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
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?
published on spiked, 4 May 2005