The end of the world as spectator sport

While the economy crumbles, the views of the public are dismissed in favour of the anointed experts.

Thomas McMahon

Topics Politics

As the cracks started appearing in the American economy, our television screens were filled with political and media figures all saying the same thing: the bailout of US banks just had to happen. Barely a single voice in the UK was heard to contradict the consensus. Woe betide anyone who disagreed with ‘the experts’.

The Republicans and their voters, the perennial bogeymen of right-on politics on both sides of the Atlantic, were pilloried as ignorant simpletons who were dooming the financial system to destruction solely by the power of their stupidity. Commentators and journalists – themselves at a loss to explain events – had no compunction in supporting the apparent experts against what seems to have been the well-placed scepticism of most ordinary Americans.

The villains of the story were those Americans who refused to hand over $700billion to a bunch of self-appointed experts – the same experts who had utterly failed to predict this crisis and, in the case of treasury secretary Henry Paulson, had actually presided over the mess. But the real question remains: why should any ordinary person have trusted them on their proposed solution? Quite understandably, the American people didn’t. Their representatives, as sometimes happens in a free society, seem to have paid some heed to their voters’ concerns when they initially rejected the bailout.

The line that the media took, and that the rest of us were expected to follow, was that it was necessary to take the advice of the experts. In fact, when the bailout negotiations first started we were told that if a deal wasn’t reached by the end of the week, then some banks, or all banks, or capitalism, or Western civilisation, or something, would end. It didn’t, and yet the ultimatums came out again, the passing of the deadline forgotten, the urgency just as strong.

If this pattern of a deadline for action being followed by absolutely none of the dire consequences foreseen by the experts seems familiar, it’s because it is exactly the same pattern followed by the climate change panic. The collapse of the earth’s eco-system – or better still, some ‘tipping point’ – always seems to lie just beyond the horizon. Commentators and journalists also seem to know what the ‘right’ thing to do must be, even when they have no special expertise on the matter, whether it is in relation to the impenetrable mechanics of debt securitisation or the highly complicated interactions of the climate system. What lies behind this willingness of the ignorant to line up behind the so-called experts?

For those in the media, and those spectators who like to think of themselves as informed, the appeal lies in the reflected aura of superiority, the opportunity to shake your head and grimace at the utter stupidity of those who aren’t inclined to follow expert opinion (lower-class Americans, frequently) and to come across as at least understanding why they are the experts. It is a servile attitude, but of a particular variety. Whereas most media commentators had absolutely no idea whether the bailout was necessary or even a good idea at all, they rushed to set themselves apart from the truly ignorant, from those who weren’t bright enough to realise that their own thinking was insignificant next to the combined wisdom of the experts, ‘those who know’.

The sub-text of the message from politicians and the media in Britain was that unlike the Americans, we wouldn’t let stupid ideas get in the way of the experts. We wouldn’t ask the under-qualified – what an idea!

A Mori poll for the BBC in January showed that 83 per cent of people don’t trust politicians. The collapse in their reputation frequently leads politicians grasping for the cachet of science to bolster their public stature, and they also give away power to undemocratic quangos and institutions at almost every opportunity. A few significant examples: Gordon Brown’s first act as UK chancellor of the exchequer was to give the Bank of England independence; the Labour Party has continued to sign over powers over immigration, policing and energy to the European Union; Tory leader David Cameron’s speech to his party’s conference included as a key pledge the decision to set up a committee to judge when the government’s borrowing gets out of hand.

The idea seems to be that the solution to the collapse of public trust is to disperse responsibility, to find experts to back up your decisions, or ideally to take them for you. If things go wrong, the politician isn’t to blame, and if things go right, he is shown to be a part of the superior caste that recognises the wisdom of asking the oracles in the academy what they think.

But this dispersal of responsibility magnifies the problem at hand. By refusing to take responsibility, politicians marginalise themselves even more, while reducing people’s power over their own lives by palming it off to the flavour-of-the-month intellectual. The politician reduces himself to the status of a serious news presenter on Newsnight, the Today programme or Channel 4 News, clucking censoriously over that proportion of the population that won’t listen to The Science on smoking, child-rearing, weather, abortion, and so on. ‘It’s not me’, the politician says, ‘it’s The Science’, refusing to take responsibility for their decisions and refusing to accept the voters’ good sense in thinking for themselves.

The appeal of this kind of attitude is shown by the popularity of the BBC2 panel show QI. The audience for this show plays along with the idea of Stephen Fry as the intellectual. Of course, Fry’s ‘knowledge’ comes from a team of scriptwriters and researchers. He merely plays the role of the oracular expert. The audience plays along, reinforcing the effect, joining the elite circle of those who are a party to the expert’s wit and wisdom, those who have the weight of scientific rectitude behind them, as the religious bigot has his faith.

Politicians and commentator share this attitude of the audience for QI. To media commentators, and to those who fancy themselves as knowing onlookers, fawning over the experts lends them intellectual gravitas, at least in their own eyes. To the politicians, it provides freedom from responsibility and approximation to the status of a media personality. That this attitude is based on contempt for ordinary people – who are rendered little more than passive spectators in the decision-making process – can be seen by the risible suggestion by some New Labour apparatchik that people be given games consoles and ready meals to persuade them to vote. In the eyes of the political class, the fact that 25 per cent of the people who voted in 1997 didn’t do so in the following two elections must be due to some catastrophic outbreak of stupidity and venality rather than a justly held contempt for what is on offer.

If politicians want to halt their slide in the public’s estimations, they should stop treating deviation from the so-called experts’ opinions with such contempt. A politician’s duty is not to demand that voters concur with experts’ findings, it is to report the opinion of the voters to the experts with the demand that experts suggest policies that can bring about voters’ goals. The lauding of expert opinion is nothing more than an excuse to exclude the mass of ‘little people’ from public debate.

Thomas McMahon is a British freelance writer currently based in Eastern Europe.

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Topics Politics


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