The Simpleton Manifesto
Trump and radical activists all say it: "The answer is simple!" They are wrong.
When Phyllis Schlafly looked at the world, the path to salvation was clear. For America’s leading anti-feminist of the ’60s and ’70s, “Civilization progresses, freedom is won, and problems are solved because we have wonderful people who think up simple solutions.” Complexity was for the confused or the compromised.
A growing number of Americans are again embracing this approach. Many on the resurgent far-left have joined the far-right in believing that the issues of the day could be overcome if only policymakers stopped tinkering at the edges of the system and adopted solutions that supposedly stare us in the face. Understanding the implications of this attitude is vital—now more than ever.
In their 1970 classic The Politics of Unreason, the sociologists Seymour Lipset and Earl Raab coined a word for this black-and-white thinking: “simplism.” They defined it as “the unambiguous ascription of single causes and remedies for multifactored phenomena.” Reality was irrelevant to its advocates and strength of will was more important than attention to practicalities. For the simplist, “just saying the right thing, believing the right thing, is the substance of victory and remedy.” Schlafly epitomized this. “There is a very simple solution to what to do about the problem of world communism,” she once declared. “Just stop helping the Communists.”
Lipset and Raab did not take their analysis of simplism far. As they saw it, simplism was only one aspect of political extremism—the concept was dealt with in only a few pages. But simplism has now moved from the fringes into the Oval Office and beyond. We are surrounded by good slogans for bad policies, from “Build the Wall” to “Abolish the Police.” At the extremes, both ends of the spectrum have given up workable solutions and returned to “single causes and remedies.” So what are some of the hallmarks of simplism?
First, the solution is always clear and debate is unnecessary.
What do you do if “illegals” are supposedly crossing the southern border in droves? Build a wall. As Trump declared in an Oval Office address, “This is just common sense.” The claim of “common sense” was also a favorite of Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who used it to justify the conspiracy theory that “special interests want to bring in more low-skilled workers” to depress wages. Simplists refuse discussion because they believe—or want you to believe—that their positions are self-evident truths.
Second, the opposition is stupid or evil. If they can’t accept your remedy, they must be too dim to understand or too malicious to comply.
In a speech calling for the border wall, Trump opted for the latter interpretation. After listing a number of Americans killed by illegal immigrants, he asked, “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”
“This is a choice,” he concluded, “between right and wrong, justice and injustice.”
Third, objecting means siding with the enemy. There can be no middle ground.
When some Republicans voted to block the president’s emergency declaration to build the wall, the Fox News pundit Tomi Lahren declared that such Republicans in the Senate “don’t want the wall any more than the Democrats. They just hide behind convenient, yet arguably BS, excuses.”
“They have an R by their names,” she added, “but it might as well be a Christmas ornament; it means nothing.” For simplists, even occasional opposition is beyond the pale.
Fourth, political norms do not matter. Simplist proposals are so legislatively and practically unworkable, they require bypassing rules.
It is no surprise that the wall—the paradigmatic simplist policy—is being built through gross executive overreach. Trump declared a state of emergency to pay for its construction, following the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, and then obtained funding by diverting money from the Pentagon. Riding roughshod over the rules is easier when you have the arrogance of the simplist.
The results of simplism are dismal. “Build the Wall” is a striking slogan to be shouted at rallies, but does nothing to address the issue of the 62% of undocumented migrants who remain in the United States by overstaying their work visas, rather than “entering without inspection.” The wall is also unlikely to stop those determined to take the old-fashioned route of slipping directly over the border: Cartels have already identified a power tool, sold at under $100, that can cut right through it.
The whole thing has been nothing more than an $11 billion loyalty test. Indeed, because simplism refuses to contend with the real world, its more extreme forms deny the need to govern altogether. This has never been clearer than when this year’s Republican National Convention substituted all policy proposals with a commitment to “the President’s America First agenda.” At a time of national crisis, the GOP has given up trying. For simplists, the slogan is the platform.
Simplism’s tendency to encourage polarization is just as insidious—if you slander naysayers as saboteurs and regard dissent as incomprehensible, no discussion can be had. Because simplists have the loudest voices and catchiest slogans, entire parties can become associated with ideals that those parties may not even support. Even as Democrats from Sanders to Biden have rejected calls to “defund the police,” Republican strategists have leapt at the chance to paint their opponents as radicals. It is unsurprising that so many Americans have stopped talking to the other side. A recent Pew Research poll found that only 3% of Trump and Biden voters reported having a lot of friends who supported the other candidate. Around 40% said they had none. Simplism recognizes only two categories: friend or foe.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that simplism feasts on its failures. Its ineffective policies will not solve America’s problems, so calls for radical action will intensify. In this mood of crisis, norms are obstacles rather than boundaries. Politics becomes two unshakeable poles, which paralyzes Congress and halts the passage of policy fixes. As long as simplism reigns, America’s problems will worsen—and so the process will repeat itself.
Lipset and Raab had the good fortune to live in an age when simplism remained a sign of fringe extremists. Today, it has myriad adherents on left and right—with the president of the United States as the simplist-in-chief.
Nathaniel Rachman is a recent history graduate from the University of Oxford, where he edited The Oxford Student.