Stop Listening to Rich Overconfident Men

The election of Donald Trump has caused a great deal of introspection among decent Americans, along with no small number of arguments about its cause. While the relative roles of race, sex, class, and the economy in America have gotten by far the most attention, one of the most overlooked shocks is the sheer credulity of so much of the electorate.

It’s not just that Trump is a tire fire of bigoted grievances. He’s also such an obvious liar about essentially everything that it’s hard to fathom how even his base doesn’t see through it. It’s one thing for a politician to tell a voting block deplorable things they agree with, in language that deplorable people would like to normalize in polite society, if they could get away with it. It’s quite another for that voting block to be so easily conned.

But while this phenomenon is most salient when discussing Trump and the Republican base, the rest of the country isn’t entirely immune, either. America has been ingesting and reflecting the policy preferences of rich men since at least the 1970s. What’s more, from obsessions with deficit reduction to deregulation, the Democratic Party has shackled itself to a series of policies gravely intoned by Very Serious Men without much scrutiny or pushback.

It turns out that the problem is culture-wide: rich men love to pretend they know what they’re talking about, even when they haven’t a clue:

Researchers embarked on a novel study intent on measuring what a Princeton philosophy professor contends is one of the most salient features of our culture — the ability to play the expert without being one.

Or, as the social scientists put it, to BS.

Research by John Jerram and Nikki Shure of the University College of London, and Phil Parker of Australian Catholic University attempted to measure the pervasiveness of this trait in society and identify its most ardent practitioners…

Using a data set spanning nine predominantly English-speaking countries, researchers delineated a number of key findings. First, men are much more likely than women to master the art of hyperbole, as are the wealthy relative to the poor or middle class. North Americans, meanwhile, tend to slip into this behavior more readily than English speakers in other parts of the globe.

The effect is not unique to American society—in fact, the differences in both gender and class tend to be smaller in the United States compared to other English-speaking countries.

Still, it’s impossible to shake the realization that Donald Trump’s presidency, at least to this extent, is not an aberration. The failures of the past forty years of bipartisan economic decision-making owe themselves in large part to the tendency of rich (usually white) men to oversell their own expertise—often for self-interested reasons.

Structural racism and sexism–as well as the tendency of enough wealthy people and corporate executives toward sociopathy and a lack of empathy—has been hurting most Americans for decades. It seems that we would be better off paying far less attention to what rich men say about almost anything.

If Trump can get away with claiming brilliance on so many matters, and so many people believe him, just how many other wealthy men born of privilege are successfully passing themselves off as experts in matters about which they know little? And then leveraging their wealth and power toward status quo policies backed by comparatively little evidence? And just how badly has our political system been skewed in their favor at the expense of all the rest of us?

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.