Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Language like this shows us how fundamental framing has become to political combat. Political debate isn’t just ‘dumbed down’ or simplified. There’s a geography to the ground on which it’s fought and those with an eye to victory head for the high ground.1
There’s much talk these days about the divide between political elites and ‘ordinary folk’. It’s tearing western democracies apart. I think that the elite lack respect for the hoi polloi and their view of the world. Hence my frequent reference to the ancient Greek political principle of isegoria or equality of speech.2
In Sam Roggeveen’s response to my review of his essay Our Very Own Brexit (which I recommend by the way), he isn’t the first to argue that I do my cause no favours by “aligning it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit)”.3 This is definitely sound political advice if one ventures among the red meat folk at Quillette.
But for the record, while I think Brexit makes lousy economic policy and statecraft, I wouldn’t just respect the will of the British people if they chose the course they are embarked upon with open eyes. I’d be awestruck with admiration. I’d think it was a fantastic development in which people decided that there were more important things than money and power to live for. But I don’t think any of that. I think they’ve been sold on a particular framing of the story in which the EU is an elite project gone mad, and so something which is coming after their nationhood and something on which they can heap their rage.
Roggeveen’s response goes on:
The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.
I’ll call this the ‘frolic’ school of analysis. The elites have just kept doing what elites do – pursuing various hubristic agendas until the inevitable Wile E. Coyote moment comes and they realise that they have, in their zeal, arrived at a place where there’s no ground underneath them. Now it has to be admitted that the EU has major flaws. It seemed to me that its treatment of Greece was and continues to be a disgrace, and even if you disagree with that – as Paul Frijters does – the whole Euro project was ill-conceived and devastating. I’d go so far as to call it a frolic – and it’s a frolic of spectacular, and spectacularly ill judged proportions.
But there’s a problem with this analysis that the elites left the community behind. Firstly, the UK dodged the bullet of the Euro (though it won’t dodge it when it comes back into the EU in a few decades) so if frolics are the problem you’d not think the UK would be the first cab off the rank. More fundamentally, if this break was the product of an elite frolic getting out in front of public opinion, you’d expect it to be about something else. In the UK you’d expect it to be about austerity, economic development in the periphery and so on. (I admit Brexit did carry some flavour of addressing what was seen by some to be excess immigration – though, as I understand it, it was only in London where EU immigration was seen as much of a practical issue for the populace.) Brexit simply didn’t rate as a major concern until it was cranked up by a faction of the elite and their cheer squads in the media.
By the same token if the ‘elite frolic’ thesis were to explain Australia’s ‘Brexit moment’ in which we abolished carbon pricing, there were no shortage of fault lines between elite and mass opinion. More than half of the agenda of economic reform divided elite and mass opinion. In Australia that includes cutting protection and national competition policy, cutting corporate tax rates, and perhaps cutting the top marginal tax rate.
What was happening with carbon pricing in Australia and Britain’s relations with the EU was that the elite was managing a dilemma and choosing the lesser of various evils, though imperfectly. In the act of doing their job they encountered various dilemmas and solved them as best they could. In Australia we gradually accepted that carbon pricing offered the best prospect to meet most of the burden of meeting our emissions reduction targets.
These agendas were not the source of division between the elite and the masses. But there were tensions between the right and left on them which were then able to be exploited for party political advantage when the occasion presented itself.4 On Brexit I’m fairly sure something similar can be said. The EU had been broadly supported by the public, and not much interest was taken in it. Also, what led to carbon pricing and Brexit being chosen as the pretexts du jour was a split in the major parliamentary coalition on the right.
In this context, the benefits I see in a citizens’ jury are not just the idea of greater consideration as an antidote to dumbing down and sensationalism. Rather it is placing those who represent the public in the position of having to choose between two concrete, considered and possibly difficult alternative pathways for their country – i.e. the position in which the governing elites of left and right were in when they made the choices they did – on Europe in the UK and on carbon abatement in Australia. There’s very good evidence that all it takes is for this to occur – for ordinary people to be placed in the invidious position of having to choose (rather than munch popcorn and throw brickbats) for their rage at elites die down considerably as they set about trying to solve the same dilemmas that have preoccupied the elites.
In this situation, participants realise it’s not as simple as the elites just looking after their own. In this way, citizens’ juries engender far greater respect for our political institutions. Jurors’ opinion of their politicians and their officials rises strongly. There’s one exception. Jurors’ opinion of the media – already pretty low – sinks further as they come to see how misled they’ve been. The effect is particularly strong when they see their own deliberations put through the media grinder to produce a story of conflict and sensation they barely recognise.
So it seems to me that in characterising Brexit as an elite project, a frolic which is not supported by the public Sam Roggeveen is falling for the framing of the Brexiteers. It’s not an elite project particularly. It’s the gradual enmeshing of the national economies of Europe. But its great vulnerability is not that it’s an elite project or that some aspects of it have been managed incredibly badly, but that its various aspects are dull and difficult to explain in a sound bite. So they’re easily misrepresented when factions of the elite see some advantage and push comes to shove.
These considerations are my reason for arguing for the changes I am. I may well be wrong. What kinds of things do you think we should be pursuing to address this crisis?
- Thanks to David Sligar for comments on a draft. ↩
- This article began as I gussied up my response to Sam Roggeveen’s response to my response to his Our Very Own Brexit. ↩
- I’m pilloried about that here for instance. ↩
- Precisely the same happened in the early 1990s when it became good party political tactics for Paul Keating to argue that Dr Hewson’s GST was a Great Big New tax – the same tax for which he’d previously vigorously campaigned for years. ↩