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How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy, Thomas E. Patterson

Reviewed by Andrew Hacker


“Americans have lost touch with reality” (p. xi). So Thomas E. Patterson opens his brief and beguiling book. Even worse, “millions of citizens are living in fantasy worlds” (p. 121). Equally alarming, this corrosion is new. On both personal and national planes, “today’s volume of misinformation is unprecedented” (p. 5).

How America Lost Its Mind raises a host of consequential questions, often leaving its readers to ponder their resolution. It is best read as a lagniappe of the Trump interregnum. Science, scholarship, indeed much of ratiocination itself, have suffered official scorn. If the 45th presidency has been ineffably unique, it has been undergirded by the devotion of adherents and enablers. Clearly, many adult Americans are responsive to “alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway’s contribution to political epistemology.

Patterson casts a wide net. We learn that “only one in ten new marriages today unites a Republican and a Democrat” (p. 27). It would be revealing to know how they fare. Or we are told that “the better educated are often the most misinformed” (p. 9). To the extent that this is true, it turns a lot of suppositions on their head. But then Thomas Jefferson declared that he would heed the judgment of a ploughman ahead of a professor’s, because farmers are not hobbled by “artificial rules.”

Much of the book turns on explaining how and why the “reasoning ability” (p. 5) of so many citizens has taken so dire a turn. Both Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow are cited for eschewing dispassionate analysis. In a less polarized era, the networks presented “a common rendition of the news” (p. 20). Apparently, people were less beset by grievances and more accepting of authority. The ground was not yet fertile for Fox News. The political is not the only climate that has changed.

In Patterson’s view, “most of our agitators are on the political right” (p. 106). Yet he puts the initial onus on the other side. “The flight from facts began in the 1960s and 1970s with writers on the left, [who] argued that reality is a social construction” (p. 14). In this reading, Derrida and Foucault paved the way for Breitbart and Hannity. It speaks strongly for the impact of ideas.

Readers who take the title literally may wonder whether the bulk of a nation has “lost its mind,” or whether it is only the 46 percent who chose a casino magnate. Patterson inspired me to look back a few years. In 2008, a contender with an African parent and an unusual name won with 9,549,105 votes to spare. Up again, his margin was still 4,984,100. If those electorates seemed pretty open-minded, they were largely similar to 2016’s, not to mention today’s.

We are taken to the author’s native state, much of it now Trump terrain. “Their opinions were honest and heartfelt,” Patterson recounts, “rooted in a lifestyle they’ve always known” (p. 47). The message is that these beliefs deserve respect and warrant an attentive hearing. That is a tenet of political civility. But there is another step. It is to grant that there can be a cogent case, let’s say, for allowing military-level weaponry in any household so disposed. Or that to maintain that all conceptions must be made to end in birth can be an intellectually viable position. Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito provide as many footnotes, citing evidence and authorities, as Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Not a small lesson from How America Lost Its Mind is how hard it is to engage when every node on the spectrum insists it is empirical and analytical.

It has been a long time since I have met a book as gratifying as Patterson’s. He forces his readers to think, especially where issues defy familiar responses. At least this was the experience of this reviewer.

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