The past few years have witnessed rising resentment among certain segments of the population against the “elite.” Populism has taken hold in the U.S. and Britain, and extremist governments have begun to emerge in countries like Poland and Hungary. This tumult has only been exacerbated by opportunistic demagogues on the right and left who have catered to the electorate’s fear and ignorance to win elections. In many regards, those losing patience with the system have valid concerns. Their very way of life is shifting rapidly, and the government – the very institution supposed to represent their interests – is largely failing to support them. The problem is that most of these people lack the knowledge to make informed decisions on public policy. In short, we have a major dilemma: The elites who are informed enough to create effective policy are either ignorant of the plight of the working class or simply don’t care, and the working class, due to its ignorance, advocates for policies that end up harming the country. Indeed, we witnessed this dynamic just a few days ago during the Brexit referendum.
The ignorance of the masses is not a normative statement. It is a simple fact. Most people lack the ability to adjudicate the merits of policy decisions, and this is how it should be. There is absolutely no reason for the vast majority of people to waste their time reading about nuclear deterrence theory or spend hours trying to understand the intricacies of how financial markets operate. They have jobs to do, families to support, and free time to enjoy. In other words, they are what political scientists call “rationally ignorant.” This term is not designed to denigrate a large section of the population, it is designed to explain why so many in democratic societies are so uninformed about their government and the world. This does not mean that working class people are less intelligent than academics – after all, everyone is rationally ignorant – instead, it is to say that their expertise is in fields outside of governance. Again, rational ignorance describes everyone in the population. For example, most academics and politicians would be lost trying to do the jobs of blue-collar workers, and most celebrity actors have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to medicine (something the anti-vaccine movement clearly demonstrates). In short, we live in a specialized economy. The world is far too complex for any one person to understand completely. Everyone has their areas of expertise, and it is rational to specialize in a few areas instead of trying to learn a little about everything.
So, should we just ban the working class from making political decisions? Obviously not. That would be profoundly undemocratic, and it would allow an elite class to essentially control the entire country, leading to corruption, rent-seeking, and the exploitation of a significant portion of the population. At the same time, we shouldn’t have direct democracy in which endless referenda decide the fate of nations. People who have no idea about the impact of their decisions should not have a direct voice in government policy. In other words, if you are googling “what is the E.U.?” the day after the Brexit vote, you should not have been voting in the first place. Instead, we need a government in which elites run the country, but they are held accountable by those without direct influence over government policy. One major reason we are seeing such strong support for figures like Trump and Sanders is that the elite has largely ignored the needs of other socioeconomic groups and is now facing the heat. Examining the Republican Party, for example, we see that the views of the party elite diverged significantly from the base, leading to Trump. As Lee Drutman argues:
Trump arose because the Republican Party was institutionally too strong for too long, which made it too easy for elites to decide among themselves and take their voters for granted… [But many of the policies they pursued never had] much support among most Republican voters, especially those working-class whites whose economic fortunes failed to improve as promised.
To be clear, I agree with most “elite” decisions. I strongly support free trade, I support increased immigration, and I’m a vociferous advocate of cosmopolitan multiculturalism. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that while these policies are good for the country and economy writ large, they can have hugely damaging effects on certain parts of the population. Until the governing class recognizes this, they will face continued opposition from average people just trying to get by.
This cuts both ways, though. Disaffected people need to understand that just because they are suffering doesn’t mean that they have suddenly acquired some privileged view of the world that allows them to understand how to run a country better than people who have spent their entire lives in public policy. In other words, there can sometimes be too much democracy. As Andrew Sullivan argues:
As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise… But elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself. The political Establishment may be battered and demoralized, deferential to the algorithms of the web and to the monosyllables of a gifted demagogue, but this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order. It seems shocking to argue that we need elites in this democratic age — especially with vast inequalities of wealth and elite failures all around us. But we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.
It is one thing to realize that there are problems and demand reforms, it is another to believe one understands the problems so well that one can confidently re-write the entire economic and political system. Moreover, low-information voters need to be careful that they aren’t being duped by demagogic politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. These rabble rousers tell people what they want to hear, but most of what they say is an outright lie. Indeed, we are already witnessing Brexit leaders walk back their promises despite the fact that it was these very promises that convinced voters to support them in the first place.
Tragically, we have suffered the consequences of both too little and too much democracy in the past few years. The failure of the governing class to respond to the growing pain and hardship of the working class has led to years of stagnant wages and growing inequality. In short, an out of touch elite became so enamored of economic growth and globalization that it failed to mitigate the negative externalities that pro-growth policies have had on certain segments of the population. Conversely, the growing support of proud no-nothings like Trump and Boris Johnson demonstrate that the masses have failed in their responsibility to nominate capable and qualified political leaders. By falling prey to prejudice and demagoguery, these voters have used their democratic privileges to force through moronic policies like Brexit. Both groups are guilty of looking out for themselves at the expense of their country, and both groups have divergent and flawed views regarding democracy. Ultimately, we need a balance between experts who make policy and voters who hold them accountable. I don’t think experts are smart enough or trustworthy enough to run things without democratic accountability, but I also don’t believe that some random person should have the right to directly control major government policy.
The problem is that “retrospective voting,” the idea that voters punish and reward leaders based on performance indicators, is largely wrong because “Voters have difficulty attributing responsibility for changes in their own welfare, sometimes punishing incumbents for changes that are clearly acts of God or nature. In the face of this blind retrospection, political accountability is greatly attenuated. Voters also aren’t very good at recognizing those changes. While they do reward or punish incumbents for real economic growth, they focus almost entirely on growth in the months leading up to the election, not on the performance of the economy over the course of a president’s entire term. This myopia produces a weaker benchmark for assessing the incumbent’s competence but also creates perverse incentives.” The central challenge, therefore, is to find a way to incorporate uninformed social groups into the democratic process without creating myopic or misinformed electoral results. Ultimately, this is why I err in favor of supporting elites; for all their flaws, they at least have a general idea of what is going on and how to lead the macro-political entity that is the nation state. Nevertheless, we need to have an important conversation about how to force elites to be more cognizant of the negative side effects of their policy positions because until they do, there will be constant tension between those in power and those being left behind by modernization. To paraphrase Drezner, democracy needs to be defended most when it leads to stupid outcomes. Pointing out that certain beliefs or actions are stupid, however, is not anti-democratic, and having a deep and meaningful discussion about how best to decide major policy decisions is a sensible debate to have.