So far, I’ve posted three things here intended to build a wider case. I hope I’ve made them to a ‘for the sake of argument’ standard, and I think I’ve established a passable case that a sensible politician can only come out as a supporter of a cause once it is one that has a reasonable level of support. They actually do more harm than good by wearing their convictions on their sleeve.
I think I’ve established that voters are a lot less easy to read than most people think they are. Even if we could identify policies that we think are going to appeal to sensible utilitarian voters, calculating their own interests, seasoning them with a bit of altruism and morality, we are going to be wrong about that because voters don’t respond in any kind of utilitarian way.
As an aside, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that voters struggle to grasp complex issues and they often do it badly (here’s a useful short outline on that one).
I think that I’ve also established that there are a few popular biases that stop people from properly understanding how politics works.
One bias is that they don’t realise just how diverse public opinion is. Also, because it’s fairly easy to establish a consensus view of what people are ‘against’, we tend to think that it must be fairly easy to establish a consensus view of what people are ‘for’.
Then, to compound this confusion, we sometimes see consensuses actually forming and we underestimate how easy it is to form them. Like watching a Swan smoothly gliding across a pond, we haven’t seen the furious paddling that has gone on beneath the surface.
In politics, that ‘paddling’ is usually very well funded, or it reflects the interests of social groups that have a lot of political access, or time on their hands.
In an age of Astroturfing, this is an extremely important factor to bear in mind. I don’t think I can understate just how much of a problem that I think this is.
It’s a huge form of highly unethical behaviour that we don’t seem to be capable of noticing most of the time and we excuse it because there exists the possibility that we could do it ourselves in some parallel universe in which we could afford it, or be part of a small purposeful group capable of doing it efficiently.
The ability to influence political decisions is very, very big business. The resources that go into special interest lobbying often dwarf those that go into the democratic process. They can disrupt the democratic process in all kinds of ways.
In an age where you make money by beating regulators rather than commercial competitors, having ownership of a newspaper is an opportunity cost that plutocrats are sometimes prepared to swallow. It’s worth it (see, particularly, the 14th February 1996 entry).
In many ways, I’d argue that this is the great democratic scandal of our age. We define corruption, usually, as the kind of handling fee an official or a cop takes for bending rules and turning blind eyes, yet we allow people with enough cash to have an enormous amount of influence over the making of laws.
If there is another popular bias that a good democrat needs to defeat, it is the view that this is not an issue that needs a massive response. I will come back to this issue later.
This influence is exercised upstream – in court politics where laws are made by the great and the good. As we increasingly distrust these intermediaries, it is also exercised downstream where public opinion is kneaded and where positions that are very different to the public interest are given the veneer of respectability that an expensively-assembled false consensus can bring.
All of this brings me, again, to the question of how a politician can best serve their principles. I think it’s possible, but not in the way that most of us expect.
More on this shortly.