elected president, to state plainly that many of the policies pursued by this government in recent years have been immoral, stupidand wrong. For decades, the people representing you in these assemblies have allowed political expediency to get in the way of their moral judgement, and because of that, thousands of people have died in needless wars, millions of people have seen their standards of living diminish, and hundreds of our towns have entered an era of terminal decline. Politics demands tough choices, but the era of ass-covering and buck-passing has to end. In a just world, some of the men and women behind me would be on trial in The Hague.”
“A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her 2010 book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, “about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”
And there are few areas of life where our wrong-phobia is in greater evidence – or has more corrosive consequences – than politics. From the rogues and clowns populating our parliaments to the voters on the streets, huge numbers of us refuse to adjust our political loyalties even as the shifting context demonstrates we were wrong. Even more of us struggle to admit we’re wrong even when we know we are.
Contemporary examples could hardly be more ubiquitous. Trump, predictably, appears to be a Grand Wizard of both tendencies, though whether this is intentional is anyone’s guess. Whenever he contradicts himself, he never does so with the qualification that the initial pronouncement was wrong, preferring instead to imply that it’s all part of some master plan or that accusations of inconsistency are altogether false. It’s a dissemblance that many of his supporters seem all too happy to imitate. Listen to the silence from Trumpland every time their hero, the man who promised to reform America’s relations with Russia, appears to flirt with initiating a third world war.
It is no exaggeration to say that humans are almost universally terrible at admitting when they are wrong.