With the rise of right-wing nationalism in the world despite no great track record of governance, a natural question arises on the factors responsible for it. There are many instances in different parts of the world, where the least probable regimes were elected to power. It has left political scientists struggling to find reasons for their success.
The strange choice of the electorate is often attributed to a rise in the number of uninformed voters. There is another view, which emphasises that public opinion gets managed, which in turn delivers the required electoral majority. Many political scientists feel that lack of credible alternatives leaves people with not much choice. Does this mean that public intellectuals have failed to create valid and credible alternatives for the uninformed voter?
A Public Intellectual
The term ‘intellectual’ comes from Latin ‘intelectualis’ and is concerned with intelligence, knowledge and understanding. It was used as an ‘adjective’ earlier and began to be used as ‘noun’ only in the late 19th century. Most regard intellectuals as thinkers who often raise uncomfortable questions to people in power or religious orthodoxy. They are known by the number of publications, participation in social movements and by leading intense debates in the media. There is also a jestly created stereotyped image of intellectuals as persons who are shabbily dressed, with unkempt hair and untrimmed and flowing beard. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Confessions that he began his transformation into an intellectual by choosing untidy dresses and letting his beard and hair grow.
A more appropriate term in the present context would be ‘public intellectual. It is defined as the one who provides opinions on issues of political and ideological concern. Public intellectuals think ideologically, debate vehemently, battle for their public values by mobilising supporters, and winning elections.
There are various definitions of public opinion, but the most acceptable one revolves around some consensus on an issue between some opinion-makers such that it enjoys some influence. That consensus can be taken as public opinion. This opinion can also be taken as “national will” on an issue.
Walter Lippmann argued that skilled organisers of public opinion know well enough to create majorities on the election day. “Public intellectuals are in a position to expose the policies of government as well as of opposition to the people. They can also unravel the policy complexities and the hidden agenda. It is easily possible in societies that value freedom of expression, right to information, and have protection to easily avail political liberty.”
Uninformed voters influence the election result in a significant way. They not only constitute the ones who do not have the relevant information but also those who do not know what to do of that information. An 18-year-old cannot correctly analyse complex issues of economics, foreign policy or rural development. Similarly, an illiterate voter cannot understand and correctly analyse policies related to education and food security. Hence, they have no option but to vote on identity considerations of candidates and political parties.
There is another category of misinformed voters who fall victim to a concerted campaign of lies, deceptions and manipulations of issues. This grouping of uninformed/misinformed voters has been used cleverly by all political ideologies and parties across the world. It is a well-known fact that voting age was lowered in the largest democracy when the incumbent government had become unpopular. Therefore, to regain its popularity ratings, it needed voters who would value rhetoric over substance.
The role of intellectuals is vital in societies where residents are by and large disadvantaged due to lack of public-funded schooling, access to information or independent media. For uninformed voters, public intellectuals can easily present the truth behind the farrago of distortions and misrepresentations. With their counter-narrative laced with reasoning, public intellectuals can quickly turn uninformed/misinformed voters into semi-informed or informed voters.
It is necessary that public intellectuals devise some mechanism in partnership with institutions so that uninformed/misinformed voters develop a certain level of understanding of public issues, which is essential in electoral politics. It can be done quickly by implementing a requirement of renewal of voter ID card after every three years.
A mandatory ‘continuing-education credits’ requirement should be fulfilled at every renewal. This education can be related to economic policy, education policy, healthcare, foreign policy and farmer issues. The network of government schools can be utilised to get these continuing-education credits. In the third-world countries, it will motivate all political parties to work sincerely for everybody’s minimum level of education. Therefore, it is high time democracy got integrated with ‘intellectocracy’.
Lack of accountability creates another class of voters, namely disinterested voters. After repeated terms of disappointment, the size of this group is bound to increase. Disinterested voters are the natural result of wrong choices of uninformed and misinformed voters. It has become imperative that voters are made accountable for the non-performance of government and impactless opposition.
There should be a short declaration by the voter, which justifies her/his choice in the last election in terms of policies of the party voted for. It would provide an opportunity for introspection to the voter, hence motivating her/him to make better choices in future.
Most of the voters because of family, ethnic and communal reasons tend to vote as a block. This means voting is generally not done with an emphasis on developmental issues and for creation of a better society. Therefore, the secret ballot was helpful as it provided an option for voters to vote as per their own choice devoid of any unethical social pressure. However, there is unfortunately a growing consensus among many political scientists that doing away with the secret ballot will promote the visibility and accountability of voters in terms of their voting choice. In the last few years, many scholars have also written in favour of the abolition of secret ballot.
For a healthy democracy, the opposition must have an impact else progress of the country may go off track. The primary role of intellectuals is to ensure that political actors are never short of value-based ideas, which can help them formulate strategies for the common good.
(The author is a finance professional based in Toronto)
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