Magic Thinking and the GOP

Posted on March 19, 2014

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© Josh Sager – March 2014

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Magical thinking is a psychological phenomenon where people incorrectly connect cause and effect in a way which is irrational and unrealistic. Huge portions of humanity fall into this way of thinking—whether they are sports fans with a “lucky” jersey that they believe effects their team’s chances at victory, or a religious person who connects a lack of prayer with an accident or illness. Fortunately, most cases of magical thinking are relatively benign and, unless they become compulsive, are largely harmless.

Unfortunately, magical thinking in a political party is far more dangerous than it would be in any individual, as it leads the party to advocate for illogical and nonsensical policies. Because magical thinking causes mistakes in assessing cause and effect, a political party which engages in collective magical thinking loses the ability to assess society’s problems and ends up supporting policies that are ineffective, if not harmful.

Since the end of the 20st Century, the Republican Party platform has been built on a foundation of magical thinking that has led the party to completely lose touch with reality. Rather than live in the factual and real world, the GOP has cocooned itself in a comforting illusion, where they have simple and cheap solutions to all or society’s problems.

Here are a few examples of magical thinking arguments used by the GOP:

“Welfare is keeping people in poverty, thus we can reduce poverty if we simply cut welfare.”

The GOP argues that welfare makes people lazy and traps them in poverty that they could otherwise escape. Put simply, this claim is completely incorrect and not backed up by any objective evidence. While the idea that exorbitant social support programs (ex. guaranteeing an income of $50,000, even if a person decides not to work) could destroy work ethic is theoretically true, the American social safety net is minimal at best—housing assistance, SNAP, tax breaks for families, and other social program merely help people survive and don’t provide a comfortable lifestyle.

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The Republican idea that cutting welfare will reduce the number of poor people in this country is not only absurd, but nearly identical to the thought processes of some schizophrenics.  A very common type of magical thinking that the severely ill fall into is the fallacy of mixing up the causal relationship between a cure for a disease and the treatment.

For example, some schizophrenics go off of their medications because they have they start to think that “only sick people take medication, so I won’t be sick any more if I stop taking my meds.” Unfortunately, those who go off of their medications due to this magical thinking often suffer extreme consequences and are hospitalized when the inevitably crash.

The Republican magical thinking that “only poor people need welfare, so, if I cut welfare, there will be fewer people in poverty” is equally as fallacious and dangerous as the magical thinking of the mentally ill. If you cut welfare to the bone, poor people lose their homes, go hungry, and are unable to sustain their families.

“It was a cold January in the United States this year, thus global climate change isn’t real.”

The Republican political class’s fealty to the petrochemical industry has mixed with the Christian right’s science denial and created a party which rejects the reality of global climate change. The most common populist tactic for this denial is for Republican media and political figures to make magical thinking arguments based around conflating weather and climate—they argue that any cold weather event proves that the long-term trend of climate change is being falsified.

Weather describes short term meteorological conditions (ex. a snow storm) while climate describes long term trends in aggregate weather conditions (ex. a desert climate is an area which has an average of less than 250mm of precipitation per year).

The facts are that the global aggregate temperatures have been increasing over the past few decades and this is a trend which over 99% of climate scientists say is getting worse and man-made.

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Assuming that short-term weather events disprove long-term trends—even in easily mockable cases, like a climate researcher group’s boat getting stuck in unusually thick arctic ice—is a type of magical thinking that incorrectly justifies inaction. By giving deniers an easy out when they are asked to support action, this type of specious logic ensures that they will only pay attention once the problem has become so large and overt (and likely irreparable) that even magical thinking cannot sustain denial.

“It is pointless to enact gun control because criminals don’t follow the law”

Republicans have been trotting this magical thinking argument out for years to stall any action on gun law reform in the face of our shooting epidemic. Personally, I think that this argument is transparent at best, and simply a thin veil over the true GOP position that they are afraid of life and need the lethal comfort item; similarly, the elected GOP are terrified of upsetting their base and the gun lobby, thus are forced to conform to the absurd party line.

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Criminals are people who, by definition, break laws and deciding that the law should be based around what criminals are likely to feel bound to follow is entirely circular. Put simply, it is absurd not to pass a law because criminals won’t follow it—if this argument were used in other issues, nothing would be illegal and there would be no “criminals,” simply because there would be no laws.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the Republican Party has become enthralled in a world of magical thinking that has only a passing resemblance to reality—this rejection of reality is both complete and widespread, including issues as diverse as welfare, guns, the environment, taxes and health.

Until the GOP decides to rejoin the rest of us in reality and stop using magical logic to justify illogical ideas, they cannot be allowed in any position of power. It is one thing to debate policy between principled interpretations of reality, but when one side decides to bring its own reality, debate and compromise become impossible.

In order to fix this situation, the GOP must either be retaken by right wingers who understand and acknowledge facts, or be utterly eliminated from relevance at the voting booth.