Historically, democracies are rare and fleeting. Having grown up in one, we assume ours is here to stay, but we aren’t exempt from the forces that degrade them. Even a skeptic like Thomas Jefferson, ever vigilant against the forces that undermine democracy, would likely be surprised to know that 230 years after wresting our freedom from King George III and the hereditary monarchy, we the people have elected more hereditary Georges to the presidency. The appetite for things monarchic dies hard. Think Camelot.

We think of democracy as irreversible, but it’s not. Athens was one, then wasn’t. Rome’s republic fell. France’s revolution came and went. World War II’s casualties include several democracies. Russia’s fledgling democracy is at risk. We can point fingers at Democracy’s dismantlers — Augustus Caesar, Robespierre, Stalin, Putin — but that would be weak minded. What topples democracies is the weaknesses in all our heads, the mind’s standard-issue Achilles’ heels.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Our mental vulnerabilities have caused democracies to topple left, right, and every which way: to religious fundamentalism, to secularism, nationalism, fascism, socialism. Regardless of the direction, the story is always the same. Each eroder of democracy exploits the same weaknesses in human reasoning.

To bolster our democracy, the common prescription is to vote, care, be informed, get involved, make a difference, but that tired and true advice asks too much or too little of us. The more pressing advice is to think, and to not believe everything you think. In the interest of brainland security, here are a few of the weaknesses and the necessary mind-minding skills, most of which were suggested millennia ago by the ancient philosophers, that will prevent our democracy’s demise. Admitting our weaknesses is the first step. To name them is to tame them. Knowing them, we can compensate:

  • We all ignore, avoid, dismiss, and resist counterarguments to our opinions. We have to in order to keep our focus. The questions are, how much, and when? Ignoring counterarguments when things are going badly can be like having a heroin addiction: The longer we ignore them, the more we want to. Know this going in. And, if it comes to it, kick the habit before it’s too late.
  • We treat prescriptive words as though they are descriptive, thereby sneaking our answers into our questions. Should you be dedicated? Yes. Should you be pigheaded? No. What’s the difference? In practice, there isn’t one. When we’re glad you’re sticking to your beliefs, we call you dedicated. When we’re mad you’re sticking to your beliefs, we call you pigheaded. So, is it good to stick to your beliefs or not? The proof is in the pudding. We’re glad Martin Luther King Jr. stuck to his beliefs; we’re sorry Hitler did.
  • Many word pairs define the same action either as a virtue or a vice: flexible/flip-floppy, generous/gullible, strong willed/egotistical, humble/weak. Rhetoric swarms to life’s tough judgment calls, weighing in on both sides. Spot incoming rhetoric as it flies by and shoot it down before it sways you. Cultivate the power of neutral thinking.
  • Debates are more often over strategies than about goals, but it’s easier to crush the opposition by questioning their goals.
  • Humans face a new challenge: We have the flexibility to sacrifice now for later gain. No other creature can do this, which is not to say it comes easy to us. Just because we can sacrifice for later gain doesn’t mean we necessarily should. Sometimes persistence furthers, but not always. It’s darkest before dawn; it’s darkest before death. Most big rewards are the product of sacrifice, but not all sacrifice pays off in big rewards. Don’t buy arguments that if the sacrifice hurts, it must be good. Or that it must be bad. Evaluate the particular bet: Is it a good one, or a bad one?
  • You can bet right and still have it come out wrong. If you bank on the 80 percent odds and the 20 percent odds result, you lost, but you didn’t bet wrong.
  • The first to accuse has a psychological advantage because if the accused responds in kind, maybe he’s just trying to get even. That doesn’t mean the first to accuse is necessarily right or necessarily wrong; the trick is to ignore the psychological advantage.
  • Being smart and feeling smart are two different things. We want to make good decisions, but the way we know whether we have done so is the feeling that we have made a good decision, which is easier to get through hubris than deliberation. The instinct to survive is strong. The instinct to alleviate doubt is stronger.
  • There are two ways to feel smart. One is by answering big questions well. The other is by pretending big questions are small. The second way is easier but more dangerous.
  • The ability to identify another person’s faults accurately does not protect one against having the same faults.
  • Democracies die when leaders, so powerful that they don’t have to doubt, lead people so desperate they can’t afford to.