Foreign Policy in an Ignorant Democracy

November 12, 2016 Topic: Foreign Policy Politics Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Foreign Policy in an Ignorant Democracy


Amid the voluminous post-election analysis based on exit polls, and the many observations about such things as how Hillary Clinton fared compared to Barack Obama among blacks or women, one demographic pattern sticks out at least as much as any other in characterizing the 2016 presidential race.  Support for Donald Trump was strongly correlated with low education.  Clinton did substantially better than Obama did in 2012 among college graduates, including white college graduates.  Conversely, a majority of those with no college degree went for Trump even though they mostly supported Obama in both of his races and even though all voters with incomes under $50,000 continued to give majority support this year to the Democratic candidate.  It was with good reason that Trump openly proclaimed during the campaign that he loves the poorly educated.

Educational attainment is not the same as being well informed, but it is highly correlated with it and thus a good, and more easily compiled, substitute variable for it.  And so it is fair to say, as Jason Brennan does, that “Trump owes his victory to the uninformed.”  Although Brennan correctly emphasizes how in any election, most voters have little incentive to make themselves better informed, mass ignorance played an especially large role in this year’s outcome.  That role was enhanced by the winning candidate having plumbed new depths in serial lying.  Many people initially attracted to him out of simple ignorance came to have, by listening to him, more firmly held misbeliefs.


The role of ignorance in the outcome of the election is underscored by how much many voters, even if one places value on whatever satisfaction they got from feeling they were sticking it to The Establishment, voted against their own interests and especially economic interests.  Moreover, this year’s Trump supporters, including the prototypical financially struggling white guy in the Rust Belt, will be among those most likely to be hurt by their hero’s economic policies, such as in ways that Steven Rattner explains.  Notwithstanding all the ink that has been spilled the last few days, and hands that have been wrung in the Democratic Party, over the need to be more responsive to the cri de coeur from the guy in the Rust Belt no matter how misguided and uninformed his cry may be, ignorance has political consequences, and the political consequences have policy consequences.

Like it or not, political charlatanry often works, as this election has demonstrated.  It is possible to fool many of the people much of the time.  But the closer the policy consequences get to pinching those who have been fooled, the more likely that a self-corrective mechanism can go to work.  Those who have been fooled and then pinched conclude that they have been had and start looking for different political heroes. 

The correcting mechanism is most likely to start operating with very direct and visible outcomes, such as a trade war with China not re-opening the factory on the outskirts of town, the closure of which had mostly to do with technological advances and automation, while stagflation makes it even harder for those struggling in the town to make ends meet.  Even less immediately visible consequences can produce comparable changes in mass attitudes and beliefs if the hit to pocketbooks is broad enough, as it repeatedly has been throughout U.S. history.  Financial deregulation and beggar-thy-neighbor international economic policies would provide much of the script for a replay of the last decade’s financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, which would be enough to stoke another political turnaround in the United States in time for the 2020 election.

With many foreign policy issues—more so than with domestic issues—the impact of deleterious policies on individual American voters is too indirect and sometimes too long-term for many voters, especially uninformed voters, to understand that impact.  Sometimes the consequences for Americans and American interests, although substantial, are too indirect for many citizens ever to become aware of them, which means the political corrective mechanism never comes into play.  Islamophobic policies, for example, may be welcomed by many American voters (and certainly by many Trump supporters) with a simplistic and crude notion of keeping Muslim terrorists out of their neighborhoods.  The prospect of such policies stimulating even more anti-U.S. Islamist terrorism than there otherwise would be is lost on those voters.  The more uninformed they are, the more likely this connection is to be lost on them.  And the politicians who enact such counterproductive measures never get penalized at the ballot box for doing so.

Or consider the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, an accord that Trump has excoriated.  Although one can find reasons for hope that President Trump will not junk the agreement, there also are reasons to believe it will die under his presidency.  Killing this agreement, which is working and has resolved what was widely described as one of the biggest Middle Eastern problems just a couple of years ago, would be a big mistake on multiple grounds.  Some of those grounds include the very economic issues close to home that Trump supporters are most concerned about, given the economic benefits to the United States of even partially restoring normal commerce with Iran.  Currently at stake are thousands of well-paying American jobs that would come with a sale of Boeing civilian airliners to Iran.  Republicans in Congress want to block that transaction.  If the average Trump voter thinks anything about such matters, it is that Iran is bad and Congress ought to keep bashing and isolating Iran.  Ignorance about the issue means that the connection with the interests of American workers is not made, and members of Congress who act contrary to those interests are not held accountable.

The overall result, in an ignorant democracy in which a leader owes his election victory to the uninformed, is foreign policy that is neither what a wise philosopher-king would prescribe for the country nor what ordinary but informed citizens, voting as part of a democratic process, would want for their own narrow interests.

The vagueness and inconsistency of so much of what Trump has said about foreign policy presents a problem of knowledge and understanding not only for the masses but also for elites.  The problem for the latter, unlike the former, is not one of being uninformed about the issues themselves but rather of not having enough information to predict what direction the new president will go.  Some informed observers who were understandably wary of Hillary Clinton’s interventionist tendencies have tried to find hopeful signs that Trump would head in a significantly different direction regarding use of U.S. military force.  But there simply is not enough to go on to make that hope a prediction.  George W. Bush was not a neocon when he entered office, but look what happened.

During the campaign we had ample indications that Donald Trump himself, not just his supporters, is ignorant of many important issues in U.S. foreign relations.  There have been repeated signs that he so far has given little thought to many of them. But he also is intelligent, as suggested by the fact that his approach to conducting his campaign turned out to be more successful than what many pundits and even some of his own advisers thought would be needed to win.  And when one factors in the prolific lying, he probably has a better unstated understanding of some issues than his rhetoric would suggest. To what extent this presidency born out of ignorance will indulge in, or escape from, policies based on ignorance will depend greatly on whether President Trump will remain in campaign mode and continue to seek applause from uninformed masses or instead, having been elected to the highest office in the nation, will for the first time in his life act in service to that nation.