Too stupid to vote?

There is an idea abroad. It is the idea that the Irish people are inveterately thick; incapable of rational choice or decision making. Saying that people are too stupid to understand something is the first refuge of the terminally technocratic when faced with dissent. More than that, considering the people “too stupid” for real change reveals one's own unwillingness to be self-critical and constructive about failure as well as revealing an ironic disdain for others, argues Angela Nagle.

This week on RTÉ’s Frontline Pat Kenny read a comment aloud from “the Twitter” asserting that “Irish people don’t deserve democracy because we’re too stupid to use it” and the comment received an energetic round of applause from the audience. So that’s that then. We’re all agreed that we and others around us can’t make political decisions except for the decision to renege the right to make decisions. Or did each of them mean, individually, that they themselves were not too stupid to vote, just everyone else, including all those other individuals around them who were thinking exactly the same thing?

The next day in The Irish Times Fintan O’Toole got very cross at the Irish People’s unwillingness to learn from his writings and lashed out with a similarly misanthropic sentiment, saying, “After Friday, unless all the polls are completely askew, there will be a popular mandate for the bank bailout, the EU-IMF deal and the cuts.” He went on to explain that the Irish people’s cowardice (he obviously means idiocy too, but cowardice works better for the purposes of reverse psychology) amounted to us not thinking of the children. Perhaps he hoped we might read it and think, “Hey wait a minute! I’m no coward or child-hater. I’m gonna show this guy what’s what by backing the transfer of power to a small group of technocrats, like he suggests in his book Enough is Enough: How to build a new Republic.”

In this election Irish people have been given the choice between independent candidates who they feel, regardless of their intentions, are likely to be drowned out and ineffectual, and the big parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. If we vote for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael we are incurable idiots who deserve our own impending poverty, he suggests, but if we vote for Labour we all know we’ll still be locked into an unpayable debt, which they have not expressed any radical strategy for dealing with. As a smaller group, United Left Alliance are running relatively few candidates, so not everyone has the option to vote for them but where they have run, they are doing well for a group that officially formed only very recently and with relatively little campaign funding. With Sinn Féin, there is the trifling matter of all those murders which puts some people off, but a largely working class Sinn Féin vote would hardly have satisfied O’Toole’s milieu anyway.

So, some people have gone for the reactionary Fine Gael, who promise to cut, cut, cut, which seems logical to many people if the country is broke. Some will still vote Fianna Fáil; the party who may well have gotten us into this mess but who also brought us, as far as most people are concerned, the only period of affluence Ireland has ever experienced.

While it’s important to puncture the cynical myth that we all had a little too much fun during the boom and now we’re paying the price, we should also be honest about our own comforting myth, that only a tiny elite benefited. This is simply not true. Most Irish people had greater chance of employment and greater disposable income during the Celtic Tiger than they experienced at any other time and as far as they are concerned the very bold boys of the ‘greedy’ free market-loving governments were the ones who oversaw this. Now, you may not like this particular framing of events and neither do I, but that is the way the Celtic Tiger story has played out in mainstream discussion. All the papers, including the Irish Times, have helped to tell that story for years, so to throw a strop now because the masses ‘don’t get it’ is patronising and lazy.

On top of that, the “parish pump” politics of Fianna Fáil and their supposedly mindless followers that every sage from O’Toole to David McSavage mock are not just about “fixin de roads” but have meant, for many people in rural areas, the provision of a vital local service through cut corners, hand shakes or the promise of loyalty to the party. A fixed road may be a joke to some but if you are a farmer who uses that road every day and you live in a country where the electoral choice is between a bad politician who will do you a favour and a bad politician who won’t, is it really that ‘stupid’ to choose the former?

In this context it is easy to see how those who oppose austerity have a hard argument to make when we try to convince others that cuts will make our situation worse and that unregulated market forces are not just amoral but disastrous. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong, it just means we have to work harder at articulating that point and winning that argument. For now, it is obvious from listening to public debate and from seeing the results in the polls that we are far from having convinced people of very much at all. Considering the people “too stupid” for real change reveals one's own unwillingness to be self-critical and constructive about failure as well as revealing an ironic disdain for others. With the weight of the mainstream media, the political establishment and private interests bearing down upon it, the anti-austerity argument is a hard one to win, but not being quite so smug about it is probably a good place to start.


Image top via Rachel Forde James on Flickr.