The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage.

We’re used to this kind of thing. But stop for a minute and look at the images.

That’s one reason why I think Brexit presents such a dramatic opportunity to confront isegoria as rage with isegoria as healing. For a whole host of reasons, participants in citizens’ juries are eager to explore different perspectives so as to compromise and unite to arrive at some collective decision, as opposed to the alternative enshrined in electoral politics which is the accentuation of differences to assemble a majority.

It’s been instructive trying to get Brexit Deliberation Day off the ground. I’ve spoken to lots of people who might be in a position to help. Almost everyone I speak to likes the idea, many like it a lot. But there’s a catch. They need to be well disposed to political activism of some kind to be likely to do more than talk about the idea, but if they’re of activist bent, they’ve already picked their side.

I’m strongly against Brexit and so, notionally on the side of the creators of this image.

Right now there’s a fair bit of money being put into an anti-Brexit campaign which is seeking a second vote. I can show them good evidence that running the deliberation day would improve their chances of averting Brexit – as I argued in my piece, there’s good evidence that moving from the will of the people to their considered will on this subject produces a swing away from 50:50 to about 60:40 for remain.2

But I can’t guarantee it. And campaigners are campaigning for one outcome, not for Good Debate. And no-one can guarantee them that the process won’t end up endorsing Brexit.

So I’ve been toying with another idea. Local councils have some ‘skin in the game’ in the sense that they’re full of politically engaged councillors. They’re Brits. Many if not the overwhelming majority would have a strong view on Brexit. So, with Brexit tearing the country apart, what if councils from strongly pro-Brexit regions buddied up with councils from strongly anti-Brexit regions to try to forge greater understanding between these two populations which seem to be drifting ever further apart.

The same goes, perhaps even more for Trump’s America. I was taken aback by the huge demonstrations that broke out at the time of Trump’s victory. It is true that he won with fewer votes, but that didn’t reflect a deliberate Republican-engineered gerrymander as the Republican dominance of the House does. So unless one is demonstrating specifically for some review of the Electoral College system, the idea of simply rejecting the winner of a democratic election seems shocking to me. Indeed, so scared am I of the American right’s penchant for violence – which put paid to hundreds of people in the last century through lynching – I’ve been surprised there’s really only one notorious example of white nationalist terrorism since Trump took office – at Charlottesville. Perhaps I’m wrong and more people are being bumped off than I’ve heard.

As the son of a holocaust survivor I find all the images on this page horrifying. We’re so used to this kind of demonisation of our political opponents. But what are these images if not an invitation to contempt and hate?  Are we out of our minds?

If anti-Trump voters wanted to do something, I recall a friend suggesting after the election, they should collect some of their like-minded friends, find some people who voted for Donald Trump and break bread together to try to generate greater mutual understanding of each others perspectives. So here’s one plausible institutionalisation of that idea.

We could try to forge ‘sister council’ arrangements between differently minded council areas. Co-funded by councils and whatever crowd-funding and philanthropic funding one might be able to cobble together, I’d suggest there be two tracks. Those participating would all meet in one of the two council areas.

One track would be a properly organised citizens’ jury consisting of equal numbers of representatively randomised citizens from each area who would go through some properly organised process of discussion seeking points of understanding. The citizens’ jury would draft some communique of the majority’s views – and minorities would also be able to draft communiques. And changes of mind in both directions would be significant for the wider political world as it looked on to observe any systematic patterns emerging as people moved from less, to more considered views.

And it would be great if this was taken up by others as an exciting opportunity to deepen their engagement with different perspectives. So I’d like to see a vigorous ‘voluntary’ track. Having a weekend or two in another, area of the country with different demographics and different values, ideally billeted by citizens of the host council, people could get together informally, keep tabs on the citizens’ jury and meet each other in pubs and elsewhere to really try to get inside one another’s heads. Even if they couldn’t change each others minds, I’m dead sure they’d dial down the self-righteousness and hate.

They might come to feel, as I’ve felt on more than one occasion driving home when displeased with another driver. Road rage welling up inside me, I’ve contemplated a strong blast from my horn, and perhaps some gesticulation. Perhaps I’ve gone ahead with it. Then I’ve been mortified to discover not only that it’s my next door neighbour to whom I’ve been attributing such vile motives, but that of course we’ll be getting out of our cars right next to each other. What was I thinking?

1  Here’s a good article on the two concepts which I think goes off on a tangent seeking to make them relevant to ‘no-platforming’ on campuses. It’s an interesting argument it makes – that ‘no-platforming’ is in defence of isegoria. Perhaps. But the kind of speech policing that’s going on in defence of ‘political correctness’ is to a large extent stigmatising forms of speech that are more typical of less educated people. Also, by the way, apologies, for the pomposity of including the greek lettering. I can only plead that, having learned the letters up in school and then relearned them marrying a Greek, I find picking my way through them cool.

2 That produces an ‘optics’ problem. It would be preferable to raise an equal amount of money from both sides but Brexit supporters’ money won’t be forthcoming given how much it’s likely to work against their interest. But I’d be happy to wear that and simply say to the electorate “yes, this process was funded mostly by Remainers, but it’s governed in a transparently bi-partisan manner with two respected people – one Remainer and one Brexiter as co-chairs and each of those, plus an overwhelming majority of participants in the citizens’ juries must sign off to say that the process was fair to both sides.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

  1. Alan says:

    Isegoria is undoubtedly still present in consensus democracies such as the Netherlands or Denmark, but I submit that it is much more common in majoritarian ;winner take all’ democracies such as the US or Australia. One can vote for PHON but not in the expectation they will ever form part of a government. Voting for the VvD or the Dansk Folkeparti is quite different.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      To be clear, I’m not arguing that the hoi polloi are a bunch of fascists. I’m arguing that that’s how their presence is felt through our toxified electoral system in which democracy is one increasingly insubstantial part of the entertainment industry.

      • Alan says:

        There is a correlation between education levels and support for nativist/populist political,prties, but I could equally have talked about supporters of other small parties such as GroenLinks in the Netherlands or Alternativet in Denmark.

  2. Nicholas best wishes for your project, I
    can only pray for honey and wax.

    The bees build in the crevices
    Of loosening masonry, and there
    The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
    My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    We are closed in, and the key is turned
    On our uncertainty; somewhere
    A man is killed, or a house burned.
    Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    A barricade of stone or of wood;
    Some fourteen days of civil war:
    Last night they trundled down the road
    That dead young soldier in his blood:
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    We had fed the heart on fantasies,
    The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
    More substance in our enmities
    Than in our love; O honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

  3. Johm Burnheim says:

    Most of the uneducated aspire to a good education for their kids, and so they really value what the more successful also want. Machinery destroyed working class pride and identity. Moreover they are in fact a shrinking force as the institutions of the workers, the pubs and clubs and local sports. They have been taken over by the wealthy who , as always, even ing Athens and Rome manipulate them through rhetoricians and image makers.

  4. Graham Young says:

    A problem with this article is you assume that both Brexit and Trump are bad. And you impute inferiority to the thoughts of those who support both, due to their lack of education. I think all of those assumptions are wrong.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Graham

      I’m arguing for us to put more, not less faith in less-educated people, but where it’s their considered view, not their view through the prism of electoral politics as currently practiced.

      • Graham Young says:

        But that makes the assumption that better-educated people are more rational when there is plenty of evidence to show they are just as irrational, just better at rationalising. But your model for public decision-making is flawed as well. Doesn’t matter how many citizen’s juries you have, when the matter goes back to the demos to be voted on, the emotional kicks in again.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          You can see the kind of model I’m proposing here.

          I’m not proposing for plebiscites or any further role for direct democracy – which seems to me is likely to make things worse. Rather I’m proposing representative democracy in which there are checks and balances between two ways of representing the people – by election and by sortition.

    • Hi Graham
      Not sure what you mean , but do you see Trump as a good thing? – ‘if so why’

      • Graham Young says:

        Out of the things on offer he was the best, yes. And some key issues are being rectified on his watch. The trend to appoint judges who think they are legislators rather than lawyers has been halted, for the time being, is one of them. If Hillary had won then judge legislators would have been cemented in for the foreseeable future. I could go on, but this thread isn’t about primarily about Trump so I won’t.

  5. Mike Pepperday says:

    I don’t think the Brexiteers you are talking about will come forward. By and large they keep their heads down. They are participants only on mass occasions where there is little or no personal commitment. They know life has a way of knocking you down if you stick your head above the parapet.

    Consider the taxi business. Some drivers—tabloid types—had an idea they might join the entrepreneurial middle class so bought their own taxis. The licence cost about the value of a house so they mortgaged the home which they had paid off slowly over the previous twenty or thirty years.

    Then Uber came along. It brazenly defied the law against unlicensed taxis, simply paid the fines and lobbied the government which then made Uber legal.

    So what did these tabloid readers get for getting above themselves, for thinking they might trust someone, for forgetting that the world runs on luck and fate? Destitution.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Not quite sure what point you are making. I do feel good about telling our Greek next door neighbours about 20 years ago that they shouldn’t regard taxi plates as secure investments. Wasn’t thinking of Uber, just regulatory risk.

      • Mike Pepperday says:

        My point is simply that they are not people who will join in a citizens’ jury. They’ll turn up en masse to a Trump rally where they feel safe and don’t have to commit.

        And they don’t respond to polls. I remember a researcher trying to get opinions from coal miners on something or other telling a seminar that he gave up because when he talked to miners the “social distance” (his term) was too great.

        I knew exactly what he was saying because (a) I spent three years in a coal mine as a young bloke and (b) I was facing exactly the same problem.

        In a desperate attempt to sample the bogan opinion I set up a stand within metres of a TAB in a working class suburb on a Saturday afternoon and had my pretty assistant offer scratchies (which I wasn’t supposed to do) if they would carry out my Q-sort.

        We got plenty of middle-class types (“My daughter is studying psychology and I know how hard it is to get subjects. Oh, no, that’s all right, you keep the scratchie.”) but not a single one of the many bettors.

        Discussing the problem later with colleagues, we decided I should go and live in one of those permanent caravan parks for a few weeks, get to know the residents, and then ask them to do my sort. I never got around to it.

        If you give the trumpenproletariat a nice anonymous vote they might use it. Might. They keep their heads down – and the taxi license saga proves they are right to do so.

  6. Know Teeth says:

    Perhaps this idea may be useful. And the Murray and…
    Inadequate Equilibria vs. Governance of the Commons
    …”Then an experiment was made. The idea was to introduce “catalysts” into the situation of mutual mistrust and unpredictability. “Institutional organizers,” (IO) mostly college graduates who also had farm backgrounds were dispatched to the area. They’ve received a six week training on how to approach and motivate farmers and on technical subjects related to irrigation. Each went to a small area served by one distributory canal. Their purpose was not to impose a particular policy but rather to organize the farmers to plan self-help strategies. At the same time they had status to deal effectively with Irrigation Department officials.

    Instead of establishing a predefined organization, the IO tried to form a working committee to solve particular problems, such as repairing a broken gate or desilting a field channel. Further, IOs identified problems beyond those that could be solved by local farmers working together, problems that had to be articulated to ID officials and others. Once farmers were used to working together and had achieved benefits from group action, the IO would then help form a local organization and select, through consensus, a farmer-representative. This representative could articulate the interests of the other farmers on his field channel at larger meetings and report back to the others what had happened in larger arenas.

    …”Maybe there’s a way to escape any suboptimal Nash equilibrium. ”

  7. Matt Moore says:

    There are a number of important points made in this post so that may require a number of replies. Lets start with the comment about education.

    So I would agree that an underdiscussed fissure in most Western societies is that of education – particularly whether or not you have done a degree. There’s a broader issue which is whether our education is actually fit for purpose – I don’t believe that it is. We seem to have acquired a huge higher education industry in a “fit of absence of mind”. Fewer people should actually be doing degrees. There should be a broader range of educational options. And learning should indeed be life long rather than squashed into four years post adolescence.

    Putting all that to one side, this fissure seems to be growing – and also linked to trends like social stratification. David Runciman discusses it here at length: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/05/trump-brexit-education-gap-tearing-politics-apart

    In terms of bridging this gap, I think that meeting and talking to people on the other side of this particular divide is valuable but probably insufficient. It’s about who we decide to hang out with over the longer term, not just in one-off meetings.

    • Matt
      The (long running) focus on ‘higher ‘ education also comes with an opportunity cost;
      the most crucial part of anybody’s education is the years from birth to about age 12, yet that hardly gets a mention- while most newspapers have a regular higher education section, how many have a regular, primary ,education section ?

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