Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"People Are Stupid"

In yesterday's Moot, "Jackie" posted an earnest and exasperated comment:
It's funny how I have this last year balked at being involved at all in politics because it seemed too overwhelming for me... And yet now I realize it was actually a hidden feeling inside that silently told me -- "It's okay, things will work themselves out, people are not that stupid." No, no, no, no, now I understand completely -- people ARE that stupid... I felt like 'the people' somewhat redeemed themselves by electing Obama and democrats in congress, but now I realize that it really just came down to a 'which candidate made them feel good' election, just as in Massachusetts, just as with every single damn election in the country.

I understand this reaction very much, I would be lying if I denied I ever feel exactly what "Jackie" is saying here. But there are a few things we might to pause to consider when we feel this way.

First, we're people, so this implies we're stupid, too. I'm certainly willing to concede this point, at least to a point, you know, with caveats (especially if "stupid" is functioning as a sort of shorthand for the sorts of predictably irrational thinking some "behavioral economists" are starting to take as seriously again as Keynes did). Typically, this is the sort of claim from which we tend incorrectly to exclude ourselves in the making of it, in a way that blunts its actual usefulness, such as it is.

Second, polling has demonstrated time after time, for decades on end, on issue after issue after issue, that majorities of American citizens (people, all) are far more progressive on actual policy questions and social and cultural issues than are their so-called representatives (whether Republican or Democrat). To the extent that the attribution of stupidity to them is premised on their political backwardness and ignorance, at least in some key areas it is important to remember that it is not the people but the self-appointed "gatekeepers" and "elites" who dictate to them and pretend to represent them who seem laggard (and inevitably braggart).

Third, corporate media functions more or less as an ongoing misinformation campaign and also Republicans are forever gaming the system to mislead and disenfranchise majorities -- which doesn't make people so much stupid as they are manipulable.

Fourth, I think it matters most of all that Congress is full of millionaires representing millions of non-millionaires, and also that America more generally is full of privileged people who have been insulated by their privilege from the actual consequences of their actions. Again, "stupidity" might not be the best shorthand for grasping the structural relations between such privileges and the stupid things people have hitherto gotten away with doing because of them.

But of course it's easy to see why that is a word that is ready to hand. Believe me, I see the appeal. I don't want to leave the impression that I am criticizing "Jackie" for saying this, so much as empathizing and hoping to provide a context from which to find hope in the midst of evident and reasonable frustration. I've only excerpted part of "Jackie's" comment, which went on to say that progressives have hard work to do for which neither wishful thinking nor demoralization are any use, a sentiment with which I heartily agree.


Jackie said...

Thank you for responding so thoroughly to my comment... It's shocking how language seems to use US more than it seems like we are using language - taking time to think about things more, I would have not used the word stupidity in this context (my emotions probably got the better of me - and I was tempted into making things more reductionist than they actually are, which, funnily enough, is itself a kind of stupidity...)

You make four excellent points that revolve around a principle we all need to keep reminding ourselves the truth of: societal problems are usually the result of larger structural issues and power relationships rather than individual 'moral/intellectual failures'. It's always easier to point the finger at a person rather than at an abstract structural dynamic, so I'd like to blame people's stupidity rather than all the factors that you mentioned in this post, just as people now would like to blame Obama that they still haven't found a job rather than looking at the long-term economic trends as well as the fact that the American government is not a monarchy.

Just a minor note - you probably have a reason for this, but I wonder why you put my name in quotation marks (or inverted commas). It's my first name, so it makes me feel kind of odd to see it written like that. I also have a link to my blog, which also has my name on it, so I would hope that I am not seen in the same way as those other anonymous comment people...

Dale Carrico said...

Didn't mean anything by the quotes, I'm just weirdly conscious of anonymity pseudonymity naming blogging conventions at the moment... thanks for the conversation, d, er "d"

Martin said...

Fourth, I think it matters most of all that Congress is full of millionaires representing millions of non-millionaires, and also that America more generally is full of privileged people who have been insulated by their privilege from the actual consequences of their actions.

Right on. I agree that this, perhaps more than anything, is the reason why the government doesn't represent the people's interest, and why wealthy people continue to make bad decisions for all of us.

However, in times like these, when a Republican wins a senate seat in Massachusetts, it's important to introspect on our own arrogance and supposed knowledge of governance, both in terms of 1) what ideally constitutes the best form of governance and social policy, and 2) what practically obtains as governance, and what sorts of trade offs must be made to achieve sub-optimal but realistic goals.

Obama winning the presidency and the Democrats holding a large majority were not the beginning of a great progressive era -- as we see now. It's simply inevitable that Republicans will control the federal government again someday, sooner or later. We have to play the hand that we we're dealt, not the one we wish we had. Keep that in mind when Democrats don't support the health reform that you want, or don't push the progressive agendas that you want.

Dale Carrico said...

We are not in a position to whether or not we live in the beginning of a great progressive era -- we are in the belly of the beast. Take a look at the fits and starts that characterized what we take to be "The Progressive Era," historically, or read a good detailed history of the first two terms of FDR or the years just prior and during LBJ's term. Nothing ever was what we "know" it was.

I find almost as distasteful as the Naked Scotty Brown interlude the fact that so many seemed to think this was "Ted Kennedy's Seat." Massachusetts elects Republican governors all the time -- just because Republicans call it Taxachusetts doesn't mean it's actually a forever guaranteed Fighting Liberal Oasis -- I honestly don't know why Democrats feel compelled to accept Republican narrative and spin on literally every imaginable thing. Even now they allow Sarah Palin and Mitch McConnell to quack about how Democrats "aren't listening to the American People" even as majorities of the American people express their clear and loud outrage at the failures to give them what they actually voted for, in part because Republicans aren't listening to any but a miniscule minority of greedy rich people and a noisy scrum of racist-christianist wingnuts.

There's arrogance all around, not least but certainly not most to be seen among Democratic Establishment types. It's infuriating and demoralizing, but the more I study history the more I also see it was also so, and yet things still move convulsively forward. Here's hoping it happens in time to meet some of our actually unprecedented challenges, especially the environmental ones.