When I competed on the university debating circuit, the “people are stupid” argument was so common that it became a kind of shorthand.
“You shouldn’t have a referendum on this because people are stupid”; “we should abolish juries because people are stupid’’; “it’s acceptable for politicians to lie about wartime casualties because people are stupid.”
Of course, university debaters are famously over-assured of their own intelligence and political insight. But their arrogance is socially sanctioned — a frankly alarming number of debaters go on to become MPs, cabinet members, prime ministers and presidents, in Britain and around the world.
When I hear politicians speak about political literacy, I see the (mostly) men I knew at university. They can no longer say outright that they think people are stupid, but likely still believe that much of the voting populace is dim and irrational, and that having them vote at all is a regrettable necessity.
At this point, I should say that I reject, and despise, that premise.
It may be that three quarters of the population don’t feel informed about the European referendum; it may be that all their news comes from a headline blast on 5live or a free newspaper they read on the Tube.
Yet that needn’t mean they’re not politically literate, only that they have a different political reading of the world. Lots of people who couldn’t name the Chancellor of the Exchequer know how to work the system when their benefits are blocked, which can itself be an act of resistance. Lots of people who won’t vote in the EU referendum know how to deal with police when they’re stopped and searched, or arrested.
The great victory of the Labour movement was demonstrating — through strikes and marches and collective action — that ordinary people, whatever their level of education or knowledge, have a deep political intelligence. It’s especially painful that so many of those who I hear make the “people are stupid” argument are self-proclaimed leftists, progressives and feminists.
One of the greatest achievements of twentieth century feminism was to establish the principle that just because you don’t accept the thinking of the establishment, that doesn’t mean you can’t understand it.
What these examples remind is us that while politicians are compelled to pay lip-service to fostering greater political literacy, it’s not in their interests to actually bring it about. A population that is evidently politically literate is the greatest possible threat to the established order.
So politicians want to believe that those most disenchanted and disengaged with politics are stupid, and they want the educated middle class to believe it too.
That’s why the junior doctors dispute is so threatening to today’s government. When relatively uneducated miners or steel workers protest, it’s easy to imply that they simply don’t understand the complex realities of politics and economics.
But that doesn’t work with doctors, who are intelligent by all the right measures, respected as experts by the community, and probably did better at school than most MPs. While junior doctors may be too busy and exhausted to closely follow politics, no one is ever going to call them illiterate.
Ultimately, political literacy is simply a manifestation of general literacy; the ability to think politically an extension of the ability to think. That’s why repressive regimes target not only overt political dissidents, but writers, musicians, scientific thinkers, poets, doctors. It’s why schools in authoritarian states typically emphasise rote learning and technical skills, at the expense of critical or creative thinking.
And it’s why we should be very concerned about political literacy — in its broadest sense — in the UK today.
As Stephanie Boland wrote earlier this week, “I know if I wanted to make a population less informed, and therefore less able to mobilise themselves, I’d close down all the libraries and underfund the schools.”
I’d add that we should also make university education prohibitively expensive, try to ban prisoners from reading books, and starve off all the organisations that encourage reading, thinking and resistance to current orthodoxy.
Outreach initiatives are an easy win in politics, as long as they don’t go too far and make ordinary people impossible to dismiss. As long as they don’t disrupt the idea, nested deep in the branches of our political system, that most people, most of the time, are stupid.
This article is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.