Local Democracy Notepad

Democratic perfectionism as a political method

Fewer people agree with you than you think

with 3 comments

Being a politician is a good deal harder than most of us realise. Recent posts here about cognitive polyphasia remind me that being a politician involves squaring a number of unsquareable circles. Here’s the RSA’s Matthew Taylor on cognitive dissonance and the rose coloured mirror. People – the voters (trans: you and I) don’t recognise the point at which our stated view of the world conflicts with reality.

Matthew’s post makes the point that we tend to err on the side of the argument that says that we – personally – view ourselves more positively than we view others.

I think that there is another issue that is worth bearing in mind here: The public generally seem to underestimate the degree to which every one else agrees with them. That old fallacious chestnut, the ‘silent majority.’ In a very good post a while ago about how far the public want politicians to obey public opinion rather than to primarily exercise their judgement on our behalf, political blogger Tom Freeman made the following observation:

“I’d expect a very strong correlation between thinking one’s own views are in the majority and wanting government to follow public opinion.”

This point is well illustrated by one of the best political uses of the web that I’ve seen: the clever, late, Chris Lightfoot‘s opinion-plotting application. Do it if you get the chance – the resulting graphic is the most valuable output of the whole thing. It’s very good because it tells us a great deal about democratic politics. The lessons include…

  1. Almost no-one agrees with you about very much, even though you think they do
  2. When politicians don’t say what you’d like them to say, they may be doing it for a good reason. They’re not saying anything that many people agree with. But they may also be saying something that can generate agreement from the group that they currently fear the most
  3. Unelected individuals – given the power to legislate – are unlikely to be any more repressive than elected ones: In fact, probably quite the reverse is true.

The ‘everyone agrees with me’ fallacy is – I suspect – one of the biggest causes of disillusionment with government by the elected, and the perceived disconnection between politics and the general public. The recurring question is often ‘why can’t they do what we want them to do?’ Sadly, the answer is that they often try to do exactly that – and if you are prepared to follow the logic of representative democracy, they really shouldn’t be doing so in the first place.

And if this point needs making more forcefully, there’s a nice site here that offers a range of graphical representations of the recent US election results. Browsing through them, it becomes clear that the outcome of votes is significantly more granular than the headline figures. A 10% ‘swing’ can mask millions of voters that swung in the other direction. And even the solid red or solid blue areas are “70%+” – there are very few places where ‘everyone’ votes the same way, though a lot of the commentary I’ve heard and read simplifies matters to leave us with this impression.

Written by Paul Evans

December 14th, 2008 at 1:09 pm

3 Responses to 'Fewer people agree with you than you think'

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  1. [...] touch’ isn’t a straightforward one. It sort-of reprises a few points that I made in this post here a while ago – that no-body really agrees with anyone else about very much, and that – under such [...]

  2. One side note – The link to Chris Lightfoot’s application has been taken over by some Japanese link farm.

    The best example of the “rose coloured mirror”, I think, is the way in which we read newspapers that conform to our world view. When I have the time, I enjoy reading a story written by two opposing newspapers. It gives me a broad interpretation of what actually happened, and reminds me of the value of the old adage “don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”.

    Attempts are made to make sense of opinions in the way of polls, but the results are almost always reduced to down to the majority/minority dichotomy.

    I really see merit in being able to see where conflicts lie in politics. I am actively developing a site / web application that builds consensus through identifying and resolving conflict ( http://yourConsensus.org ). When people think about building consensus, they often think it’s about finding points of common agreement, where in fact it’s more about identifying and resolving conflict.

    Tom Kaneko

    26 Oct 11 at 12:06 pm

  3. [...] the meantime, here’s a quick stop-gap while IA while ago, I posted something here on the common misconception that many of us have about consensuses [...]

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