In discussing elections, pundits often defer to the so-called “wisdom of the electorate.” If a shocking event happens — such as the election of Donald Trump in 2016 — pundits race to “understand” what they have “missed.” What does the electorate know that we don’t? And so we see the proliferation of think pieces devoted to exploring the views of the “forgotten man” and so forth.
If your business is persuading people to vote your way, that’s valuable work. You need to understand why people vote the way they do, if you are trying to change the way they vote.
But if you’re trying to understand what’s right, I submit that such exercises are a waste of time. Because the mob is often wrong.
Think about your own experience on the Internet. Compare the comments on a widely trafficked site like YouTube or a newspaper with high circulation, as opposed to — well, when I think of a site with small traffic, I can’t help but instantly think of this one. Do you think the average YouTube comment is likely to be more insightful than the average comment here? To state the proposition is to laugh.
To take another example: I don’t know how many among the readership here have had the experience of seeing a tweet of yours, or a Facebook post of yours, retweeted or shared by a very large account. But if you have, you quickly find that the responses turn very ignorant very fast. The ratio of ignorant responses to non-ignorant ones is affected by whether the large account itself is run by an ignoramus or an intelligent person — but even the most intelligently-run large account is bound to generate a host of stupid replies.
Even if you haven’t seen this happen to your own tweets, if you’re a longtime reader who remembers when this site was occasionally linked by larger blogs, you would notice that the quality of the discussion generally degraded quickly following such a link. This was a common enough phenomenon that, when a critical mass of stupid comments appeared, someone would inevitably ask: who linked this post, Pat?
If the mob were inherently wise, I submit you would see the opposite of what you see.
Mobs lack the ability to process nuance. Mobs cheer dictators. Mobs cheer socialists. Mobs cheer Donald Trump. Mobs run people out of their jobs and try to ruin people and corporations. Few things repel me more than mobs, and I almost never voluntarily join one of any sort.
The very nature of a mob makes every member of it worse. Many of you may be familiar with Cass Sunstein’s work on group polarization. I learned about it from David French’s latest book (affiliate link). In short, groups of like-minded people, left to converse with one another, tend to gravitate towards a point of view that is as extreme, or often even more extreme, than the views held by the most extreme member of the group before the group congregated.
As a vivid illustration of the principle: fourteen years ago I told readers this story:
The headmaster of my high school, Stephen Seleny, who grew up in Hungary, once told us a story I’ll never forget. Mr. Seleny’s father was a decent, tolerant man who was appalled by the ugly racist ideology of Hitler. So Mr. Seleny’s father went to a Nazi rally to see first-hand how crowds of people could treat such a monster with such worshipful reverence. At the end of the day, Mr. Seleny’s father returned crying. His son asked him why he was crying. Mr. Seleny’s father replied that he had gone to the Nazi rally. He had heard Hitler speak. He saw the crowd raising their arms in the Nazi salute.
And Mr. Seleny’s father had raised his hand as well, and cried: “Sieg Heil!”
The electorate, frankly, is a mob. You need only be 18 and (theoretically) a citizen to vote. You don’t have to be smart, well-informed, capable of discerning nuance, literate, or in possession of any particular civic or other virtues. You basically need to be a sentient blob of protoplasm who has existed on the Earth for a sufficient period of time.
The wisdom of such a mob, when it comes to what is right, is of little or no value. The mob might get it right, of course — as I believe they did in the 2020 election. But they also might get it wrong.
Stop pretending the electorate has wisdom. There’s no reason to think that.