In UK and Scottish politics, should you assume that people are ‘stupid’?

Political commentators often make fun of other political commentators when they complain that the public is stupid. Yet, maybe we all do something similar – assume that most people make quick, emotional and habitual decisions to turn a complex world into a series of simple actions. In that sense, the ‘realistic’ political campaigns (and some policies) favoured by such commentators may be based just as much on the ‘stupidity’ of the target audience, argues Paul Cairney

In Scottish politics, there is a lot of fun to be had (if you like that sort of thing) while making fun of Yes supporters who argue that No supporters were manipulated into their decision. For example, if only No supporters could see through media and partisan manipulation they’d come to a different conclusion. The argument here is that such Yes supporters are implying that temporary No supporters are stupid, since they are more open to manipulation than their critics. Only Yes supporters can see through the lies.

In UK politics, the same fun can be had (if you like that sort of thing) with certain Labour supporters who can’t quite believe that they lost the election, or blame it on people who support Labour values in public but vote Conservative in private. There are also some offshoot debates, often led by John Rentoul, about the idea that the ‘wrong people were voting Labour’ under Blair or that current supporters of Jeremy Corbyn deny the truth about why Labour lost the UK General Election. The debate is not quite the same, but you can detect a similar suggestion that left-wing Labour supporters blame current Conservative supporters for not seeing through the cynicism of Tory campaigns.

In both cases, the proposed solution may be a cold dose of realism about the beliefs of the British public: instead of complaining that too many people are naïve or stupid and hold the wrong beliefs (or are ‘delusional’), try to work with their beliefs to produce a campaign that works for them.

You can see why this approach would present some fairly heated debates, since the counterargument is that you should not accept public beliefs when you consider them repugnant (such as in relation to migration) or dangerously misguided (such as in relation to thecauses of the financial crisis or the ways in which parties justify austerity measures, often in relation to the misleading analogy of balancing the household books, which exacerbate socio-economic inequalities).

In time, this pragmatic argument may underpin the second referendum on Scottish independence (who knows?).

In the meantime, it is at the heart of the Labour leadership, in which the heroic/ left-wing/ ideologue Jeremy Corbyn is pitted against the three more cynical/ pragmatic/ realistic candidates who want to compete with the Conservatives in part by engaging with their arguments rather than dismissing them as stupid and cynical.

What should we do when people are ‘stupid’?

In each case, there are two constants that we should always bear in mind:

  1. Ideas aren’t stupid. Many people focus too much on the stupidity of arguments or ideas when they should really identify the tendency for people to believe them. I don’t want to get into a big philosophical thing about this, but ideas aren’t simply good or bad and they don’t spread on their own – they need some people to propose them and others to accept them. Your choice is a mix of (a) giving credit to the people who know how to get good ideas going; and/ or (b) assigning blame to the gullible fools that accept them.
  2. People aren’t stupid, but they are open to manipulation. People have a tendency to accept simple stories that chime with their beliefs (and other stuff – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow sums up a lot of this kind of argument, but see here and here if you want something more free but less good).

All that remains is to decide what to do about it:

(a) do you start with the assumption that people inevitably have cognitive biases that can be manipulated (particularly when they make snap decisions), to get them to do what you want;


(b) do you assume that people can overcome many cognitive biases, try to educate them, or otherwise help them to think more carefully about issues to make well-considered intelligent decisions?

I don’t know the answer to that question ….

All I’ll point out is that I have (hopefully) reframed the initial premise of this post. Now, it’s the fun-makers and realists who think that people are stupid (the a people). Now, our original villains are really the heroes who have faith in the public to think harder and make the right decision next time (the b people).

except to say that sneering doesn’t help.

A final thought on the strategies of realists is that many of them sneer a lot at the people they think are naïve. This doesn’t just seem rude and annoying – it’s also counterproductive, because politics is often as much about process as outcome. If everyone enters and leaves debates in a respectful way, the losers may be content with a poor outcome. If the winners spend their time sneering at their opponents, and Lording their victories over the losers, it just exposes the very divisions they claim to want to prevent.

Note: this post originally appeared on Paul’s personal blog. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Cairney mugshot 3.7.13Paul Cairney is  Professor of Politics at Stirling University.

Similar Posts