Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman blog brought to you by History News Network. Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Cheney finally admits no connection between Saddam and 9-11 Now along comes Dick Cheney to say--7 years too late!-- that Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11.

Here's the money quote from CNN:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that he does not believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the planning or execution of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

He strongly defended the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, however, arguing that Hussein's previous support for known terrorists was a serious danger after 9/11.

Cheney, in an appearance at the National Press Club, also said he is intent on speaking out in defense of the Bush administration's national security record because"a clear understanding of policies that worked [in protecting the United States] is essential."

"I do not believe and have never seen any evidence to confirm that [Hussein] was involved in 9/11. We had that reporting for a while, [but] eventually it turned out not to be true," Cheney conceded.

He's still insisting that:

the evidence was"overwhelming" that al Qaeda had a relationship with Hussein's regime in Iraq, and that media reports suggesting that the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks reached a contradictory conclusion were"irresponsible."

I guess we couldn't hope for him to completely abandon his ill-considered views.

Cheney wants to blame George Tenet and notes that Tenet in open testimony before Congress declared that Saddam and al qaeda had a relationship. But who's Cheney kidding? We know from numerous books that it was his office that was responsible for pushing the Saddam/9-11 angle over the objections of people like Richard Clarke.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
What Can a Classics Professor Teach Us About Climate Change?

Editor's Note This article is the first in an ongoing series that will be published on the new Science blog hosted by HNN.  The blog, maintained by the staff of HNN, will feature links to articles and news stories that shed light on science helpful to the work of historians. Click here for a list of helpful sources.  

The Fall of Troy painted by Kerstiaen De Keuninck

Eric Cline teaches classics and anthropology at George Washington University.  That obviously makes him someone we'd all want to turn to for help understanding climate change, right? That's actually not as implausible as it might sound. 

In a recent op ed in the New York Times Cline shows that there's a lot we can learn from ancient history about climate change.  Specifically, he observes, we don't have to imagine what the impact of climate change is.  We can tell by studying the past.  What history shows, he points out, is that thousands of years ago "[d]rought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad."  

One of the most vivid examples comes from around 1200 B.C. A centuries-long drought in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, contributed to — if not caused — widespread famine, unrest and ultimately the destruction of many once prosperous cities, according to four recent studies.

The scientists determined the length and severity of the drought by examining ancient pollen as well as oxygen and carbon isotope data drawn from alluvial and mineral deposits. All of their conclusions are corroborated by correspondence, inscribed and fired on clay tablets, dating from that time.

Ancient letters from the Hittite kingdom, in what is now modern-day Turkey, beseech neighboring powers for shipments of grain to stave off famine caused by the drought. (The drought is thought to have affected much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Syria for up to 300 years.) One letter, sent from a Hittite king, pleads for help: “It is a matter of life or death!”

Following years of changes in the environment, which included devastating earthquakes, human progress all but ceased, ushering in what became known as the First Dark Ages.

Cline, who shows little patience with climate-change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), concludes that the difference between what is happening today and what happened in 1200 BC is that their "civilizations collapsed at the hands of Mother Nature."  If ours does, it will be as a result of our own actions. 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
What You're Missing If You're Not Watching Cosmos here. You can watch all other episodes here.]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 How bad can an El Niño be? This bad.

"The 1997–98 El Niño observed by TOPEX/Poseidon. The white areas off the tropical coasts of South and North America indicate the pool of warm water. " (Wikipedia)

A paleoclimate scientist reports that the fall of some empires may in part have been due to a weather phenomenon, El Niño. At a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing Lonnie G. Thompson, a professor at Ohio State University, noted that the weather system changes associated with El Niño occurred at the moment that the Mayan and Inca empires began to collapse.  “In climate, I think it’s remarkable that ... in ice fields on both sides of the Pacific, there are recording of major droughts in written histories in terms of major social unrest,” he observed.

Central America is thought to be particularly susceptible to El Niño effects, but other areas have also suffered.  A particular problem for humans is that an El Niño system brings about rapid changes in the environment, so rapid people find it difficult to adapt in time.

Joel Shurkin, a science journalist who has taught at Stanford University, draws attention to the work of Thompson in an article published on the website of InsideScience. Shrunken notes that scientists have even blamed El Niño on the influenza epidemic of 1918:

The connection to the flu pandemic goes back to 2010 when Benjamin Giese at Texas A&M University in College Station reported that a review of centuries of El Niño records showed that the 1918-1919 occurrence was unique. It was strong in the central Pacific but oddly milder along the coast of the Americas.

The location, he wrote, triggered a severe drought in India when the monsoons failed, and 18 million Indians died. The flu coincided with the public health emergency there and spread into Europe and America.

Thompson pointed out that 1918 was not just the year of the flu but the end of World War I and several political upheavals, including the Russian Revolution.

In 1781, the monsoon also failed and 600,000 Indians starved to death. The same year, black swan events devastated Australia, Egypt, Mexico and the Caribbean, Thompson said.

No one is saying that the changes in the weather are wholly responsible for these events.  That would be reductionist.  But they are suggesting that historians take the weather more into account than they have in the past. 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
It Happened a Long Time Ago -- A Really Long Time Ago

This was in the morning newspaper.  A paleontologist at work in Patagonia has discovered a Dreadnoughtus, which is estimated to have been 85 feet long and weigh 65 tons.  But that's not what's most remarkable.  This creature lived on Earth millions of years ago.  Its ilk, we are told by scientists, reigned between 250  and 65 million years ago (MYA).

This is what fascinates me as a historian. 

We historians are used to thinking in time frames of a decade or two or maybe a few hundred years if we are really daring and reckless. The paleontologists' timeframe is considerably longer.  To them something that happened, say, 50,000 years ago, is said to have occurred in the blink of an eye.

We are, of course, principally preoccupied with ourselves.  As E.O. Wilson reminds us in his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, people are most fascinated by other people.  We don't gossip about dogs.  We gossip about the people who own dogs.  But since we as a species have only dominated Earth for some 50,000 years, and emerged from the hunter gatherer stage just 10,000 years ago, and only invented mass culture 500 years ago, is it not sobering that other creatures were here before us millions of years ago? Whenever I find myself in the middle of an academic debate about history I think about the dinosaurs.  It helps remind me that our perspective is rather parochial.

This is a shocking admission.  Historians are supposed to be in the business of putting things in perspective.  But here we are constantly arguing about events that in the evolutionary time are barely worth noticing.  I remember from a historiography class where we read Collingwood that history only concerns human history.  But in light of all of the paleontologic discoveries of recent years, can we really stick with that claim?  

Climate change demands we take a longer perspective.  If we screw up Planet Earth, the history books will have to start further back than the industrial revolution.  We'll have to place the decline along a timeline that includes the eradication of dinosaurs by an asteroid (65 MYA) and the explosion of the Toba volcano (74 KYA) that nearly wiped out life on Earth, including our direct evolutionary ancestors. 

KYA?  That's science speak for thousands of years ago. See what I mean?  Thinking in terms of decades or even a few hundred years seems almost quaint.  We need to get out, more often.  It's time to think big.  

That's why I find myself drawn to Big History.

I think they're onto something.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
This study claims how we worship may be dependent on the environment

Here's the headline announcing a new study:

"Societies living in harsh environments are more likely to believe in moralizing gods."

The chief finding, perhaps not too surprising, is that "When life is tough or when it's uncertain, people believe in big gods," as the lead researcher, Russell Gray, put it.  The harsher the climate, the more people felt the need to believe.  

But here's what is surprising.  They found a way to demonstrate this statistically.  That's the scientist's holy grail in research of this kind.

Here's how the research developed, according to a press release:  "On a whim," Carlos Botero, one of the researchers, "plotted ethnographic data of societies that believe in moralizing, high gods and found that their global distribution is quite similar to a map of cooperative breeding in birds. The parallels between the two suggested that ecological factors must play a part. Furthermore, recent research has supported a connection between a belief in moralizing gods and group cooperation. However, prior to this study, evidence supporting a relationship between such beliefs and the environment was elusive."

The study was conducted by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a well-respected science institution run by Duke, UNC at Chapel Hill, and NC State.

You can read the whole press release here.

Hat Tip:  HNN intern Erik Moshe. 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Hillary's Emails: A Prediction

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. 

I am writing this before reading anything about Hillary's news conference.  I don't know if she fell on her face or did a boffo job.  But nonetheless I am confident I know what she tried to do.  I am so confident I am willing to write this blog post and not delete it no matter what it turns out she actually said.

How can I be so sure I know what she said?  It's not because I have special insight into the way her mind works or because I have a secret pipeline into Hillaryland.  (Do they still call it that?)  But I am familiar with the psychology of partisanship.  And this dictates the way politicians respond to news adversely affecting their fortunes. 

Without further ado, here's my prediction.  I predict that Hillary will provide enough information in defense of her practice that her supporters will be able to feel good about what she did.  She won't have to offer convincing proof that what she did was right.  All she has to do is show that there's not a solid case against her.  She has to provide proof, in other words, of ambiguity.

Psychology tells us that in a situation where information is ambiguous partisans of each side can find a place of comfort.  Pro-Hillary partisans can find enough evidence to justify their faith in her and anti-Hillary partisans can find enough evidence to damn her.

Here's the general rule:  We accept evidence favorable to our side uncritically and scrutinize closely unfavorable claims by an opposing side.

In a jam, all a politician needs to do is therefore create space for themselves whereby ambiguity exists.  Inevitably, partisans play their assigned roles.  Fans cheer and opponents jeer.

We should be able to rise above partisanship, but in these ambiguous situations it's rare when we can.

So:  Was I right or wrong?  What did Hillary say?

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Do our genes determine how we behave? Nah. This is worth reading.  It's an article by Julian Baggini in the Guardian that explains why we should not leap to the conclusion that because genes are important, they are all-important, in determining behavior.


... The launch in 1990 of the Human Genome Project, which aimed to map the complete sequence of human DNA, came at the beginning of a decade that would mark the high point of optimism about how much our genes could tell us. Daniel Koshland, then editor of the prestigious journal Science, captured the mood when he wrote: “The benefits to science of the genome project are clear. Illnesses such as manic depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and heart disease are probably all multigenic and even more difficult to unravel than cystic fibrosis. Yet these diseases are at the root of many current societal problems.” Genes would help us uncover the secrets of all kinds of ills, from the psychological to the physical.

Ten years later, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were among the guests gathered to “celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life”, as Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, put it. “We try to be cautious on days like this,” said the ABC news anchor, “but this map marks the beginning of an era of discovery that will affect the lives of every human being, with implications for science, history, business, ethics, religion, and, of course, medicine.”

By that time, genes were no longer simply the key to understanding health: they had become the skeleton key for unlocking almost all the mysteries of human existence. For virtually every aspect of life – criminality, fidelity, political persuasion, religious belief – someone would claim to find a gene for it. In 2005 in Hall County, Georgia, Stephen Mobley tried to avoid execution by claiming that his murder of a Domino’s pizza store manager was the result of a mutation in the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene. The judge turned down the appeal, saying that the law was not ready to accept such evidence. The basic idea, however, that the low-MAOA gene is a major contributing cause of violence has become widely accepted, and it is now commonly called the “warrior gene”.

In recent years, however, faith in the explanatory power of genes has waned. Today, few scientists believe that there is a simple “gene for” anything. Almost all inherited features or traits are the products of complex interactions of numerous genes. However, the fact that there is no one genetic trigger has not by itself undermined the claim that many of our deepest character traits, dispositions and even opinions are genetically determined. (This worry is only slightly tempered by what we are learning about epigenetics, which shows how many inherited traits only get “switched on” in certain environments. The reason this doesn’t remove all fears is that most of this switching on and off occurs very early in life – either in utero or in early childhood.)

What might reduce our alarm, however, is an understanding of what genetic studies really show. The key concept here is of heritability. We are often told that many traits are highly heritable: happiness, for instance, is around 50% heritable. Such figures sound very high. But they do not mean what they appear to mean to the statistically untrained eye.

The common mistake people make is to assume that if, for example, autism is 90% heritable, then 90% of autistic people got the condition from their parents. But heritability is not about “chance or risk of passing it on”, says Spector. “It simply means how much of the variation within a given population is down to genes. Crucially, this will be different according to the environment of that population....

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Are we born with a universal grammar?

This is not an issue historians generally deal with.  But anybody who writes for a living has to wonder about our capacity for language.  How come we get language and no other species does (save for chimpanzees that can learn rudimentary sign language)?

What's going on in our head when we speak? A linguist who thinks he has the answer is Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, UK and the author of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct (2014).  Here he explains his theory, which is grounded in the latest neuroscience research.


[B]y the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years. In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar' – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over. At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. How much sense does it make to call whatever inborn basis for language we might have an ‘instinct’? On reflection, not much. An instinct is an inborn disposition towards certain kinds of adaptive behaviour. Crucially, that behaviour has to emerge without training. A fledging spider doesn’t need to see a master at work in order to ‘get’ web-spinning: spiders just do spin webs when they are ready, no instruction required. anguage is different. Popular culture might celebrate characters such as Tarzan and Mowgli, humans who grow up among animals and then come to master human speech in adulthood. But we now have several well-documented cases of so-called ‘feral’ children – children who are not exposed to language, either by accident or design, as in the appalling story of Genie, a girl in the US whose father kept her in a locked room until she was discovered in 1970, at the age of 13. The general lesson from these unfortunate individuals is that, without exposure to a normal human milieu, a child just won’t pick up a language at all. Spiders don’t need exposure to webs in order to spin them, but human infants need to hear a lot of language before they can speak. However you cut it, language is not an instinct in the way that spiderweb-spinning most definitely is. But that’s by the by. A more important problem is this: If our knowledge of the rudiments of all the world’s 7,000 or so languages is innate, then at some level they must all be the same. There should be a set of absolute grammatical ‘universals’ common to every one of them. This is not what we have discovered.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Is Western society responsible for violence and environmental degradation?

This is what we hear all the time.  It's implicit in the leftwing indictment of the West that was made in the Sixties and which you still encounter in certain circles today.  But it rests on a false premise conjured up by Descartes that man in nature is free and peaceful.  Would that it were true!

Here's Michael Shermer, the science writer (who holds a PhD in the history of science).  This is from his 2004 book, The Science of Good and Evil:

When it comes to how humans treat other humans and the environment, the Beautiful People have never existed except in myth. Humans are neither Beautiful People nor Ugly People, in the same way that we are neither moral nor immoral in some absolute categorical sense. Humans are only doing what any species does to survive; but we do it with a twist (and a vengeance)—instead of our environment shaping us through natural selection, we are shaping our environment through artificial selection.  In a fascinating 1996 study, for example, University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi Low used the data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample to test the hypothesis that we can solve our ecological problems by returning to the mythological Beautiful People’s attitudes of reverence for (rather than exploitation of) the natural world, and by opting for long-term group-oriented values (rather than short-term individual values).  Her analysis of 186 hunting-fishing-gathering (HFG) societies around the world showed that their use of the environment is driven by ecological constraints and not by attitudes, such as sacred prohibitions, and that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology, and the lack of profitable markets, not from conscious efforts at conservation. Low also showed that in 32 percent of HFG societies, not only were they not practicing conservation, environmental degradation was severe; again, it was limited only by the time and technology to finish the job of destruction and extinction.  Extending the analysis of the BPM to other areas of human culture, UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton surveyed the anthropological record and found clear evidence of drug addiction, abuse of women and children, bodily mutilation, economic exploitation of the group by political leaders, suicide, and mental illness in indigenous preindustrial peoples, groups not contaminated by Western values (allegedly the source of such “sick” behavior).

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
This is why colleges need to hire historians

A new study confirms what neuroscientists have been surmising for several years:  When we remember something the brain makes room for the new memory by deactivating an old one.  It doesn't delete the old memory the way you do when you hit the delete key on a computer.  But it pushes it back.  The brain automatically privileges new memories over old ones.  

Here's how psychologist Jeremy Dean explains the process:

The idea that forgetting helps you learn seems counter-intuitive, but think of it this way: imagine if you created a brain that could remember and recall everything. When this amazing brain was trying to remember where it parked the car, it would immediately bring to mind all the car parks it had ever seen, then it would have to sort through the lot. Obviously the only one that’s of interest is the most recent. And this is generally true of most of our memories. Recent events are usually much more important than ones that happened a long time ago. To make your super-brain quicker and more useful in the real world you’d have to build in some system for discounting old, useless info. In fact, of course, we all have one of these super-brains with a discounting system: we call it ‘forgetting’.

This has implications historians should be vigorously trumpeting.  The brain doesn't privilege old memories.  To retrieve them you need to be reminded of them or you forget them.  This is why when voters are asked who their favorite presidents are they quickly name some recent presidents.  It's also why when we are trying to make sense of some complicated foreign crisis we instantly reach for some past event that's top of mind rather than one that might be more salient.  

I can't think of a better reason to encourage students to take history classes.  History teaches us that we have to remember events that took place a long time ago.  History, to be sure, is more than memory.  But the first task of the historian is to remember the past.  If our brain doesn't do this automatically, somebody has to help us.  That's where historians come in. Historians can help us recall events we learned about in high school history class (or should have) that may help us put events into perspective.

Tell that to the STEM folks the next time they say there's no room for history in the school curriculum.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Americans Support the Iran Deal for the Wrong Reason

Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, is the editor of HNN.  His newest book is Political Animals:  How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (January 2016). This article was first published by The World Post.

Three days before the Iraq War began in 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked on "Meet the Press" how he believed the war would go. He answered: "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

In retrospect, this was one of the most laughably bad misjudgments any high official in American history has ever made, and it taught us a lesson. The lesson was never to trust Dick Cheney again. But there was an additional lesson we needed to learn and didn't. The lesson was that we shouldn't presume to know the thoughts of foreign people with whom we have had little direct contact. 

How do I know we didn't learn this lesson? It's clear from the poll results that have come out since the U.S. and Iran agreed on a framework for removing sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. While most commentators have focused on the broad support the public has given the agreement -- 59 percent approve and 31 percent disapprove -- what's more significant is that so many people (90 percent) seem to have an opinion at all. 

That's alarming given that that the details of the framework are both secret and in dispute (the Iranians and Americans continue to spar over what was agreed to) and given that it's plainly unclear what the Iranians' intentions are. The only honest answer about Iran's intentions at this point is: we don't know. 

That, unfortunately, is not something we are likely to admit. Why? Because given the way our brain is wired, we believe we can divine how other people think. Because our brain evolved during a period when we lived in small groups consisting of people who knew each other so intimately that we developed confidence in our ability to read other people's intentions. An alarm bell should go off when we aren't in a position to be able to do so; but it doesn't. 

Another related human bias is affecting how people are assessing the framework -- particularly people who support it. Our "projection bias" leads us to believe that other people think like we do. In this case, we think that if we were in Iran's position, we'd gladly restrict our nuclear program to get rid of sanctions that are hobbling the economy and making life miserable. That just strikes us as common sense. NPR's Steve Inskeep reflected this view in his recent interview with President Obama. Lifting of the sanctions, the journalist noted, "is widely anticipated to cause a lot of economic growth in Iran. Iranian business people are already banking on this." See, they're just like us.

Unfortunately, what may seem like common sense to us may not seem so to Iranians, particularly the hardliners. Other considerations may rank higher. But this is a hard lesson to learn, and once again, it's because we evolved in small groups. We didn't develop an instinct against what social scientists call mirroring since anybody we encountered was likely to think pretty much as we did.

A warning against the bias is prominently addressed in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, which was published by an arm of the CIA. But knowing about the bias doesn't offer protection against it. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis was published in 1999, four years before the agency (and Dick Cheney) argued that Iraqis would welcome our invasion against Saddam.

Careful journalists have noted that the polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans are skeptical an agreement would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This suggests that Americans have a sophisticated understanding of Iran, balancing an optimistic outlook against a well-earned cynicism.

Actually, what it more likely is that after decades of acrimony (remember, Iran was considered part of the "axis of evil"), most of us remain suspicious of Iranians, particularly since they don't look or dress like most of us, yet another legacy of our Stone Age evolution.

The history of the last forty or so years suggests that we don't understand Iran in 2015 any better than we understood Iraq in 2003 or Vietnam in 1965. Our track record is, frankly, terrible -- replete with one "oops" after another. Jimmy Carter's U.N. Ambassador welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979, calling him "a saint." Ronald Reagan sold arms to Iran in exchange for help releasing American hostages. George W. Bush failed to anticipate how Iran would take advantage of the accession of Shiites like Nouri al-Maliki.

A nuclear deal with Iran may be good for the United States, but the only reason to believe it might be is the reason President Obama gave in his NPR interview. As he said, even if Iran "doesn't change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don't." That is, we can be hopeful the Iranians are turning over a new leaf, but we can't be sure, and that's okay because the deal is structured in such a way as to trigger sanctions if Iran reneges.  (Some critics, of course, doubt sanctions would be restored.) 

But it's not likely that most people in their heart of hearts are willing to admit they don't know what Iranians are up to. That's the one thing most liberals and conservatives have in common: a belief in their ability to read the Iranians' minds.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
New Study: The world's a lot more violent than reported Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (January 2016).

It has a dreary name: "On the tail risk of violent conflict and its underestimation." But this new paper by social scientists Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb could rewrite the history of violence.

It takes direct aim at the thesis of Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in the 2011 bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  The paper's already making waves.  On his Twitter page Harvard's Niall Ferguson calls it "hugely important."

In the paper Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, the blockbuster book that alerted economists to the importance of unexpected events, argues that "Violence is much more severe than it seems from conventional analyses and the prevailing 'long peace' theory which claims that violence has declined."

Contrary to current discussions, all statistical pictures thus obtained show that 1) the risk of violent conflict has not been decreasing, but is rather underestimated by techniques relying on naive year-on-year changes in the mean, or using sample mean as an estimator of the true mean of an extremely fat-tailed phenomenon; 2) armed conflicts have memoryless inter-arrival times, thus incompatible with the idea of a time trend. Our analysis uses 1) raw data, as recorded and estimated by historians; 2) a naive transformation, used by certain historians and sociologists, which rescales past conflicts and casualties with respect to the actual population; 3) more importantly, a log transformation to account for the fact that the number of casualties in a conflict cannot be larger than the world population.

The authors base their article on the methods of extreme value theory.

A striking chart accompanying the article dramatically shows the impact of violence on all periods of recorded history. The chart measures conflicts featuring more than 50,000 deaths relative to today's world population.  (Thus, 50,000 deaths today = 5,000 deaths in the eighteenth century.)

What's An Lushan?  Here's Wikipedia's explanation: "The An Lushan Rebellion was a devastating rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China. The rebellion overtly began on 16 December 755, when general An Lushan declared himself emperor in Northern China, thus establishing a rival Yan Dynasty, and ended when Yan fell on 17 February 763 (although the effects lasted past this)." 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Millions of Voters Are Pre-Wired to Support Donald Trump

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

Excerpt from an interview in Politico:

Question:  There have been some high-profile lies this election season. The most recent that comes to mind is the story about the thousands of Muslims that were supposedly having tailgate-style parties celebrating after 9/11. In the book, you say, essentially, we’re OK with lies. Can you walk me through why we’re built not only for being deceptive, but also tolerating deception?

RS:  Trump’s supporters don’t particularly care whether he’s lying or not. Our brain doesn’t really care—I know that’s appalling. Our default position is we simply want to be right. 

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 We’re suffering from Stone-Age thinking in 2016: Interview Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

I was interviewed this week by Jim Warren, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune who now runs a column for Poynter. 

The interview, as it happens, ran in US News, where he's a contributing editor.  Here's an excerpt:

... Few politicians will do much of anything if not clearly supported by organizations and constituents. Things are so bad now that one friend of mine, a gun control advocate, jests that his only hope is that pro-gun voters in open carry states such as Texas "extinguish each other and sanity prevails again through a form of natural selection."

But if we really do seem to act stupidly with some frequency, is there an explanation linked to how our actual brains are wired?

Both before and after Obama spoke, I tracked down Rick Shenkman, a journalist-historian who runs the History News Network, a neat website that seeks to imbue news with historical context. It's been hosted by George Mason University in Virginia, though Seattle-based Shenkman is planning to move it elsewhere soon.

He happened to be in Washington Tuesday at the start of a tour touting his new book, "Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics" (Basic Books). It's about how we often respond to instincts rather than coherent arguments, and partly reflects his research into how our human brains work, even how chimpanzees practice deception and how sea slugs remember things.

Rick, does Obama's grappling with gun control provide any insight to you about our current politics? What's its significance, if any?

Shenkman: What I argue is that the issues that resonate the most with people are the ones that trigger an instinctive reaction and involve psychological mechanisms. They have an instant reaction to Sandy Hook, since I argue when people become anxious, that triggers a reappraisal and often action. I thought that would do it for gun control, but forces arrayed in favor are so much stronger than the forces opposed to it. It's really a power issue. I think what you say [about the passivity of many pro-gun control supporters] makes sense and plays into how the human mind reacts most intently to threats it perceives in its immediate environment. If guns do not immediately threaten you, you may pass it off as not one of your top-10 issues.

Your book turns on a thesis about our having Stone-Age brains. What's that mean?

Shenkman: The human brain evolved during the two and a half million years that hunter-gatherers lived in the Stone Age and evolved to address problems of the Stone Age, not modern times. That mismatch often gets us into problems. We respond by instinct to things in our environment. Our instincts don't match our problems. The human brain continues to evolve but not fast enough to deal with a multitude of problems.

So how does that relate to the 2016 presidential election?

Shenkman: The big problem we face is we don't think to put the problems facing us in context. We have an instinctive reaction to, say, the problem of immigration. Or if you see Muslim extremists blowing things up on TV, you have an immediate human reaction to it. Our instinct is not to reappraise our reaction; it is to go with the reaction. The problem is that the instinctive reaction probably doesn't suit our actual circumstances.

Donald Trump has made Muslims coming into the U.S. and Mexicans coming here as his two big issues. So what does he do? He exploits people's fear of the outsider. But what is really going on is he's triggering psychological mechanisms. We are sensitive to fire alarms, or what the social scientists refer to as the fire-alarm bias. If we think a fire alarm is going off, we react instantaneously because if you miss a fire alarm, the consequences can be fatal. So our brain is built to be highly sensitive to alarms. Thus, Trump is not just vaguely playing to our fears but triggering this fire-alarm bias, or what demagogues have done throughout history. It's what Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. He said we perhaps had several hundred communists in government. Maybe they won't harm us, but maybe they will. That fire alarm drove McCarthyism and now drives the Trump campaign. ...

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
What's the Voters' Problem? That's a Lot Harder to Determine than You Might Suspect.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). This article is excerpted from the book.  The excerpt was featured on Alternate.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). This article first appeared on in shortened form. This version specifically addresses the challenge historians face when writing about subjects that cry out for empathy.

Related Link Historians Need to Write and Teach with Empathy By Walter Moss

After Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the United States begin carpet bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, the reaction was swift. Hillary Clinton mocked candidates who use “bluster and bigotry.” Jeb Bush insisted the idea was “foolish.”  Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, tweeted: “You can't carpet bomb an insurgency out of existence. This is just silly.”

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Trump’s Genius

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

If there’s one thing everybody – left, right, center, earthling or Martian – can agree on it’s that Donald Trump projects a larger than life image.  Wherever he goes he draws huge (HUGE!) crowds.  His poll numbers are eye-popping.  His ability to fend off the shooting arrows of fact checkers is little short of stunning.  Ladies and gentlemen:  We stand in the presence of political genius. 

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Our Brain Dislikes Disorder.  That Explains a Lot.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is excerpted. 

Think back on all the big events of the last generation that made us feel bad: 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina. Each time, people by the millions were drawn to conspiracy theories. Deciding to go down that path is usually irrational, but once we do, everything makes sense. The reason is that we settle on conspiracies that build on an existing base of knowledge and worldviews. They don’t just come out of nowhere. Thus, people accustomed to finding answers in religion see the hand of God in catastrophe. What is it the right-wing Christian leader Jerry Falwell said after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center towers on 9/11? “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad.” Falwell believed God had plotted against us. God. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. You piss off God and he smites you.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 For Voters, Facts Should Be the Lifeblood of Democracy

Voters in New Hampshire 2016

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article was excerpted.  The excerpt first ran on the website of Bill Moyers. 

In 1988, James Fishkin, a political scientist who now teaches at Stanford, came up with the idea of a deliberative poll. In a normal poll a voter is asked a bunch of questions about subjects he may or may not know something about. That is the extent of the interaction between the pollster and the voter. The pollster then moves on to the next person. In a deliberative poll a voter is asked a bunch of questions about subjects he probably doesn’t know much about and is then educated about those subjects — usually at a weekend conference where he has the opportunity to study materials from all sides and engage in in-depth discussions about what he’s read. Experts are brought in to help participants make sense of the material they are given. At the end of the conference, by which time he has become an educated voter on the issues under review, he is surveyed again.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About Donald Trump's America

Click here to read this article.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Your Brain on Politics (Video)

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network. You can follow him on Twitter

In this video, taped at Seattle Town Hall on January 28, 2016, I reveal what we need to know about the brain to protect ourselves from manipulative politicians.

The talk is based on my new book, POLITICAL ANIMALS: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016).

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Are Trump Voters Not Bothered by His Lies?

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Raise your hand if you believe the following:  1.  Facts matter in politics.  2.  A good argument should sway your opinion.  3.  Elections should be about issues.  I'll assume your hand went up.  That means congratulations are in order.  You have earned an A in civics.  Now that we have that out of the way, we should talk about the real world.

Let's focus on facts.  For either we respect facts or we don't and if we don't neither of the other two points are worth debating. Which brings me to Donald Trump.  He lies flagrantly and promiscuously. He seems to lie so often and so egregiously one wonders if he himself any longer realizes when he’s lying. But the interesting question at the moment is not why Trump lies as why his followers don’t seem to care when he does. What’s that all about?

The temptation is to think there’s something wrong with those Trump voters.  For they aren’t reacting the way we think they should be, making them seem even more cartoonish than they already appear. They’re not just susceptible to xenophobia, misogyny, racism and the other pariah appeals Trump’s making; they’re also dangerously impervious to plain reason. In many ways this seems like the biggest threat of all.  If you can’t reason with people politics doesn’t work.

But since when have voters ever worried much about facts? 

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.  But facts are often held to be less precious than we think they are. Two examples drawn from Democratic Party presidents (I want to be fair and not just pick on Republicans) are illustrative. 

Let’s start with a Democratic Party icon:  Jack Kennedy. On the campaign trail in 1960 Kennedy said it was a fact that the Russians had more nuclear missiles than the United States.  He was wrong.  Okay, so he made a mistake.  But he continued to insist that there was a missile gap to the Soviet’s advantage even after he was briefed by General Earl Wheeler that there wasn’t.  After the election his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, told the press on background that a study had found there was no missile gap, leading to blaring headlines the next morning.  JFK’s reaction?  He ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to tell the media that there had been no study and that there was a gap. The truth was that JFK himself didn’t take his own rhetoric about the missile gap seriously.  At cabinet meetings he cracked on numerous occasions, “Who ever believed in the missile gap” anyway?

Then there’s JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.  During the election of 1964 Johnson told the American people that the North Vietnamese were guilty of making repeated unprovoked attacks on our naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf.  This claim was wrong on two counts.  One, the “attack” LBJ drew attention to probably didn’t happen as he himself privately acknowledged.  “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," he confided to an aide. Two, America was no innocent by-stander.  For months we'd been engaged in a quasi war with North Vietnam where we were the aggressors.

LBJ’s lies eventually caught up with him, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a prevaricating politician who could lie even about a matter as serious as war.  He told Americans we were winning in Vietnam when actually we were losing, leading to the much lamented credibility gap with which his administration has forever since been associated.

But it wasn’t until thousands of soldiers began coming home in body bags that Americans began to care much about LBJ’s modest appreciation of the truth.  And JFK’s lie about the missile gap never caused the American public to reassess his character though he had built his foreign policy critique of the Eisenhower administration on the claim.  To this day few remember that Kennedy lied brazenly about our nuclear capacity even though the truth had been splashed on the front page of America’s great newspapers. The public preferred to believe the hokum Pierre Salinger peddled at Kennedy’s behest. Not until Kennedy was implicated in numerous sex scandals did Americans finally concede that Kennedy wasn’t the man they had thought he was.

The history books are full of nuggets like these.  Politicians lie. In our cynical moments we admit that, but still we can’t seem to acknowledge the implication.  I’ll spell it out.  They lie because the voters often don’t care about the truth.  Our fixation with the truth and facts and all that is a bit of a sham.  It’s not just the pols who lie.  So do the voters.  We lie about our unwillingness to put up with lies. 

It’s not that we’re congenital prevaricators.  The answer is more complicated.  Our brains are partisan.  While we are quick to seize on the misstatements of other candidates, we give them a pass when it’s our own.  When the social scientist Drew Westen put voters in an MRI machine he discovered that their brains quickly shut off the flow of information contrary to their beliefs about their favorite candidates.  The neurons actively involved in the transmission of this information literally went inactive. 

Donald Trump's voters have been ridiculed for their willingness to overlook his inconsistencies and lies, but this is what all voters do once they've become committed to a particular candidate.  Cognitive dissonance theory explains why.  Once we have made up our mind about something contrary information disturbs our feeling of well-being and we do whatever we can to ignore it or explain it away.

From the looks of the faces of the journalists quizzing the candidates at the presidential debates the candidates' indifference to the truth is shocking.  But neither history nor the findings of social science justify this naive faith in the truth.

Human beings do indeed care for the truth and we come equipped with cheater detection software to help us detect lies.  It's that software that helps us detect nervousness in a deceiver.  Without trying and often without conscious awareness we pick up on subtle clues:  a higher voice pitch, twitching hands, or even a fake smile. 

So why doesn't that wonderful human technology help save us from lying politicians?  The reason is disturbingly straightforward.  It doesn't work if the person speaking believes their own lies.  In those situations no flare goes up in our brain warning us to be on alert.

Mitt Romney has beseeched Trump voters not to be suckers.  But as long as Trump continues to give the impression that he's being sincere his voters won't have cause to think he's misleading them if they judge him strictly on the basis of his debate performances, which many thus far have been doing.

Here’s the good news.  We aren’t sitting ducks.  When a politician lies repeatedly and egregiously they eventually get a reputation for lying (as LBJ did).  Once this happens people begin to reshape their perceptions.  But this process often takes a long time.  Richard Nixon succeeded in fooling millions that he was innocent of charges related to Watergate for eleven months after the break-in.  Only then, after the resignation of his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, did his support finally dip below 50 percent.  When the allegation first surfaced about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky millions refused to believe it until prosecutors revealed they possessed her infamous blue dress with a semen stain, which prompted Clinton to (sort of) admit the truth.

Donald Trump is responsible for dragging this campaign down to the level of the gutter.  And he has told more lies than any other leading political figure probably ever has. But he’s not the first politician to lie egregiously. He’s building on an all-too well-established tradition. So are his voters in declining to acknowledge his lies. 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
C-SPAN Interview: Book Discussion on Political Animals

Friday I faced off with actual REAL voters in a one hour interview on CSPAN. I am happy to report the conversation was entirely civil. I even went after Trump for telling lies and no one screamed. We are making progress People!

The interview is now online:

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Bill Moyers Interview with Rick Shenkman

It's been a busy week. On Tuesday I was interviewed by Bill Moyers. I wish my mother were still around for this. She loved Moyers. He stopped doing his TV show a year ago but has now begun doing podcasts. He had to get back into the game. Who could sit out this incredible political year? (Jon Stewart -- are you hearing this? Get back in the game Stewart.)

I was the fortunate beneficiary. He's now posted the podcast. It's the first one he's published. I'm honored. Seriously. This is one hell of an honor!

(Click here for a transcript.)

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
How Our Stone-Age Brain Undermines Smart Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman here for the interview, which was done by Robin Lindley.]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Why the Media Underestimated Trump's Appeal

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

With the triumph of Trump the media are now going into Deep Navel Gazing Mode. This is what they do whenever the conventional wisdom is upended as it has been this week.

In the New York Times there have already been two mea culpas (here and here) and one j'accuse.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Yes, It's Time to Panic

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain. This was cross-posted at Facebook. 

After watching the GOP convention this week I'm more convinced than ever that Evolutionary Psychology (EP) holds the key to understanding politics. It helps make the seemingly irrational performance of the delegates screaming "Lock Her Up" understandable. 

Years ago, before I started researching Political Animals, I would have been stupefied by the frenzy of the crowd. These people after all aren't dopes or low-information voters. Delegates can be presumed to know something about politics.

EP explains what's going on. They aren't thinking. They're reacting. This is what we do when we feel under threat. We need to blame someone when things seem out of whack. So we seize on a scapegoat and dehumanize and vilify them.

All this week we have watched thousands of people demonizing Hillary Clinton.

Partisanship explains why they decided to pick on her. EP helps explain why they don't have to be taught to demonize her. It comes naturally given the circumstances.

Culture can ameliorate our natural responses. As I wrote in Political Animals, that's why we no longer get pleasure watching live cats being thrown into open fires. 

But culture is unlikely to stop delegates at a Trump convention from going crazy because norms of political behavior have been seriously eroded this year. Anything goes! 

Brace yourselves!

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Is Trump So Popular?

At the start off the summer I answered a bunch of questions by the website, 52 Insights.  Today they published excerpts.  Here's the full interview. 

In your article in ‘Wired’ you discuss how the public is fooled into supporting candidates on the basis of ‘good looks’. Can you tell us a bit about the science behind this phenomenon?

Remember John Edwards, the good-looking American politician who ran for president in 2004? The first thing people noticed about him was how good-looking he is.  Those looks helped him immensely, quickly separating him from the pack of candidates who ran that year.  Normally, good looks in politics can be a red-flag; voters often draw the inference that good-looking people are superficial.  But Edwards’s story helped ease people’s concerns.  He was reported to have a great marriage.  And most importantly, his wife wasn’t a “looker.” In fact, she was kind of dowdy. That helped.

Here’s what the science says.  Science tells us that we make up our minds about people we meet in milliseconds.  Within 167 milliseconds – faster than the blink of an eye – we begin to decide if we like the person.  A lot of factors can shape our response:  whether they look like someone in our family, our tribe, or our friendship circles, for example.  But one of those factors is their attractiveness.  Numerous studies done in the last half century demonstrate that we are inclined to respect and trust people who are good-looking. They tend to get better higher-paying jobs and are promoted more often.

But what makes someone good-looking? It’s how average they look.  Let me explain, because this sounds crazy. I’m not talking about a person with a non-descript look.  Science defines average differently.  An average looking person to a scientist is someone whose face is well balanced and even from side to side and up and down.  Balance is the key.  You can get this effect by morphing the images of a hundred people into one.  Scientists find that when they do this the resulting image is considered attractive.

Why is favouring good looks in a leader evolutionarily a smart thing?

Now we get to the interesting part.  Evolutionary Psychology teaches us that a person with average looks – as scientists define average – is favored by potential spouses and others because people who look this way are more apt to be healthy.  And we all naturally respect and admire healthy people.  In addition, good looks are an evolutionary sign of good genes.  A person who looks good is naturally going to find it easier to win the spouse they want (probably someone with lots of resources of one kind or another), which creates a virtuous circle.  The good-looking people draw spouses with more resources, benefitting their children, who in turn are able to attract other people with lots of resources, and on and on.  This is one of the powerful results of what Darwin called sexual selection. 

Now you may ask yourself what this has to do with selecting leaders. Well, apparently what happens is that we often apply the same criteria to our choice in a leader as we do to our choice in a mate, resulting in our favoring leaders who are better looking. 

But the process is much more complex than I’m suggesting.  Studies show we are drawn to leaders who are strong, tall and decisive, whether they’re good-looking or not.  In war-time we are drawn to leaders with squarish faces and in peacetime to those with round faces.  As with everything involving human beings, there’s usually no one criterion at play in our behavior.  We are drawn this way and that by multiple instincts.  An individual’s looks are just one of many traits we take into account when selecting a leader.  A good-looking leader who is unable to develop strong coalitions with others probably won’t go far.

Can you talk about some of the candidates we’ve seen in the presidential race over the last few months? Has there been evidence that this science has played a role in the success of certain nominees? (Call me a cynic but I don’t think Trump has a particularly appealing face.)

Trump won the GOP nomination for a variety of reasons.  I don’t think people were drawn to him because he’s attractive like John Edwards.  As I said above, looks are just one of many qualities we want in a leader.  In Trump’s case he clearly projects strength, which is always a high priority for voters. He’s also narcissistic, and we know from studies of corporate leaders that narcissism (up to a point) is often helpful as an individual climbs the greasy pole. He’s also tall; in US elections the taller candidate almost always wins.  Finally, he’s white.  That’s a critical and obvious factor.  Because we are tribal by nature we are inclined to trust people who look like us and a majority of voters are white (though that will be changing).

I certainly don’t hold to a reductionist view, though.  Culture can trump biology. But science does help explain Trump’s appeal.  When a series of aversive events (as the social scientists put it) strike a community the people living in that community, save for those who possess enough knowledge to frame the events in a broad perspective, let their instincts drive their response.  That’s apparently what has been happening this year.  Bad and bewildering things have happened to white middle class voters in the last generation.  In the Bad category:  Incomes are flat. Millions have lost good-paying manufacturing jobs.  And in the Great Recession many lost their houses. In the Bewildering category: Blacks got civil rights. Gays began to marry.  And men lost the right to rule the roost.  What science tells us is that when people face adversity in circumstances like this they vote against the incumbents and go for outsiders or for politicians who exploit their fears. That favored Trump.

Proof?  His voters haven’t cared that the media have rated his statements lies over and over again or that he seems uninformed about most of the issues he’s addressed.  What they care about is that he’s avowedly been in their corner.  He’s regarded as their champion.  This is important because in the end elections are always about the voters.  Trump makes his voters feel smart.  He validates their deep-felt view that they have been trampled on by elites uninterested in their welfare. 

To those taking a strictly rational approach to politics, Trump’s appeal is hard to fathom.  But for most voters – a majority of whom don’t know we have 3 branches of government – what matters is not reason so much as what they feel. 

It’s not a surprise that he’s drawn much of his support from so-called low-information voters.  They aren’t so much thinking hard about the qualities they want in a leader as reacting to what they hear when Trump turns up on their television screens. They’re going on instinct. These instincts were shaped by evolution:  We are drawn to our own kind. We give in to fear when our amygdala is activated by scary headlines and demagogic politicians. And so on.

You mention how masculine faces are more appealing to voters during wartime and feminine features more appealing in peacetime. This is fascinating. Does this fact hold up historically, if you look at past heads of state?

No one has performed controlled experiments involving subjects shown a large data set of the images of past presidents. But studies show that college students taking the measure of a face shaped like George W. Bush versus a face shaped like John Kerry preferred the face that resembled Bush’s. This was back in 2004 during the Iraq War.

Now we do know that the taller candidate has almost always defeated the shorter candidate in US presidential history, so that certainly tells us something.  It helped that George Washington towered over his peers (he was around 6 feet two inches).  He looked like a commanding figure. Back in the Stone Age an individual’s sheer size would have mattered to people.  It’s no surprise that we favor tall leaders, therefore.

What are the other main ways in which our stone-aged brains hinder us when it comes to politics?

I think I addressed this earlier.

Do you think that being aware of this tendency to make instinct based decisions means that we can force ourselves to think more rationally? Or will we continue to make the same mistakes?

Low information voters are always going to be less rational than is desirable.  Lacking information they are going to go on instinct.  And they are in the majority.  But we can teach everybody how their brain operates.  People who understand how their instincts shape their responses can second-guess those responses.  That’s what makes me hopeful.  Science is giving us the chance to act more rationally.

It’s important to note that our problem is not that we get emotional.  Intelligence is married to emotion, scientists have found.  Brain-damaged individuals who lack an emotional response to events find that they cannot make decisions.

The key then is to ask ourselves whenever we go on instinct – and we do all the time in politics as in life – whether our instinctive responses in a particular situation are appropriate.  Is the context right? In some cases it’s right to fear a stranger.  But in our multi-cultural world it’s not right to fear people solely because they look different or talk different. So if we catch ourselves demonizing someone on those grounds we know we need to second-guess ourselves.

Do voters care about the truth at all or is this another thing the more primitive side of ourselves doesn’t care about? People must know that what Trump says isn’t true so does this suggest that it just doesn’t matter to them?

Truth matters less to voters – all voters – than you’d suspect.  Why?  Because we are biased.  The more biased we are toward a person or party the less willing we are to acknowledge that they may have lied or mangled the truth.  As Harvard’s Steven Pinker says, we aren’t interested in the truth prevailing so much as our version of the truth, which can be quite different.

Once we have settled on an opinion we are very reluctant to change our minds.  Neuroscience studies performed by Drew Westen show that when we are exposed to information that is contrary to our beliefs we immediately discount it.  Our neurons stop firing.  As social psychologists discovered in the middle of the 20th century we don’t like dissonance and automatically try to eliminate it.  One way to do that is to ignore evidence that goes against our beliefs.  When we do that we feel better – and our physical health improves.

You say that voters made an irrational decision by getting behind Sanders because it is “a year when the anti-politician was cool.” Do you think that was all it was about? What in our stone-aged brain is tricking us in exactly the same way as with Trump?

I have never said that people voting for Sanders were irrational.  What I’ve said is that people have been drawn to him primarily because they wanted an outsider.  He confirmed his voters’ bias against the establishment and offered an indictment of the establishment.  His supporters found this pleasing.  He told them what they wanted to hear.  When the media did the arithmetic and found his prescriptions wanting his voters didn’t particularly care. By then they had already made up their minds. That his tax plan wasn’t well-thought out didn’t matter. Hillary’s numbers have added up better.  But that doesn’t mean that her voters are more rational.  Her voters by and large had their own instinctive reasons for giving her their support.  As human beings we are all of us subject to the pull of instinctive behavior.  Most importantly, we go along with our group.  This is because we don’t break ranks.  If the group with which we identify shares a particular point of view on a political subject we will tend to go along.  We’ll either conform our view to the group’s or convince ourselves that the group shares our view. 

I know that this is distressing to hear.  We’d like to believe in the Enlightenment view that politics is about the settling of differences through the exchange of views based on hard evidence.  But this simply isn’t true.  Most of the time we come by our views through other means. But as I said above, science is giving us reason to hope.  By learning how our brain works we can second-guess ourselves.  I know I’m repeating myself. I just want to make sure your readers don’t walk away dispirited.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Democracy Failed Us in this Election. We Need to Admit that.

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

T. Harry Williams opens his celebrated biography of Huey Long with a story about the time Long went to campaign in “rural, Latin, Catholic, south Louisiana.”  A local boss was worried because Long was from Protestant north Louisiana. But when Long stood before the crowds he began by telling a reassuring story:  “When I was a boy, I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass.  I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would take my Baptist grandparents to church.”  The local boss afterwards appreciatively told Long:  “Why Huey, you’ve been holding out on us.  I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.”  “Don’t be a damn fool,” Long chided him.  “We didn’t even have a horse."

This is not the kind of story that is going to upset a lot of people concerned with politicians’ lying.  But it’s worth understanding what even this charming tale says about voters.  One lesson is that they easily can be hornswoggled. 

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 How to Become Better Informed Politically

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

This is an email interview I did with AMFM Magazine.  It just went online.

Rick, is the American voter misinformed, and sadly lacking in knowledge of world affairs?

I guess you decided to start with an easy question. The answer is yes, of course.  Studies going back half a century show that a majority of Americans know next to little about government, politics or history.  A majority don’t know we have 3 branches of government.  A majority don’t know there are 100 US senators.  A majority don’t know that the only country to drop an atomic bomb in a war was their own, the United States.  Most Americans can’t find Iraq on a map even though we’ve been bombing the country since the 1990s.  So the answer is unquestionably yes. 

Why are Americans so easily misled, given that there is so much technological advancement (social media, etc.)? Why don’t more people investigate what we are fed by the media?

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 How to Watch the Debates

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

The temptation to judge candidates at a TV debate the way we judge actors on a television soap opera is impossible to resist. But there is a way to move beyond the superficial aspects of a television debate. ]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Thank You Donald Trump. Seriously. Thank You.

Donald Trump's Misleading Twitter Feed (see below)

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

I owe a great debt to Donald J. Trump. Let me explain.

Eight years ago, in 2008, I wrote a book called Just How Stupid Are We. It was a cri de coeur. ]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Are Voters Easily Manipulated?

Supporters of Donald J. Trump (Trump campaign website)

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

This election will not only settle the question of who next gets to sit behind the large desk in the Oval Office. It will also settle another question, formerly of interest mainly to scholars, but now, for obvious reasons, of concern to a broad audience:  How gullible voters are in the 21st century.  

There are two broad schools of thought about this. One school, best represented most recently by historian David Greenberg in his book, A Republic of Spin, argues that voters are plenty savvy.   Greenberg goes so far as to discount claims that the Bush administration manipulated public opinion in support of its decision to invade Iraq. After 9-11, he says, polls showed the voters were anxious to go to war. They were blood thirsty. In deciding on war, therefore, Bush merely gave the voters what they wanted. 

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Russiagate

Illustration by Wes Jenkins

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Donald Trump lies repeatedly to the public like no one else ever has.  But Michael Flynn lies once to Mike Pence and he's out on his ear? 

This seems like a paradox.  It isn't.  Here's why.

 ]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 No, Democrats Shouldn't Learn to Hate Like the Right

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics , from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for Slate, writes in the New York Times that Democrats are discovering what Republicans have long known:  anger works in building a movement.  As she rightly notes, the GOP has used anger for decades to energize conservative voters by the millions.  The list of things that made these conservatives angry was long.  In the 1950s it was commie spies infiltrating the government.  In the 1960s it was pot smoking hippies, murderous (black) criminals, and socially disruptive (black) protesters.  In the 1970s it was pro-choice "feminazis."  In the 1990s it was the Clintons, especially the female member of the pair.  It burned to hear her mock women like Tammy Wynette who stand by their man and bake cookies.

 ]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Don't Trump's Voters Care About the Truth?

Clever graphic circulated by Democrats.

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, from which this article was adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Why don't Trump voters seem to care that their president is frequently caught telling lies?  To answer this question I want to start with a story.

Not long after the Watergate burglary, the Republicans held their national convention in Miami to nominate Nixon for reelection. After he gave his acceptance speech, delegates and supporters in the hall were allowed to meet the president, who stood on stage as people, one by one, passed by to shake his hand. In the long line that immediately formed was a young man, all of seventeen years of age, from New Jersey. He had come to Miami without a ticket to the convention, but he had managed to wangle one that afternoon. “Mr. President, I’m a Democrat,” the young man said when he got his turn. “But I am supporting you.” Nixon looked a little flummoxed. Even though he was courting Democrats, he apparently wasn’t expecting to be shaking hands with one at this point in the proceedings of the Re- publican convention.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 When Will Trump Voters Realize They've Been Had?

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

When will the people of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, those stalwart Trump voters who believe he’ll be bringing back coal jobs, finally figure out they’ve been had?

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 If We Go to War in Korea Trump's Poll Numbers Almost Certainly Would Go Up

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Liberals are convinced Donald Trump will either be driven out of office or at the very least be fired by the voters at the next election three and a half years from now.  But there’s a plausible scenario that ends with his re-election.  Surprisingly, it involves Korea, which everybody, liberals and conservatives alike, seems to regard as a disaster in the making. 

How could a second Korean War help keep Donald Trump in the White House for another four years?

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Country Guitarist Changes His Mind on Gun Control after Vegas: Why That's Not Surprising. Caleb Keeter is a member of the country group that was performing on stage the night a shooter began spraying the area with bullets fired from guns equipped to work like a machine gun.  In the hours after the shooting Keeter took to Twitter to explain that he had changed his mind about gun control. Now he supports it.  This blog post, by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN, explains why we shouldn't be surprised by Keeter's change of heart.  The article is drawn from Shenkman's book,  Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

We believe human beings are naturally empathic. We take pride in our capacity for empathy. It’s what keeps us human. But our capacity for empathy is limited. Most of the time empathy only works under four restricted circumstances:

1. When a story tugs at our heart. 2. When we are face-to-face with someone in pain or jeopardy. 3. When somebody is going through something we ourselves have experienced. 4. When we identify with a person in pain, either because we know them or their group, or we are members of the same group.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Is Facebook’s Decision to Downplay Politics Really a Blow to Journalism?

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Some journalists are alarmed by Facebook’s decision to deemphasize news in users’ News Feeds. I don’t share their concern. First, Facebook was never a desirable platform for hard news. You don’t want to get into an argument with your aunt over Donald Trump on Facebook. Facebook is like a friends and family picnic.  It’s a place for exchanging recipes.  It’s not for food fights over politics. And anyway it wasn’t designed to feature news or political discussions. By deciding to deemphasize hard news Facebook is going back to its roots. This is probably good for Facebook and it’s undoubtedly good for family peace. Now Red State Auntie Em can share her favorite photos of her dog Spot without worrying that she’ll have to see her Blue State nephew’s screed about Trump’s latest racist tweet.

The change might even be good for politics.  Because Facebook wasn’t designed to feature hard news the display of news evolved organically in a hit or miss fashion. Tools weren’t installed to reward readers for searching out news that might conflict with their partisan proclivities. Nor did the site feature incentives to explore issues in-depth. To be sure the platform may have prompted some people to turn out to vote; studies show that people who displayed an ‘I Voted’ sticker had an impact on their close friends’ own decision to cast a ballot. But social media should be having a far greater positive impact. 

Facebook’s decision gives journalists a chance for a do-over.  As long as Facebook was featuring their content, journalists didn’t feel the need to create a social media platform designed expressly to meet the needs of users interested in news. Facebook already had the users. Under the circumstances it made little sense to set up a new platform. You go hunting where the sitting ducks are and they were on Facebook. 

I came to learn this firsthand in one of those life-teaches-hard-lessons moments. In 2011 I joined a Seattle-area start-up to create a new social media platform for politics called Vote iQ. It was going to be a kind of Facebook for politics, as I told investors.  The theory was that Vote iQ would give users a one-stop-shop platform where they could find out everything they needed to know:  how to register to vote, where to vote, who their elected officials were, which special interests these politicians turned to for contributions, and how they voted on key issues.  To put voters in the driver’s seat we intended to give them multiple ways to Take Action by making donations, filing a grievance with a bureaucracy or joining an activist group. Politicians in turn would establish profiles on the platform to give them a chance to showcase what they were doing for constituents, who would be able to exploit the system of two-way communication social media platforms offer.  Want to yell at your senator for voting with the National Rifle Association?  On Vote iQ you could by simply posting a complaint you, your neighbors and your senator could see.

Central to our vision was giving users an opportunity to access the news they need to know to make informed political decisions.  Most voters know little about politics.  A majority can’t even name the three branches of government. Despite the investment we as a society have made in education — a majority of adults now attend college —  surveys show most people remain at least as ignorant about issues as Americans in the 1940s when the vast majority hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. By some measures people today are actually less knowledgeable than their great grandparents. (Their great grandparents could rely on cues given by labor leaders.  Very few people today can, given the shrinking footprint of labor in American society.)

One solution was to sign up journalists and media companies. Like politicians they would create profiles and users could follow them. If, say, you like Paul Krugman, you could follow him on the site and be able to comment on his page about his columns and blog posts.  This would be a classic win/win situation.  Voters would be in a position to be their own journalist by curating the news they see.  In return, media companies would gain traffic.

Because the platform was expressly built around news and politics special tools could be built to give users an incentive to explore communities outside their bubble. One suggestion was to work out a partnership with Starbucks to award users points toward a gift card when they followed mainstream media outlets like the New York Times. To encourage voters who otherwise might shy away from wonky articles heavy on policy and numbers, we’d offer information in clever, game-like ways, picking up on an innovation pioneered by Yahoo.  We began with a Match Quiz that gave users a chance to see which presidential candidates in 2012 lined up with their own views on various issues. Another quiz helped voters figure out where they fell on an ideological scale ranging from left to right.  (The media generally assume voters know whether they are liberal or conservative and what those terms mean.  Studies show most have no idea.) 

We actually began building the vote iQ platform after raising about 3 million dollars. But we ran out of money before we could fully implement our vision.  Media companies, while intrigued, held back because we lacked the millions of users they could already access on Facebook.  In effect, Facebook made reaching users so easy it seemed pointless to move to a second platform even if it might better serve their own needs and the voters’. Why go to the trouble of creating a new destination site for politics when there already was one?

But maybe now the media are willing to give the idea a second chance. I am confident Americans would welcome a major social media platform solely dedicated to politics the same way LinkedIn is devoted to career building.  The country’s never been more engaged in politics than it is right now. The time is right for a platform where we can discuss politics and only politics and leave Auntie Em free to post her favorite pictures of Spot on facebook.

Facebook’s decision isn’t a big blow to the media.  It’s an opportunity.  All the media have to do is show the imagination to seize the moment. Carpe Diem!

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Why Stories Are so Important in Politics Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is drawn. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Americans Have Again Ranked JFK Among the 3 Best Modern Presidents

Related Link HNN Hot Topic:  President's Day

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think for a moment about John F. Kennedy. What comes to mind, excluding the assassination, which obviously is memorable, and the stories of his adultery, which I just mentioned, and which are therefore easily called up from memory? I will guess that it is an image of some kind: Kennedy on his sailboat, his hair flying in the wind. Or Kennedy playing touch football on the lawn of the family estate in Hyannis Port. Or Jack and Jackie out for a stroll. Or Kennedy (hatless) delivering his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .” Or, my favorite, a tanned Kennedy wearing his Ray-Bans and an Izod Lacoste open-collar shirt.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Why This Was the Generation Cursed with a Donald Trump

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Here's a question we need to be thinking about.

Why did a Donald Trump arise now?

The answer at first glance is that he is sui generis.  But this answer doesn't get us very far.  While Trump is a force of nature and has been his whole life apparently from my reading of his biography, we have had plenty of other people in American history who were his equal if not his superior.  Remember P.T. Barnum?  He too created a brand around his name and survived bankruptcy and became popular.

No, there's something about our era that has given us this dreadful chaos-leader-in-chief.  The question is what.  

But before we get to that there's a paradox to be dealt with.  It holds the key to our conundrum.  Here's the paradox.  Donald Trump, a man who appeals to the lowest common denominator and literally is most popular with those who know the least, has come to power in an age when we've never been better educated. 

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 The Malcolm Gladwell Presidency  

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

In the last few weeks President Trump has replaced both his secretary of state and his national security advisor.  Each move came amid reports that he was acting on instinct.  This is a matter of no little significance. A lot is riding on his gut — nothing less than the possibility of war.  Both of his new hires are said to be hawks eager for war with both Iran and North Korea.  As a headline in Slate announced:  “It’s Time to Panic.”

Mr. Trump himself seems convinced he can wisely rely on his gut when making decisions.  But is he right? He’s almost certainly wrong, as I’ll show in a moment. But why would he believe it?

Like most people he tells himself a seductive story that confirms his assumptions.  His story, I’d guess, goes something like this.  I am a billionaire.  I have been wildly successful.  My whole life the bien pensant have been telling me that I’m going about things all wrong and yet look where I am?  I’m in the White House and they’re not.  So I must know what I’m doing. And I’ve accomplished everything in life by going with my gut.

One problem with this way of thinking is that we know for a fact that even highly successful people who have a history of going with their gut often fall flat on their faces.  We don’t have to go back far in history for an example.  Remember George W. Bush?  He too thought he could rely on his gut when making decisions.  What do you think he told himself when millions started marching against the Iraq War?  I suspect it was the same story Donald Trump is probably telling himself now.  That’s the problem with gut thinking of this sort.  It’s the all-purpose excuse for doing whatever you want to do whether it’s likely to succeed or fail.

To be sure, presidents like Barack Obama who primarily rely on reason make errors as well.  The questions a president faces are almost always the really hard ones — the easy ones get settled lower down the chain of command — so decision making usually comes down to judgment calls involving multiple variables, incomplete information, and best-guesses about future outcomes.  But we almost certainly have more to fear from those who use their gut than their higher order cognitive thinking skills.

One reason is obvious and it has to do specifically with the presidency.  There is simply no job like it.  And that means that the experience a person brings to the Oval Office is unlikely in most cases to be of much help except in discrete situations where there’s a match between the current challenge being faced and some previous challenge, as sometimes happens.  One thinks of Dwight Eisenhower making a war or peace call.  Given his experience as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II Ike had the requisite experience when deciding how to end the Korean War and set defense spending for the United States afterwards.  Critics questioned his decisions.  He rightly told them he knew more about war than they did. Game. Set. Match.

Donald Trump alas is no Eisenhower.  His field of experience is limited to two realms: The real estate business and reality TV.  And neither is a likely source of the kind of experience needed to conduct foreign affairs (like deciding whether it’s wise to meet with the leader of a country that has threatened to wipe out yours in a nuclear war).

It is possible for someone lacking experience to compensate for that.  One way is by reading books.  But all indications are that Mr. Trump is not a reader.  Friends have speculated that he’s not even read the bestsellers he’s credited with writing. Unlike George W. Bush, Trump doesn’t read history books, a source of invaluable knowledge for a man in his position.  Nor does he read biographies of past presidents. When asked why he doesn’t read history books or biographies he has said that he doesn’t have the time.  He’s too busy.  (Is it just because I’m a historian that I find this appalling?)

There is another way to compensate for limited experience and that’s to rely on others who possess the requisite expertise.  But here again Trump seems disinclined to avail himself of this source of ready knowledge.  The President’s Daily Brief is prepared to give the president the best intelligence estimates of the government’s top experts. Mr. Trump has reportedly blown them off frequently.  As he explained on MSNBC during the campaign:  “My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff."  By “this stuff” Mr. Trump was referring to foreign policy.

But it gets worse.  Almost certainly when Trump hails his gut he has in mind something else besides experience.  And that’s his animal instincts. That’s the feeling he gets when he decides on the spot it’s time to clobber somebody, say something outrageous, or take a bold risk. As his own aides have confessed, Trump doesn’t know when he wakes up in the morning what he plans to do that day.  He just does it.

Handsome Warren Harding

In a way his is the Malcolm Gladwell presidency.  Gladwell argues in his bestseller Blink that people are often better off trusting their instincts rather than reason.  This is not as crazy as it may sound.  This is because our unconscious brain works faster than our conscious brain. A rich social science literature built around the insights of German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer and others confirms that our unconscious brain can be helpful in a variety of situations from catching a baseball to deciding when to duck so a flying rock misses your head.

But is this a prudent approach in politics?  There are many reasons to doubt it, as even Gladwell sorta acknowledges in his book in a chapter on Warren Harding, the only chapter dealing with politics.  In Gladwell's telling, voters picked Harding because he looked like a president.*  As Gladwell admits, this was a mistake.  Harding wasn't cut out to be our chief executive as experience quickly showed. When given conflicting advice by different experts he expressed bewilderment. When making appointments he installed incompetent and corrupt people in high positions of authority. And I haven't even mentioned his having sex with a lover in a White House closet.

There's a reason instinct doesn't work very well in politics. Our animal instincts evolved to help us survive in small communities made up of people we actually know.  In the modern world political questions involve settling differences between millions and billions of people who are strangers.  There is little reason to believe that instincts that evolved to shape our survival in a hunter gatherer community would be useful in helping us triumph in a complicated world consisting of nation states.  

The problem is that our brain doesn’t send a red flare up to warn us when an instinctive action is inappropriate.  Indeed, it tricks us into thinking that when we act on instinct we can trust ourselves no matter the context.  That is because at the moment when we are going with our instincts we feel good about it.  It is not until we see the results that we can make a proper assessment.  And by then we may have become so invested in our decision that we may be more inclined to justify our action rather than reevaluate it no matter how badly things turned out.  As psychologists have shown, literally hundreds of biases warp our ability to see things clearly, among them partisanship, which particularly afflicts the ability of human beings engaged in political debates to see the world as it is and not as we wish it to be.  This is dangerous.  Seeing things as they are is essential in politics.

As it happens, Trump’s animal instincts have been flagrantly failing him.  Consider the ability to size up people, which is surely one of the most basic animal instincts there is.  You cannot get far in life if you place your trust repeatedly in people who don’t deserve it.  But judging by the turnover in the White House staff the past 14 months this is not a skill Trump can claim with elan.  He has repeatedly put people in powerful positions who have turned out to be duds or worse, including his first National Security Advisor, first Chief of Staff, and first, second and third Communications Directors. (Yes, there have already been three of them, one lasting just ten days.)

Another animal instinct has repeatedly undermined his authority and that’s his resort to bullying. Like animals studied by primatologist Frans de Waal, Trump resorts to bullying almost daily.  In the real estate business bullying probably worked for him, because in that line of work there are always new projects involving new people you haven’t dealt with before.  This explains why Trump as a builder was able to get away with cheating Polish workers out of their pay and blocking black applicants from his apartments  –  and yes, he did both.  But bullying doesn’t work very well in democratic politics.  There are only so many important people in politics you can bully before you run out of easy marks. Eventually, in a closed universe like politics, the people you’ve bullied accumulate to the point where you can no longer escape them.  In the end it’s a losing strategy.

So is lying, which Trump does almost every time he opens his mouth.  Trump often lies even when we know he’s lying.  Lying is instinctive with him, as it is, we have to acknowledge, with everybody.  We all lie.  But Trump seems not to calculate in advance the cost of lying.  This is unusual in a politician.  Most usually quickly learn that while you can lie to the American people from time to time and suffer few consequences, you must not lie to other politicians.  Do that and they won’t want to do deals with you in the future because they won’t be able to trust you.  Trump, though, hasn’t seemed to figure this out.  His failure is sabotaging his ability to cut deals with Congress.

The question isn’t whether Trump is going to continue to go with his instincts or not.  We know now he is.  Rather, the question is whether his supporters will.  It was because they went with their instincts that they fell for a candidate who appealed to their tribal identity and demonization of outsiders.  But will they continue to do so?  On this question rests the fate of the republic.

*For the Record:  Harding owed his election to multiple factors,  most importantly that he was a Republican.  That he was also handsome was probably of little significance, especially since political campaigns did not play out on television as they do now.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
The Psychology Behind the Trump Cult

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

A psychological mechanism inclines us toward consistency, especially when our beliefs and behavior are in conflict. While we often hold contradictory views, obvious contradictions make us feel uncomfortable. By nature we aren’t Walt Whitmans. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman says in his poem “Song of Myself.” But that’s not how the brain operates. The human brain does not like cognitive dissonance—as social psychologist Leon Festinger dubbed the phenomenon in the 1950s. Rather than live with contradiction, we figure out a way to reduce it. How far are we willing to go to do this? Pretty far.

]]> Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0 Trump's treating his voters like chumps

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

This is excerpted from an interview I did with Salon's Chauncey DeVega.

How was Donald Trump able to become president?

There are ultimate causes and proximate causes. As for the first, once the Democratic Party became committed to civil rights that inevitably meant there was going to be a revolution in our politics. The Democratic Party for a century had been composed of people in the South and urban parts of the North and elsewhere. There was tension between those two elements but party elites kept things unified more or less.

But when Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights laws, Southerners bailed wholesale from the Democratic Party. The Republican Party saw all these Southern voters now up for grabs and they gravitated toward them. So now you've got the two political parties, one striking out in favor strongly of civil rights and the other party increasingly uncomfortable with its own past as a civil rights pioneer under Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party decided to use racial grievances and in some instances outright racism to win over the voters who abandoned the Democrats over civil rights. 

Considering that the United States has only been a full democracy (under the law) for approximately 50 years since the civil rights movement, is the white backlash that Trump represents in many ways just a return to the norm in America? 

I am more impressed with the similarities in Donald Trump's politics than I am with the differences when we look back over the long arc of American history. But of course I do see very real differences between Donald Trump and all previous presidents. 

He's like having elected Joe McCarthy as president. Trump is not only using racist tropes in his rhetoric but he's just a pure demagogue and we've just never had that kind of a combination in the presidency before. Trump is wrong for this country in so many different ways such as his egotism, his self-aggrandizement, his gross ignorance, his unwillingness to learn basic facts about the issues that he's talking about....

Donald Trump has little to no respect for or understanding of America’s democratic norms and traditions. He appears to lack basic human decency and seems to relish embarrassing the United States globally. His personal and moral failings also include his racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, cruelty and willful ignorance. Yet, Trump has an almost unbreakable hold over his followers. How do you explain this?

My explanation is informed by social psychology. That framework provides the best explanation, which is that politics is about group cohesion and group identification. Trump’s supporters have a shared sense of resentment which for many of them is not economic: It is social and cultural. Donald Trump is addressing that. Moreover, politics is all about making voters feel smart and Donald Trump did that for his public. Politicians on both the left and the right haven't been able to accomplish that goal for decades. Trump’s voters also feel smart because he's rich and powerful. 

He also validated the instinctive feelings of his voters and made them feel that their resentments are permissible and legitimate. 

Now consider what Barack Obama did in a much more positive way. Obama succeeded in winning a lot of white votes because he made people feel good about voting for a black man. He did not try to make white voters feel guilty or discuss topics which were negative in terms of race relations. 

Then Donald Trump comes along and he has figured out another way to make those white voters feel smart and that's by playing on racial resentments. 

When Trump makes these racist appeals he's deploying insights from social psychology. He's appealing to people such that they feel they are members of a group and feel strongly united as a result. 

So the more he gets attacked by others, the more united his followers feel. In a way this makes him more powerful. There is a way out of this cycle. We feel anxious if there is a widening gap between our view of the way the world works and the way the world is actually working. When that gap becomes so large that we can't deny it anymore, our brains are triggered to re-evaluate our commitments. We then change our commitments when the burden of hanging onto existing beliefs becomes greater than of changing them. 

Even with all the horrible things that have come out about Donald Trump, his voters are not getting anxious. Several things have to happen for this to change. Really important voices in the Republican Party have to come out against Trump. An indictment by Robert Mueller would also be something concrete that would change some of his supporters’ minds too.

Let’s entertain a scenario where Mueller presents irrefutable, obvious, watertight evidence that Trump and his allies colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. Furthermore, let’s also assume that subsequently more and more prominent Republicans begin to publicly condemn Donald Trump. Trump will say he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and that it's all “fake news.” Given that he leads a political cult won’t his followers just become even more devoted?  

The key turning point will be when people feel that supporting Donald Trump is a bad reflection of who they are. Suppose Trump is indicted and his tax returns show that he is worth much less than he claims. Well, that's the kind of thing that's going to make people feel like chumps and will drive a huge wedge between the supporters and the cult leader.  

There will be dead-enders of course. Even Nixon at the time he resigned was at 23 percent in the polls. You're never going to be able to change those people's minds.

But for the great bulk of the population, particularly the people who don't follow politics all that closely, they'll be more willing to shift their commitments … but hard evidence is going to have to come out. It can't just be a headline in the New York Times. It's going to have to be something really explosive that moves the needle. We're not there yet.... 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Can't Americans Accept the Fact that Columbus Was Not a Hero?  

This goes far toward explaining one of the most troubling facts historians have uncovered about myths: they don’t die. They just go into hibernation, ready to spring back to life when circumstances become favorable. Take Joseph Stalin. He was officially repudiated by the Soviet Union shortly after his death in 1953. His horrors were fully exposed. But on the sixtieth anniversary of his death, who did Russians tell pollsters was the greatest Russian leader in history? Joseph Stalin. It’s not the man Russians were celebrating. It was the myth of the Great Leader. In myths, fact and fable get all mixed up. The facts are incidental. What counts is the meaning the myths have for the people who believe them.

Americans, like others, are susceptible to myths. The reason for this is that myths serve the same purpose for us as they do for others. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, myths bind groups together. As he says, they bind the hive. Myths bring us closer. As a heterogeneous society we have more of a need for myths than homogenous societies. Unlike most people around the world, our history is short—so short, we have not had time to meld into a single people with a common culture. We come from everywhere. Unlike, say, the Germans or the French, we have not lived in the same place for thousands of years. Nor do we share a common tribal identity. E pluribus unum? Out of many one? That is what we like to believe, but it’s not really true. What unites us is not a common identity but a loose set of beliefs. This is why myths are so appealing to Americans. They help answer the burning question, to quote the eighteenth-century French émigré writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur: “What then, is this new man, the American?”

Two centuries on we still aren’t sure, but a clue is in our myths. Our myths make us, us. We therefore cling to them and can’t give them up. It’s who we are. Myths are so important to us that writers and intellectuals after the Revolution set themselves on a conscious path of mythmaking. This was to create an authentic American identity. They did not want children growing up on the stories of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. They wanted children to learn American stories. The story of Paul Revere did not become part of American culture by accident. Longfellow wrote a poem about him. Plymouth Rock became iconic because Daniel Webster gave a famous speech about it. Why do we have myths, after all? They tell us who we are and what values we cherish.

That is why we see such fierce battles over figures like Christopher Columbus and holidays like Christmas. They have become part of American mythology. We define ourselves by these myths. Plymouth Rock, Betsy Ross, the Liberty Bell—these are part of the bedrock foundations of American culture. We take them seriously. So when critics challenge Columbus’s virtue and Christmas’s universality, many Americans naturally recoil. It’s not the myths that they are defending. It’s themselves. Myths R Us.

So what's stopping us from changing the name of the holiday?  Italian Americans would probably complain vociferously as they have in the past, but it's not their opposition that's stopping us. It's us.  Or at least "us" minus Native Americans and historians. 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
I Stuck with Nixon. Here’s Why Science Says I Did It.

Richard Nixon surrenders to reality and resigns, August 9, 1974

Rick Shenkman is the former publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain. This article was first published by the  Daily Beast.

Will Donald Trump’s supporters ever turn on him? I think I know the answer. It’s partly because I’ve been in their place.

During Watergate I was a die-hard Nixon dead-ender. I stuck with him after the Saturday Night Massacre in the fall of 1973 and the indictments of Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in 1974. Not until two months before Nixon resigned did I finally decide enough’s enough.

What was wrong with me? I’ve been haunted by that question for decades. 

I can clear up one thing immediately. I didn’t support Nixon out of ignorance. I was a history major at Vassar during Watergate and eagerly followed the news. I knew exactly what he’d been accused of.

The fact is the facts alone didn’t matter because I’d already made up my mind about him. My fellow Vassar students—all liberals, of course—pressed me to recant. But the more they did, the more feverish I became in my defense. I didn’t want to admit I was wrong (who does?) so I dreamed up reasons to show I wasn’t—a classic example of cognitive dissonance in action. 

A pioneering study by social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted in the 1950s helps explain my mental gymnastics. Young college women invited to attend a risqué discussion of sexuality were divided into two groups. One group was put through a preliminary ritual in which they had to read aloud a list of words like “prostitute,” “virgin,” and “petting.” The other group had to say out loud a dozen obscenities including the word “fuck.” Afterwards, the members of both groups were required to attend a discussion on sex, which is what had been the draw. But it turned out they had all been duped. The discussion wasn’t risqué. The subject turned out to be lower-order animal sexuality. Worse, the people leading the discussion spoke in a monotone voice so low it was hard to follow what they were saying. 

Following the exercise the students were asked to comment on what they had been through. You might expect the students who went through the embarrassing rite of speaking obscenities to complain the loudest about the ordeal. But that isn’t what happened. Rather, they were more likely to speak positively about the experience.

The theory of cognitive dissonance explains why. While all of the subjects in the experiment felt unease at being duped, those for whom the experience was truly onerous felt a more compelling need to explain away their decision to take part. The solution was to reimagine what had happened. By rewriting history they could tell themselves that what had appeared to be a bad experience was actually a good one. Dissonance begone.

This is what I did each time one of my Vassar friends pointed to facts that showed Nixon was lying. 

Neuroscience experiments in the 21st century by Drew Westen show what happens in our brain when we confront information at odds with our commitments. In one study, supporters of President George W. Bush were given information that suggested he had been guilty of hypocrisy. Instead of grappling with the contradiction they ignored it. Most disturbing of all, this happened out of conscious awareness. MRI pictures showed that when they learned of Bush’s hypocrisy, their brains automatically shut off the “spigot of unpleasant emotion.” (It’s not a uniquely Republican trait; the same thing happened with supporters of John Kerry.) 

In short, human beings want to be right and we want our team to win. But we knew all that, right? Anybody who’s taken a Psych 101 class knows about confirmation bias: that humans seek out information that substantiates what they already believe; and bounded rationality: that human reason is limited to the information sources to which we are exposed; and motivated reasoning: that humans have a hard time being objective. 

But knowing all this isn’t enough to understand why Trump voters are sticking with Trump.

What’s required instead is a comprehensive way to think about the stubbornness of public opinion and when it changes. Until a few decades ago no one had much of a clue what a comprehensive approach might look like. All people had to go on was speculation. Then scientists operating in three different realms — social psychology, neuroscience, and political science — began to delve into the working of the human brain. What they wanted to know was how we learn. The answer, most agreed, was that the brain works on a dual-process system, a finding popularized by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning Princeton psychologist, in the book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

One track, which came to be known as System 1, is super-fast and happens out of conscious awareness, the thinking you do without thinking.

There are two components to System 1 thinking. One involves what popularly is thought of as our animal instincts, or what social scientists refer to, with more precision, as evolved psychological mechanisms. Example: the universal human fear of snakes. The other involves ways of thinking shaped by habit. The more you perform a certain task, the more familiar it becomes and the better you get at it without having to think about it.

Donald Trump likes to say that he goes with his gut. What he’s saying, likely without knowing it, is that he has confidence in his System 1. This is not exceptional. Most of us trust our instincts most of the time. What distinguishes Trump is that he seems to privilege instinct over reason nearly all of the time.

The second track, System 2, is slower and allows for reflection. This mode, which involves higher-order cognitive thinking, kicks in automatically when our brain’s surveillance system detects a novel situation for which we aren’t prepared by experience. At that moment we shift from unconscious reaction to conscious thinking. It is System 2 that we rely on when mulling over a difficult question involving multiple variables. Because our brain is in a sense lazy, as Kahneman notes, and System 2 thinking is hard, our default is System 1 thinking.

One thing that’s worth noting about System 1 thinking is that our brains are essentially conservative. While humans are naturally curious about the world and we are constantly growing our knowledge by, in effect, adding books to the shelves that exist in our mind’s library, only reluctantly do we decide to expand the library by adding a new shelf. And only very rarely do we think to change the system by which we organize the books on those shelves. Once we settle on the equivalent of the Dewey Decimal System in our mind, it’s very hard to switch to another system. This is one of the main reasons why people are almost always reluctant to embrace change. It’s why inertia wins out time and time again.

But change we do, thanks to System 2. But what exactly triggers System 2 when it’s our politics that are on the line? Social scientists finally came up with a convincing explanation when they began studying the effect of emotion on political decision-making in the 1980s.

One of the pioneers in this research is George Marcus. When Marcus was starting out as a political scientist at Williams College he began to argue that the profession should be focusing more on emotion, something they’d never done, mainly because emotion is hard to quantify and count and political scientists like to count things. When Marcus began writing papers about emotion he found he couldn’t find editors who would publish them. 

But it turned out his timing was perfect. Just as he was beginning to focus on emotion so were neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio. What the neuroscientists were learning was that the ancient belief that emotion is the enemy of reason is all wrong. Rather, emotion is the handmaiden of reason. What Damasio discovered was that patients with a damaged amygdala, the seat of many emotions, could not make decisions. He concluded: The “absence of emotion appears to be at least as pernicious for rationality as excessive emotion.” 

If emotion is critical to reason, the obvious question became: which emotion triggers fresh thinking? Eventually Marcus and a handful of other political scientists who shared his assumption that emotion is important to decision making became convinced that the one that triggers reappraisals is anxiety. Why anxiety? Because it turned out that when people realize that the picture of the world in their brain doesn’t match the world as it actually exists, their amygdala registers a strong reaction. This is felt in the body as anxiety.

Eventually, Marcus and his colleagues came up with a theory that helps us understand when people change their minds. It became known as the Theory of Affective Intelligence (later: the Theory of Affective Agency). The theory is straightforward: The more anxiety we feel the more likely we are to reconsider our beliefs. We actually change our beliefs when, as Marcus phrases it, the burden of hanging onto an opinion becomes greater than the cost of changing it. Experiments show that when people grow anxious they suddenly become open to new information. They follow hyperlinks promising fresh takes and they think about the new facts they encounter.

How does this help us understand Trump supporters? It doesn’t, if you accept the endless assertions that Trump voters are gripped by fear and economic anxiety. In that case, they should be particularly open to change. And yet they’re as stuck on Trump as I was on Nixon.

The problem isn’t with the theory. It’s with the fear and anxiety diagnosis. 

Humans can multiple feelings at odds with one another simultaneously, but research shows that only one emotion is likely to affect their politics. The dominant emotion characterizing so-called populist voters like those attracted to Trump is anger, not fear. This has been found in studies of populists in FranceSpainGermany and Britain as well as the United States

If the researchers are right that populists are mostly angry, not anxious, their remarkable stubbornness immediately becomes explicable. One of the findings of social scientists who study anger is that it makes people close-minded. After reading an article that expresses a view contrary to their own, people decline to follow links to find out more information. The angrier you become, the less likely you are to welcome alternative points of view. 

That’s a powerful motive for ignoring Trump’s thousands of naked lies.

Why did I finally abandon Nixon? For months and months I had been angry over Watergate. Not angry at Nixon, as you might imagine, but angry at the liberals for beating up on him. Nixon fed this anger with repeated attacks on the people he perceived as his enemies. As long as I shared his anger I wasn’t prepared to reconsider my commitment to his cause. 

But eventually there came a point when I stopped being angry and became anxious. 

I would guess that what happened is that over time Nixon’s attacks came to seem shopworn and thin. Defending him became more of a burden than the cost of abandoning him.

If I am right about the circuitous path I took from Nixon supporter to Nixon-basher, there’s hope that Trump supporters will have their own Road to Damascus epiphany. Like me, they may finally tire of anger, though who knows. Right-wing talk radio and Fox News have been peddling anger for years and the audience still loves it.

It took me 711 days from the time of the Watergate burglary to my break with Nixon, when I resigned from a committee defending him, to come to my senses. As this is published, it has been 812 days since Trump became president. And there’s little indication that Trump voters have reached an inflection point.

Any of a number of disclosures could disillusion a substantial number of them. We have yet to read the full Mueller report. Nor have we yet seen Trump’s tax returns, which might prove politically fatal if they show he isn’t really a billionaire or if they prove his companies depended on Russian money. (As Mitt Romney suggested, the returns likely contain a bombshell.) 

If Trump’s disclosures suggest to his supporters that they were chumps to believe in him his popularity no doubt would begin eroding. And already there’s evidence his support has weakened. In January 51 percent of GOP or GOP-leaning voters said they considered themselves more a supporter of Donald Trump than the Republican Party.  Two months later the number had declined to 43 percent. If this slippage is because more supporters feel they are embarrassed to come out as full-blown Trumpies he may be in trouble come election day.

In the end, politics is always about the voters. Until now, Trump has made his voters by and large feel good about themselves by validating their anger. But there remains the possibility that in the coming months disclosures may make them feel that they have been conned, severely testing their loyalty. If the anger they feel either wears off or is redirected at Trump himself their amygdala should send them a signal indicating discomfort with the mismatch between the known facts and their own commitments.

This presupposes that they can get outside the Fox News and conservative talk bubble so many have been living inside. Who knows if they will. It is worth remembering that even in Nixon’s day, millions remained wedded to his lost cause even after the release of the smoking-gun tape. On the day he resigned, August 9, 1974, 50 percent of Republicans still supported him even as his general approval dropped to 24 percent.

To sum up: Facts finally count if enough loyalists can get past their anger to see the facts for what they are. But people have to be exposed to the facts for this to occur. And we can’t be sure that this time they will be.



Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Should We Give Up on Democracy?


Rick Shenkman is the founding editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics(Basic Books, January 2016). This article is excerpted from Politico. Click here to read the full article.

Everything was unfolding as it usually does. The academics who gathered in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of Political Psychology’s annual meeting had been politely listening for four days, nodding along as their peers took to the podium and delivered papers on everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to the rise of authoritarianism.

Then, the mood changed. As one of the lions of the profession, 68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, began delivering his paper, people in the crowd of about a hundred started shifting in their seats. They loudly whispered objections to their friends. Three women seated next to me near the back row grew so loud and heated I had difficulty hearing for a moment what Rosenberg was saying.

What caused the stir? Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory? Democracy is devouring itself—his phrase — and it won’t last.

As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics might want to lay America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the cause of democracy’s fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant populist campaign may havebeen a symptom of democracy’s decline.

We’re to blame, said Rosenberg. As in “we the people.”

Democracy is hard work. And as society’s “elites”—experts and public figures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined, citizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists. 

His prediction? “In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”...

Click here to read the rest of this article.

UPDATE 9-13-19 -- This is Trump's America

Among the responses to this article was a message somebody named Jennifer sent to my personal email account. In 40 years as a journalist and historian I've never gotten anything like this. 

It is a sign of what's happening in this country under Trump. He's given the most egregious racists license to reveal in public their darkest visions.

You can skim her email, which I've attached as an image – but be forewarned. It's absolutely vile.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Saudi Arabia's Pearl Harbor

Stone Age Brain is the blog of Rick Shenkman, the founding editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). 

This is a blog post about Iran.  Which is why I want to talk about Pearl Harbor.  Let me explain.

In 2003, on a visit to Tokyo, I went to the Japanese War Museum.  It was a visit I've never forgotten.  The reason is the museum exhibit on Pearl Harbor, which I wrote about for HNN.

In the American telling, Pearl Harbor is the story of an imperial power attacking the United States out of the blue and for no good reason.  It's a story of treachery and connivance.  It's also a simple story of good guys and bad guys with the bad guys in the end getting their comeuppance.

This is not the story told in the museum.  Most importantly, their story doesn't begin with Pearl Harbor.  It begins with an earlier decision by the US to cut off the supply of oil to Japan, a decision that strangled the Japanese economy.  Pressed back on their heals the Japanese had little choice but to attack the US in retribution.  Hence, Pearl Harbor.

What is missing from the Japanese story was the reason the US under FDR stopped oil shipments to Japan.  It was because Japan was rampaging through Asia like a wild bully, as happened in Nanking, where 20,000 women were raped and 300,000 killed.  

I have not been back to the museum since my 2003 visit. But here's the lesson I learned that day that's never left me.  If you push a country to the brink of bankruptcy, said country is bound to feel strongly it is in the right to retaliate, whatever the reasons were for your action in the first place.  Some six decades after the end of the war the people who put together that war exhibit were still of the opinion that the stoppage of oil was a legitimate casus belli.  

So why bring this up now?  

Iran today is acting in a way not too dissimilar from Japan.  The message Iran was sending a few weeks ago when it blew up a good part of one of Saudi Arabia's major oil refineries was that there's a limit to the amount of pain the Persian country is willing to take.  For a year it had waited patiently for relief from the sanctions the US was imposing but their patience had worn thin.  The US kept increasing the sanctions, crippling the Iranian economy.  Enough!

The Trump administration had its reasons for withdrawing from the nuclear agreement Barack Obama had cut with the Iranians.  But from the Iranian point of view what mattered was the pain their people felt from the sanctions.  At some point the Iranian regime was bound to react to that pain.  A few weeks ago it did.  And as Thomas Friedman points out in his New York Times column this week that single attack is now reshaping Middle East politics (and not for the good, I'd add).

On this blog I talk a lot about biases.  So I would be remiss if I didn't note that an obvious bias was at work in both Japan and Iran.  To preserve themselves regimes will dream up any excuse they can manufacture to justify the actions they take to survive.  The excuse need not be credible to outsiders.  It is for domestic consumption. Owing to a natural desire to justify their own country's behavior, people will readily accept said rationalization.  This is human nature.

When the Trump administration cavalierly withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran they were playing with fire. A Pearl Harbor response was almost inevitable.  When it came no one should have been taken by surprise.

I would guess that former National Security advisor John Bolton and President Donald Trump have never visited the Japanese War Museum.  Too bad.  There's plenty to be learned from a war exhibit, even one that's as badly biased as the one I saw back in 2003. (And apparently little has changed since then.  According to news stories the museum still presents a warped right-wing view of the events that led to war.)


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Should We Be Scared of Rightwing Populism?

Stone Age Brain is the blog of Rick Shenkman, the founding editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). 

This is excerpted from "Should We Be Scared?" published in Horizons, the magazine of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development. The excerpt has been edited.

One of the only pleasant results of the election of right-wing populists around the world is that the study of democracy is once again drawing the kind of attention the subject deserves. We may in fact be in the midst of what future generations will regard as a golden age in democracy studies.

Yale’s Timothy Snyder, known for his Holocaust research, has given us On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017): a rather frightening book that suggests the authoritarianism we associate with the 1930s is making a comeback. Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have provided us in How Democracies Die(2018) with a handy list of the red flags of authoritarianism—of which, they say, there are many at present in multiple countries that formerly boasted robust democracies. And the most alarmist of all scholars working on these issues, Shawn Rosenberg of the University of California (Irvine), is working on a book that claims democracy is devouring itself.

Should we believe these prophets of doom?

This question, alas, is not one we can answer definitively. The problem, as William College political scientist George E. Marcus likes to remind me, is that none of us was given the gift of prophecy. While the neuroscientists have been busy explaining that the human brain is basically a predicting machine, in point of fact we are not very good at it.

Predicting the Future?

Take almost any major event of the last two centuries. On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, Americans were convinced, by and large, that if fighting broke out the conflict would be short. At the Battle of Bull Run (the first major battle in the war) pro-Union men and women in elegant clothes came out in their carriages to watch the soldiers battle it out thinking they were going to be treated to an entertaining spectacle that would end in victory. Their side lost and the war went on for four long years.

None of the powers on either side in World War I realized that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand constituted the first act in a tragedy that would end in the death of millions: Stanford University historian Niall Ferguson tells us that investors in the New York Stock Exchange blithely ignored the news of the onset of the war for weeks.

On the eve of the greatest war in history Neville Chamberlain announced to his countrymen that peace was at hand. As he held aloft a paper signed by Hitler he said he had brought back “peace for our time.” Within months German panzers began rolling through Poland.

Social scientists have been very clear that evolution favored people who are on the lookout for danger. Those who were good at detecting threats were likelier to mate and produce issue. Scientists call the natural ability to spot danger an evolutionary advantage. But it is one thing to be able to see a red flag in the African savanna when you are living amidst a small group of hunter-gatherers and quite another when you find yourself in twenty-first century London, Budapest, or Washington, DC.

Indeed, the red flags have changed. On the savanna you had to worry about strangers outside your tribe. In the modern world we encounter strangers all the time to little effect. But our evolutionary history nonetheless makes us wary of strangers and, under certain circumstances, downright paranoid about them. This is why there is always an appetite in times of rapid migration for the fear-mongering rhetoric of demagogues whipping up hatred for immigrants. In this century as in the last, one can find millions dining out on it.

How are we to make sense of the world then? Borrowing from a neat taxonomy devised by Isaiah Berlin, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip E. Tetlock says pundits generally divide rather neatly into two kinds of fortune tellers: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs, as the Greeks put it, know one big thing (think:  Marxists).  Foxes know many things. The hedgehogs, in other words, are generalists; the foxes are specialists. In a series of experiments that lasted decades, Tetlock showed that the hedgehogs performed badly at prognostication. While their ideological orientation gave them a convenient lens through which to view world events, their telescope often proved flawed. The foxes generally did better—at least when focusing on subjects in which they had expertise. Still, few performed well enough to be regarded as clairvoyant.

Ah, but some did. This was a revelation. It turned out that there is a category of people—whom Tetlock has dubbed “superforecasters”—who can in fact predict future events rather well, at least when considering events a year or so out.

Their secret? They are numerate, open-minded, critical of unspoken assumptions, and alert to their own biases. They dig into research with zest and are careful in their assessments. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman teaches, they make sure when beginning their research to establish the base rate for whatever it is they are investigating.

If, say (to take a really simple example), one is trying to establish the likelihood of a corner store being robbed in the next year in a particular city, one would be wise to find out how many stores in the neighborhood had been robbed in the past few years. This would give one a basis for prediction. If none had been robbed, one could guess that probably the particular store under observation was unlikely to face the prospect of a robbery. To be sure, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns in his best-selling book The Black Swan (2007), there are always black swan events one cannot predict. Perhaps as a result of a breakout from the local jail, thieves are let loose and robberies became rife the corner store might be in trouble. But if one is really careful, one can indeed, more or less, predict the future.

Which brings us back to our prophets of doom. Should we listen to them? Are they superforecasters or just super pessimistic? ...

Click HERE to read more.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Our GOP Problem

New York Times, April 2, 1950


Stone Age Brain is the blog of Rick Shenkman, the founding editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rickshenkman.


The Republican Party, unsurprisingly, has taken the position that President Trump should be defended. This is unsurprising because this is what parties in power do.  If we want to explain what has happened to the Republican Party, which all must try to do in this hour of crisis when democracy itself is on the line owing to Republican perfidy, it is essential for us to view events not from the perspective of the rational actor but from that of the party politician.  Only then can the alarming events through which we are living become understandable. 


We must begin with the basics.  Three overriding causes may be said to account for the behavior of politicians holding national office.  One, is money, with which we need not concern ourselves too much.  It’s obvious the role money plays in our politics.  Members of Congress must always be thinking in the back of their mind how any vote may affect their chance of financing their next election. Every GOP member of Congress has to worry that if they vote against Trump they’ll be cut-off from various campaign funds available to Republicans in good standing with the party and the party’s major-domo donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Charles Koch. 


More interesting, though also obvious, is the second factor, pure partisanship. The social sciences tell us that partisanship is hard-wired in the human brain.  It is the reason we cheer for our side in a ball game and hope for the opposition’s defeat.  Once we identify with a group we look for evidence that confirms the group’s status and dismiss evidence that detracts from it.  Because partisanship is stronger among Republicans generally than it is among Democrats, perhaps owing to a default loyalty bias among people who identify as conservative, it is pretty easy to comprehend the ordinary Republican’s behavior in ordinary times.  


Of course, these are not ordinary times.  Presidents are rarely impeached.  So Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, ahead of the committee’s vote on impeachment, issued a rare plea that his Republican colleagues consult their consciences before voting.  As many have noted Republicans during Watergate did just this, voting against Nixon when they similarly faced an impeachment vote.  Why is no Republican doing that this time?


The explanation may be found in the third factor accounting for the behavior of politicians. It is this one that is perhaps the most telling in the current situation.  Politicians prefer winning over losing and recent history suggests that the way to win, notwithstanding the losses the party suffered in 2018, is to stand with Donald Trump .  By nature politicians are cautious.  The only way to know what will succeed in winning votes is to follow the path of proven winners like Trump.  As long as he appears to be retaining the support of the GOP party base it is prudent to assume that he has figured out the magic sauce in the recipe of political victory and to follow the recipe closely.  Only a few dare to tamper with the ingredients.


Change is unlikely in the Republican Party short of a massive defeat.  Only in defeat do politicians, facing years in the wilderness, risk experimenting with new approaches.  Thus far there’s little sign that the party base is fielding second thoughts about Trump.  He remains nearly as popular today among Republicans as he did when he was elected.  Polls show his support among Republicans in states like California and Texas is north of 85 percent.  Nixon's support, by contrast, began to collapse by the time he faced impeachment.  At the beginning of 1973, before Watergate shook the country, Nixon had the support of 91 percent of GOP voters.  By the end of the year — a year in which John Dean testified about payoffs to the Watergate burglars and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre — Nixon’s support in the GOP had fallen to 54 percent.  


So the real question isn’t why members of Congress are remaining staunch Trump supporters, but why the GOP base is.  Many reasons have been offered for this strange phenomenon (strange because Trump is so unlikely an avatar of Republican virtue). They include Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the other leading cogs in the propaganda machine that props up the Republican Party.


Whatever the cause of Trump's hold over the GOP base, it's a fact, and we as a country need to do something about it. We have to hope that the GOP evolves into a better version of itself because, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed in an article in the New York Times in 1950, this country needs two intelligent parties. Right now we've got just one.  Only the Democrats are grappling with the real problems the United States faces, among them climate change and inequality.  This is untenable over the long term.


Through much of our history we have had a responsible conservative party, as Schlesinger noted in his piece in the Times.  In antebellum America the party of Jefferson was cross-checked by the party of Hamilton and Adams.  In the next generation Jacksonians faced off against Whigs, and while the Whigs eventually disappeared, for decades they offered Americans like Lincoln an intelligent alternative.  In the postbellum period the GOP espoused (for a time)  a bold vision of racial equality and entrepreneurial zeal.  Later it was captured by the plutocrats but by the turn of the 19th century reform elements led by Teddy Roosevelt succeeded in refashioning the party as an engine of reform.  In the 1920s the party once again became beholden to the rich until the Great Depression put an end to its control of the federal government.  For a couple of decades it nearly ceased to exist at the national level.  Then, as if in response to Schlesinger’s call, the party finally made peace with the New Deal under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower.  “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” Ike wrote, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

Under both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan the GOP continued to deal with real world problems, particularly in foreign affairs.  But slowly in the years following the end of the Cold War Republicans gave themselves over increasingly to fake nostrums.  They did this because they found they couldn’t win by running on their real agenda -- tax cuts for the wealthy, which constituted nearly the whole of their domestic program once welfare had been reformed in the 1990s.  


Trump in 2016 correctly identified several key issues that demand public attention, especially the decline and demoralization of much of rural America.  But rather than offer a rational program to address this and other issues he won election by dividing the country along racial and religious lines.  Instead of appealing to the better angels of our nature he played his voters for fools.  He began his time in the national political spotlight by hinting that Barack Obama was born in a foreign country and might be a secret Muslim.  Later he signed up as a card carrying member of the anti-science brigade of climate change deniers.  Throughout his presidency he’s spread rumors of conspiracies. And his biggest "accomplishment"?  It was giving the wealthy huge tax breaks.


What if the GOP doesn’t reinvent itself as a responsible party? Schlesinger worried seven decades ago the GOP could collapse into pieces, leaving “its members prey for fascist-minded demagogues.”  There was, it turns out, another possibility Schlesinger didn’t anticipate.  It’s that the party would hold together by itself appealing to a trinity of fascist evils: xenophobia, racism, and authoritarianism. This should worry all of us.




Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
We’re All Historians Now 

July 4, 2020:  A friend writes, “I am troubled by what I see coming from the Left: a demand for ideological purity. You?“ This was my answer.

 Happy 4th!

 How wonderful we are having a debate on this day.  It’s very American!

There’s karma at play in Woodrow Wilson’s becoming a victim of ideological politics.  He was an ideologue.  He came to ruin when he rigidly rejected compromises over the Versailles Treaty.  (Rigidity in his case may have been aggravated by his stroke.)

I have no problem with Princeton’s scrubbing his name off their international institute.  His name no longer inspires idealism in the young and it’s the young who are enrolled in the school.  They deserve a school named after someone who will inspire them.

I am also in favor of removing Confederate statues or at least reimagining them.  They represent a white racist moment from this country’s darkest days.  The only reason they were put up was because white Southerners wanted to vindicate the reestablishment of their control following the end of Reconstruction. They are divisive symbols and in many cases bad art. (See statue of Forrest, the KKK founder.)  They can go.

We should also rename all those army bases named for Confederates.  The only reason those traitors to the cause of liberty were honored in this way was because Southern politicians in Congress, favored by the old seniority system, held the chairmanships of military affairs committees, a sign in itself of the stultifying grip the old aging racist Southern  Democrats held on power because the South was effectively a one-party state. There’s no reason to honor traitors.

That said, I think the impulse to cleanse, destroy, and remove smacks of a Maoist spirit of fanaticism.  It’s dangerous and has clearly gotten out of hand. It rests on the simple-minded and ahistorical idea that we should only honor individuals from the past who think like we do.  How silly!  Example.  Twenty years ago hardly anybody believed gay people should be able to get married. Today, most people think they should.  Does this mean we should pull down any statues we have of people who went on the record years ago against gay marriage?  Of course, not. Times change and so do our moral outlooks.  

A professor on Twitter this week recalled that he used to ask his students if they would have opposed slavery if they had lived jn the South.  All said yes.  How ridiculous.  We believe what we believe because of the culture in which we are raised.  Those Southerners who favored slavery favored it for the same reason Americans twenty years ago disfavored gay marriage. 

The impulse to render a moral judgment on the past is forgivable and understandable.  We naturally want to stand with people who share our values.   But we are not made into saints by virtue of having done so.  And yet many seem to think they are.  So they huff and they puff against Jefferson and Washington in the fallacious belief that this makes them pure.  It does not.  

These men were flawed — as we all are.  It is not for their flaws that we honor them, but for their achievements, which were many.  

And were we to begin to take down THEIR statues our country would be the poorer for it.  We are not united by am common ancestry, unlike many European countries.  We are united by our common ideals, the civic religion if America, which is grounded in those famous words of Jefferson:  “All men are created equal.”  Take away Jefferson and you risk upending the narrative on which this country is based.  

To be sure, the narrative keeps evolving.  Our narrative is not frozen in time.  Women, blacks, and gays, to name just three groups, have been added to the story of America, and of course I’m in favor of that. What I don’t favor is taking a sledgehammer to the old narrative and demolishing it.  Our people, like every other people on earth, need a story.

So I oppose pulling down statues of Jefferson and Washington while also wanting us to put up statues of slaves, women and gays.  

This is a conversation historians have been having since the sixties.  I’m delighted the rest of the country is now joining the debate. One of the key points historians have been making all these years is that a distinction needs to be made between history and memory.  History is complicated. Memory isn’t history. It’s simple. So when we put up a statue we are saying, Here is what we choose to remember.  Here, is something we think worthy of remembering. But it’s not history.  History is the story of how we got here and what people in the past believed and did.

During the Revolution Ben Franklin said something like:  we are all politicians now.  He might have added, we are all historians now, too.  Much as we’d like to avoid the hard demands history puts on us, we can’t sidestep the task.   This means coming to terms with the ugly currents that have heretofore been ignored or downplayed.  I find this bracing! 

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Presidents Lie About Their Health More Than Any Other Subject


This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).

The Trump administration has so little credibility that when it was announced that the president and first lady had tested positive for COVID-19 the first reaction of many people online was whether it was true or not.  My Twitter feed filled with tweets explaining that Trump probably just wanted to distract voters from his unhinged debate performance.  Some added that Trump would use a miraculously quick recovery to prove he’d been right all along that the disease is little worse than the flu.

It quickly became undeniable that Trump had contracted the disease, but people were right to question the administration’s story and not just because Trump has a well-deserved reputation for prevarication.  My research shows that the single issue presidents have lied about the most is their health. They lie for three reasons.  One, presidents believe their health is their own business and should be kept private.  Two, they worry that an admission of physical weakness will become a metaphor for political weakness.  Three, they fear (rightly) that their illness will quickly become the dominant political news, damaging their ability to control the political agenda; every minute spent discussing the president’s health is a minute people won’t be talking about what the president wants them to.

Until the 1880s no president lied about their health.  This wasn’t because they held themselves to a strict standard of truth-telling out of reach of their successors.  It was because reporters didn’t ask them questions about their health.  Thomas Jefferson frequently suffered from diarrhea during his two terms but nobody reported this.  Andrew Jackson was in near-constant stomach pain.  But it never occurred to the press to quiz him about this even though it was well-known that he often felt ill.

Everything changed on July 2, 1881.  That day as he was heading to catch a train out of Union Station for his summer getaway in New Jersey President James Garfield, just four months into his term, was accosted by a deranged man who’d been denied a civil service job and shot.  What happened next was wholly unprecedented.  As Garfield struggled to survive over the coming weeks the press began issuing hourly bulletins about his condition.  The papers flew off the presses.  It turned out that there was an enormous public appetite for health news about presidents.  By the time the president finally succumbed — four months later — the American media had changed. From then on the health of the president was considered a suitable subject for public debate.

Reporters did not have to wait long before another president’s health became a public concern.  Garfield’s successor, Vice President Chester Arthur, soon developed Bright’s disease, a then-fatal kidney disorder.  Reporters who followed him around noticed that his neck began shrinking and his shirt collars seemed loose.  Arthur suddenly began taking long trips to remote places like Florida where he’d be out of touch for long stretches.

This is when the lying began.  As soon as reporters began asking questions about his health Arthur began lying about it.  He maintained the lie right through the end of his presidency. He died less than a year after leaving office.  He was fifty-seven.

The next president to fall seriously ill was Grover Cleveland.  Just before July 4th 1893 he discovered that something was wrong with his jaw.  When doctors investigated they discovered that he had cancer on the roof of his mouth.  They quickly determined that he required an operation to remove the contaminated tissue.  Because Cleveland was obese the surgeons feared for his life.

Just then the country was slipping into a deep recession.  Cleveland worried that if the news got out about his illness the uncertainty about his health would aggravate the markets.  Cleveland, a backer of hard money (he believed the currency should be backed by gold) inspired confidence in bankers.  His vice president, however, believed in a loose monetary policy favored by broke and heavily indebted farmers.  Were Cleveland to die the soft money silverites in the Democratic Party (who believed the currency should be backed by silver) would be in a position to weaken the currency.

So Cleveland, who had a reputation for honesty, lied.  On July 1st he set off in yacht for his surgery and told almost no one, not even the vice president.  He spent the summer out of the public eye at Cape Cod recovering. When reporters asked after him he sent out an administration official to lie.  One reporter asked specifically if Cleveland had cancer.  No, was the answer.

The Cleveland story took a fascinating turn after he’d recovered and gone back to work.  One of his surgeons made the mistake of thinking, now that the president was well, that it was ok to tell the truth.  A front page story was published in Philadelphia in a major paper relating each of the important details of his operation based on an interview with the surgeon.  The Cleveland administration said the account wasn’t true and the story was forgotten.  The truth wasn’t confirmed for decades.

In the twentieth century presidents continued to dissemble.  Woodrow Wilson concealed the stroke he suffered in the White House after a grueling train trip across America to sell the Versailles Treaty, failing even to keep his vice president apprised of his true condition.  Infamously the first lady basically ran the government.  Wilson never copped to the deception though he remained partly paralyzed for the rest of his life.  (Incredibly he thought he should run for a third term.  Advisors talked him out of it.)

Franklin Roosevelt, to his credit, admitted that he had contracted Polio after his run for vice president in 1920, but routinely minimized  his illness.  Though he never recovered the use of his legs — he told a friend it took him a year to learn how to wiggle a toe—he deviously conspired with aides to leave the public with the impression that he had staged a complete recovery.  Photographers were even forbidden from taking pictures of him getting into or out of a car. In that more naive time voters never caught onto the truth.

Dwight Eisenhower similarly concealed his health issues.  A couple of years before he ran for president he spent about a month in the hospital but never publicly said a word about it.  Some historians surmise he was bedridden after suffering a heart attack. In 1953, just months into his first term he was giving a speech following the death of Joseph Stalin when he suddenly felt faint.  To keep from falling over he gripped the podium as he struggled to finish.  He sent his press spokesman out to say the president was suffering from indigestion.  More likely, it was a mild heart attack.

Two years later he was in Colorado playing golf when he again was taken ill.  This time there was no denying he’d had a heart attack, but even then the administration was slow to admit it.  In 1956 on the eve of his second run for president he suffered a severe case of abdominal pain.  The diagnosis was Crohn’s disease.  Ike was hospitalized and operated on.  This time the public was given a crystal glass account of his illness, including detailed drawings of his intestines.  Ike recovered quickly and went on to win in a landslide.

Eisenhower, who was seventy years old when he left office, was followed by John Kennedy, who was forty-two.  JFK was believed by the voters to be in perfect health, save for a bad back.  This was a lie.  At the Democratic convention in 1960 his chief rival, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, revealed that Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a debilitating adrenal glands disorder.  Kennedy flatly denied the charge and went on to win the nomination.  As president he dealt with a variety of illnesses including severe back pain, which he dealt with by taking a cocktail of powerful drugs.  Though voters knew he had a bad back they were led to believe he was supremely fit.  Pictures of him playing touch football with his family circulated widely.

Toward the century’s end there was the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which the public was able to see on film.  Within hours the administration leaked a story that the president had joked with his surgeons that he hoped they were all Republicans.  What the public was not told was that Reagan had lost so much blood that he almost died.

What this potted history of presidential illness shows is that presidents and their aides feel free to engage in deception when the subject involves their personal health.  This is true of both Democrats and Republicans.  It is worthwhile remembering this history now that another president has taken ill.  No one aware of these facts can blithely assume that the Trump administration is giving us the straight story.  If two of our most honest presidents, Cleveland and Ike, could lie in these circumstances, it has to be assumed unless proven otherwise that our most dishonest president can as well.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Vaughn Davis Bornet, RIP at 102 This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, founder of the History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Let's begin with the cliche.  "So, Mr. Bornet, what is the secret to living a very long life?"  It was the question he got used to being asked. And it was the subject of a speech he gave to the Medford, Oregon Rotary Club when he turned 100, which we published a few months later. The following year in another piece on HNN he went into more detail. There was no secret, he answered.  He lived a long life, he supposed, because he didn't smoke, he stayed active "mentally and physically," and he married a good woman.  (She passed away in 2012.) 

He did have one secret about that speech, however, which he shared with me afterwards.  He managed to deliver it standing upright only with the help of a man who stood behind him out of view.  He may have graduated from Emory and Stanford, risen to the rank of commander in the US Navy during World War II, worked at RAND and written an armful of books on labor, Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson, but he was human.

He also was unsentimental.  Or was it just his endearing sense of humor on display when he wondered if having children helped or lessened one's chances of surviving a long life:

"I am of two minds about children’s effect on longevity. They may shorten your life by sometimes almost driving you nuts. Or, they may actually lengthen your life, as they may pay part of the bill for that fancy retirement home. They can provide a really good motive to stay alive as they visit weekly or monthly, bringing chocolates."

Vaughn wrote some sixty articles for HNN through the years, beginning in 2007 with, "How Race Relations Touched Me During a Long Lifetime."  Characteristically, it showed his continuing engagement with world affairs. When Mitt Romney was on pace to win the GOP nomination in 2012 Vaughn penned a piece that helped put the issue of Romney's LDS faith in historical perspective.  Mixed in with the articles on politics were dozens that spoke specifically to historians:  reminiscences on the death of his friend, the diplomatic historian Norman Graebner, reflections on life as a historian here and here. (If you're a student thinking about a career in history those two articles might help you make up your mind.)  Along the way he wrote numerous articles about life in America as it used to be: here and here, for example.  

Throughout those articles from the early years of HNN Vaughn took the attitude that he'd seen it all and we'll be fine.  In May 2016 he declared flatly:  "Why I’m Optimistic About Our Future." Then Donald Trump was elected president.  From then on Vaughn often seemed like a man in a state of shock.  This historian who had seen it all in his 100 + years -- in the Great Depression he'd watched powerless as his family lost their house and car as he was shipped off to live with an aunt -- now seemed dumbfounded by events, caustically commenting on the "spectacle of government by guesswork."  "So it has come to this," he observed in despair.

As events unfolded he pleaded with me to do whatever I could to draw attention to Trump's failings.  Meanwhile, he did all he could. He reviewed Michael Wolfe's book, then Omarosa Manigault Newman’s, then Bob Woodward's.

Vaughn was most comfortable in the role of patriot.  These were the kind of articles he wanted to write: "How Military Service Changes You,"  "It Has Been 63 Years Since I Raised My Right Arm and Joined the Navy""Good Luck, People of Our 50 States!"   And in his final piece for HNN, written back in May, he suggested, " 'This Too, Shall Pass.' History, and Life, Say So!"

Still, Trump unnerved him. His last book, published just a few weeks ago, is titled, "That Trump!" In the book, which consists of both new material and his HNN Trump articles, he aims to be objective but his disgust with Trump is self-evident.  At one point he hopes Trump will simply resign.

Vaughn hoped to live to see the end of Trump's presidency.  He didn't.  But maybe we will -- and soon. 

You can read Vaughn's many articles here at HNN and at his website, Clioistics. A family memorial can be found here and his obituary here.






Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
What Can Evolutionary Psychology Tell Us About Our Reaction to Covid?

A new paper has been published by some of the leading lights of Evolutionary Psychology (Steven Pinker et al.) that helps explain why people around the world are reacting differently to the threats posed by Covid -- and having different results.  Click here for the paper, which was published by PNAS.

This is the section I found most useful:


Evolutionary principles can be applied to understand cultural adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human groups un- der collective threat experience evolutionary pressures to tighten social norms and punish people who deviate from norms. Ac- cordingly, we can predict that societies worldwide will tighten in response to the pandemic. From an evolutionary perspective, strict norms and punishments that deter free riders are essential to helping groups coordinate their social action to survive, and thus would be adaptive in times of threat. Consistent with this rea- soning, nations with histories of ecological and human-made threats (e.g., natural disasters, disease prevalence, resource scarcity, and invasions) tend to be tight (i.e., have stricter norms and little tolerance for deviance), whereas groups with less threat tend to be loose (i.e., have weaker norms and more permissive- ness) (76). Variation in tightness in nonindustrial societies is also related to collective threats such as pathogen prevalence, pop- ulation pressure, scarcity, and warfare (77).

Evolutionary game-theoretic (EGT) models also confirm that differences in normative tightness evolve as a cultural adaptation to threat. These models of cultural dynamics are useful for un- derstanding how human behaviors evolve over time, with the aim of illuminating evolutionary stable states. With respect to culture, a stable state represents the behavioral norms that are adaptive and can be expected to remain in the population under certain conditions. EGT models show that, as societal threats increase, agents who abided by cooperative norms and punished others for deviating thrived and had an advantage over agents that did not adhere to and enforce norms (78). Technically speaking, as threat increases, agents operate in a space of lower payoffs, which in- creases the selection pressure they face to engage in coordinated and cooperative interactions. Accordingly, groups require stron- ger norms and punishment of deviance to survive under high threat (78). Indeed, experimentally priming humans with collective threat leads to an increase in desired tightness—either from God or government (79, 80).

While tightening is an evolutionary adaptation to threat, po- tential “evolutionary mismatches” may interfere with this evolved response, with tragic consequences, as we have seen in the spread of COVID-19 in certain nations. For instance, because environmental changes like COVID-19 can occur very rapidly— but evolution is a gradual process—there are, inevitably, periods when populations need to “catch up,” often with deleterious consequences.

The varying reactions of nations around the world to early stages of the pandemic reveal potential evolutionary mismatches, wherein some loose societies have had a delayed and often conflicted reaction to tightening norms. Countries that are tight (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China) have been highly effective at limiting COVID-19 cases and deaths (81). By contrast, loose cul- tures (e.g., Spain, Brazil, and the United States) have had an ex- plosion of cases and deaths in early stages. EGT models also illustrate that loose cultures take far longer to cooperate when under threat than tight cultures (82). Because people in loose cultures have generally experienced fewer ecological threats, they may be more likely to underestimate the risk of COVID-19 than those in tight cultures. Likewise, because loose cultures pri- oritize freedom over rules, they may experience psychological reactance when tightening is required. The situation is com- pounded when governmental leaders minimize threat signals. Thus artificially diminishing the intensity of the threat can reduce the tightening response, which reinforces the evolutionary mis- match. Research is sorely needed on how to prevent such mis- matches and increase norm-abiding behaviors during future waves of the pandemic and future collective threats.

Tight−loose theory also makes predictions about other soci- etal dynamics that may occur as a result of the COVID-19 pan- demic. Research has shown that, as groups tighten to deal with coordination needs, they also experience a number of trade-offs associated with order versus openness. Tightness is associated with more monitoring, synchrony, and self-control, which is critical for coordinating in the face of threat (83). Yet tightness is also associated with higher ethnocentrism and lower tolerance of people from stigmatized groups (80), as well as lower creativity (84). Finding ways to maximize both openness and order—that is, to be “culturally ambidextrous”—is a key challenge for human societies now and in the future.

Image Credit:  


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Why Voters Shouldn't Be Given the Chance to Re-Elect Donald Trump

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).

A friend writes:  "I oppose impeaching Trump. Impeachment is the Constitution's procedure for removing a president from office when his/her actions are deleterious to the nation. If the noxious president is no longer in office, the impeachment mechanism is no longer called for."

He adds:  "Barring Trump from running again prohibits seventy million people from voting for their candidate of choice.  Several score senators do not have the right to overturn the wishes of millions.  Any democracy worth anything must give its citizens the right to drive the country off a cliff."

My response:

Let's begin with your last line, which I find disturbing in the extreme.  It presupposes that what the majority wants is what they should get, no ifs, ands or buts.  I reject this assumption.  If a majoirity of Americans suddenly decided to revert to the practices of segregation I wouldn't want them to get their way and I certainly don't believe they'd have the right to do so.  The framers designed the Constitution expressly to block majority opinion in a variety of ways in order to protect minority rights.  It was well established in 1789 that popular opinion is often fickle.  Nothing that has happened in the intervening period suggests that the founders operated in error.  I for one wouldn't want to live in a society where the majority always get their way.  

Nonetheless I favor democracy.  I hold this position for two reasons:  1.) Democracy in principle is virtuous.  It gives people a stake in their government and when it’s responsive enhances social trust.  2.) Democracy is likelier to give us better results than, say, dictatorships, given that democracies are self-correcting. Though I don't believe that voters are rational actors, when leaders make serious mistakes they are usually thrown out of office.  

That said, democracies can be well-designed or badly designed and as a result may not give us good government despite the tendency toward self-correction.  Ours is a case in point.  

As a result of the undemocratic Senate and the undemocratic Electoral College our system now rewards the GOP.  This bias in favor of the GOP inhibits self-correcting mechanisms.  The GOP can fail and still be rewarded with power.  Trump came remarkably close to winning re-election despite an unprecedented string of failures because of the GOP bias inherent in the Electoral College. As Andrew Prokop notes, "a shift of just 48,000 votes in AZ, GA, and WI would have resulted in a 269-269 tie." And a tie would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, which, voting by state, would have given Trump the election.

Given the weaknesses of our system it behooves the Democrats to take steps to remove the threat of a second Trump administration. On this ground alone I’d favor an impeachment trial.

But there are multiple reasons to favor impeachment and conviction.

Impeachment carries two penalties.  1.  Removal from office.  2.  A ban on holding office in the future.  The first is evidently the more serious penalty.  That’s why it takes a 2/3rds vote in the Senate to convict.  The second penalty only takes a simple majority vote in the Senate.  But both are included in the Constitution.  You have discounted the value of the second feature for some reason, unexplained.

The founders did not say a president is subject to impeachment and conviction except for anything they can get away with during the final months of their term.  Yet your approach would in effect amend the Constitution to limit impeachment and conviction in just this manner.  

And those final months in a president’s term are likely to be the most fraught wherein he is likeliest, if he is so inclined, to break the law and our democracy.  For it is just then that he will be fighting for his political life.  To let Trump off because he broke faith with his office in the final months of his tenure would set an unfortunate precedent an unscrupulous successor would be sure to take advantage of.  Since the GOP is likely to give us another Trump-like figure in the near-future we have to be careful about the precedents we are setting.

The founders fully recognized the usefulness of the impeachment of former officials.  As Princeton Professor Keith E. Whittington explained in the Wall Street Journal recently:

"For the Founders, it would have been obvious that the 'power to impeach' included the ability to hold former officials to account. The impeachment power was imported to America from England, where Parliament impeached only two men during the 18th century, both former officers. No U.S. state constitution limited impeachments to sitting officers, and some allowed impeachment only of former officers."

Finally, should the people vote for a second Trump administration in 2024 and get it as a result of the GOP bias in the Electoral College you would likely see a civil war ensue or at least raise the possibility of one.  Certainly, the chances of a civil war would not be zero.  Why would you take the risk?

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Nothing I Learned as a Historian Over 45 Years Prepared Me for This Moment

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

I spent the last 45 years studying the history of this country.  But after the last 4 years I can truly say I didn't understand it, cynical though I often was about the ugly disfiguring patches that no Band-Aid could hide. 

McCarthyism – sure.  Racism  –  of course.  Xenophobia  –  duh. Misogyny  –  hell yes. America had it all.

But a mass cult built around an old man known for lying and grifting who bronzes his face each day?  Didn't see that happening.  Nor did I anticipate that tens of millions would refuse a free vaccine that could save others' lives  –  and their own.

And cynical as I was I never thought that the politicians these millions elected would be so cowed by their chosen leader that almost every one of them would go along with his wild schemes and lies.

It's said that the past is a foreign country.  But with each passing day I can't escape the feeling that it's the present I don't understand.  Knowing our history hasn't made it easier to come to terms with the present.  If anything, it's been a hindrance. 

It's gotten in the way of me seeing what is in front of my own eyes.  It's made me want to excuse what's happening or to downplay it. 

Realizing that this country is not what I thought it was is disillusioning.  Which is strange.  I spent my whole career trying to see things clearly as they are and not as I'd wish them to be.

I wrote three books bursting the myths of American history. Then I wrote a book showing the unsavory lengths to which presidents went to gain power and keep it.  

After George W. Bush, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, convinced Americans that the leader of Iraq was connected somehow to 9-11,  I wrote a book calling out Americans for their gullibility:  Just How Stupid Are We?

Because I wanted to understand the underlying forces shaping Americans' support for Bush's war I spent the next seven years searching for answers in the scientific literature concerning human behavior.

In the course of my study I read books and papers on Evolutionary Psychology, social psychology, and even neuroscience.  In the book I wrote summarizing my research  –  Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics  –  I devoted the bulk of the pages to a discussion of our susceptibility to lies.  

The literature shows that human beings are capable, productive -- and often plain wrong.  They think they are good at detecting lies but aren't.  They believe they have empathy for others but often don't. They are confident they can read other people but often can't.  This is true of human beings around the world living in vastly different environments.

And still nothing I learned prepared me for the country I find myself living in today.  History had convinced me that Americans wouldn't elect a wild demagogue as president and wouldn't stand by him after it was proven (over and over again) that he lies to them.  History was wrong.

It's heartbreaking.

I haven't felt the urge to write lately, but this piece needed to be written and so I wrote it.  It concerns, at bottom, the debate historians have been having about Donald Trump:  Is he sui generis or inevitable?  As a historian I have always believed that everything has a history and that events don't just happen.  Through careful analysis of the past we can demonstrate how the events that capture the headlines emerge from changes over time in a particular place.  

Sometimes, to be sure, contingency is the cause.  Nothing's inevitable, after all.  Individual human beings acting in one way rather than another can affect the course of history, sometimes with positive outcomes (think FDR) and sometimes with bad outcomes (think Hitler).  

But even taking into account the serendipity of events it always seemed clear to me that history seldom conjures up a  genuine surprise. Things happen for a reason that can be fully accounted for after a careful review.  Thus, even 9-11, though a shock, was not a surprise.  Terrorists had been blowing up buildings and killing people for decades in the Middle East.  On numerous occasions they had hijacked airplanes.  That no one until Osama bin Laden had been brazen or daring enough to think of crashing a hijacked plane into a building until 9-11 hardly changed the calculus of history. So shocked as I was by 9-11 it didn't force me to rethink my views about the way history happens.

Donald Trump's presidency has.

While I can reassure myself that in his racist demagoguery Trump is like George Wallace, and in his prevaricating he's like Joe McCarthy, and that the GOP's exploitation of race runs like a strong thread through the history of the past half century (since the passage of the Voting Rights Act), and that on numerous occasions Americans have demonized outsiders from the Irish in the 1840s to Chinese in the 1880s to Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, nothing prepared me for the embrace and continuing adoration of Donald Trump by a major political party.

That still stumps me.  So, for that matter, does the ongoing resistance to the Covid-19 vaccines.

Some historians, such as Heather Cox Richardson in How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, see strong parallels between the forces of oligarchy  in the 19th century and those today in the 21st, noting the parallels between the ideology of southern slaveholders, western silver mine owners and Trumpie Republicans.  These parallels are striking, no doubt.  In the old South and the Wild West oligarchs celebrated rule by the rich.  Who does that sound like?  But it seems too simple to me to draw a straight line through American history from oligarchs in the past to those of the present.  While I highly respect Richardson's work and am in awe of her research and broad knowledge I'm more impressed by the differences between then and now than the similarities.  Something has changed.

Still, history is not irrelevant.  It is helpful to know that our history is replete with instances of racism, xenophobia, and other signs of moral depravity.  We'd really feel lost if we weren't aware of Jim Crow, Juan Crow, and McCarthyism.  (Which is why it's vital that school children are exposed to the truth about American history, at least in the higher grades.) And while white people by and large haven't faced the assaults on democracy we are seeing now and can anticipate in the future, black Americans have, and familiarizing ourselves with their experience can teach us lessons about resistance and endurance. What history has taught white Americans is that the unfolding of history is the unfolding of human freedom, from the broadening of the suffrage to males without property to female suffrage and gay marriage.  What black Americans have learned is that rights can be taken away. That is the lesson they learned when whites put an end to Reconstruction. 

To those who think a coup couldn't happen here in America there's the unpleasant fact that we've already had one.  In 1898 white Redeemers in Wilmington, North Carolina violently staged a coup against a coalition of blacks and white Populists who had managed to win an election to take control of city government. A knowledge of history is therefore not nothing.

But the present challenge requires us to look with fresh eyes on our country.  As Lincoln said, writing in a different time but in one which resonates today, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Postscript 8/13/21

Rereading my own post several days after I wrote it I realized that I didn't fully address an obvious question. Did I really misread the past?  Maybe I understood American history correctly.  Maybe in the past a Donald Trump was impossible for a variety of reasons:  the elite's control over our politics and media, the strength of the party gatekeepers, the absence of paths to power by people existing outside the normal political structures, the enduring assumption that each new generation will do better than the preceding generation, the self-confidence of white people, the absence of a grievance-based culture, etc.

Once the circumstances that shaped our politics changed -- once the gatekeepers lost control, once social media empowered the extreme ranks of voters, once the white majority concluded they live in a zero sum society and that every step forward for minorities is a step backward for the majority -- our society changed and with it our politics and our history.  In other words, maybe I understood this country just fine but the country changed.

Our task is to learn to live in the country we actually live in.  This won't be easy.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Biden's First Anniversary: His Crime? He's Human  

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Is the media being unkind to Joe Biden?

This week marks the one year anniversary of his presidency. A lot of the coverage is negative.  His poll ratings are down.  Inflation is up.  Covid is widespread.

He's also guilty of a crime:  He's human.

To keep things in perspective you might want to remember all of our other presidents were also human, as I showed in my 1990s series, Myth America, which aired on TLC – The Learning Channel. Some parts may feel dated.  That's for a reason:  Our interpretations of the past keep changing. Rewatching the video myself today I was struck by how many topics have undergone wholesale revisions.

Here's the half hour show on Presidential Greatness.  Enjoy.

(Shout out to  Michael Goldfein and Margaret Larsen, both of whom appear in the episode in their role as newscasters. The series was shot by my good friend Scott Rensberger.  It was produced by the brilliant Matt Chan.)

Click here to watch the show.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Presidents Day – Myths About Those Two Guys, Abe and George  


This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Twenty-five years ago, in Myth America, a series on The Learning Channel, I set out to debunk the myths about Abe Lincoln and George Washington.  I failed.  Here we are in the 21st century and still we get those two presidents wrong.

We think that Washington was cold and aloof.  We believe Lincoln was a simple country lawyer.  

The truth, as they say, is a little more complicated.

In the hope that maybe I can succeed where I previously failed I am making two of the shows available for viewing.

You can watch the show on Lincoln here and the show on Washington here.

They are 30 minutes in length.






Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
War Propaganda: It's an Old Story (Video)

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

In Putin’s Russia people aren’t getting the same version of the war we’re seeing on CNN and other mainstream media outlets in the United States.  Putin’s making sure his people see his version and his version only, with the exception of a single TV station, TV Rain, "Russia’s sole remaining independent television operation," according to the New Yorker -- and now only available on YouTube.

War has always been the great incubator of lies and propaganda. 

This was the theme, as it happens, of one of my shows on Myth America, a series that ran on The Learning Channel (TLC) 25 years ago.  I am making the shows available online.  Click here to watch the show, which reveals how audiences were fooled by newsreel propaganda.  (The show is 30 minutes in length.)

As you'll see propaganda has been the tool of even democratic societies during wartime.

Highlights of the show include:

*How newsreels used fake footage of the sinking of the Maine

*How Thomas Edison staged fake battles in New Jersey of the Spanish-American War

*How newsreels manufactured footage of oppression in Hitler's Germany when cameramen failed to generate film of Nazi atrocities

Some of the footage to modern eyes is obviously contrived.  But much is not, as an audience of voters discovered when we showed them clips.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Any Boy Can Be President (Video)

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

My husband and I have been watching and enjoying Billions on Showtime. The theme of the season finale (spoiler alert) is that Mike Prince (Mr. Billionaire) has decided he's going to run for president of the United States.

Why not? Billionaires are people too and they should be able to dream the dream, too, eh?

The audience, it is evident, is supposed to think that it's extraordinary that Prince has the gall to think that he should run for the White House.  After all, he doesn't fit the stereotype (though he is male, a plus in American mythology).  At least until Donald Trump ran and won it was generally conceded that Americans don't want billionaires in the White House.  What we want is a man of the people like Harry Truman.  (Alonzo Hamby titled his biography of Truman, Man of the People, for a reason.)

But as I showed on my series Myth America 25 years ago it's pure hogwash that most of our presidents have been drawn from the ranks of the common people.  The fact is most of our White House leaders were drenched in luxury from an early age.  It turned out, they didn't need to be "just folks" -- they only had to appear that way.

So they made a big play of eating pork rinds (George Herbert Walker Bush) and growing up in a log cabin (William Henry Harrison).  The more wealthy you actually were the more you had to lay it on thick that you were just one of the common folk.  The facts? Bush's dad had been a wealthy businessman and senator.  Harrison descended from a slave-owning plantation nabob who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Oh, and he wasn't born in a log cabin.  He grew up in a brick mansion on the James River in Virginia. The lie that he was born poor was the most sensational claptrap ever peddled by any campaign indulging in the poor boy fantasy literature.

The show is 30 minutes long.  You can watch it here.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
The best books to understand why voters often behave irrationally

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Why do voters often seem disengaged, irrational, and unsympathetic?

I was asked by to compile a list of 5 books that help readers with answers.

Click here to see my reasons for selecting these five. (Of course, it's incomplete.)

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

By Christopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt

Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

By Timothy D. Wilson

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

By Franz DeWaal

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

By Michael S. Gazzaniga




Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Is the Wild West Responsible for Violence in America? (Video)

Scene from Myth America (Wild West episode)

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

This has been a horrible weekend of violence in America. NPR reports that just 19 weeks into the year we've already "seen 198 mass shootings."

Stories in the news feature bodies strewn on urban streets and church parking lots bloodied by gunfire.

Our culture celebrates violence on television, in the movies, and in books.

A guaranteed winner on social media is a post showing a guy shooting someone.

What's the cause of our love afair with guns and violence?

Twenty-five years ago I addressed this question in my TLC series, Myth America.

You can watch the thirty minute episode on the Wild West here to see if it's to blame.

The answer:  It is and it isn't.

(You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.)


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
How Should We Rate Presidents?

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

This headline in Political Wire caught my attention a few weeks ago:  "Biden’s Approval Slump Hits a Dreary New Milestone." But I was left unprepared for the news I came across three days later. Donald Trump, according to Real Clear Politics, is now viewed on average more favorably than any other prominent national political leader. He even outpolls (by just a little) Joe Biden, the man Trump lost to in 2020 (as you can see in the RCP image above).

I really shouldn't have been shocked.  Neither should you.  What is going on?

First, a little background.  The conventional wisdom is that presidential polls usually reflect how people feel about the economy.  If the economy seems to be doing well voters rank presidents relatively high (all other things being equal).  And if the economy is doing badly, the theory goes, voters punish presidents with low ratings. If in fact things actually worked like this our politics might make some sense.  At the core of democracy is the idea of accountability. The system depends on leaders being held responsible for their actions.  But this isn't how things work.  The theory -- known as retrospective voting -- is bonkers. 

The main problem is that the theory supposes people know what they are talking about.  So, for example, when they are assessing the state of the economy they correctly understand which parts presidents can affect and which they can't.  In reality, voters have no idea of the role presidents play in the economy.  Voters often don't even know if a president has proposed raising or lowering their taxes.  Barack Obama lowered taxes in his first term for 95 percent of Americans but polls showed that half thought their taxes had remained the same and a third thought they'd gone up.

This points to a fundamental flaw in democracy.   If people are broadly misinformed they cannot exercise their right to vote properly.  If in fact presidents are held accountable for things outside their control then elections are almost meaningless.  And in fact elections often are meaningless, as Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue, as do I in the book this blog is based on.  Elections, contrary to what many people think, are not referendums on the performance of the incumbent.

This is because politics requires knowledge. American voters lack knowledge. I keep a running summary of stories showing just how deeply ill-informed voters are.  Recent headlines include these doozies:  "41 million Americans believe QAnon conspiracy," "Majority in US are functionally illiterate."  It has been well established since the 1940s when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge that a majority of Americans cannot even name the three branches of government. 

Many political scientists like to argue that voters use shortcuts to make up for their lack of knowledge.  But in actuality, as Achen and Bartels show, most base their vote on their social identity. In highly polarized times like our own, this means that politics is almost wholly tribal.  While voters take into account the likability of the candidate and from time to time let an issue or two drive their voting (like the economy or abortion), the most salient factor affecting their choice at the ballot box is their partisan identity.  It is for this reason that millions of suburbanites voted for Trump in 2016 despite their misgivings about his character and lack of experience. What mattered was that he had an R after his name. This is why turning out the base is so vital. 

So back to those RCP poll results I cited at the beginning. Why is Trump polling now a little higher than Biden?  It's likely because Trump's base remains solidly behind him, which gives him an edge over Biden, as I'll show in a moment. Tribalism trumps all, or almost all, in our highly polarized times. There is, to be sure, a reason voters might think better of Trump than Biden since the economy is perceived to be doing badly under Biden and it did better under Trump until Covid came along.  And you can't blame Trump for inflation that's happening on Biden's watch.   One year and counting into his presidency, Biden's being held responsible for what's happening now (whether he should be or not is a different question; see below). Moreover, Trump is benefitting from the Out-of-Office phenomenon.  Once presidents leave office their poll numbers almost always go up a little because people feel nostalgic:  they remember the good things about the former guy but not the bad things.

Biden, in contrast to Trump, is having difficulty keeping his base behind him.  When Build Back Better gurgled for life and then sank out of view progressives in the Democratic Party became disillusioned and blamed Biden for the failure to bring about major change.  Moreover, it's probably true that Biden's base is smaller than Trump's.  Biden simply never drew the wild support from his party that Trump drew from his.

Then there's the simple fact that under Biden the inflation monster has reared its ugly head, leaving the impression that things are out of control (even as the unemployment rate remains low).  The textbook definition of inflation is that it occurs when either demand is excessive or supply is limited; we are now suffering from both. Voters want to blame somebody for this and Biden's the most obvious choice.  Economists are divided about Biden's responsibility for inflation, which suggests that voters can make a reasonable case Biden's to blame.  But is he really?  

Yes, he backed a plan in his first year that dramatically increased consumer spending, leading to a surge in demand for a limited supply of goods at a time of supply chain constraints.  But inflation is also hitting Europe and the countries there didn't adopt Biden's expansionary program, as Paul Krugman keeps pointing out.  And oil prices are going up in the U.S. because oil prices are going up worldwide.  

My take:  voters are mainly blaming Biden for high gas prices he didn't cause and cannot do much about. And as survey data show, while inflation is high, most people actually report that their own financial situation is, all in all, pretty good. What has them worried is that they think that inflation is a sign of chaos and humans hate chaos.  The media are also to blame. Night after night the media report how terrible the economy is, almost never taking more than a moment, if that, to point out that inflation is a worldwide phenomenon. (I watch NBC news with Lester Holt every night.  Only once in the last two weeks has the show even mentioned that inflation is happening in other countries around the globe.)

But again, most voters aren't making a judgment about the president based on an assessment of his handling of the economy. Busy managing their own lives they aren't actually paying much attention to either politics or the economy.  And this is grounds for them reaching shoot-from-the-hip conclusions, relying on intuitions shaped by humans' experience as hunter gatherers living in small communities, intuitions ill-suited to life in complicated societies composed of hundreds of millions of people. Why is this a problem?  Because properly assessing how presidents are performing is hard, as I first noted in an article on HNN back in 2009.

One more thing is worth noting as this blog appears on a history website. Voters not only misapprehend the performance of the politicians who presently hold office, but also those who held office in the past.  That is, they get history wrong, too, ranking some awful presidents highly and some good presidents badly. 

This was the subject of a TV show I produced twenty-five years ago on TLC, Myth America. You can watch the show here.  It's 30 minutes long and focuses on presidents.

(You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.)



Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
This Year Don't Fall for the 4th of July Myths (Video)

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Americans, despite what you hear, know plenty of history.*  Among the things they know is that July 4th is when we declared our independence.  Alas, this isn't true.  

You can find out the real story on my show, Myth America, which first aired twenty-five years ago on The Learning Channel. The show runs 30 minutes. Your illusions will be shattered.

Click here to watch.

*I am plagiarizing myself here. This is how I opened my first book on myths, Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History (1988).


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Sex Phobia? Don't Blame the Puritans

Why has sex been treated as a taboo subject in America?

It’s not because of the Puritans! 

Say what?

This was one of the fascinating stories we told on TLC's Myth America TV show.

Click here to watch the 30 miniute show.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Hey Kids! It's Constitution Day. Yay!

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

It was on this date in 1787 that the delegates to the constitutional convention signed the document that gave us our form of government.

It's not a federal holiday so you may not remember it. But schools like to use the occasion to deliver civics lessons.

Inspired by their example, I am sharing a video I made 25 years ago from my Myth America series.

It's about the founding fathers. It's 30 minutes long.


(You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.)

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
Should Columbus, Ohio Be Renamed for Bjarni Herjólfsson?

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Trick question.  Who discovered America?

Because we live in the enlightened 21st century we know the answer isn't Christopher Columbus.

Score one victory for Political Correctness.

This is why in Seattle where I live the day is now commemorated as Indigenous People's Day.

But who was the first European to discover that people lived in North America and that North America existed?

The answer is Bjarni Herjólfsson.

I tell the story in my TLC series, Myth America, which was first broadcast 25 years ago.

You can watch it here.

It runs 30 minutes.

(You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.)

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
So You Think You Know Who the Pilgrims Were?  

The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in a re-creation that is wholly false.


This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

Three decades or so ago I stuck my neck out and went public with the truth about the Pilgrims and the Puritans and -- yes -- Thanksgiving.  The world did not stop spinning, but a lot of people expressed surprise.

In an appearance on NBC's Today show the shocked hosts quizzed me closely.

Sam Donaldson on ABC News, somewhat annoyed, asked "Who is this guy?" after I appeared on a segment on his prime time show.  (Diane Sawyer, his co-host, seemed less annoyed than intrigued.)

Some years later I produced a series called Myth America for TLC (nee The Learning Channel) in which I recounted the key myths we Americans have accepted as truth about a whole range of subjects including Thanksgiving.

Kids, pull up a chair.You can now watch the Thanksgiving show right here.

I promise you won't be prosecuted by the authorities (except maybe in Florida).


Click here to watch. (The show is 30 minutes long.)

You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
The Show that Made Me Smile

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

In this, my final blog post based on Myth America, the TV show I produced some 25 years ago for The Learning Channel, I want to alert you to some myths about the American Revolution. Watching the video for the first time in years, I see that I had more fun with this episode than any of the others.  I actually smile a few times, which was seldom my wont when doing TV. But there was just so much to smile about!

Paul Revere's ride?  No, he didn't look for lamps lighted at the Old North Church to let him know if the British were coming by land or by sea.  He already knew.  It was by sea.  And anyway, he didn't scream from his horse that the British were coming.  Everybody in the area, himself included, was British. And did you know he was captured and his horse taken from him? What Longfellow left out!

Next, the show covers the Boston Tea Party.  Yes, there was an actual tea party of sorts and the rebels dressed up as Indians, too.  But the story is more complicated than the myth.  The British tea, even with taxes, was cheaper than the smuggled tea the colonists were selling thanks to new efficiencies adopted by British traders.  So the beef wasn't that the tea cost too much, but that it cost too little for the American boycott of British tea to continue. 

Then, there are the myths about Bunker Hill, Lexington & Concord, and even whether our Revolution was a revolution.  

All that and more, including seeing me riding a horse through downtown Boston (and not very well).

You can watch the 30 minute show here.

(You can watch the other shows in the series by clicking on this Twitter thread.)


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0
No, You Shouldn't Be Surprised Biden's Running for Re-Election

Rick Shenkman, the founder of HNN, is the author of Presidential Ambition:  How Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power, and Got Things Done (1999).

This is a story about Dwight Eisenhower.  I don't even mention Joe Biden.  But I think you'll see why I think it's appropriate to tell this story now.

​Presidents are different from you and me.  But it is not their power that makes them different.  Or their money.  Or their perks.  Take away those things and they would still be different.  One thing makes them different.  Their drive.

​Thursday April 16, 1953 was going to be a crazy day anyway for Eisenhower, one of those days only presidents put themselves through.  First Ike would have to fly from Augusta, Georgia to Washington—he was in Augusta playing golf, of course—to give a big speech about foreign policy.  Then there would be a limousine caravan, a couple of ceremonial appearances, another speech or two, and finally the flight back to Augusta.

​It was an especially crazy day for a president as old as Ike—he was sixty-two then—and for a man with his medical history.  In 1949, though the voters never heard about it, he’d had what apparently was a mild heart attack.  As he eventually was to admit—this was in 1967, long after he was out of politics—he had been so ill in ’49 “my physician treated me as though I were at the end of the precipice and teetering a bit.”

​Then, the night before leaving for his trip up to Washington he was awakened by sharp pains in his chest.  For a couple of hours he just tossed and turned.  Then he called over Mamie, who was sleeping in another bed.  Finally, he called in Howard Snyder, his personal physician.

​Snyder at first guessed it might be food poisoning and gave Ike a tonic to counteract the poison.  Subsequently Snyder was to change his mind and conclude it was probably ileitis, a painful abdominal illness caused by the accumulation of rough food in the small intestine.  Which wasn’t a bad guess.  A few years later Ike was to suffer from ileitis and would have to undergo an emergency operation to remove a stubborn blockage.  But his problem this time wasn’t ileitis.  It was his heart again, he’d suffered a mild heart attack—his second, counting the incident in 1949.

​Unfortunately, the doctor misdiagnosed Ike.  Though the signs would have been obvious to a heart specialist Snyder wasn’t a heart specialist.

​Whatever the problem Ike was obviously in terrible pain and should, of course, immediately have been whisked to the hospital for an examination.  That was common sense.  A guy who made a buck an hour would have been sent to the hospital if he were suffering intense chest pains.  So certainly Eisenhower should have.  He was after all ... The President of the United States ...  Leader of the Free World ...  The Man with His Finger on the Button.

​Only the thing is a president can’t just up and go to the hospital when he’s sick like it’s no big deal.  Everything a president does is a big deal.  If he sneezes people take notice.  If he vomits in the lap of a Japanese official at a diplomatic dinner, as George H.W. Bush was to do, the stock market may even take a dive.  When in 1955 Ike was to suffer his big heart attack the market would drop more than it had since the Crash of 1929.  And Ike wasn’t just sneezing.  He had chest pains.  Go to the hospital with chest pains and the whole world would be alarmed.  There’d be news bulletins.  Special newspaper editions.  Press conferences with doctors and specialists.  It’d be a media circus.

​So although Ike should, of course, have gone to the hospital, he didn’t, of course, actually go.  A president only goes to the hospital when he absolutely has to.

​Besides, there were political reasons for not going.  Ike had been president just three months.  Go to the hospital and there’d be questions about his ability to finish out his term.  There already was a lot of loose talk that his age made him too old to be an effective president.  Because the attack had occurred while he was on vacation, people would think that he wasn’t even up to golfing.  Oh, nobody would say it out loud.  Ike was a war hero.  People respected him for the service he’d given the country.  And everybody liked him.  Smiling Ike—what was there not to like?  But people would be thinking:  Maybe he is too old, simply too old.  Roosevelt after all had died when he was sixty-three.  Ike was now sixty-two.

​Of course, he would have to cancel his schedule—that crazy presidential schedule he had.  Only the thing is a president can’t just cancel his schedule and announce he needs a rest anymore than he simply can decide to go to the hospital with chest pains.  Once a president announces he’s going somewhere he usually has to go, especially if he’s set to give a big speech—and Ike was.  Stalin had died the month before and Eisenhower wanted to extend an olive branch to the leaders who replaced him.  Cancel any speech and there’d be questions.  Cancel this speech, which had been advertised in advance, and the world would wonder what was going on inside this new administration.  Was Ike really sick or was he having trouble deciding on a policy toward the Soviet Union?  Was his administration’s foreign policy in disarray?  The fact was his foreign policy was in disarray.  Ike wanted to commit the United States to world disarmament, negotiation and peace and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, did not.  Just a few days earlier Ike had exploded in anger at Dulles’s opposition.  “All right, then,” he had said.  “If Mr. Dulles and all his sophisticated advisers really mean they cannot talk peace seriously, then I am in the wrong pew.  For if it’s war we should be talking about, I know the people to give me advice on that—and they’re not in the State Department.  Now either we cut out all this fooling around and make a serious bid for peace—or we forget the whole thing.”

​So although Ike should, of course, have canceled his schedule, he didn’t, of course, actually do it.

​The funny thing was, he didn’t even want to.  It was a challenge to go and Ike loved challenges.  The more difficult a task, the better he liked it.  So he went.  It appealed to his sense of duty.  And Ike had a powerfully strong sense of duty.  Convince him that he had a duty to do something and Ike would always do it, no matter how arduous he had to work, no matter how great a sacrifice he had to make.

​Wednesday, the day before his heart attack, had been an easy day for Ike, a day spent on the links.  But Thursday was to be a hard day.

​That morning, just hours after the attack, in tremendous pain, he dressed, ate breakfast, and boarded a plane for Washington.  It was a difficult flight.  When he had first got on he was in pain but hopeful the pain would subside.  But instead of easing, it grew worse.  By the time he reached the Statler Hotel where he was to give his address at noon he could barely stand.

​He had been given “medicines and sedatives,” but they hadn’t worked.  They couldn’t.  They were prescribed for a patient suffering from food poisoning and Ike hadn’t had food poisoning.  He’d had a heart attack.  Heart medicine probably would have helped but he hadn’t been given heart medicine because nobody realized he had heart pain.

​From the very beginning of the speech it was obvious to the audience that Eisenhower was having difficulty delivering it.  And then it became more obvious.  The pain became so great, Ike recalled, that it caused “heavy perspiration on my face and head.” Then he began suffering chills “of a very disturbing kind.”  Then his voice actually started to falter.  A friend, Bobby Cutler, his national security adviser, noticed his hands.  They were gripping the lectern so tightly it appeared he actually needed the structure to keep from falling over.

​Somewhere in the middle of the speech it occurred to Eisenhower that he might actually not be able to finish it, that he might even collapse.  He was feeling dizzy; “at times I became so dizzy that I feared I would faint.”  “I could concentrate on the text only by supreme effort.”  So he started skipping whole paragraphs.  But he wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t even think of stopping.  And eventually, after skipping whole paragraphs, he made it to the end.

​Given all that was at stake it was perhaps understandable that Eisenhower felt compelled to make his speech.  But what took place next was inexplicable.  Truly crazy, really.  Instead of suspending the rest of his Thursday schedule Ike kept strictly to it.  He was ill.  He knew he was ill.  But seemingly he wanted to pretend he was not.  And somewhere inside himself he found the drive to keep going.

​Sticking to the schedule would be difficult.  For Thursday was not only a hard day, it was a long day—a very long day.  It had started early in the morning in Augusta, Georgia.  Then Ike had flown to Washington.  And now he was to travel to Griffith Stadium.  It had been a tradition since William Howard Taft for the president to throw out the first ball at the opening season of the American League.  And Ike felt “since my promise had been given weeks ahead ... it would be putting too important an interpretation on what I thought was a temporary illness if I should cancel the engagement.”  But then he had gone ahead and thrown out not just one ball, but two balls, the first a long and high throw to an outfielder.

​And then he continued on! He boarded his plane again and flew down to Salisbury, North Carolina.  Whatever his reason for keeping his date with the American League, he had no real reason to keep his date with Salisbury.  He was there after all to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Rowan County.  But he kept it.  He even gave a little speech there.  Then, he took yet one more plane ride, this time to return to Augusta, where his long, hard day had begun.

​In the course of twelve hours he had taken three plane rides, crossed seven states. and made two speeches—and all this just hours after suffering a heart attack.

​Upon returning he did, of course, collapse.  The administration spokesman insisted to reporters that the president was only suffering from food poisoning—nothing serious boys, just a little ole case of food poisoning.  Everybody can just relax.  Ike’s doing fine.  Just fine.  For several days Ike lay in bed recuperating.  Fortunately, it had been a mild enough heart attack that he didn’t need months of relaxation as he had in ‘49.  Inside of a week he was up and around.

​But there is no such thing as a mild heart attack to the man who has suffered one.  One heart attack may be worse than another, but they are all bad, all frightening.  Years later, when Ike was compiling his memoirs, he had to revisit that awful day he’d spent crossing seven states in twelve hours after enduring a heart attack.  And it brought back terrible memories.  That day, he was to write, was “one of the most miserable” of his entire life.

Thu, 30 Nov 2023 14:16:58 +0000 0