Almost everyone who speaks English would recognise a phrase or two of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” He was speaking of the great cause beyond the end of slavery that underpinned the war, the survival of popular government.
That is what is meant (or what should be meant) by cries of freedom, or the cliched call to defend it — usually by supporting some policy to actively subvert it, like the Patriot Act. The curiously effective tactic of imbuing the tools of torture with the appearance of medicine is not what I aim to discuss right now, but the source of this tactic is the universal foe of genuine democracy. That is my focus, so let me explain.
If you ask someone who has studied economics in the last decade about economics they tend to say straight away that people are not rational. They want to make this clear because it used to be the ruling doctrine of economics, but as soon as you break that illusion the system of marketing and advertising, governments putting taxes on certain products, and the tendency for markets to be shocked by current events — it all becomes clear. People need to be coaxed by tits to buy things, they need government to make tobacco 300% more expensive before not buying the poison, and the President of the United States can trip and fall on camera and suddenly the stock market dives.
So economics is not rational, but what else is not? Well, the rationalist actor model still gets notice in the study of international politics despite it being bogus because it ignores the psychology of leaders and governments, and it fails to take into account the players that make-up the policy process (public/civil service, lobbyists, voters, legislators, judiciary). Where else is rationalism non-existent? The answer is before us; beneath a flop of fake hair.
Democracy itself is not rational. People in the media have been wondering aloud why the polls (the actually scientific ones) are not reflecting the outrage over Donald Trump’s scandals. He calls Mexican’s rapists and his poll numbers rise, he calls for women seeking abortion to be punished and his poll numbers rise, he insults the parents of a war veteran and his poll numbers stay the same, he doesn’t pay tax for eighteen years and his poll numbers stay the same. He’s not winning, as most polls show Clinton with a five to seven point lead, but there is no fallout.
This is in contrast to the fact that according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll 67 percent of Americans think his tax dodging is selfish, and 61 percent think it is unpatriotic. So why isn’t this reflected in his support for president? Surely, if 67 percent of the voting public think poorly of him on the vital issue of the economy, that should translate to a drop in his overall poll numbers. Yet it doesn’t. Someone isn’t playing ball.
A rational understanding of the election process would say that candidates make their policy plans known, the voters decide on the basis of those plans, and the winner implements there policies to the advantage of the voters. A simple transaction. But it isn’t like that, and it either never has been or it hasn’t been for a very long time.
Princeton University published a study in 2014 which sought to answer the question: “Does the US government represent the people?” And the answer is no. Well, no 70 percent of the time. They found that the least popular policies have the same 30 percent chance of being passed into law as the most popular — that is where 90 percent of Americans are concerned. The wealthy have a different rate of return (well of course). They have a much greater chance of seeing the policies they want enacted, and more importantly, near certainty that the policies they don’t like get defeated. The US is an oligarchy, plain and simple, and it makes no difference if the general public is rational or not.
Well, almost. You see, there is something the masses have which the masters do not. Mass. They are numerous, and when in revolutionary fury they are above the law. We saw it in Bucharest in 1989 when the Ceaușescu regime dissolved before a massive crowd who decided in a moment that their president before them was actually naked and all the Russian sponsored military might couldn’t make any difference. You can see that moment here by the way, it is really something to see.
To return to the point, the voters are not rational, their participation is required to give the oligarchy a veneer of legitimacy. So rational thinking is not required, which sounds deeply cynical and I suppose that it is, but I see a thread of possibility here. What if the forces of democratisation take back the ideas which have been stolen? Freedom, liberty, and pluralism, so that the great push back by the people can begin. It has happened before, the civil rights movement held America to the standard the founding fathers accidentally slipped in to their notes, that all men are created equal. There were hard fought gains, and those gains will not be given up. Now the great mass has the chance to claim back the most important three words in all of American literature: “We the people.”