Thursday , October 29 2020

Blaming the voters

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chris
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Summary:
In the Times, Matthew Parris wrote: "this Prime Minister is ultimately our [the electorate's] fault." I tweeted that this was absolutely right, but got a little pushback. I should therefore elaborate. What I and Matthew meant was that Johnson is not doing anything unexpected. He is merely living down to what everybody knew about him. As Matthew wrote: There was never any reason for confidence in Boris Johnson’s diligence, his honesty, his directness, his mastery of debate, his people-skills with colleagues, his executive ability or his policy grip. We’d seen no early demonstration of any of these qualities but we just blanked that out. Voters, then, are getting what they voted for. Those who voted Labour in 2001 could say of the Iraq war “I never voted for that”. Those who voted

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In the Times, Matthew Parris wrote: "this Prime Minister is ultimately our [the electorate's] fault." I tweeted that this was absolutely right, but got a little pushback. I should therefore elaborate.

What I and Matthew meant was that Johnson is not doing anything unexpected. He is merely living down to what everybody knew about him. As Matthew wrote:

There was never any reason for confidence in Boris Johnson’s diligence, his honesty, his directness, his mastery of debate, his people-skills with colleagues, his executive ability or his policy grip. We’d seen no early demonstration of any of these qualities but we just blanked that out.

Voters, then, are getting what they voted for. Those who voted Labour in 2001 could say of the Iraq war “I never voted for that”. Those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 could say of the tripling of tuition fees “I never voted for that.” Those who voted Tory last year, however, cannot say the same. They got what they wanted. They should own it.

There are some objections to this, most of which I find inadequate.

The first is that voters were deceived by our dishonest grifter media. There’s some truth in this. The media does have some influence, if less than its critics claim.

But people have agency. They are responsible for believing the media’s lies: the victims of conmen are not always wholly deserving of our sympathy. And voters are quite capable of being wrong without the media’s help. They are systematically mistaken about many social facts, such as how many immigrants there are. They don’t understand economics (or, I suspect, the social sciences generally). Some of their preferences – for benefit cuts and a hostile environment for immigrants - are plain vicious. And they have cognitive biases which support inequality. The media amplify these failings. But to believe they are the sole cause of them is to regard voters as childlike noble savages who are corrupted by a few billionaires. That’s just romantic twaddle.

You don’t need to believe in Marxian ideas of false consciousness (a phrase Marx never used) to accept this. Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan have said similar things from a non-Marxian point of view.

Another objection to Parris’s claim is that the Tories got only a minority of the vote and so it is our electoral system to blame rather than the voters.

Let’s leave aside the fact that the electorate support this system: they rejected mild reform in the 2011 referendum. And let’s also leave aside the fact that it’s not just Tory voters to blame. Those who abstained or voted Lib Dem thereby allowing a Tory candidate to win in their constituency are also guilty.

And let’s also leave aside the fact those using this argument must be careful – because it will undoubtedly be weaponized by the right to delegitimize even a mildly social democratic government.

Instead, there’s another problem. If voters do have vicious, biased and ill-informed preferences – whether caused by the media or anything else – then the last thing we should want is for parliament to better reflect these. (Of course, some Labour supporters might have such bad preferences too.)

Our problem is not how to get a more representative parliament but rather how to filter voters’ preferences so they reflect the wisdom rather than stupidity of crowds. Burke-Judgement

 Traditionally, small-c conservatives have been alive to this question. It is why Edmund Burke thought that MPs’ judgment should over-ride the “hasty opinion” of their constituents. And it’s why they have prized an independent civil service and judiciary, as these too restrain hasty, silly and nasty preferences: it is no accident that populists everywhere attack such institutions.

But there is a more radical alternative – to use devices of deliberative (pdf) democracy such as citizens juries to increase our chances of getting the best rather than worst of public opinion. It is these we need more than electoral reform.

You might object here that it is futile to complain about the electorate as we must work with the world as it is, not as we’d like it.

Public opinion, however, is malleable – a fact our most successful recent Prime Ministers have recognised. Thatcher sought to change it not just by persuasion but by introducing a property-owning democracy to incentivize people to vote Tory. And Blair’s expansion of higher education has (inadvertently?) created a large cohort of liberal-minded youngsters: there’s a reason why Tories are attacking universities.

 There’s a further objection to Parris’s claim. Some of us (not enough!) voted Labour. Surely we’re not to blame?

There’s an irony here. Many people using this to exculpate themselves also believe in the idea of collective guilt – that, for example, Britons collectively were responsible for the slave trade and imperialism. But if our ancestors, many of whom never owned slaves or participated in imperialism, were collectively guilty of these crimes, mightn’t we too be collectively responsible for the Tory government?

Mightn’t even we Labour supporters be partly to blame by for example not campaigning sufficiently or sufficiently well or for making bad political choices ourselves – be they choosing a Labour leader who didn’t appeal sufficiently to voters or not accepting the Brexit referendum result?

Which brings me to another irony. Part of Johnson’s appeal is like Trump’s: it’s a backlash against metropolitan elites who think they know better than “the people”. And yet those of us who claim that (some) voters are ill-informed and vicious are making the same mistake Hillary Clinton made when she called Trump supporters “deplorables”: we’re inviting a backlash against us arrogant know-alls.

This is a dilemma. The solution to it – if there is one – is to try to separate talk about outcomes from talk about process. We must ask: what sort of processes and institutions are likely to best deliver policies that are both good (by whatever lights you want) and democratic? Few people, however, want such a debate.

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