A cartoon shows a sneering man smothering a voter as they cast their ballot

If real life was a Hollywood movie, a great many world leaders – from Putin to Orbán to Bolsonaro – would be classic, almost cheesy villains. Yet according to a curious modern orthodoxy, we are led to believe that politicians who are elected must be taken seriously, lest we insult those who voted them in. Even as elected politicians across the world commit acts as outrageous as razing the Amazon, inciting a gun-wielding mob or deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, their actions are normalised. The bad guys are winning everywhere, but any desire to stop them is perversely constrained.

In the field of economics, it is commonplace to observe that people make bad decisions. We neglect our pensions, stick with our overpriced insurance plans and scoff mediocre takeaways on the sofa. In fact, an entire sub-field, behavioural economics, is devoted to anatomising different varieties of poor decisions – from bias (systematic errors that skew everyone’s choices in a single direction) to noise (random mistakes caused by the vagaries of individual circumstance). Bestselling books have brought these insights to a global audience: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann lays bare the cognitive flaws that “consistently violate” the “rules of rational choice”.

Two other behavioural economists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, developed nudge theory as a policy response: if we can’t be trusted to make good decisions, then corporations and governments should design better “choice architecture” to help us improve our lives by default. Rates of organ donation are increased by switching from opt-in to opt-out; school cafeterias encourage healthier diets by placing salad rather than chips at eye level. The “science of choice”, Thaler and Sunstein wrote in their highly influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, has “raised serious questions about the rationality of many judgements and decisions that people make”.

Yet if we are quite happy to admit we are irrational in the realm of economics, when it comes to politics, the very notion that people tick the “wrong” boxes is taboo – even if doing so adversely affects their lives. Indeed, the more wrong-headed the decision, the harder it is to criticise, as “remoaners” have found to their cost. In 2017, Conservative MP Robert Goodwill defended the ongoing disaster of Brexit by rejecting the idea that “the British people who voted for Brexit were stupid and didn’t understand”; on the contrary, he insisted, “they knew exactly what they were voting for”. That phrase “the will of the people” implies, in itself, conscious self-determination; utilitarian action designed to produce good consequences.

In the supermarket, therefore, humans are frail and erring, but as soon as they step into the voting booth they become discerning and perspicacious. Voters’ views are truths to be divined by pollsters; politicians endlessly refer to the need to “listen”; media pundits refer to opinions they hear “on the doorstep” as if they are inherently original, rather than noting the resemblance to yesterday’s headlines.

The more democracy is hollowed out, corrupted and degraded, the more naively we take voting at face value. As Trump ransacked constitutional rules and norms, liberals tied themselves in knots; they were desperate to critique a figure clearly outside the boundary of democratic acceptability, yet felt they had to respect his place within it.

So if homo economicus was knocked off his pedestal decades ago, homo politicus is still very much intact. We are well aware of the depressingly effective commercial forces shaping consumer behaviour – Percy Pigs at the till, byzantine energy tariffs – yet the dark arts of political persuasion are far less widely discussed. Raise the possibility that, in 2023, we are under the spell of propaganda, and you run the risk of being accused of a kind of student-y, out-dated scaremongering.

The return of false consciousness

There used to be a name for voting against your best interests: false consciousness. But the term has fallen out of fashion amongst academics and commentators. For political scientist Colin Hay, it “conjures up a deeply condescending conception of the social subject as an ideological dupe”. High up above the “ideological mists which tame the masses” is the “enlightened academic” who may “look down to discern the genuine interests of those not similarly blessed”.

Yet our reluctance to interrogate manifestly poor electoral choices means that it’s impossible to acknowledge the reality of malign political persuasion at the worst possible time. In the UK and elsewhere, we are more influenced than ever by ministerial message discipline, continual polling and spin on an industrial scale. Reports of the death of the traditional media are in an important sense premature: newspaper circulation may be in free-fall, but these mostly billionaire-owned outlets still have a surprisingly strong hold over public conversation. The reaction of the Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph to the latest skulduggery of the British government sets the tone: the question of “cut through”, how things are “playing” with the public, is the only test that matters. Scandals like “Partygate” have been largely contained by tabloids selecting only the tamest photographs of Boris Johnson celebrating his birthday during lockdown, accompanied by forgiving headlines such as “Is that it?”

Power is not now simply imposed. It’s exerted insidiously through the aggressively ascendant illusion that ordinary working people are finally having their say. Contemporary autocrats are masters of the humility topos, deploying winning hubris to defuse any challenge. Posh and rich as they are, these faux friends of the grassroots constantly cite the wisdom of the voter.

Just when we need it most, the critique of manipulation has been depoliticised and transposed to a technocratic realm, defused by popular science facts and consumer finance tips, and recruited to the self-help project of life optimisation. Interestingly, Cass Sunstein published a book in 2021 promisingly titled Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception, but it’s concerned with myths such as those spread by anti-vaxxers, rather than political persuasion. It’s a firmly apolitical book, in fact, which displays an uncritical belief in governments’ ability to regulate misinformation; never mind the mendacious behaviour of many democratically elected governments themselves.

According to the Britannica definition, “false consciousness” denotes “people’s inability to recognise inequality, oppression, and exploitation in a capitalist society because of the prevalence within it of views that naturalise and legitimise the existence of social classes”.

There was a time when this concept animated academic seminars and Labour party meetings. It’s usually attributed to Karl Marx, but the phrase was coined by Friedrich Engels, in a letter to the Communist scholar Franz Mehring in 1893. In any case, both Marx and Engels argued that capitalism operates not only by oppressing the workers, but also by persuading them to conspire in their oppression by subscribing to the myth of social mobility. Later, Marxists used the concept to account for the apparent puzzle of why workers didn’t revolt. Theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser described how the ruling classes cultivate shared forms of “common sense” that disguise and sustain inequality.

A version of this idea originated much earlier: the 16th-century poet, magistrate and friend of Michel de Montaigne, Étienne de La Boétie, wrote that there are three possible reasons why people submit to tyranny: the force of custom; distraction by “bread and circuses”; and the fact that tyrants surround themselves with expanding circles of loyal dependents: in other words, as the sociologist Steven Lukes summarises, “inertia, manufactured consent, and patronage”.

Thomas Frank updated the idea with scathing verve in his classic 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which exposes the paradox “of working-class guys in mid-western cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a ‘rustbelt’, will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover”.

More recent still is the popular “Leopards Ate My Face” parody thread on the Reddit website, satirising people who regret their predictably disastrous electoral choices: “Leopards Ate My Face When I Voted For The Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party”.

Systematic falsehoods

But these articulations of false consciousness are the rare exceptions. Left-wing theorists abandoned the territory just as prominent right-wingers began to co-opt their ideas: the British Conservative politician Michael Gove cites Gramsci as a strategic, if not ideological, influence. Progressives, meanwhile, have become diffident and tongue-tied, stricken with the fear of associating delusion with class.

So it is that we find ourselves in a toxic spiral. As nudge theorists are fond of pointing out (presumably in order to not appear paternalistic), smart people can be duped too. They may be, in some cases, more susceptible – as David Robson claims to show in his 2020 book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes. But making good decisions is not just about being smart; it’s also about having access to good information. It’s therefore a problem that we live in a culture that demonises the intellectual “elite”: being well-informed has itself come to be regarded as a marker of being out of touch.

The association between rationality, condescension and well-meaning but patronising progressives erodes our ability to call out right-wing administrations when voters are misled. Perverse decisions are validated against supposedly “elitist” reason. As one American voter told Buzzfeed during the 2016 election: “Hillary Clinton isn’t alone in saying 25 per cent of Americans are deplorable. That is a sentiment that is rampant upon the American left. . . . And I think the American people aren’t stupid. And that’s the problem with Hillary Clinton. She thinks we’re all stupid.” Clinton was wrong to blame the sinner rather than the sin, but her mistake has led to almost universal liberal anxiety about questioning voters’ choices.

Progressives collude, therefore, in the conservative framing of this scepticism as the left not having faith in voters. “The Conservatives,” Jacob Rees-Mogg commented about the 2019 election that handed Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority, “trust the British people – the opposition benches do not.”

The phrase “people aren’t stupid” sounds egalitarian, but it actually perpetuates inequality. As the sociologist Steve Hanson has commented: “False consciousness doesn’t mean the working classes are idiots, but it does mean that they have been systematically fed untruth.”

Whose interests?

But what if people know they’re being lied to, but choose to vote against their interests anyway? And who gets to define what “best interests” really means? Affluent progressives, for their part, arguably exhibit economic false consciousness every time they vote for left-wing parties that would tax more of their income.

As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes, it’s possible to have a very clear idea of what the reality is and still act in self-destructive ways. “One knows the falsehood very well,” he writes, showing the limitations of the Britannica definition of false consciousness, “and still one does not denounce it.”

When it comes to the working class in Britain, some voters may be ideologically right-wing, while others may feel – even after decades of austerity, low wages and measly benefits under successive Conservative governments – that the other side is not much better. In some countries, the left have now been out of office so long they’re considered almost “unelectable”: they’ve effectively lost their clout.

Another explanation is that put-upon voters favour right-wing parties that appear to confer on them some dignity, as opposed to liberals who seem to pity them. Around the world, shabbily corrupt populists have done a pretty good job of convincing ordinary people that they are themselves reassuringly ordinary, in the sense of vividly exemplifying the crooked timber of humanity.

And populists have also convinced many blue-collar voters that, despite their offshore wealth and private jets, they share those voters’ values. The very politicians who promote the financialisation of everything piously point out that not everything is about money, you know.

The culture wars have turbocharged this process. Republicans in the US have used social policies – on abortion, or immigration – to encourage poor white voters to betray their economic interests. Here in the UK, confected debates about patriotism and “wokeness” are shifting the political fault-line ever further away from the gaping socio-economic divide and towards a split based on social attitudes, level of education and whether you live in a city or a seaside town.

Time for an update

There is some evidence that working-class support for parties that will harm them economically is overstated. The authors of a 2016 journal article entitled “There Is Nothing Wrong with Kansas” found that poor white voters in America actually tend to vote for Democrats around 75 per cent of the time. They found that the small remaining group of poor whites who vote Republican didn’t vote against their interests more often than other groups. So it’s complicated. The result of the next general election will be influenced by a number of factors, including rationality, compassion, self-interest and cynicism. But voters will also be influenced by ideology, still energetically propagated by old and new media.

In recent years, left-leaning think tanks have focused much of their energies on extending and enhancing voter “engagement”: developing digital democracy platforms, or participatory budgeting initiatives. It’s right to give more people more of a say. But we should also examine why they say what they do, and acknowledge that simply having a voice (on social media or in a citizens’ assembly) doesn’t necessarily diminish the powerful factors influencing people’s views and allegiances.

If the original Marxist meaning of false consciousness is now ill-suited to today’s complex, diverse society, it is high time we updated it. Otherwise, the monopolies and magnates wrecking the world will continue to be bolstered by the widespread notion that they do so with authentic grassroots consent.

Since the political earthquakes of 2016, there’s been a surfeit of commentary about “post-truth” and “fake news”. Yet while we may accept we are living in this environment, there is still a widespread nervousness about accepting that – individually and collectively – we are being managed. As plutocrats prosper and the planet burns, we must channel our energies into understanding how public opinion is shaped. Those who regard themselves as progressive are letting the bad guys get away with it. We think we are doing the right thing, but we are getting it all wrong.

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.