Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
 
       
 

None of them knows what we're thinking
The political class is running on empty

From a sociological point of view, the Conservative Party's slogan - 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' - is the most interesting political statement of the British General Election campaign.

Communication is sometimes about imparting information and sometimes about evading issues. It can also involve bluffing. Many of us bluff during interpersonal interaction. When we ask an acquaintance 'You know what I mean?', we hope it will not provoke the response: 'No, actually I don't.' That would force us to explain what we really mean, even if we haven't got much of a clue. Likewise, when asked 'You know what I mean?', we answer 'yes', even if we don't. The framing of this question casually projects an assumption of shared understanding, so it would be rude to reply in the negative.

A lot of interaction consists of gestures, hints, intimations and bluffing, especially when we want to establish points of contact and share experiences as much as tell it like it is. Being vague sometimes assists the dynamic of interpersonal relations. However, when this kind of communication is applied to public life, it represents a cry for help. So when the Tories ask 'are you thinking what we're thinking?', what they really want to know is: 'What the hell is on your mind?' The question is posed in a way that suggests the Tories possess a privileged insight into the minds of the British public, but scratch away the thin layer of smugness and all that is left is a group of dazed politicians, genuinely unsure about what they are thinking, never mind us.

On one level, the Tory bluff worked. Many of their political opponents worried that the Tories had managed to connect with something important, that they really did know what you were thinking, and worse, that you and the Tories agreed with one another. Commentators hinted darkly that the Tories' campaign had gained resonance with sections of the electorate. It was suggested that some of the public were not disclosing their real thoughts about the big issues of the day to pollsters, and that beneath the surface they were silently responding to the Tory message.

This concern about public attitudes towards the Tories' subliminal message shows just how far removed from society the British political class has become. In truth, none of them knows what you are thinking. Politicians engage with the public as if they were a different race, and regard us as being driven by narrow self-interest and motivated by unspeakable passions and depraved prejudice. They tend to believe, for example, that white English people especially are easily manipulated by racist and xenophobic propaganda.

Professional politicians use the language of marketing to attach labels to different types of voters. New Labour has set out to target what it calls 'school gate mums', imitating the US polling strategy of influencing 'soccer mums'. Previously, politicians targeted 'Worcester women' or 'Mondeo man'. Since school-gate mums and Worcester women are the creation of spindoctors, these professionals probably do know what these fictitious groups are thinking. But that still tells them very little about what's going on in the real world.

The fact that opponents of the Tories were worried that a wink-and-nod campaign might make a big impact on the public suggests the entire British political class is out of touch. None of the main political parties feels confident that they know what the electorate thinks. A wink and a nod only works when everyone involved has a sense of shared meaning; gestures are effective only as part of a repertoire of taken-for-granted public signals. Only when the meaning of such rituals is understood by all can a casual gesture elicit the same response as a clear and obvious statement.

Today, society's sense of shared meaning is a feeble one, and the public's attitude to values can rarely be taken for granted. In such circumstances, the wink and nod look like the behaviour of someone trying to overcome his isolation in an inept manner - and that just about sums up how the political class attempts to relate to the public.

This approach is fuelled by self-consciousness, by a powerful sense among the political class of being disconnected from the everyday lives of everyday people. Political parties spend millions on deliberative polls, opinion polls and surveys to try to find out what the public thinks. But such effort does little to enhance the oligarchy's understanding of what's in people's minds. Opinion polls provide raw data that can provide some insights but not knowledge about what people are really thinking. That understanding can only come about through systematic interaction with the public. It is political engagement and genuine dialogue, not formal consultation or other artificial deliberations, that put politicians and public figures in touch with the electorate.

The British political class - like many of its Western counterparts - is too disconnected from the public to understand what makes people tick. This isolation is the inexorable consequence of a growing disassociation of politics from people's lives. As the 2005 General Election campaign has shown, political issues are rarely generated from below; rather, they are fabricated by professional consultants who are in the business of selling party brands and images.

In fact, it is inaccurate to characterise these issues - whether it's school dinners, council tax reductions, or school discipline - as 'political' ones. These were artificially-cobbled together problems, which were never transformed into issues that really mattered to the public. That is why, even now, it is difficult to recall what were topics of debate in this campaign. These are subjects for politicians to squabble about, not issues with which to engage the public. That even at the height of a General Election campaign there is no point of contact between cross-party bickering and the life of normal people indicates just how disconnected the two have become.

As already noted, the British political class assumes that the public suffers from irrational prejudices and is easily misled by xenophobic demagogues. This suspicion towards what may lurk beneath the soul of everyday society is deeply ingrained in the more leftist and liberal sections of the elite. It is paradoxical that this group, which continually denounces racism, does not recognise its own brand of contempt for those it deems morally inferior. It is worth recalling that racial thinking first emerged in Europe among an elite that regarded the lower orders as both biologically and morally inferior to itself. In the nineteenth century, the public was regarded as a Dark Continent beyond the understanding of the civilised elites.

Within the Anglo-American social sciences, from the late nineteenth century onwards, contempt for the public was palpable. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic emphasised the volatility of the urban mob: its vulnerability to manipulation by the media and its ultimate destructiveness. The French crowd psychologist Gustave Le Bon personified this outlook, arguing that the conditions of mass society wore away the recently adopted forms of civilised behaviour to expose 'savage' and 'primitive' survivals.

Le Bon's reaction to mass society was extreme and idiosyncratic, but it also fitted in with the explosion in studies of 'public opinion' in the first three decades of the twentieth century, which pointed to a growing alarm at this phenomenon. It is difficult to find any studies that have anything positive to say about public opinion, crowds or masses. There was a clear elitist consensus that united virtually the entire political spectrum: for conservative writers, the entry of the masses into social and political life posed a threat to civilised society, while for those from a liberal/left perspective the danger was democracy.

Often it was the liberal disappointment with the 'failure' of democracy which fostered the disregard for the public. American commentator Walter Lippman's 1922 study, Public Opinion, warned that the proportion of the electorate which is 'absolutely illiterate' is much larger than we suspect, and therefore these people, who are 'mentally children or barbarians', are natural targets of manipulators. This view of public opinion dominated Anglo-American social science in the inter-war period. Often it conveyed the patronising assumption that public opinion does not know what is in its best interest. The influential British political theorist, Graham Wallas, described working-class women being mobilised to vote by a canvasser during a London County Council election:

'About half of them were women, with broken straw hats, pallid faces, and untidy hair. All were dazed and bewildered, having been snatched away in carriages or motors from the making of matchboxes, button holes, or cheap furniture, or from the public house, or, since it was Saturday evening, from bed….'

Today 'these people' no longer have to be dragged out to vote; they have been sent postal ballots instead, which the party activist will kindly pick up and deposit for them. But have the attitudes of the political class towards the people changed very much?

Direct denunciations of people's mental capacities, such as those made by Wallas and his colleagues in the early part of the twentieth century, are rare today. Contemporary culture is, at least outwardly, anti-elitist, and we carefully watch the words we use. Today, contempt for the masses is usually transmitted through nods and winks, and terms like 'Daily Mail reader', 'white van man', 'Mondeo man', 'tabloid readers', 'pebbledash people' and 'Worcester woman'.

For it is not only the Tories who rely on the language of winks and nods. When New Labour operatives talk about 'tabloid readers' or 'white van men' they, too, are asking the question 'are you thinking what we're thinking…?' And they, too, have little else but contempt for those strangers who never quite get it, but who must nevertheless be convinced to vote. More postal ballots anybody?

First published on spiked, 4 May 2005