Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Ignorance and Democracy

One thing we can already say in advance of this week's two by-elections is that the structural decline of democracy was not arrested by the jolt of last June's referendum. Popular sovereignty was quickly absorbed by the Tories as they jerry-built a soft plebiscitary dictatorship in which the unilateralism and secrecy of Brexit looks set to infect all areas of government. Despite Tony Blair's bizarre call for an uprising, the fragmented centre has committed to a self-indulgent martyrdom, ironically proving its members to be all heart and no head. Meanwhile, Corbyn's attempt to triangulate between the popular will and the interests of Labour's electoral base has been condemned by those for whom triangulation was once a supreme virtue. As I noted back in June, the response to the vote was heavily conditioned by a theory of democracy, dating back to Plato, that focuses on two failings: the people's lack of expertise and their inability to discern the good.

The latter has proved the weaker critique, reflecting both the subjectivity of liberal modernity (we're told we can each pursue our own good) and the impossibility of getting the mass of voters to recognise themselves in the caricature of an irresponsible and inconsiderate demos (an ironic product of the creation of a demonised underclass as the real "enemy within"). It is the critique of ignorance, and the concomitant defence of expertise, that has proved to have legs, not least because it has provided a theoretical framework for the modish concern with "fake news". But the real reason for this idea's success is that it has never gone out of fashion, whereas the belief that the people couldn't recognise the good was forced to take a back-seat with the advent of universal suffrage. Today's "alt-facts" are part of a long tradition in which democracy is corrupted by the base appetites of the lower orders fed by opportunistic new media and demagogues.

In the current cycle, the finger of blame has been pointed firmly at the Internet, despite the evidence that UK tabloids were more decisive in influencing the leave vote and that US cable news was more influential with Trump voters (and with Trump himself - see his recent comments on Sweden prompted by a Fox News report). The idea is to suggest a better status quo ante, and thus relative decline, though academic evidence suggests that levels of public knowledge in respect of public policy have been pretty consistent over the years - i.e. consistently low - while general levels of trust in experts remain high. This points to two great truths. First, most people take a limited interest in politics because the subject has limited relevance to their daily lives. This is why issues around health and education (and occasionally housing) have resonance when they arise. Second, social hierarchies are nowhere near as fluid as the myth of meritocracy would have it. The idea that society as a whole would suddenly lose faith in "experts", while still retaining respect for a monarchy and an unelected House of Lords, is absurd.

The claim that society has intellectually degraded because of the Internet is a commonplace among both conservatives and establishment liberals, though while liberals often emphasise malign forces (e.g. neo-Nazis gaming Google), conservatives tend to focus on the indolence of the people. Tom Nichols, writing in Foreign Affairs on "How America Lost Faith in Expertise" (a summary of his book on the subject), gives this old idea a modern, special snowflake spin: "Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong". The culprit is clear: "Ask an expert about the death of expertise, and you will probably get a rant about the influence of the Internet. ... It has allowed people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts." At least he didn't blame postmodernism.

Nichols' disdain for the Internet reflects the professional anxiety of the credentialed academic: "I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none". Ouch. But as an academic he cannot avoid admitting the lack of novelty in all this: "Of course, this is no more and no less than an updated version of the basic paradox of the printing press ... Libraries, or at least their reference and academic sections, once served as a kind of first cut through the noise of the marketplace. The Internet, however, is less a library than a giant repository where anyone can dump anything. In practice, this means that a search for information will rely on algorithms usually developed by for-profit companies using opaque criteria."

He doesn't explain how this is different to the bias of traditional publishing houses or newspaper proprietors, he merely asserts that it is much worse: "The Internet is the printing press at the speed of fiber optics", which is as meaningless as his ahistoric use of "marketplace" in respect of knowledge and ideas. Nichols' trawl through history does at least identify his true focus, which is not expertise in general (despite weak asides about cognitive bias and anti-vaccine nutters) but politics: "Over a half century ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that 'the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and comprehendingly perform for himself ... In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government'". That mythical common man obviously didn't include slaves, native Americans or even white indentured labour.

Hofstadter was the author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics (published in the same year that Dr Strangelove was released), which discussed the instrumental use of conspiracy theories. Without irony, Nichols notes that "Conspiracy theories are attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and little patience for boring, detailed explanations", which might seem to reinforce Hofstadter's point about omnicompetence were it not for the indisputable fact that conspiracy theorists actually have huge patience for boring, detailed explanations, from fluoridation to email servers. This appetite for "theory" sits uneasily with the characterisation of the demos as ignorant and lazy, such as in Nichols' citing of a Washington Post poll on American intervention in Ukraine: "Only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map ... the respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance. Put another way, the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there".

This is a classic party trick, like asking people to estimate the population or point due north. Most people get this wrong simply because the information isn't necessary to them in their daily lives. It doesn't mean that they are stupid or that their views should carry less weight. Nichols concludes by invoking another trope first deployed by Plato, the demos as children, and uses this both to justify technocracy and excuse it as the inevitable response to populism: "Americans (and many other Westerners) have become almost childlike in their refusal to learn enough to govern themselves or to guide the policies that affect their lives. ... In the absence of informed citizens, for example, more knowledgeable administrative and intellectual elites do in fact take over the daily direction of the state and society. ... Today, however, this situation exists by default rather than design. And populism actually reinforces this elitism. ... Faced with a public that has no idea how most things work, experts disengage, choosing to speak mostly to one another."

This argument seeks to reverse the causal relationship, suggesting that what Peter Mair, in Ruling the Void, called "the withdrawal of the elites" has been occasioned by a recent failure of the public to maintain sufficient knowledge of policy, rather than public disengagement (as measured in falling turnouts and party membership) being the result of the professionalisation of party politics. This idea of a secular decline in public competence competes in the marketplace of conservative ideas with the theory of structural disincentives: "the probability that our votes will make a difference is, for most of us in most major elections, vanishingly small. ... In short, the reason people are mostly ignorant and biased about politics is that the incentives are all wrong. Democracies make it so that no individual voters' votes (or political beliefs) make a difference. As a result, no individual is punished for being ignorant or irrational, and no individual is rewarded for becoming informed and rational. Democracies incentivizes us to be 'dumb'" (that there are no real-world political systems that incentivise everyone to be well-informed suggests an elite bias against popular knowledge).

Though this appears to condemn us all to ignorance, given that we're each subject to the same disincentives, the unspoken assumption is that a reduced, more "qualified" electorate would fix the problem. But qualified in what? While contemporary epistocrats talk about educational achievement, the more traditional Platonists advocate the return of property qualifications or votes proportionate to tax contribution. This reflects the fact that politics is not a natural science with observable laws but a social construct and therefore both contestable and malleable. The problem with the critique of ignorance is that what is considered consequential is politically determined. In other words, the people can be alienated from politics by defining it in terms that are preferential to elites. To that end, "expertise" can play a role in isolating politics rather than opening it up to general understanding. The obvious example is foreign affairs, the continuation of aristocratic governance by other means, though this often backfires when the public does take an interest - hence the "Do you even know where Ukraine is?" manoeuvre.

As a social and thus historically-situated construct politics is also subject to structural change. Two recent examples are the impact of globalisation and neoliberal practice. The transfer of powers to Brussels may have been exaggerated by a Eurosceptic media, but it was none the less real, as was the role of privatisation in removing housing and much of economic management from public influence. The growth of "independent" regulation and technocratic management has substituted expert scrutiny for public oversight but at the cost of regulatory capture and groupthink. While experts can legitimately complain about assertive ignorance in the face of scientific evidence, e.g. in respect of climate change or vaccination, this is more difficult to do in the realm of politics when so much of policy has been deliberately steered into areas beyond public purview. The problem is not that people are rejecting the evidence of the experts, but that the evidence is increasingly unavailable to the public.

By-elections have long been promoted as opportunities for a "protest vote". In recent years this has started to morph into the idea of by-elections as exercises in attention-seeking in which electors lash out in frustration: a cry of pain rather than a specific demand. In other words, emotion has got the better of intellect. A hilarious example of this framing was a Guardian-sponsored focus group in Stoke, made up of 10 wavering Labour voters who were subjected to the infantilising exercise of "drawing the parties as cars", which produced this conclusion: "they all agreed that a Ukip win would have an impact on a national level as it would force people to listen to the area's concerns". The rhetorical inflation from "send a message" to "force people to listen" pays lip-service to the instrumental theory of by-elections (though it isn't clear how the election of Paul Nuttall would force anything), but it transfers the electoral outcome from the realm of reason to that of emotion. This is the flip-side of the "listening to people's concerns" cant: the concerns are never interrogated and thus properly engaged with, because the people are only capable of emotional spasms not reasoned argument.

There is a perceived tension at the heart of representative democracy between the need to emotionally reflect the people and intellectually constitute the state. This is the head/heart dichotomy beloved of the self-proclaimed pragmatists and it reflects Plato's original belief that the people must be guided by their betters because they lack self-control as much as expertise. In practice, many voters are frustrated by their representatives' intellectual timidity. The dissatisfaction with the Article 50 debate and Jeremy Corbyn's election(s) are two different examples of a real appetite for policy. Likewise, many are irritated when politicians indulge in the emotionalism of the state, such as last year's "project fear" or Theresa May holding Donald Trump's hand before wittering on about a special relationship. The people are no more emotional or ignorant today than they have ever been. If they are alienated from politics, then that is the fault of politicians, not the people. I have no idea how the two by-elections will go, but my fear is that turnout may be poor, and not just because of the weather.


  1. You only have to watch one of those political panel shows or a couple of hours of Parliamentary debate to know that our so-called betters often know f*ck all either.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment23 February 2017 at 18:35

    Very interesting.

    “more "qualified" electorate would fix the problem. But qualified in what?”

    The first thing to ask is what are these experts qualified in, and what determines their expertise? An expert who proposes an entrepreneurial solution to the homelessness problem by for example housing them in shipping containers may believe they have expertise in this regard but seriously a host of social issues then come into play about how housing is allocated etc etc.

    Being an expert in for example engraving is another thing entirely to being an expert in solving ‘social issues’.

    “the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there”

    While you can pour scorn on this I think it is useful to ask such questions. You could cross reference for example, people’s views on the monarchy with their views on Russia or what newspaper people read and their attitude to immigration or which supermarket people frequent and their views on Donald Trump. I am sure this data can be interpreted in a myriad of ways but I suspect 2 basic conclusions can be drawn, either people are mostly brainwashed one way of another or people are innately determined somehow and seek out views that correspond to their own prejudices.

    This is the problem isn’t it, if people are not influenced by the bile, propaganda and culture around them then what the hell is determining their ideas? It should also be pointed out that very intelligent people can be as ignorant as pig shit on political issues. It never ceases to astound me how capitalism continually reproduces the masses in a state that best suits its needs. Intelligent on the job, thick as pig shit on societal issues and totally compliant to their masters on almost every subject! Like well trained puppies!

    The problem with Brexit is that all the usual filters were missing, people were not voting for a party platform, weighing up the merits of the Tories with UKIP etc, prioritising this or that, but they were asked directly, do you like immigrants or not and those who have been most debased by the media onslaught said a definitive we don’t like immigrants, thanks for asking!

    I fully agree with your general criticism, clearly the potential of the internet is to greatly improve knowledge and actually expertise at the lowest level, for example as a computer programmer Google is a godsend and has improved my abilities no end! And in a faster time span than would have been the case without the internet!

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment23 February 2017 at 18:48

    On propaganda, there is currently a trailer on the TV channel Dave for a political comedy show hosted by Matt Forde, ironically called Unspun. In the trailer we see Theresa May beating up European male leaders, the inference that may is this warrior princess fighting for the best trade deals.

    But surely a better and more realistic trailer would have shown May as a prostitute desperately offering debased sexual favours for decent trade deals.

    I guess the problem with this is who would give up a trade deal to sleep with a repulsive old bag like Theresa May, who looks like a cross between Davros and the wicked witch of the West? Time to send the nymphets to Europe is you ask me!

  4. "Meanwhile, Corbyn's attempt to triangulate between the popular will and the interests of Labour's electoral base has been condemned by those for whom triangulation was once a supreme virtue."

    Exactly! And the fact that Labour lost Copeland but that the UKIP vote in Stoke was still high enough for people to obsess about means that, given Labour cannot look both ways towards the 'forgotten' working-class and the 'aspirational' types, we will be back to the question of leadership again. Not that this is a fruitful one, since if there was a great charismatic leader present within the Labour Party he/she would surely have emerged last summer instead of Owen Smith.

  5. However, cue the Prince of Darkness himself, David Milliband, emerging from the coffin, flying out of his remote castle to finally be delivered to his destiny! And thus the final nail
    In the Labour coffin is sealed and both parties are forever more essentially Tory parties. The homogeneous tendencies of the market play out in politics. Triangulation complete.