YASCHA Mounk, founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion, calls it 180ism: “the tendency of many participants in public debate to hear what their perceived enemies have to say and immediately declare themselves diametrically opposed.”

As an example, he cited the recent controversy over some of Dr. Seuss’s early books that included offensive drawings. “Over the following days,” Mounk said, “the Chicago Public Library retired existing copies from its collection. EBay banned the books from its platform while continuing to sell copies of ‘Mein Kampf.’ ” The right, Mounk added, “quickly denounced all of this in extreme terms. Fox News devoted a whole day of wall-to-wall coverage to the controversy.”

An associate professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., Mounk recalled that the left used to be against banning “immoral” books. “But instead of sticking to their long-standing principles, even veteran writers on the left decided that they would rather argue that it is just fine for some books to disappear than agree with a conservative. If Fox News criticized the banning of a children’s book, then the children’s book must have been unforgivably offensive, and the banning of it righteous — worthy of defense in a stream of op-eds in The Washington Post and The New York Times.”

Mounk calls this the world of 180ism: “you must either think that Dr. Seuss never made a cringe-worthy drawing or that we should cheer when public libraries remove his early books. You must either believe that antifa is a major threat to national security or defend the right of a bunch of extremists to beat up anyone they consider a fascist. You must either cheer when state legislatures tell teachers what they can say in the classroom or celebrate that a growing number of them are telling students to make their racial identity central to their lives.”

Mounk is  a Biden supporter.

180ism is all around us, Mounk said. But “succumbing to it is a terrible way to think and live.” He said “if those who recognize that most questions have more than two possible answers fail to make their voices heard, our debates will perennially be framed as a gladiatorial contest between two mutually hostile halves…and we will remain more interested in owning each other than in solving our problems….”


Economist and author Bryan D. Caplan is another public intellectual whose books, articles and online musings are, almost always, insightful.

In a 2014 article, he discussed demagoguery which he said is the politics of Social Desirability Bias: “the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others.”

And the heart of Social Desirability Bias, he added, is this: Some types of claims sound good or bad regardless of the facts. (My italics.)

 “Helping people” sounds good.  “Acquiring luxuries” sounds bad.  “Saving American jobs” sounds good.  “Cheap nannies for upper-middle class families” sound bad.  “Supporting our troops” sounds good.  “Sympathizing with the enemy” sounds bad.  “Raising the minimum wage” sounds good.  “Measuring disemployment effects” sounds bad.

However, Caplan added, the “minimum wage, good as it sounds, would be bad if it sharply increased unemployment of low-skilled workers.  But when [a politician] runs for office, he has a clear incentive to keep his doubts to himself.  If X sounds good, saying ‘Hooray for X’ is a much easier way to win over an audience than “Sure, X sounds good, but let’s calm down and consider the possibility that X is in fact bad.’ ”

Demagoguery, Caplan said, is “Embracing Social Desirability Bias to gain power.  Making a career out of praising what sounds good and attacking what sounds bad.”

Which reminds me of what the very great PJ O’Rourke once wrote about politics.

“If you’re electing Democrats to control government spending, then you’re marrying Angelina Jolie for her brains.”

Haha! No, not that one. This:

“So the worshipers of big government are back with their lies and their empty promises. And what do we do about it? I don’t know. I’m too stupid to answer that question. But in fairness to myself, I’m not just stupid. I am a student of stupidity. I am a political reporter.”

Send feedback to



Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on

comments powered by Disqus