In 2011, Steven Pinker wrote the world-changing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In that book, Pinker described the myriad ways in which we humans have become kinder, gentler, smarter, and more accepting of one another. All these trends were clear via many different aspects of our society, from crime statistics to song lyrics, from how states interact to the state of mass entertainment. Pinker discusses much of this change in terms of the Flynn Effect – the puzzling (and surprising, to those who don’t work with brilliant young people every day) fact that average IQ scores are on the rise.

Prophetically, Pinker pointed out there was one area that seemed immune to the trend – in fact, seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. That was the state of national politics. Careful analysis of the words of the candidates showed that the level of discourse in debates was in steady decline.

I quote from page 797:

“In one arena, however, politicians really do seem to be swimming against the Flynn Effect: American presidential debates . . . Ironically, the decrease in sophistication in presidential debates may be the product of an increase in the sophistication of political strategists. Televised debates in the waning weeks of a campaign are aimed at a sliver of undecided voters who are among the least informed and least engaged sectors of the electorate. They are apt to make their choice based on sound bites and one-liners, so the strategists advise the candidates to aim low.”

“Aim low” is an apt description of where we find ourselves today. Yesterday I, like everyone else, read with fascination former FBI Director James Comey’s account of his conversations with our president. Whether Comey’s account shows that the president is guilty of a crime, I’ll leave to more practiced legal minds than my own. More interesting to me was the picture Comey’s descriptions painted of our 45th president.

What I gleaned from Comey’s account was a portrait of a man (Trump, not Comey) obsessed with himself and his own inner circle. Unconcerned with whether or not a foreign power had gained a foothold in the American election process, President Trump’s interest focused on the denial of a personal relationship with “hookers and Russia.” Unconcerned with whether or not his former National Security Advisor had been compromised by those same Russians, President Trump’s interest centered on letting Flynn go because “he is a good guy.” Unconcerned with whether or not his FBI Director would faithfully execute his sworn duties, President Trump told Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

If this was just a slam piece from a disgruntled former employee, we might dismiss the indictment of President Trump’s character, but it is far from isolated. A Washington Post article in July (quoted here)

reported Trump as saying that he does not read extensively because he is able to come to correct decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

A report on the website Politico indicates the lack of depth in Trump’s decision-making process:

White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

And then, of course, there’s Trump’s famous line after the Nevada primary, “I love the poorly educated.”

Pinker warned us in 2011 that our presidential politics (unlike, thankfully, most aspects of our lives) were in a race to the bottom. Our only hope is that we’ve found that bottom in Donald J. Trump.

OK, that’s all depressing. Now read this, an interview with Pinker in December in which he gives us reason to hope. I was especially moved by his statement that “(a) modern liberal democracy is a precious achievement.” Indeed. Too bad Pinker is Canadian; he might make a good anti-anti-intellectual candidate.

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