Those commentators on the losing side of 2016’s totemic elections are slowly arriving at the realisation they were the ones ill-informed – not about ‘the issues’, but about their fellow citizens, says Henry Hill.
In a previous piece I wrote about the fallacy of the ‘qualified candidate’, and the notion of treating suitability for political office in the way you would a normal job.
I argued that doing so is impossible because in politics the choice is very much about what happens, not just how it’s done or who does it. A technocratic attitude therefore serves primarily to disguise the fundamental political differences between two camps, and to delegitimise the perceived non-expert, ‘unqualified’ option.
Yet this sort of treatment is not confined to candidates. A common theme running through a lot of post-Brexit commentary is the idea that this was a bad decision, made by people less capable of making a good decision, for reasons less legitimate than those of Remain voters – and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US election has only turbo-charged this trend.
For example, read Matthew d’Ancona in the New York Times describing those votes as “a malfunction in the free world’s traditional political machinery”, or Matthew Parris telling readers of The Spectator that he’s “losing faith in democracy”. Or consider the insulting undertones in the concept of “post-truth politics”, the chin-stroking theorising that we are witnessing the triumph of “feelings, not facts”, and some of the inferences being drawn from the undeniable fact of a widening education gap in voting patterns.
Above all consider the focus on how people who voted the ‘wrong way’, especially on Brexit, fell for ‘lies’. But any fair-minded observer would concede that Remain employed their fair share of half-truths and frightening guesswork – how many voted against their instincts to avoid a punishment budget, or an immediate recession, or ‘spuriously specific’ projections of doom? Yet this never seems to carry the same weight.
Of course, many of these points have some individual merit, and are often made in good faith, but piece them together and you can trace the outline of an unpalatable narrative: these were mistakes made for sub-par reasons by people ill-equipped to make good decisions because of their inadequate schooling. Such an argument is deeply appealing to a hard-core section of the Remain/Democrat (liberal? establishment?) base. But it’s also another form of the same technocratic fallacy outlined above, which tries to paint one option as objectively correct.
Consider the emphasis on facts. Nobody disputes that facts are important, and that you’re unable to make an informed decision without them. But facts don’t prescribe policy choices on their own. They only acquire political meaning when filtered through the values and priorities of the individual considering them. That’s how I and a public health authoritarian can agree on the health impacts of cigarettes or sugar and yet disagree on the virtues of legislating against them, and how somebody can cast a legitimate Leave vote no matter the volume of facts amassed against them.
Setting aside that a good number of those ‘facts’ have not been borne out (see Guido Fawkes’ excellent #DespiteBrexit for pro-EU outlets trying to reconcile what happened with what they said would happen), there’s simply nothing illegitimate about casting a vote based on your feelings. How you feel about your circumstances, and your country, matter. And because facts only acquire political meaning once filtered through values, citing economic data about the benefits of open borders or whatever else isn’t conclusive. Voters can at once be perfectly rational and strike a difference balance between prosperity and social cohesion than you or I.
Vote Leave attracted particular opprobrium for their attacks on experts. Michael Gove, a member of the hoi oligoi who broke ranks and so attracts venom, stands accused of nothing less than launching “an all-out assault on the enlightenment”. But again, the massing of experts on one side of a debate doesn’t make that side objectively right.
Not only do facts not lead directly to arguments, but, fundamentally, experts are people, and they’re as subject to déformation professionnelle as the next person. Groupthink, peer pressure, vested interest, and human error all have a hand in shaping the positions of experts. This isn’t an argument for ignoring them (and the idea Gove said so is an example of ‘post-truth politics’), but it is a case against allowing them to dictate your vote. Sometimes the collective wisdom of the establishment is wrong.
Does the fact that those who voted Leave skewed heavily towards those with less schooling mean they were making poorer decisions? Not in the least. Only a small percentage of degrees will properly equip you to get to grips with the complexities of international trade and trans-national government, and only a percentage of those so equipped will have bothered to do so. Instead, most graduates will have trended towards Remain (and Clinton) both because their economic circumstances are better suited to the status quo, especially if they’re in the public sector, and/or because they are conditioned towards a liberal, cosmopolitan world view, whereas your average school-leaver is most likely both more economically exposed to the negative effects of migration, such as competition for jobs and services, and much more disposed to identify with their local community and national heritage. It might flatter the graduate to imagine that theirs is a more considered, more rational vote, but it can be just as tribal and instinctive as the reverse.
The point of universal-franchise democracy is that we all deserve an equal stake in how we’re governed, and that most people bring a legitimate perspective to the table. More perceptive commentators on the losing side of 2016’s totemic elections are conceding that they were blindsided in part because they were badly under-informed – not about ‘the issues’, but about their fellow citizens.