In the last year we will have seen three occasions where large numbers of people voted in ways that seem to fly in the face of expert advice. I’m talking of Brexit of course, where 52% of voters chose a course of action which will make them worse off. The choice of Donald Trump as the Republican’s candidate for President, a con man and egotist who is not fit to hold public office. And finally Labour party members, who are about to elect as leader someone who seems almost certain to badly lose the next election.
The experts were different in each case: economists in the case of Brexit, people with knowledge of government for Trump, and political scientists plus psephologists for Corbyn. Now of course some people who voted for Brexit wanted it even if it cost them, but most did not. Some people think a con man and egotist would work well as President, and some Labour party members are quite happy to lose elections. But I think in every case those people are in a minority.
Why have experts been ignored in these cases? Politicians ignore experts all the time, but that is because of their own self interest or ideology. In the three cases above the experts are advising or have advised that actions will amount to self harm.
I’ve included the Corbyn case because it puts in doubt an explanation for the first two that I have seen elsewhere. It is technically known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, but I like to think of it as Springfield and the Monorail. Basically the idea is that people who know little are unaware of their ignorance, and can be easily conned. The reason this explanation is sometimes invoked is that support for both Brexit and Trump is stronger among those without college degrees. It is an explanation that leads to advocating meritocracy and questioning democracy. But that explanation cannot work for Corbyn supporters, who on average are very politically aware.
One obvious point to make is that in all three cases the expertise gets diluted in three related ways. All three disciplines are ‘inexact’. In all three, you more often see people without expertise talk about these issues in the media. And in all three some experts are subject to political or ideological bias. All that helps, but is not enough to explain self harm.
Another striking commonality is that expertise has become associated with elites who were once trusted and where voters now feel their trust has been betrayed. I talked here about how the Brexit vote was the result of combining two large minorities: those that felt they had been left behind socially, and those that had been left behind in terms of prosperity. I remember on the occasions I have written about the Conservatives continuing drift to the right, I have had comments which in essence say ‘nonsense: gay marriage’. When it came to the referendum the betrayal was the failure to control the social change implied by immigration. More directly concerned with economics were those left behind economically. I’ve been told of one meeting where the response to the argument that EU membership had increased GDP was ‘maybe your GDP but not my GDP’. This association of experts with an elite that has helped leave a whole section of society behind is discussed in this perceptive article by Jean Pisani-Ferry.
With Trump the elite in question are the elder statesman of the Republican party. For fifty years they have pursued a “southern strategy” that made elections about race and culture, and had used this strategy to enact economic policies that were certainly neoliberal but in particular favoured those who were already extremely well off. The cost of this strategy was that Republicans gradually became the party of the white, non-college educated working class which had no interest in lining the pockets of the economic elite. As Lee Drutman so clearly explains, this contradiction could only be disguised by upping the rhetoric that “allowed the party to keep its donor-class activists happy by obscuring these donors' deeply unpopular policy goals under the guise of something else.” The inevitable conclusion of that process was Donald Trump. The warnings against his candidacy by Republican leaders were discounted by an electorate who felt these leaders had given them nothing in economic terms and had failed to stop a black US president.
The Labour party under and after Blair had a model where it tried to occupy the centre ground by being just to the left of the Conservatives (triangulation). From 2010 George Osborne used this to pull Labour this way and that, and then leapfrogged over them with policies like hiking the minimum wage. In contrast the Conservative’s strategy was smarter in terms of winning votes. (A lot of it was imported from the Republicans in the US.) Play on people’s fears after the recession by going on about public debt, and use that as a lever to reduce the size of the state. Reduce welfare payments by demonising claimants as workshy and feckless. This was not triangulation. Corbyn’s election was the understandable reaction to Labour’s fruitless drift to the right. Yet it brought with it a complete distrust of not just of the PLP, but also the language and thinking that had been used by the PLP. The language of needing to be electable, and the means of deciding whether you were achieving that goal, had become tainted by its previous users. It is as if the problem with triangulation was not that it was the wrong model, but just thinking about developing strategies to win votes is wrong.
A key lesson in all cases is that what we saw, or are seeing, is a reaction to failures by an elite. Not entirely: I cannot see that much can be done about people who think gay marriage is a sign that the Conservative party has swung to the left, nor would I want to pander to racism. But the consequences of allowing sections of society to be left behind in terms of prosperity or economic dynamism are clear. Equally it is clear what happens to a political party when the elite lose touch with not just their membership, but also the consequences of profound economic change.
One final commonality is that the people who are rejecting experts are being conned. With Brexit it was the idea that leaving the EU and controlling immigration will make lives better rather than worse for those that have been left behind in economic terms over the last few decades. The people who really mattered in playing that con were not a few bumbling politicians but the right wing press. With Trump they are being conned by the notion that one rich man who is full of himself can turn things around to their advantage, a con perpetrated by both the man himself and the media outlets that give him support.
Labour party members are being conned not by a person or group of people, but by a set of ideas. The idea is that this leadership contest is a battle for democracy, and the most important goal is to create a party whose leadership and MPs reflect members views. The idea that all MPs should all agree with the majority of members, which effectively stops Labour being a broad church. The idea that it is more important to build a social movement than an effective parliamentary party (and to imagine that they are building that movement). The idea that no credence should be given to how voters perceive leaders (see here and here), because the decline in neoliberalism will ensure eventual victory. These are ideas that will destroy the party as an effective political force.