The Press Should Attend More to Voters as the EuroMess Unfolds

Media coverage today of PM Cameron’s veto of the latest EU attempt to deal with the “EuroMess” (h/t Ezra Klein) has a focus which has become familiar. The Guardian reports that the UK will now be unpopular in Paris and in other European capitals. The Telegraph relays that the other heads of the EU are furious with Cameron, Tory backbenchers are pleased and Labour leader Ed Miliband is on the attack.

All certainly reportable developments as far as they go. But where is the comparable coverage of the opinions of, um, voters in the UK? (You know, the people to whom a British government is supposed to be accountable). Likewise, when Prime Minister Papandreou dared to suggest that the people of Greece should be allowed to vote on a new budget package, most of the media (The Economist was a noble exception) focused mainly on how angry he had made Merkel and Sarkozy rather than how the people of Greece felt about not having the opportunity to participate in democratic governance.

It is easier for the media to cover elites than masses, but that doesn’t make it more important. I wish the big press operations of Europe would re-assign some of their journalists from lingering in the power corridors of Brussels to canvassing the opinions of ordinary people in places like Manchester and Athens. The current coverage reinforces the false idea that the EuroMess can (or should) be sorted in elite-filled rooms without consulting the citizens who might lose their democratic prerogatives in the process.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “The Press Should Attend More to Voters as the EuroMess Unfolds”

  1. This complaint strikes me as a bit silly.
    The opinions of Merkel and Sarkozy and Cameron matters because THEY will make the decisions. The man in the street will get his say come the next round of elections, but until then, his opinion is (to me and others looking on) irrelevant. His opinion WILL be one piece of data going into the calculations of politicians — and they presumably know what his opinions are, so it’s not like he is completely cut out.

    This is the way the system works — we get our say every few years, and the rest of the time our delegates make the decisions. The system has its faults, but US experiments with more direct democracy over the recent past have mainly taught us that, when people are asked to vote on this sort of thing, they will simultaneously vote that they want to expand services AND reduce taxes — ie never make a difficult decision.

    I mean, what value is there in knowing the opinion of the average Greek? He’s pissed off that everyone else stole from the government and he didn’t get his “fair” share. He doesn’t want austerity and higher taxes. He’s full of bluster about the how Greece doesn’t need Europe — fine fine. Is there anything useful in all this inchoate anger, resentment and frustration about a plan that is best for Greece? And best not just at letting people vent in one angry paroxysm, but best over the twenty year duration, once the reality of no access capital markets, and no ability to buy oil and gas sinks in?

    Likewise, what’s the value in knowing the opinion of the “average Brit”? You want a 60% opinion that Cameron did the right thing? I can write you the appropriate poll question. You want a 60% opinion that he did the wrong thing? I can also write you THAT poll question. Believing that there IS some stable “real” thing called public opinion that can be meaningfully aggregated independent of how one chooses to measure it is one of the myths of our time (and one of the few myths that our more successful politicians know are myths).

    1. This isn’t just that the press doesn’t talk about what the man on the street thinks. They are openly dismissive of the politicians asking what the man on the street thinks. The idea of holding new elections in Greece over the budget was met with reactions of horror by the press. Yet that is exactly the way a parliamentary system is supposed to work. If an issue of this magnitude arises that is also this controversial within a polity, the government *should* seek new elections to get a mandate on that specific issue. That was the last thing the elites in the press wanted to see.

    2. If the choice is presented in a more-services and less taxes way, of course everyone will vote for them. For direct democracy to work, the choices have to be made clear.

      Also, a lot of our more disastrous experiments in direct democracy have allowed the sheeple (or maybe it’s the wolves wanting to fleece the sheeple) to write the laws to be enacted. A better model would be to present the voters with referenda rather than initiatives.

      If California ever gets around to re-writing its Constitution, it should modify the initiative to both make it more difficult to get onto the ballot and more difficult to pass. A referendum from the Legislature has been through an extensive hearing process, most of the cards are on the table face up. Initiatives go through no hearing process, and the law of unintended consequences seems to apply with a vengeance to the results.

    3. I mean, what value is there in knowing the opinion of the average Greek?

      It might help a government to avoid learning the hard way how much consent it has left to play with, or how much of its population it will have to crush by any means necessary in order to impose what is ‘good’ upon it?

      Really, it’s the dismissive attitude encapsulated there that’s stoked the fires against ‘Europe’ all my life. How do you expect citizens to respond to being told, as they have been so often and so transparently, “You have some sort of opinions, fine fine, we have all the clout and lawyers and gold and guns, now go mouth off in a Free Speech Zone somewhere, and don’t aspire to meddle with the business of your betters”? I see no possible response to such ‘realism’ beyond black despair, red rage, or a cynical urge to cut oneself a piece of the racket while it’s still running. The rebranding of managerialist contempt for the masses as their ‘representation’ is not fooling anybody, least of all the despised ones.

      For what it’s worth, I agree that mob rule is a crappy approach to government, okay? But a ruling elite which treats its subject population merely as a mobile vulgus, whose political agency is limited to being allowed to mobilize behind one accepted ruling faction or another in their periodic ritual contests, looks to me a lot like a fancier way of converging on the same result. And people who wish no more than I for the March on Versailles or its traditional sequels, might consider that talking like Bourbons is not necessarily the best way to forestall it.

  2. How do you know what public opinion is unless someone takes an (accurate) poll? It actually annoys me the way journalists often spice up their news stories with “man on the street” opinions which you have no way of knowing if they’re representative.

    1. Phil P: Polling the public is absolutely a part of reporting on public opinion, and I would like to see more of that too in addition to shoe leather reporting with average individual citizens whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by what happens in the EuroMess.

      1. But the polling has to be done responsibility, with no gross oversimplifications of complex issues. Everyone wants more services and lower taxes and less regulation and better protection from malefactors of all collars.

        More useful polling results seem to be coming from new approaches that are discarding the Bernoulli oversimplification in favor of laying out scenarios and asking respondent what should be done within particular constraints. I’m willing to bet that politicians will really hate that sort of polling!

    2. But politicians don’t always much care what John and Jane think, especially if they believe they already know.

      A case in point: three years ago here in New Mexico we had a civil union bill (SB 2) that looked likely to pass. It initially failed to a tie vote in committee, because of two concurrent events. First, one of the Democrats voted, “Do not pass.” Another nominal Democrat on the committee had an important cell phone call she had to take at the time the vote was taken. She later said she would have voted “Do not pass”, because that was what her district wanted.

      The ACLU and Lambda got together and sponsored a poll in the two districts in question. The poll was done with best practices and used the election rolls as the universe. In both districts, substantial majorities (approaching 3:2) favored passage of SB 2.

      When presented with the poll results, both Senators dismissed the results as biased and irrelevant.

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