in Politics and Plans

Magical Thinking

“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost.”

Charlie Chaplin, 1889-1977

The dark side of magical thinking has been unexamined since the explosive arrival of social media in political dialogue; the desire to wear a pair of lucky socks or to enjoy a vision of the United States as a “shining city on a hill” is joyful and appropriate. However, magical thinking is also a condition in which correlation is mistaken for causation. For example, stubbornly grasping to hate or seeing all events as “fate” is magical thinking to avoid pain. These inferences can lead to benign feelings, and dangerous acts yet seem natural when connections between similarities contribute to causal cognition.


Awareness is Growing Strangely

Journalists should get to know the writers examining the linguists of thought and action. Place “magical thinking” and “political speech” into Google, and you get 146,000 references. Aside from Marshall McLuhan, all of the major influencers are alive.[i]  Perhaps interviews with them should ask “how to put the dark side of magical thinking back in the box.” Democracies can come to reasonable conclusions without empirical fact but not without a believable and continuous restatement of principles. So what are they?

Philip Howard’s book, The Death of Common Sense (1994), focused on the hubris of the law; by 2009, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason examined the acceptance of anti-rational positions and anti-intellectual opinions by a growing percentage of the population involving all walks of life. The level of concern has risen consistently as political leaders seek to dominate with disruptive, often baseless observations. Ostensibly they are using their freedom to speak irrationally only to be persuasive instead of informative. 

Several national newspapers have published (and republished) the misrepresentations and lies of the 45th President and others with little impact. In the kingdom of negative press, several journalists are working on amplifying our understanding of this disruption. The BBC editors in Future make this “about us” statement “We believe in truth, facts, and science. We take the time to think. And we don’t accept — we ask why.” The Report recommends the following articles.

How Partisanship Intends to Work.

Frameworks, such as three equal branches of government, support a mature two-party system plus active recognition of “neo-margins.” Democracies can make room for the superstitions and misconceptions of the electorate because a reasonably sized voting public expects equilibrium. For example, mid-term elections tend to go to another party to express independence and a love of political debate to define issues and solve problems. The 2022 election was practically an exception to the rule, but it was not. It was reactionary. The vote continues to call for a stalemate, lasting decades.

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more—indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less—but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”

Ezra Klein, “Why We’re Polarized,” American journalist and author

How Partisanship Works Now.

The intent of voting decisions by the electorate includes the causal cognition of balanced representative power. But regrettably, the presumption of fairness in taking this position has become problematic. Why? Elected representatives have begun to exhibit magical thinking in two branches of government, and the third is suspect.

Enter the “fear and loathing” conspiracy theorists as interpreters of the unexplained, using amulets of distrust from the fringe of the unknowable in opposition to the evidence seekers. The desire for balance has slowly become grounded in the suspicious anticipation of the abuse of power. Zero-sum is the result.

General disinterest in the neo-margins as irrelevant also supports the lack of distinctions between truth and fiction. The “no evidence” dismissal only reveals uncertainty, distrust, and fear. However, when the neo-margins become too extreme, they become subject to the power of enforcement actors. As the rule of law adjudicators, these agents are organized in a tiered legal system and employed by the public as interpreters (not the watchdogs) of misconduct from year-to-year and precedent, case by case.

A contemporary example is David Duke, a prominent antisemite and white supremacist. When imprisoned for embezzlement following the George Wallace campaign (2002), the joke was that he was the only one in his entourage that was not an undercover FBI agent. When arrested in Germany (2011), the dismissive humor remained.

In other less volatile areas, the criticism of elected officials and other leaders for harmful and irresponsible rhetoric occurs without effect. For example, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, suggested the National Archives might have coordinated with Democratic officials to investigate Trump’s removal of classified materials. Within social media, the claim of an FBI plot is then injected. Another humorist pointed out, “They are only mad because librarians busted them.”

The proliferation of investigative opinion by disruptive actors mutes the more extended term required to expose baseless distortion. The rebuke of criticism as “surprising, but not unexpected” occurs to neutralize fact-finding by expelling the narrative as “merely political.” Behavior such as Duke and Jordan prefer to use the illusion of truth as they deploy the heuristics of distrust to produce followers. Is it possible to invalidate the political usefulness of uncorroborated acquisitions? Democracies can reach reasonable conclusions with the common ground of trust in American principles. What are they? It is time to state them with unmistakable clarity, everywhere and all at once.

Demand Sum

Suppose a sizeable portion of the voting electorate enters the world of magical thinking and stays there. What can the evidence seekers do if all of the media, the entire fourth estate, is no longer relevant in examining political speech? What can professional journalists do when the only measure of communication is the evidence of persuasion?

Perhaps the time has come for every publisher of news to prepare editorials and above-the-fold headline stories entitled Stop the Lies. Unified, national distribution of this position on days or weeks before the election of 2024 would be a way to reestablish the principles of American journalism by restating those of the Democracy it serves everywhere and all at once. 

Do not despair. Unanimity is possible on subjects of importance. Recently Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand all made travel warning statements for visitors to America. The warning statements from these democracies exposed America’s significant gun problem. The German information makes the point best, “it is easy to obtain guns in the United States, leading to increased use of guns and occasional killing sprees.”

The independence of the press has never been more vital. Its integrity is at stake unless it can sustain unity for civil society in distributing facts as friendly and opinion as a fair statement of judgment. In other words, it is time to fight back. The reinjection of this responsibility into the value system of Americans is necessary if the nation is to remain a Democracy in the service of a diverse country. Without fighting for common ground, we clear the path to the world of magical thinking. In closing, this letter to the editor of an Iowa newspaper begs one question. Will a transparent judgment occur, or will obfuscation rule once again?

Deborah VanderGaast ran for an Iowa State Senate Seat as a Democrat and lost.

Note on the news clip: The New York Tribune’s mid-1920s commentary on the second edition of James Melvin Lee’s, The History of American Journalism is sycophantic. The exuberant praise of Lee’s work would be unusual to readers of similar work in the 2020s. On the other hand, the review of Lee’s work by the American Journal of Sociology (1918) has criticisms of manipulated media. (posted here, and an Into the Weeds Wiki is here).

Note on political distortion: Jordan sent the following statement in a letter to the National Archives. “The fact that NARA transmitted to DOJ a referral that launched a criminal investigation of the former president the same day the Democrat Chairwoman of the Committee inquired whether the agency had been in contact with DOJ raises serious Democrats.” The letter implies political collusion for conspiracy theorists to forage. The NARA response is here.


[i] They are Noam Chomsky, Stven Pinker, George Lakoff, Shobhana Chellah, Barbara Partee, Paul Kay, Daniel Juraksky, Andrea L. Berez-Kroeker.

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