The Times recently reported on a discussion with a voter in Hull:
“I’m not really into any of that stuff” said Cody, 22, our waitress at the Goldenfry chip shop. “I think I voted Labour at the referendum thing but I’m not sure.”
This highlights an important fact about politics – that millions of people aren’t interested in it. They are what Jason Brennan calls hobbits. Sean Kemp says: “The vast majority of people don’t pay any attention to the general election whatsoever” (2’30” in). Yougov, for example, have found that only 15% of voters have heard the Tory slogan “strong and stable” even though its endless repetition has driven many of us potty.
The left likes to blame the media for its unpopularity. But very many voters avoid newspapers and TV news. This doesn’t mean they don’t have distorted views: as I’ve said, people are prone to countless cognitive biases without the influence of the media.
Now, in one sense, this isn’t a bad thing. It might be rational to avoid politics, as you can’t, individually, do much about it and it’ll only make you angry. And all of us are ill-informed about countless matters.
Most of the time, however, those of us who are ignorant and irrational shut up and mind our own business: exceptions to this include newspaper columnists and callers to 6-0-6.
The problem is, though, that voting is another of these exceptions. Millions of ignorant people will cast a vote next month.
This would not be so bad if their ignorance and irrationality were random and so merely introduced white noise into the election. But it’s not. It’s systematic. For example, people over-estimate the number of immigrants in the country and their adverse effect upon jobs and public services; over-estimate the level of welfare benefits and fraud; and mistakenly think the public finances are analogous to household finances. And this is not to mention the many ways in which ideology sustains inequality – what John Jost calls system justification (pdf).
Systematically biased beliefs result in systematically biased politics, in two ways.
One is style. Mass inattention causes politicians to focus upon what “cuts through” rather than what is right. A lot of confusion between pundits and journalists on the one hand and intellectuals on the other arises because the former ask “what sells?” whilst the latter ask “what’s true?” This was summed up by an exchange between Nick Robinson and Jonathan Portes when the latter tried to tell the truth about immigration. Robison replied:
A fine economist he might be, but I suggest he would not have a chance of getting elected in a single constituency in the country. It is a widespread view that there is exploitation of the benefits system by migrants.
In the same way, vague images matter more than empirical evidence. So Theresa May can peddle a picture of stability and competence without over-much inspection of whether this has any factual basis.
There’s also a substantive distortion. Non-issues such as immigration become too important, whilst things that really matter, such as how (if at all) it’s possible to raise productivity are under-emphasized. And fiscal policy becomes an idiotic demand that spending plans be “fully costed” rather than a matter of what the fiscal stance should be.
In complaining of all this, I’m not making an especially partisan point. Yes, it’s consistent with Marxian ideas about ideology. But I’m also agreeing with Janan Ganesh that “the dysfunction in politics stems from public indifference to politics”. And I’m echoing Jason Brennan’s arguments against democracy and Edmund Burke’s view that the judgment of MPs should sometimes over-ride the “hasty opinion” of the mob.
Instead, I’m asking: how can we achieve a better polity – one that respects people’s interests and maintains respect for facts and rationality in political debate – in the face of mass inattention to politics? With politics dominated by the ignorant at one end and by partisan obsessives at the other, this important question goes unasked.