We live, as all sixth form politics students will know, in a representative democracy, where elected officials rule on our behalf. One might think that they represent our opinions but few things could be more incorrect.
It is a fact almost universally ignored that the political, media and academic elites of Britain and, indeed, the Western world tend to have wildly different perspectives from common citizens. Is the public to their left? Is the public to their right? Both, in fact, as majorities of British citizens support not only nationalised rail services and increased minimum wages but a stricter welfare system and an end to immigration.
Leftists, liberals and Conservatives evade the tricky problem of accounting for their distance from the general public by posing as democrats when referencing its support for opinions that they endorse and denouncing populism when referencing their opposite numbers’ endorsement of popular ideas that they oppose. This is done with an amusing lack of self-awareness. When popular opinion can be aligned with ideologies of the influential classes, common citizens are held to be righteous and astute. When popular opinion defies such ideologies the common man is backwards, bigoted, selfish and dangerous.
I would not attribute special intelligence to the opinions of Joe or Jane Bloggs. Their ideas tend to be extracted from a stew of traditional prejudice, self-interest and sentimentalism. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for their value. Unlike those of us who are strange enough to enjoy politics, most people have little time for ideology and have a more sceptical attitude to what can and should be done.
Public opinion is also important because it reflects popular feeling. Representative democracy demands that elected officials represent the interests more than the opinions of their constituents, as Burke lectured his voters centuries ago, but their views can be evidence of the extent to which they feel that their interests are being represented.
The success of the Front National in France, PPS in Switzerland, PiS in Poland, Podemos in Spain and even Donald Trump in America is evidence of international dissatisfaction with the economically globalist and socially progressive political and media classes of the West. Millions of people feel less like citizens than subjects – if not in a tyranny than in an experiment.
The left is averse to this upswell of popular feeling because of its socially reactionary elements. The right fears this as well, as it tends to be liberal, and is also repulsed by its economic collectivism. In France, the socialists and Conservatives have united in tactical voting to block the rise of the National Front (just as Michel Houellebecq predicted in his recent novel Submission). However one feels about the Le Pen dynasty, this seems like a futile attempt to entomb the feelings of Europeans who have decided that their interests are not being represented.
Such measures can only be effective for a time. 2016 could be the year when the bubbles of the dominant classes begin to pop.