The Demise of Critical Thinking?

More than a few commentators have lamented that the rise of Donald Trump is indicative of a lack of critical thinking skills.  This quote from a Psychology Today blog post pretty much sums up this position:

“We all labor within a steep-walled canyon of ignorance. What has changed is that fewer Americans seem to agree that scaling those walls toward knowledge is a good and worthwhile thing to do. Many now seem content to lie down and wallow in the ignorance.”

This kind of thing coming from intellectuals who supposedly know what critical thinking is strikes me as completely unhelpful at best and hopelessly elitist at worst.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that Trump’s message is directed at the intellect, but that does not mean that his followers are stupid or lacking in critical thinking capacities.

Take for example, one of Trump’s signature issues, trade agreements.  Here are two in depth articles on the effects that NAFTA has had on the US economy.  The first one says: “U.S. trade with Mexico went from a slight surplus in 1994 to an almost $100 billion deficit in 2013. As a result of this trade imbalance, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that instead of the million new jobs that President Clinton promised, 700,000 U.S. workers ended up being displaced.” Which sounds pretty much like Trump’s argument.  And the second points out: “Most estimates conclude that the deal had a modest but positive impact on U.S. GDP of less than 0.5 percent, or a total addition of up to $80 billion dollars to the U.S. economy upon full implementation, or several billion dollars of added growth per year.”  Which is not a huge win.

So, are Trump’s supporters wrong with agreeing with him that NAFTA (and other trade deals) were short sighted and counter-productive.  Probably not.  There are certainly solid sources out there that would agree with the direction (if not the tenor) of Trump’s analysis.

The CFR article says that the auto industry has lost 350,000 jobs since 1994, which may mean that there are lots of people who lost $25 an hour jobs and are now working at 7/11.  Can you really say to those people that they would not be better off putting up a wall and building cars for ourselves?

It would be easy to accuse Trump and his supporters of overly simplistic thinking.  Build a wall and deport undocumented immigrants and our problems will be solved.  Indeed, probably not.  But then again, there are many on the other side that think if we just raise taxes on the rich and make college more affordable that all our problems will be solved.  Is this really less simplistic than Trump’s message?

It could be argued that Trump is woefully unqualified to be president, but the same argument was used against Obama when he first ran.  His political experience at the time was a few terms as a state senator and an unfinished US Senate term.  And some people truly believe that politicians are the problem and so someone like Trump is a solution, not a drawback.

Now, there is one area where Trump supporters seem to be seriously out of step with reality and that is their assessment of where the country currently is and where it is going.   Trump is fond of saying that we have become (in one way or another) a “third world country,” and his followers seem to accept that picture.  Personally, I find this completely out of step with reality, but I have to say that we have had extremely strong voices in the media blaring the message that, essentially, the end is nigh.  I am looking at you Fox news. 

So, if your news source is telling you things are bad and getting worse and your personal situation seems to echo that assessment, are you justified in believing this?  Yes, in fact you are.  Again, I think this view is totally incorrect and will deal with that in future posts.

So, even though I teach critical thinking, I will not be one to accuse the followers of any political party with a lack of critical thinking because of that support.


  1. Siobhan says

    So, if your news source is telling you things are bad and getting worse and your personal situation seems to echo that assessment, are you justified in believing this? Yes, in fact you are. Again, I think this view is totally incorrect and will deal with that in future posts.

    I certainly know a lot of heavy industry workers who have been screwed over by international trade, particularly exporting cheap labour to countries with looser regulations. But, it doesn’t–or at least, shouldn’t–follow that the rest of Trump’s proclaimed promises are in any way going to redress those problems. I think one’s ethics are seriously out of whack if you can support a candidate whose policies quite literally mirror the Third Reich in more ways than one, even if that candidate has identified why you, in particular, slipped through the cracks of the national trend. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept, so it ought to be a serious ethical quandary to support a candidate whose standard involves nakedly scapegoating entire swathes of the population.

    I have never considered Trump supporters deplorable for their critical thinking or alleged lack thereof. But they are prone to violence and are at best indifferent to the numerous human rights violations Trump routinely proposes. To me, that says a lot about their moral concepts, and I feel perfectly justified in expressing unapologetic disdain because of it. I have no intentions of letting someone wiggle their way out of “I’m not a bad guy” arguments to justify continued support of a fascist demagogue.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    When Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment, the media pretty much unanimously decided to completely misrepresent the point she was making. The content of that speech was not to deplore the deplorables, or point out their existence — her audience already knew perfectly well that many (if not necessarily half) of Trump’s supporters were racist bigots.

    But the point of Clinton’s speech was actually to defend the other half. She was saying that we shouldn’t peg ALL the Trump supporters as racist — that many of them have legitimate grievances and every reason in the world to thirst for radical change, even if they’re going about doing it in the wrong way. She was saying that, for the Democratic party to survive, it needs to listen hard to those voters (its traditional base!) who felt they hadn’t been listened to recently.
    I wonder how much of Trump’s support is simply that he is seen as the “change” candidate, just as Obama was in the last two elections. (in fact, of course, he probably would represent the biggest change. It’s just that not all change is good.)

    The media, as it so often does, twisted her speech around and made its point be the exact opposite of what Clinton was trying to say.

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