It’s the Public, Stupid: Why You Can’t Trust People

Barney Trimble:

“People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people Jeremy.” So sayeth Simon “Super” Hans and, I’m willing to wager, every one of your friends who have seen Peep Show. Its popularity is not surprising, because it’s an amusing quote that can find itself into a great deal of conversations. It’s also not surprising because it captures how many young people view the wider public.

In a recent conversation with several friends over the EU (aren’t they all nowadays?), I put forward that in leaving the EU the British public would have a greater say over their own, and the country’s, destiny – surely a good thing? However, it was not seen as such:

“The public are idiots; I’d rather not see them in charge of the country”.

While this was not intended (I believe, given the rest of the conversation and the people who said it) as a put down of the British public over any other nation’s public nor as a form of self-aggrandising, it struck me at the time as an astonishing view to take. Here were well-read, left-leaning university graduates arguing for less democracy and more power in the hands of elites. With reflection, however, I realised that I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.  After all, if you can’t trust the public to make the “right” decision, you can’t trust democracy and, right now, many young people don’t seem to trust the public.

The increasing lack of faith in the political system over recent decades has been well documented. Between universal suffrage and 1997, voter turn-out never dipped below 70%. While voter turn-out at the last general election was the highest since Blair took the nation by storm in 1997, just 66% of voters trotted into the polling booth or off to the post-box. Outside of general elections, the picture is even worse. Local elections outside of general election years have seen turnouts in the low 30s, while the 2014 European election saw turnout at 35%. People are increasingly being turned away by distrust in the political system, which they fail to see as producing the right results. Naturally much ire is directed at the politicians and the media, but, fundamentally, the system is the people who go out and vote.

The people most disillusioned are younger voters with just 54% of 25-34 year-olds and an even more dismal 43% of 18-24 year-olds voting in 2015. This is despite a recent poll showing 63% of 18 year olds are interested in politics. This discrepancy stems from a fundamental distrust in the wider public’s ability to make the “right” decisions as recent major campaigns have tended to go against the youth vote: 53% of 18-24 year-olds supported AV while just 27% backed the Tories in 2015.

In the wake of the general election, social media was ablaze with supporters of the losing parties decrying the public’s choice. People had been easily manipulated by the media, swayed by irrelevances and were all fools. Didn’t they know what they’d voted for? Or, more importantly, who they’d voted for? Why bother campaigning and canvassing if the public are too stupid to see that they’re wrong? This is, of course, not representative of the nation’s reaction. It is, however, indicative of many young people’s reaction. Social media is dominated by the young. It is undeniable that this, my, generation is greatly influenced by social media and is the most active on it. The problem with social media is that you can create personal bubbles to a far greater extent than you can in the real world often without even intending to. Consequently, many young people are, theoretically, engaged with political discussions, but are ultimately unprepared to see, let alone consider, the alternative viewpoint.

Let’s take an example. Ask just about any young Brit why so many Americans are flocking to Donald Trump. The answer will, in my experience, be that it is because they are idiots. Thing’s that won’t be brought up include that he is seen, rightly or wrongly, as outside the establishment, incorruptible and that he is seen as a strong leader. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is largely seen as a messianic figure on social media and holds supposedly polar opposite views to Trump. Ask that same chap/lass what they think of him (assuming they are aware of Sanders) and they will likely tell you his success is due to his socialist leanings and strong principles. As Democrats are closer to the British political mainstream than Republicans, your interviewee (you can let them go now) is more likely to be willing to engage with his ideas.  Logic would dictate that they are appealing to different markets, yet much of their support overlaps as they have both tapped into an anti-establishment mood. This has been noticeable on sites such as Reddit where the front page has seen a recent shift from overwhelmingly pro-Sanders to pro-Trump. This isn’t due to the emergence of a different user base, but rather evidence of the users thinking about whom they want to run and the message that this will send. Sanders has had some poor results while Trump has been dominating the Republican primaries, making Trump the more viable anti-establishment candidate. We can dispel once and for all with this fiction that Trump supporters don’t know what they’re doing; they know exactly what they’re doing.

This is not to say that I think they’re right in suggesting that Trump should be president, quite the opposite. It should be highlighted that he has argued for both sides on just about every issue, has developed an incredibly poor international reputation and can attribute most of his success through the gaming of the media rather than offering any workable solutions. These arguments may not sway all of his supporters, but, even if they don’t agree, people will understand them and may start to think critically about these issues. Berating them for supposed idiocy will simply make them less willing to consider more valid criticism and less willing to engage in critical debate.

This issue creates problems for political parties. In order to convince people that their argument is wrong, you have to understand both their argument itself and why they believe it. If you simply dismiss it as a product of stupidity, you will never be able to understand what is driving people towards that argument and how to convince them that they’re wrong. This has been particularly evident in the Labour party over the past 12 months (while social media’s left lean makes it a more significant issue for Labour, it should be said that similar behaviour is inevitably found across the political spectrum). The labelling of opponents as morons and/or scum, and other party members as “Red Tories” (an insult, apparently) by certain members won’t have convinced anyone that Miliband or Corbyn should be in Number 10. There is no attempt in these actions to understand why people voted as they did or of convincing them that they had a superior alternative at hand, merely an overriding sense that they are right while the public is wrong.

However, this distrust in the wider public’s ability to make intelligent decisions goes deeper than politics. It is common to hear that the popularity of supposedly low-brow forms of entertainment and many people’s perceived lack of interest in politics are indicative of a stupid public. Here, the logic simply doesn’t follow. The vast majority of people don’t have the time to dedicate themselves to follow the minutiae of the daily goings on in Westminster and have made the decision to focus their spare time on things that bring them greater joy; this does not mean that they are completely ignorant of important issues. Likewise, the realisation that one form of entertainment gives you more pleasure than another is no indication of how suited you are to vote in a general election. Yet we are also constantly reminded of how dumb the public is in popular culture. Charlie Brooker has made a living of mocking the stupidity of the wider public and being eternally pessimistic over what will happen if public demand is overly adhered to; “Idiocracy”, a film set in a future populated entirely by the dumb, received reasonable reviews on release and has since become a cult film referenced ever more frequently; Zombies, a metaphor for the general population’s willingness to conform and not think for themselves, have undergone a resurgence in popularity since the mid-2000s and “The Walking Dead” is now one of the most watched shows on TV. All of these are overwhelmingly popular with teenagers and young adults and it is hardly surprising that these ideologies have been absorbed into this generation’s psyche.

This isn’t a bad thing, quite the opposite. One of modern culture’s main purposes is to encourage us to critically analyse the world and society that we live in. In providing shocking visions of consumer culture, promotion of idiocy and unfettered populism, we are encouraged to be aware of the forces acting in our day to day lives and act accordingly.

What is dangerous, though, is assuming that we are already living in these dystopias. We are not living in a world where a child can win a cabinet post in a contest, as in Idiocracy, nor will we be because the public aren’t idiots. While our political system, like any political system, needs checks and balances, such as the House of Lords, so far the British public have a rather solid track record of avoiding disaster. Of course, there are times when results do not go the way we wish them to – I personally fear the upcoming referendum may be one of those – but these occasions must be taken on the chin and learnt from. People have their reasons for making decisions: these must be acknowledged and understood before they are confronted. On the whole the public’s reasons are, well, reasonable. They have never been taken in by extremists: fascist, communist, and racist parties have all repeatedly been rejected at the ballot box. So maybe, just maybe, they deserve a little bit of our trust.


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