Public opinion and the common good

[Originally published on Shifting Grounds]

There have been several articles in recent months that suggested public opinion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mehdi Hasan, Roy Hattersley and Ipsos MORI’s Bobby Duffy, to name a few, have all expressed a suspicion, bordering on distrust, for public opinion.

They make the argument, on the basis of damning surveys, that the public are woefully misinformed on a wide range of issues.

We don’t know what percentage of the population are Muslim, nor how many are immigrants. We have no idea how many teenage pregnancies there are, and 28% of us can’t recognise Nick Clegg (not including those of us who can’t recognise what he’s become).

All three stress that what they draw from this troublesome ignorance is the need for better public information, improved statistical education and closer scrutiny of politicians’ and the media’s use of figures. Mehdi Hasan has previously quoted a stirring fragment of Sorkinism from the West Wing, claiming that the proper response to ignorance is to campaign harder in the opposite direction. When the public is wrong, tell ‘em they’re damn wrong, eh Jed? Except, why then ever listen to them at all?

What’s implicit in these laments is that the public can’t know what’s good for it, because its grasp on reality is so feeble. This is a claim that has rattled in the throats of political philosophers at least as far back as Plato – why listen to the people when you can have philosopher kings? As Rousseau, that conflicted democrat rhetorically pondered, ‘how can a blind multitude, which often does not know what it wills, because it rarely knows what is good for it, carry out for itself so great and difficult an enterprise as a system of legislation?’

Indeed, Jean-Jacques, these sceptics would concur, indeed. But as Rousseau partially recognised, for all its faults the public was and remains the only source of legitimate political power. In fact, and this truth has been obscured by the United States’ abuse of the word, democracy is a requirement of justice. If government is not by the people, then it cannot be for them either.

Those on the left have often been sympathetic to a technocratic ideal. Informed by a lingering Marxist notion of false-consciousness, the people must, in the inimitable words of Rousseau, be ‘forced to be free’ by those who know better. If only the public knew the reality of immigration, as Hasan and Hattersley do, then they would surely agree with them, no? Well, as you might guess, not so much. As Hasan notes, 46% of people would still disagree with him on the broad sweeps of immigration policy, even once they had the fuller picture. It seems reality does not beget consensus.

The complexity of society and of economics makes public understanding of policies increasingly difficult. Very few people, me included, could explain with any conviction how global economies operate – the knowledge and dedication required is just too great for most to bother. That doesn’t mean that we should surrender these spheres altogether. Nor does an imprecise knowledge of demographic trends and statistics debar someone from debate.

Do I think that immigration should be cut to zero? No. Do I think paedophiles should be hanged? No. Do I confuse William Hague with Ross Kemp? On occasion, yes. But my idiosyncratic views and variable ignorance give me no cause to renounce democracy when the two are in conflict. I have a personal obligation to be as well-informed as possible, but failing to fulfil this duty does not mean that I forgo my political right to hold opinions, express them in the public sphere and act on them at the ballot box.

In a properly functioning democracy, which ours is not, conceptions of what is right must be drawn from the citizenry, not dictated from above by the self-professed enlightened few. If we spurn the public’s views on certain issues, why listen to them at all? If we only listen when public opinion is in line with our own views, then what can be the point of elections? Democracy is about compromise and concession, and the perceived ignorance of your opponents cannot provide grounds for the wholesale dismissal of their views.

In a protracted age of political apathy we must remind ourselves of the flawed but necessary value of democracy, and the dangers of autocratic technocracy. It’s often the case that democratic decisions produce bad outcomes, and rarely outcomes that most benefit the common good (every Tory election victory shows that), but the good can only be common when the will is common, and that can only be through the often erring opinion of the public.


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