Citizen Action Monitor

“People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions”

No 173 Posted by fw, May 12, 2011

People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions

That’s one of many candid conclusions that David Runciman arrives at in his excellent review of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Here are three key questions posed by political scientists Hacker and Pierson in their groundbreaking research:

  1. Why has income inequality grown so explosively since the 1970s? Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.
  2. Why do so many working and middle class voters support a party that so blatantly does the bidding of corporate giants and the super-rich?
  3. Why have progressive reformers failed the middle class and other have-nots?

Intriguing questions for sure – ably discussed by Runciman in his London Book Review piece, Didn’t they noticeand I encourage you to read it.

But what captured my attention was Runciman’s recounting of Hacker’s and Pierson’s search for an answer to this puzzler: Why was there so little political and public resistance to this stunning redistribution of wealth from the have-nots to the super-haves? Here’s how Runciman tells it:

Washington politics made the rich richer

Hacker and Pierson believe that politics is responsible for this. It happened because law-makers and public officials allowed it to happen, not because international markets, or globalization, or differentials in education or life-chances made it inevitable. It was a choice, driven by the pressure of lobbyists and other organizations to create an environment much more hospitable to the needs of the very rich. It was even so a particular kind of politics and a particular kind of choice. It wasn’t a conspiracy, because it happened in the open. But nor was it an explicit political movement, characterized by rallies, speeches and electoral triumphs. It relied in large part on what Hacker and Pierson call a process of drift: ‘systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy’. More often than not the politicians were persuaded to do nothing, to let up on enforcement, to look the other way, as money moved around the globe and up to the very top of the financial chain. . . .  there was no real conspiracy, because there was no real need. Instead, it happened because ‘nobody was paying attention.’

“The problem is that the public simply don’t know what the politicians are up to”

So where did the resistance go? This is the real puzzle, and Hacker and Pierson take it seriously because they take democracy seriously, despite its unhealthy fixation on elections. Democracies are meant to favour the interests of the many over those of the few. As Hacker and Pierson put it, ‘Democracy may not be good at a lot of things. But one thing it is supposed to be good at is responding to problems that affect broad majorities.’ Did the majority not actually mind that they were losing out for the sake of the super-rich elite? In the American case, one common view is that the voters allowed it to happen because they minded more about other things: religion, culture, abortion, guns etc. The assumption is that many ordinary Americans have signed a kind of Faustian pact with the Republican Party, in which the rich get the money and the poor get support for the cultural values they care about. Hacker and Pierson reject this view, and not just because they don’t think the process they describe depends on there being a Republican in the White House: they see strong evidence that the American public do still want a fairer tax system and do still see it as the job of politicians to protect their interests against the interests of high finance. The problem is that the public simply don’t know what the politicians are up to. They are not properly informed about how the rules have been steadily changed to their disadvantage. ‘Americans are no less egalitarian when it comes to their vision of an ideal world,’ Hacker and Pierson write. ‘But they are much less accurate when it comes to their vision of the real world.’

 “People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions.”

Why is no one paying attention? Perhaps it’s the fault of the internet, which is making it increasingly hard for anyone to focus on anything for long. Yet it is striking that Hacker and Pierson’s argument is really a return to a much longer-standing critique of democracy, one that flourished during the 1920s and 1930s but was supplanted in the postwar period by expectations of rational behaviour on the part of voters. This traditional critique does not see the weakness of democracy as a matter of the voters wanting the wrong things, or not really knowing what they want. They know what they want but they don’t know how to get it. It’s because they don’t understand the world they live in that democracy isn’t working. People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions. Hacker and Pierson recognize that it has become bad manners to point this out even in serious political discourse. But it remains the truth. ‘Most citizens pay very little attention to politics, and it shows. To call their knowledge of even the most elementary facts about the political system shaky would be generous.’ The traditional solution to this problem was to supplement the ignorance of the voters with guidance from experts, who would reform the system in the voters’ best interests. The difficulty is that the more the experts take charge, the less incentive there is for the voters to inform themselves about what’s going on. This is what Hacker and Pierson call the catch-22 of democratic politics: in order to combat what’s taking place under the voters’ radar. The best hope is that eventually the public might wake up to what is going on and join in. But that will take time. As Hacker and Pierson admit, ‘Political reformers will need to mobilize for the long haul.

While decent-minded democrats are organizing themselves to make the world a better place, the world has moved on.

Yet time may be one of the things that the reformers do not have on their side. . . . one of the reasons for the drift towards deregulation is that politics has been too slow to resist it. This, again, is one of the traditional critiques of democracy: while decent-minded democrats are organizing themselves to make the world a better place, the world has moved on. In a fast-moving financial environment, it is usually easier to assemble a coalition of interests in favour of relaxing the rules than one in favour of tightening them. Similarly, it’s easier not to enforce the rules you have than to enforce them: non-enforcement is the work of a moment – all you have to do is turn a blind eye – whereas enforcement is a slow and laborious process.

Whew! Not a flattering portrayal of American democracy. Little wonder that the outlook south of the border appears super-grim from our smug perch up here.

But what of Canada? When Harper takes his brand spanking new majority out for a test drive, will he steer it towards a Winner-Take-All Politics of deregulation of Canada’s natural resource and financial sectors? And when it comes to Harper’s bullying brand of politics, will Canadians be equally “ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions?” 

About the authors of Winner-take-all Politics and the reviewer of Didn’t they notice? 

  • Jacob S. Hacker, Ph.D., is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale University, and a Resident Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He is also a Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a former Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
  • Paul Pierson is Professor of Political Science and holder of the Avice Saint Chair of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Since July 1st, 2007 he has served as Chair of the Department of Political Science. Pierson’s teaching and research spans the fields of American politics and public policy, comparative political economy, and social theory.
  • David Runciman is a British political scientist who teaches political theory at Cambridge University and is a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was educated following Eton College. He has worked as a columnist for The Guardian newspaper and written for many other publications. He currently writes about politics for the London Review of Books.


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This entry was posted on May 12, 2011 by in evidence based counterpower, political action and tagged , , .
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