This was the Guardian’s “long read” Wednesday before last, and it explores how education levels are becoming a dividing line in politics, with the better-educated being more likely to vote for broadly liberal or left-wing parties while the less well-educated being more likely to vote rightwards (i.e. Republican in the USA, Tory or UKIP here). This has changed a lot since the early 1980s when the less well-educated were more likely to vote Labour, but that’s because Labour still represented unionised manual workers and degrees were only a possibility for either those from well-off families or those who benefited from selective education.
It mentions that there have been doubts about democracy itself going back to ancient Greek times, where Athens was (for a time) ruled by public meetings of citizens (which did not include women and slaves) and Plato, who envisaged an “aristocratic” state ruled by an élite of “philosopher kings”, condemned it:
For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were simply clueless. Worse, that made them prey for hucksters and demagogues who would promise the earth and get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that up is down, and the people believe you, then who is going to let them know that they are wrong?
I read the Republic in sixth form and the theory is a bit more complicated than that. Plato did not only believe the masses were “clueless”, he believed that mankind could be divided into people with gold, silver and bronze souls; the first were to be trained to be philosophers, the second were for the army and civil service so as to enforce the rulings of the philosopher class, and the third were the rest of the population whose thoughts were dominated by “base instincts”; this class was allowed to own property, but had to support the two upper classes through their work. He identified five types of régimes, namely ‘aristocracy’ (the rule of philosopher kings), timocracy or timarchy (effectively military rule, as found in ancient Sparta), oligarchy (rule by merchants), democracy (rule by the masses) and tyranny (rule by a lawless dictator).
What this article doesn’t examine is the influence of the mass media in shaping public opinion. (It mentions ‘media’ only once, in regard to Donald Trump, and ‘social media’ two more times, and ‘press’ and ‘papers’ not at all.) Future critiques of modern democracy are surely not going to focus on the school- and college-based education of the populace as much as on where the public got its information from, namely the corporate mass media which prominently contained propaganda, often on the front page (with unbiased reporting reserved for unimportant stories several pages inside the paper, if it is present at all), which encourages mistrust of people who are different, people who can be seen as getting something for nothing, some wealthy or prestigious people (e.g. lawyers, commonly presented as parasites, and academics, commonly presented as thinking they know better than the target audience) but not others, and encourages people towards irrationality and fear on a wide range of issues from drugs to immigration and foreign policy.
I believe it’s irrelevant whether someone has a degree or not; I have a degree in politics and history, but I took that in the 1990s and it wasn’t an in-depth examination of the politics of the time, and of course it could not examine the politics of future times. Schools should teach young people the basics of the British constitution, including the European institutions we belong to such as the Council of Europe and the EU so that people are not easily swayed by misinformation (e.g. linking the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court that rules on it with the EU, when in fact they are part of the Council of Europe). Only a tiny minority who came of age before the 1990s have degrees (including those with professional qualifications, some of which were later re-classified as degrees), and political education is not a mandatory part of any degree other than those related to politics.
It’s hugely insulting, and wrong, to suggest that people without degrees necessarily lack critical awareness or are ‘sheeple’. Neither of my parents had degrees when I was a child, but they were still able to see through media propaganda, most of which was pro-Thatcher and more generally pro-Tory then. Others are more credulous, particularly when what is claimed in a newspaper appears to match what they see or what their friends tell them they see (e.g. immigrants taking jobs or council houses), and people believe that “newspapers full of propaganda” are a thing you find in dictatorships, not democracies, and that newspapers do not simply make things up, which they in fact do, in both details and whole stories as revealed during the Leveson inquiry. And it is often observed that emotion matters more than reason in politics, as if this were a fact of life rather than the consequence of manipulation and propaganda.
The real “education gap” is between those able and willing to think critically, to educate themselves about politics and the issues involved, and those willing to believe propaganda and gossip. There are people with degrees in both groups and those without, although the Right currently fosters and trades on resentment and a sense of persecution among those without. There is no way of identifying who falls into which group without a test which could be manipulated to discriminate against some ethnic or class-based group, so the only way to stop democracy degenerating into tyranny — if not outright tyranny, then certainly the tyranny of the unthinking majority — is to target the corporations which manipulate and fabricate “public opinion” with stiff laws that require the segregation of opinion and fact, especially in prominent parts of newspapers, and punish distortions and untruths, not just personal libels. Policy and politics should not be dictated by what sells papers, as it is obvious that what sells papers is titillation and the confirmation of prejudice.
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