Jun 19, 2005 8:49 pm


"On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced that the people do not know what is best for them." writes Frank Furedi.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the populist rejection of the EU treaty, the manner in which the 'No' campaign is disparaged by professional politicians betrays a powerful anti-democratic temper. It appears that professional politicians attempt to account for their isolation from the electorate by pointing their finger at the incompetence of the public. On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has drawn the conclusion that the problem with the people is that they do not know what's in their best interest. This sentiment is particularly widespread among liberal and left-wing activists and thinkers.

'People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about', notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a 'complex issue to vote on', which can lead many citizens to 'use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them'.

According to this view, since the people cannot be trusted to understand the finer points of legal documents, important decisions need to be left to the professional politician. Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament (MEP), agrees that consulting the electorate is a distraction from getting on with the job. After the referendums in France and Holland, he stated that 'the experience begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the EU Constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites'.

The people are not only regarded as politically illiterate. They are also depicted as simpletons who are likely to be swayed by demagogues. In the context of the Brussels bubble, a demagogue is anyone who is critical of the EU project. As far as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was concerned, his eurosceptic opponents have crossed the 'border from democracy to demagoguery'. He claimed that a 'populist trend' is seeking to 'undermine the Europe we are trying to build' by 'simplifying important and complex subjects'.

In the USA, this sentiment has been systematically articulated by Democratic Party activists, who cannot understand why many blue-collar workers vote for Republicans. According to George Lakoff, one of the most influential thinkers in the liberal wing of the Democrats, 'people do not necessarily vote in their self interest'.

The belief that the public is too simplistic or too gullible has led some Democratic Party activists to blame the defeat of their presidential candidate in two successive elections on the stupidity of the people. One liberal activist, Michael Gronewalter, states that 'civility and intelligent dialogue are useful tools among intelligent people' but are inappropriate for engaging with the public. He argues:

'I really think the problem is that we liberals are in general far more intelligent, well-reasoned and educated and will go to astonishingly great lengths to convince people of the integrity and validity of our fair and well thought-out arguments. The audience, in case anyone has been paying attention, isn't always getting it! I suspect the problem is not the speaker - it is most of the audience.'

I could not agree more. Indeed, these perception explain the disdain these elites feel towards the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. After all, if they believe that Europeans and American cannot be trusted to run their own affairs, how can they trust the choices of people they consider to be"their long suffering victims" be expected to do so?

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