Soros' Introduction to a book on his philanthropy appeared in the New York Review of Books. It includes an incisive critique of The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper, under whom I, like Soros, studied. More importantly, it reveals why the collapse of political debate is a key problem for US democracy. Here is the last part of it, which I quote at length:
How can open society protect itself against dangerously deceptive arguments? Only by recognizing their existence and their power to influence reality by influencing people’s perceptions. People’s thinking is part of the reality they need to understand, and that makes the understanding of reality much harder than the philosophers of the Enlightenment imagined. They envisioned reason as something apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it. That is true for natural science but not human affairs. In political discourse we must learn to give precedence to the understanding of reality; otherwise the results will fail to conform to our expectations. Karl Popper took it for granted that the primary purpose of political discourse is the pursuit of truth. That is not the case now; therefore we must make it so. What was a hidden assumption in Popper’s argument must be turned into an explicit requirement for open society to prevail.
I thought I had a convincing argument in favor of the truth. Look at the results of the Bush policies: they were designed to demonstrate America’s supremacy, and they achieved the exact opposite; American power and influence suffered a precipitous decline. This goes to show, I argued, that it is not enough to manipulate perceptions; it is important to understand how the world really works. In other words, the cognitive function must take precedence over the manipulative function. That is the additional requirement I put into my definition of open society, but obviously it did not have an effect on the public that reelected Bush in 2004.
The election of President Obama in 2008 sent a powerful message to the world that the US is capable of radically changing course when it recognizes that it is on the wrong track. But the change was temporary: his election and inauguration were the high points of his presidency. Already the reelection of President Bush had convinced me that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership. The American public was unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems.
The fate of the Obama presidency reinforced that conviction. Obama assumed the presidency in the midst of a financial crisis whose magnitude few people appreciated, and he was not among those few. But he did recognize that the American public was averse to facing harsh realities and he had great belief in his own charismatic powers. He also wanted to rise above party politics and become—as he put it in his campaign speeches—the president of the United States of America. Consequently, he was reluctant to forthrightly blame the outgoing administration and went out of his way to avoid criticism and conflict. He resorted to what George Akerlof and Robert Shiller called the “confidence multiplier” in their influential book Animal Spirits. Accordingly, in the hope of moderating the recession, he painted a rosier picture of the economic situation than was justified.
The tactic worked in making the recession shorter and shallower than would have been the case otherwise, but it had disastrous political consequences. The confidence multiplier is, in effect, one half of a reflexive feedback loop: a positive influence on people’s perceptions can have a positive feedback in its effects on the underlying economic reality. But if reality, for example the unemployment rate, fails to live up to expectations, confidence turns to disappointment and anger; that is the other half of the reflexive feedback loop, and that is what came to pass.
The electorate showed little appreciation of Obama for moderating the recession because it was hardly aware of what he had done. By avoiding conflict Obama handed the initiative to the opposition, and the opposition had no incentive to cooperate. The Republican propaganda machine was able to convince people that the financial crisis was due to government failure, not market failure. According to the Republican narrative, the government cannot be trusted and its role in the economy—both regulation and taxation—should be reduced to a minimum.
he Republicans had good reason to take this line: it is a half-truth that advanced their political agenda. What is surprising is the extent of their success. The explanation lies partly in the power of Orwell’s Newspeak and partly in the aversion of the public to facing harsh realities.
On the one hand, Newspeak is extremely difficult to contradict because it incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty, like Fox News accusing me of being the puppet master of a media empire. Skillful practitioners always attack the strongest point of their opponent, like the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Facts do not provide any protection, and rejecting an accusation may serve to have it repeated; but ignoring it can be very costly, as John Kerry discovered in the 2004 election.
On the other hand, the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality. Nazi propaganda prevailed in the Weimar Republic because the public had been humiliated by military defeat and disoriented by runaway inflation. In its own quite different way, the American public has been subjected to somewhat comparable experiences, first by the terrorist attacks of September 11, and then by the financial crisis, which not only caused material hardship but also seemed to seal the decline of the United States as the dominant power in the world. With the rise of China occurring concurrently, the shift in power and influence has been dramatic.
The two trends taken together—the reluctance to face harsh reality coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception—explain why America is failing to meet the requirements of an open society. Apparently, a society needs to be successful in order to remain open.
What can we do to preserve and reinvigorate open society in America? First, I should like to see efforts to help the public develop an immunity to Newspeak. Those who have been exposed to it from Nazi or Communist times have an allergic reaction to it; but the broad public is highly susceptible.
Second, I should like to convince the American public of the merits of facing harsh reality. As I earlier wrote, I have from my childhood been drawn to contending with what may seem insurmountable challenges. Those in charge of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, have done well in identifying me as their adversary. They have done less well in the methods they have used to attack me: their lies shall not stand and their techniques shall not endure.
But improving the quality of political discourse is not enough. We must also find the right policies to deal with the very real problems confronting the country: high unemployment and chronic budget and trade deficits. The financing of state and local governments is heading for a breakdown. The Republicans have gained control of the agenda, and they are promoting a misleading narrative: everything is the government’s fault. The Democrats are forced into fighting a rearguard battle, defending the opposite position.
We need to undertake a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system and recognize that half-truths are misleading. The fact that your opponent is wrong does not make you right. We must come to terms with the fact that we live in an inherently imperfect society in which both markets and government regulations are bound to fall short of perfection. The task is to reduce the imperfections and make both private enterprise and government work better. That is the message I should like to find some way to deliver.