Political Norms: The Chump Effect

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren talks to reporters outside her house about the end of her campaign for U.S. president after informing her staff that she is withdrawing from the 2020 U.S. presidential race in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., March 5, 2020. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

James B. Meigs, the former editor of Popular Mechanics who lately has been writing an insightful column about tech for Commentary, is also doing superb work for City Journal. His latest essay carries a title that is useful shorthand for so much of what is going on around us today: “The Chump Effect.” (At the moment the essay appears to be available only for subscribers to the print edition of the quarterly, which is publishing the best long-form journalism from a center-right perspective that I’m aware of. It’s shocking that, in an era when ordinary weeklies sell for eight bucks or so, this high-impact, 128-page journal with no filler, no ads, and no celebrity fluff costs as little as $5 an issue.)

The Chump Effect is Meigs’s clever term for the bipartisan, broadly shared feeling that various systems are rigged in favor of elites, insiders, and favored groups, which leads to a breakdown in societal trust and trust in institutions. If those guys don’t have to play by the rules, we think, why should I? Meigs delves into social-science experiments that show people motivated by the Chump Effect can act irrationally by effectively volunteering to pay a cost in order that others be punished for ignoring norms.

The political implications of the Chump Effect are obvious: Meigs begins with the story of a man who asked Elizabeth Warren if he, who scrimped to put his child through college, would be entitled to a refund under her proposed new system to forgive student loans. “Of course not,” was Warren’s response. The man was furious: He was being made a chump. Elites such as Warren blithely ignore the anger they generate among people who dutifully follow the rules every time they suggest a carve-out for whatever politically powerful group they seek to appease and flatter. “You’re laughing at me,” the man told Warren. In effect, she was, by suggesting a large class of people be rewarded for indolence, lack of discipline, poor planning, and miscalculating the cost-to-benefit ratio of higher education. A society that creates favored groups is a society that creates chumps, and a society of chumps is an angry society.

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