Market and liberal democracy are both based on the assumption that individuals are the best possible referees of their personal interests. This makes sense because nobody knows us as long and as well as we know ourselves. It seems wise too since often in history individuals have been forced by leaders and leading groups that pretended to know better, to want or to do things that evidently went against their preferences, well-being and rights. Paternalism is a denial of personal autonomy, of the ability to define, without the interference of others, one’s own interests, values and goals. When autonomy defines our humanity, paternalism and other interferences in our autonomy, are an offence to our dignity.
Individuals, groups and cultures can be dead wrong
Nevertheless, we also know that it is not just children but also adults are often uninformed, superficial or plain mistaken about their preferences, wants and interests. This explains the existence of therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and their ilk. It partly explains the success of art and literature, both often teaching us better understandings of ourselves and of the world we are in. The omnipresent advertisement and marketing in our society also indicates that we do not always really know what we want and that our preferences are makeable, steerable and fluid. It is a sign of hypocrisy when adherents of the “free market” champion themselves as the ultimate defenders of freedom and autonomy: silently they know better.
Also groups of people, small and big, can be wrong about their preferences or “real interests”. Sick or non-optimal societies do exist, societies where individuals do not have the opportunity to develop their full potentials but are socialized into habits, preferences or lifestyles which are at odds with what we have learned about what it means to be human. The view that homosexuality, gender or color is a sign of human inferiority is not just a democratic expression of a different culture. We have good reasons to think that this view is mistaken.
Entire civilizations might be collectively wrong about what constitutes a happy, fulfilling life. Its members might have been made to believe, for instance, that production, consumption and growth are existential essentials, and might in the process of implementing this ideal, slowly destroy all those social, communal, cultural and family activities that, research shows, really contribute to our wellbeing (Lane 2000). I will return to this in a next article.
In decision making processes, closed groups of people might also fall victim to erroneous “groupthink”, referring just to each other, consciously or unconsciously blocking information from outsiders, collectively only searching for information that confers assumptions and foregone conclusions, neglecting information that could question the direction the group is marching towards (Janis 1972). Truth or rationality is sacrificed for harmony in this process. Juridical systems offer many examples of this, but also policy making processes and academic paradigms regularly resemble groupthink. One needs second opinions from outsiders to counter this tendency.
Democracies are more than voting machines
In (non-economic) democratic theory we acknowledge that citizens and voters can be uncertain or unaware of their preferences, or even be incorrect about these. Therefore, democracy is something more than casting a vote; it is also an active exchange of information, views, values, goals and preferences. Only after to some minimal extent this deliberative process has taken place – a process in which preferences are not so much registered but developed – does it make sense to vote and to accept this vote as authoritative. Was this all not the case we could get rid of political parties, parliaments, elections or free press tomorrow and decide on policies via daily internet polls.
Professional politicians play an important role in this process of deliberation, as alternative sources of information, views, values or political programs to realize the common good. Thus, politicians do not just follow existing preferences; they also inform and mold them.
Obviously, not all politicians are in the business of enlightenment. Politicians are also economic entrepreneurs, looking for votes and power. Generally, the more they follow the existing preferences, the easier they win votes. So they often pose as the real representatives of the people, fighting for the neglected common man against the vested interests in the respective capitals. It is a thin line between democracy and populism.
But then, individuals do not always know what they want, and therefore it is not always possible simply to follow preferences. The politician helps him to “find” these. Sometimes people are bothered by a kind of undirected, digressing uneasiness or anxiety; they are unsatisfied, frustrated, or agitated. Something itches, but it is hard to understand exactly where it itches and why. People might have undefined “troubles”, Wright Mills stated, which have not been translated yet in “issues”, issues that can be put on the political agenda and on the basis of which policies could be formulated. “Instead of troubles defined in terms of values and threats”, Wright Mills wrote, “there is often the misery of vague un¬easiness, instead of expli¬cit issues there is often merely the beat feeling that all is somehow not right” (1959: 18). It is the job of the politician to search for these troubles, to translate them into issues and to formulate a political program that addresses the underlying problems.
Here, democratic integrity, sincerity and social intelligence are pivotal for a thriving democracy. Failing to locate, understand, interpret and address possible “troubles” accurately and timely opens the door for false but easy understandings and definitions of troubles and issues. In the end these do not contribute to solving the underlying problems and subsequently lead to more undirected frustration, anxiety and disbelief in democratic institutions, institutions apparently unable to “deliver”.
In an increasingly complicated world with insufficient electoral political competence, those who have correct but complicated analyses are always in a disadvantaged position to obtain electoral support. Slogans, one-liners and scapegoats fare much better.
Is a good social scientist also a good politician?
Thus, a good politician also needs to be a good social scientist. He should be able to see what lies beneath. But should a good social scientist also be a good politician? A good social scientist indeed has an academic and democratic responsibility to assist in locating, defining, and addressing deeper troubles. More than the politician she has (or should have) the time, the means, the distance, the overview, and even the knowledge to contribute to the fulfillment of this democratic task. More than anywhere else, it is here that social scientists make a contribution to society.
This contribution should be something more than surveying what people instantaneously express as their preferences, beliefs or “issues”. This kind of research echoes often only what successful populist political entrepreneurs have offered the citizen as an explanation of his “misery of vague uneasiness”. By replicating this explanation, research on extremist populist movements has regularly unwillingly contributed to the “salonfähigkeit” (social acceptability) of the suppositions, guesses and surmises in question. Many a political party has even adjusted its positions on the basis of this kind of superficial research, which makes everything even worse: shallow, erroneous or mistaken interpretations of the state we are in are just amplified and get more and more difficult to correct.
So when people suddenly start marching on the streets in Dresden, as happened in the autumn of 2014, protesting against a handful of Muslims in their community, it does not really bring us far to survey them about their issues and to take their answer as a serious description of their troubles. Something else must have been the matter, as in many other European countries where the “Muslim”, the “immigrant” or the “European Union” were suddenly seen as the issue that defined the trouble.
What strikes over and over again after outbursts of discontent, resentment or anger, is the deafening silence of social and political scientists. Rarely do they see the trouble coming, hardly ever do they have an analysis of the underlying concerns, and seldom do they offer definitions of issues that give hope on solving real problems.
The entire Dutch political, academic and journalistic establishment was completely taken by surprise when at the end of the 90s right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn was nearly elected as prime minister (but post-humanly as the “greatest Dutchman of all times”). Everything went perfect in the Netherlands, the end of politics and history could be witnessed in the low country, scholars and politicians were telling the public. And so they had not much to say when asked for an explanation for the rise of Fortuyn (and later of Wilders) and for the resentment he successfully tapped into. They also had hardly anything to offer when asked for programs and policies that could lessen the discontent. Most of them apparently thought, and still think, this is beyond their competence and task since these programs and policies are in the end also based on contested views on the Good Life and the Good Society. But apart from this epistemological misunderstanding about what a social science can be (“We search for value-free, universal, eternal laws and theories!”), they simply had no clue what was going on.
The same confusion, bewilderment and silence of social and political scientists could be witnessed in Germany during the rise in the last couple of years of the phenomenon of the “Wutbürger”, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), or the Pegida-movement. The interpretation had to be done mostly by journalists and certainly in the beginning, they too hardly knew what to make of it. The fact that many Pegida demonstrators refused to talk to them and that many considered it appropriate to describe the entire media as “Lügen Presse” unfortunately indicates that the political, academic and journalistic establishment has done a bad job in the last decades to understand, describe and work on the troubles of the people involved.
What troubles us?
What troubles could we find when we would start to talk to people in a serious way? This is hard to say because we social and political scientists have not really been into the habit of talking to other people; we predominantly like to talk to each other. When we want to know what the common man thinks, we might talk to the cab-drivers that bring us from the airport to our international conferences, but that’s about it.
Nevertheless, plausible guesses are that people are troubled by seemingly autonomous processes of rationalization, individualization and differentiation (Blokland 2011). The steady economization and bureaucratization of more and more spheres of life that come with it, give people increasingly the feeling to be wholly at the mercy of powers they neither understand or control. The progressive decline in political freedom to influence the development of our society and, by extension, our personal lives, creates a sense of malaise or powerlessness that translates in political apathy and cynicism, and regular screams for real, determined politics, unfortunately predominantly offered by populists. There were these processes have been the most radical and fast, as in the new Eastern member states or parts of the European Union, the malaise is the strongest, despite the undisputed gains in political freedoms. Marketization and economization of more and more life spheres further leads to a stress society where people increasingly feel crushed between conflicting obligations at home and at work. The speeding up hedonic treadmill of work and consumption hollows out all those activities that significantly contribute to human flourishing (Lane 2000). Already for decades in western market democracies rates of clinical depression and suicide are on the rise, as are complains on loneliness, lack of community and companionship.
These are some big problems in need of big answers. The answers are inevitably also based on empirically grounded visions on the Good Life and the Good Society making this life possible. When politics is insufficiently able to address these troubles and formulate answers, as seems the case, social science has an important task to fulfill.
It is worth trying.
Blokland, Hans. 2008. Een Lange Leegte: Over Maatschappelijk onbehagen, Politieke Competentie en het Plannen van een Toekomst (A Long Emptiness: On Societal Malaise, Political Competence and the Planning of a Future). Kampen: Uitgeverij Klement.
Blokland, Hans. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT) and Farnham: Ashgate.
Janis, Irving L. 1972. Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lane, Robert A. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.