The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

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. Thanks to David Sligar for comments on a draft.] 

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.[1. This article began as I gussied up my response to Sam Roggeveen’s response to my response to his Our Very Own Brexit.]

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)”.[1. I’m  pilloried about that here for instance.] 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.[1. 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.] 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?

This entry was posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international, Sortition and citizens’ juries. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

  1. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    If I can make an adjacent point.

    I am perplexed when elites criticise other elites for being elites.

    I first saw this in the republic debate but it has occurred with monotonous regularity ever since.

  2. Alan says:

    Ahem, you cannot write ‘the hoi polloi‘. ‘hoi‘ means ‘the’ in Greek. It’s like writing the la Paris.

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    or Mount Fujiyama except we use the hoi polloi all the time like that.

    Just think of us doing to greek what the yanks do to the english language

  4. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    good of you to keep pushing this. Democratic experimentation is happening and its important to explore pros and cons.

    If I can summarise your position, you argue that citizen assemblies can be a good means of discovering where the well-informed self-interest of the population actually lies. The steps in your argument are that people do not already know what is in their self-interest, that they are poorly informed by the media and their parliamentary representatives at the moment, that there are different groups within the elites that use whatever disinformation they can towards particular standpoints they hold for totally different reasons than they claim, and that citizen assemblies manage to cut through all this and arrive at positions more sensible for the whole population. I think there is a lot to be said for each step in that argument, though I do question whether citizen juries would work well if the special interests turn their media guns and marketing tricks on them. Sam Roggeveen’s response to you seems hampered by a presumption that people know their “informed preferences” already, a presumption that is difficult to maintain.

    I will let the EU-Greece things slide because we indeed disagree there. I think the EU countries have been unbelievably magnanimous towards the Greek elites and some of the Greek population.

    • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:


      Gave them a depression worse than the great depression. Very magnanimous

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks for the response Paul,

      Always good to have two brains wired very differently looking at the same thing. Your summary of the propositions I’m arguing seems right and helpful to me.

      And, as is the way with such things, it leads to the next point, which is that as I’ve pondered this and tried to figure out what’s going on over the last year or two, it now strikes me that there’s something at least as important going on, though the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to think that it’s the essential problem. But it’s concealed in your instrumental description.

      I think the dramaturgy of elections as they are held today is all wrong. It leaves ‘the people’ in charge notionally of course. But we are theatrical beings, all the world’s a stage, and the medium is the message – all that kind of stuff.

      So the holding of an election is a competition. That way of framing many of the choices is a problem right there. Not that we should banish the competition of ideas from our democracy – it should be about the competition of ideas. But it should also be about accommodation. And the dramaturgy of electoral politics as it’s played out now is as a grand competition. It’s not that accommodation is completely obliterated by this. It’s not because the need for accommodation is too strong. But it’s marginalised from the action. So it’s backgrounded when it needs to be foregrounded.

      There was lots of talk about the oppression of the minority in all the 19th century political theory leading up to democracy, but that doesn’t quite capture the notion of accommodation – which is driven by sympathy and sentiment as much as by instrumental values. I think democracy is at least as much about mutual accommodation as it is about majority rule. One is, of course, trying to meld the two.

      That’s why I call electoral politics the politics of road rage. Road rage is nurtured in the privacy of one’s own car, but many of us have had the experience of getting road rage at someone driving like a bastard only to discover that not only do you know that bastard but you’re both driving to the same destination where you’ll get out of your car and your rage is something of which one is quickly ashamed. It lacks charity and accommodation. We’ve all driven badly.

      A citizens’ jury occurs face to face, between people “just like me” who are just like me in that they’re different to others in various respects. Experimental evidence suggests that meeting face to face massively increases the chances of solving social dilemmas. In a citizens’ jury, not only would one expect that there would be a strong desire for everyone to be accommodated. We can observe it happening. Indeed as I put it in the draft of my Review of Roggeveen’s book that I filed with the Interpreter I had this paragraph – before the editor got out his red pen and killed my darling – quite wisely no doubt:

      We’re the species that evolved to survive by solving problems. So when constituted as groups of everyday people from the community, citizens’ juries soberly go about solving those problems rather than turning them into a Punch and Judy show. We’ve learned to distrust those competing for our votes, and those with different ideologies. But when we meet together in citizens’ juries, our trust in each other comes flooding back like rain soothes a parched river bed on the breaking of an outback drought. Our care for one another and our environment revives also – encoded into our species as it evolved on the African savannah.

      • paul frijters says:

        hmmm. The theater of politics and its dramaturgy is at the moment definitely sub-optimal and crowds out all kinds of things. It gets to be about personalities and how well leaders channel and look like the swing voters. Its a brutal competition for power (which it always was and what its main function is), using a competition of images and emotional cues.

        Hard to pick causes and results here though: is the change in dramaturgy a first mover or itself a mere aspect of a deeper change?

        I guess I am a little less optimistic about what democracy ever was. Amongst the greeks it was the equality between the men of violence. In 19th century Europe it was an aristocratic notion of leadership, channeling the power of major groups via appeals to identity. Now, the underlying aristocratic ethos has mainly gone but democratic competition is still about interest groups and fought on the basis of identity, with perhaps the main change that identities are less solid and local, thereby more easily gamed. Maybe the changed dramaturgy just reflects the change in the clarity of identity. Previously it was clear who was a worker and who was a billionaire playboy. Now we are all billionaire playboys online and in our own mind.

        Can you expand more on where you think the changed dramaturgy comes from?

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Thanks Paul

          Firstly, I try quite hard not to have particularly rose coloured glasses on about democracy of the past. As far as ancient Athens is concerned, architecture yes, democracy – not necessarily. Anyway it was a city with fewer citizens than Albury Wodonga so we shouldn’t get too carried away.

          The changed dramaturgy comes from the situation the jurors find themselves in. In a legal jury the jurours must decide if the accused is guilty or not. Competition may arise in the process of coming to a decision, but if it is, that’s just part of the process. Otherwise they’re together exploring to solve a problem – just as we did on the African savannah when those lions would eat us if we didn’t find a solution. (In fact because of the focus on overwhelming majorities in the jury that further ‘crowds in’ compromise and accommodation. In that regard, I also suggest that, with sortition based bodies only supermajorities should count for much because of the scope for bare majorities to be an artefact of randomness. So that effect would be there too in my preferred model, but let’s leave all that aside here.)

          So how did we decide to have a carbon pricing regime and then not to have one. Our parliamentarians debated it essentially manoeuvring for competitive advantage. I think things would unfold very differently in a citizens’ jury. Some of the jurors would change their mind as they learned more and discussed it with others. That very process would be instructive for the wider electorate. The people in the chamber would be overwhelmingly focused on trying to get the right answer for their country.

          You might expect them to be trying to get the right answer for themselves. But in this context, it doesn’t make that much difference. They’d be trying to get to the best outcome they could for some mix between two very legitimate causes – each individual and the country. The interest of the parties in parliament is very different – which is to square some arrangements up with the powerful, look for competitive advantage against their political opponents, put something through they think won’t lose them the next election, go on a charm and smarm tour, have their leader hit her talking points in all interviews and in the Candidates debates and Bob’s your uncle.

          • paul frijters says:

            yes, I get what you meant with the dynamics of interaction within juries. It’s the basic logic of what happens in almost any team that truly needs to do something, including sports teams.

            I thought you were talking about the dramaturgy of our current democratic competition, arguing that it used to be more deliberative and about accommodation and all that. You then claimed (which I sort of agree with) that the theater and drama currently dominant is totally dysfunctional and part of the problem. I am asking the question why you think it changed in that way: is there a deeper cause? The reason to ask is to get at the question whether we need agency over the deeper or whether a quick change of scenery will solve a lot of problems (we can try anyway, but the hope with which we go in rather increases if we dont think we are up a much more powerful deeper cause).

  5. Alan says:

    Canada has held a series of citizens assemblies on electoral reform, followed by referendums that have invariably rejected the proposal of the citizens assembly. There are 3 families of proportional representation. STV, as used for the Irish assembly and the Australian senate, list systems as used in the Netherlands and most EU members, and MMP as used in Germany and New Zealand but almost nowhere else. STV is much more voter-centred than MMP or ListPR.

    The first BC referendum to adopt STV actually passed, by almost any democratic standard, but the parliament had decided that electoral reform would require a 60% majority and a majority in a majority of seats. The referendum ‘only’ got 57.7% approval and ‘only’ carried in 97% of all seats so it was defeated.

    Canadian elites favour keeping FPTP or MMP. Indeed during the second BC STV referendum the NDP, which is one one of two major parties in the province although not in federal politics, tried to float a proposal to reject STV and then hold an MMP referendum or enact MMP without a referendum, despite the recommendation of the citizens assembly. There is an almost exact analogy to the republic issue in Australia where Troisième République* republicans (ARM and co) have preferred the monarchy to a republic with an elected president.

    All citizens assemblies since BC have recommended MMP. It is common to read Canadians saying that the BC assembly was advised by pro-STV experts and subsequent assemblies have been advised by pro-MMP experts. So Canada at least provides evidence that the question of where citizens assemblies get their advice is central to the outcome of the process. At minimum a citizens assembly’s experts should not be appointed by the executive, which has been the Canadian practice.

    *The ARM really should consider that of the 15 presidents of the Third Republic all but 1 were politicians, 3 resigned after constitutional conflicts with the parliament, 2 resigned after scandals, 1 was found to be clinically insane, and 1 was seriously considered for prosecution for treason after WWII for signing the transfer of power to Pétain. Clemenceau famously said ‘I always vote for the most stupid’ and the record suggests he was not alone. That unhappy record is not completely decisive evidence that a president appointed by 2/3 vote of parliament would be a safe choice.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Alan,

    There are people in the world – even readers of Troppo – even writers of Troppo for whom STV, MMP, ARM, ListPR and even in some cases FPTP are not necessarily second nature. We’re probably OK with WWII. :)

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul, (reverting back to the left-hand margin of the page).

    The question you ask is a very good one, or if I recall correctly the cartoon strip in Lot’s Wife, the Monash Student Newspaper, in or around the early 1970s “verily it is a mind fucker”.

    Yes, there’s been a huge change in political debate. Why has it occurred? I’d guess a few related things. In a nutshell, the fast foodification of our culture which I groped at in this post.
    * Capitalism and optimisation munch their merry way through our culture and class systems. So media of the mainstream and social variety is much more instantly optimised. So not only is it less and less interested in low arousal stories, it’s less and less interested in the low arousal paragraphs and clauses of stories. Just junk food throughout.
    * This means that there’s less depth to the conversation and all those whose job it is to be serious about such things go out and get media training to dumb down what they’re saying and to learn that they need to attend to their ‘messaging’.
    * Professionalism itself is rearranged into branding. So good legal, accounting and auditing work is still done, but it’s all arranged under brands. And then there are the bullshit professions of PR and ‘Comms’.
    * And while professionalism had its flaws it had quite a few things going for it – the encouragement of skill, craft and fiduciary duties to one’s client and the disapproval of greed even though incomes at the top end were very handy. That’s now all being attacked by managerialism and brand management.

    I think of Schumpeter’s Marxian model of capitalism consuming its own foundations in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. In capitalism and democracy we’ve been through a golden age of many decades or a century or so as two new systems of optimisation demonstrated their incredible benefits but based on the cultural foundations of prior centuries which they’ve steadily undermined.

    And here we are.

    I fancy the citizens’ jury as going back to our origins and starting to build our political and social problem-solving culture around its original origins in the African savannah – of small groups working stuff out.

  8. Nicholas
    It’s not so much that the elites lack respect for the masses, rather it’s the elites have virtually no knowledge of or understanding of the masses .
    In fact the elites sense of superiority often seems to be based solely on a lack of curiosity.

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