Are Ordinary People as Stupid as Their Leaders Believe?
July 16, 2005 19 Comments
Recently, an old friend who lives in New York told me that he wanted to leave because he was convinced that he was in a fascist United States. A participant at a writing seminar handed me an essay to review in which she likened George Bush to Hitler and the people who voted for him as brain-washed ‘Jesus freaks’. An acquaintance in London informed me that citizens who were anti-EU integration tended to be racists and those flirting with fascism. What the three had in common was a sense that they belonged to a natural ruling class that had been spurned. This, I think from personal observation, is part of a growing trend in which political elites the world over are increasingly vocal about ordinary citizens being puppets to demagoguery, stupid, unsophisticated and therefore not qualified to make democratic choices.
In Africa, we often hear that democracy cannot flower because of the lack of education and an excess of ‘tribalism’. In Europe, the EU’s political honchos rejected the French and Dutch ‘No’ vote to the EU constitution as an indication of voter ignorance. To those democrats in my old city of New York, the election of George Bush signalled the rise of an ‘overweight, over-consuming, racist, ignorant and Christian fanatic’ who was going against his interests which should have been represented by enlightened, cosmopolitan and egalitarian liberals. Typical of this attitude is Michael Gronewaller who had this to say after the election of Dubya:
I really think the problem is that we as 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. Our problem with getting our message across to people outside “the choir” is our understanding of the intelligence of our greater audience.
Everywhere you turn, ordinary voters are subject to this type of withering contempt by their supposed betters who when they do meet in the conferences that I deride so much in these pages, wax poetic about all manner of rights and oppressions. But this is only conditional on the ‘oppressed’ agreeing to be led and indeed dictated to by them. In Kenya, I have often written about this ‘babi’ class – what we used to call a petit bourgeoisie except it is now united in “fighting” capitalism rather than serving it – and its aid-dependent links to the metropole. The American left, in the form of Michael Moore, has been ruthlessly and hilariously picked apart by Christopher Hitchens (see ‘Unfairenheit 9/11: The lies of Michael Moore’). In Kenya, the old men of the nationalist struggle, tied helplessly to colonial conceptions of tribe and modernity, have never had anything but contempt for ordinary people who they assume are existentially tied to tribal Bantustans and in need of modernising. Their inheritors, mostly esconded in the aid-funded civil society, talk a more radical game of ‘people power’ but are characterised by a complete democratic alienation from most Kenyans and a politics that owes more to the ideological divides in Europe and the United States that it does with their own country. It is these camps that are fighting over the bone of ‘good governance’; both desperate for the approval of the West’s political masters who are themselves increasingly out of touch with their own polities. What we are left with is a permanent game of musical chairs where the televisions are filled with besuited types from New York to Nairobi speaking to and for each other while the rest of us sit by the sidelines enraged or not giving a hoot.