What voters want

Alexander X. Douglas asks why we're taken in by meaningless catchphrases.


“Words are wise mens counteres; they do but reckon by them, but they are the mony of fooles”. Thus Thomas Hobbes – or, as Francis Bacon put it: “Men imagine that their minds have the command of language: but it often happens that language bears rule over their minds.”

The Conservative party, which is likely to increase its majority in this election, has opted for a strategy that appears to consist of nothing more than repeating the same phrases as many times as possible. This is the sort of thing that should work for training a dog or summoning brute spirits through incantation. It shouldn’t work for winning an election in a complex and troubling world. Anyone can be fooled by a silver-tongued word-spinner, but to be manipulated by mere repetition is unflattering to the intellect. Why does it happen?

Back when I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine used to laugh at how, in tutorials, people would begin sentences: “It’s very. . .”, and then think for a long time about what should follow. “If you don’t know what it is”, he asked, “how can you know it’s very much that?” But the mind has a strange ability to subscribe to abstractions. Susan Stebbing commented on the speeches of Ramsay MacDonald that they “provide us with examples of the expansion of the minimum amount of thought into the maximum amount of words”. The speeches she quotes are rammed with content compared to the offerings of Theresa May, but at any rate the crucial point is what Stebbing goes on to write:

The chief danger of getting into a habit of thinking in abstractions is that we take the words to have meaning and yet do not know what it is these words stand for. This may seem incredible; it is in fact horrible true. I say that it is “horribly true,” since, for example, human individuals are prepared to die or to be tortured and to kill or torture other individuals for the sake of liberty without knowing what “liberty” means.

It is indeed horribly true. May is a politician with labile principles, as her attitudes towards Brexit reveal. Yet her commitment to those ever-shifting principles is so strong that in support of them she is willing to oppose human rights and send people to countries where they will be tortured. Soon millions of UK voters will succumb to her promise of “strong and stable government”, blithely untroubled by their inability to say anything at all about what that means.

What is a strong government? A government that murders its dissidents is strong in one sense. A government that can comfortably allow its dissidents to speak freely is strong in another. A government that removes market regulations might be strong in its commitment to the free enterprise system, a government that nationalises industries equally strong in its commitment to socialism. And stable: does it mean “unwavering”, like hubris rushing headlong into nemesis? Does it mean “unmoving”, like a coffin in the earth? 

“Strong and stable” means nothing in particular. But British voters want that nothing in particular, and they want it now. They demand that the government be very. Very very. H.L. Mencken was wrong to say that in a democracy the common people know what they want. But he was certainly right that they deserve to get it good and hard.

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Alexander X. Douglas is a lecturer in philosophy in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological, and Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews. His website is https://axdouglas.com