Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Academic unanimity in favour of EU membership is to be expected, but derogatory views about public attitudes are less acceptable

Nigel Farage has called a campaign for the impartiality of British academia in the forthcoming EU Membership referendum.  His argument is that academics are so widely and heavily funded by the EU they cannot be properly free-thinking.  On this he is surely right.  In July, Universities for Europe and Universities UK (which represent 133 higher education institutions) came out with unequivocal backing for the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.  How can this be reconciled with the idea that universities should be bastions of open-mindedness and free speech?  How can any academic speak out without fear when the 'company policy' is against him? 

I've spent four years studying public support for the EU (or lack of it) at a British University.  I know about the pressures to conform to the orthodox wisdoms of academics. (My two excellent PhD supervisors are most certainly blameless here, as is Matt Goodwin who I worked for on his latest Ukip book - published next month).  The tacit rule is don't question the EU funding arrangements for research.  And never criticise the holy grail: the €14.7 billion Erasmus+ programme.  You will have an irate Erasmus exchange student sitting right next to you.  Sometimes I have felt like a dangerous heretic.  Not once have I heard a qualified academic speak out in favour of leaving the European Union at a public event, such as an academic conference.  

A survey before the last election of 1,019 academics for the Times Higher Education Supplement found only a lonely 4 who supported the Eurosceptic Ukip. Reason enough you might say, to return to the days post 1603 of the 'fancy franchises' when Oxford and Cambridge Univerisites had two MPs each of their own. My arriviste institution, the Univeristy of London, was granted one through the Second Reform Act of 1867.   Nowadays however, it's generally accepted that the more cerebral do not necessarily make better voters.  They like the rest of us have their own interests.  And these, as much as their unique insights explain how academia has become so embarrassingly detached from the collective wisdom of the average voter.

Armed only with one vote like the rest of the public, academics can still exert considerable influence on our politics through their research.  As I show below, it's one central idea from academia that frames how the media report the public debate on the EU, and unsurprisingly, it's a favourable idea for the 'remain in the EU' lobby.

The idea actually stems less from decent research than a prejudice academics hold about the wisdom of public opinion on EU matters.  My research work has challenged the central 'EU friendly' rule that dominates European Studies departments and colours voter behaviour research on the EU issue.  It's this: the public cannot be trusted to make sensible decisions on EU integration.  They don't understand its complexities.  They are uninterested in its remoteness. And, most seriously, they are led by their emotions (when not by the political class).  The intellectual justification is in part poor empirical research and part suspect psychological theory.  More specifically in Britain, the public, so the argument goes, see immigration and economics as separate concerns within the overall EU debate, but too often their rational economic judgements get infected with more visceral (non-rational) feelings of national identity that drive immigration attitudes. To use the academic vernacular, EU support is structured two-dimensionally, and these dimensions are 'cross-cutting' or 'orthogonal'.  Simply put: the two types of support which make up the overall 'remain or leave' judgement in the public mind are separate but conflicting.  Rational thoughts can't be squared with visceral feelings.  How could voters make head or tail of it? 

The derogatory stance of academia towards the voting public on the EU is an all important subtext to the forthcoming referendum.  Whilst the 'remain' lobby would not be so unwise as to say explicitly the public are confused and can't be trusted, the Europhile camp believe it.  They will use the 'two dimensions' idea in a more subtle way to frame the debate.  They want arguments about immigration and economics detached so they can play on economic fears, whilst branding the immigration side of the debate an emotional side-show.  So far they are succeeding.  In the public debate, the idea of independent economic and immigration aspects of the question are independent is all pervasive.  When you hear the ubiquitous words 'soft' (economic driven) and 'hard' (identity driven) Euroscepticism you are hearing a narrative of divided, incompatible attitudes.  Even opinion pollsters measure interest in immigration as separate from EU membership (and then conclude there's not much interest in the EU question).  But the public don't see it this way.  They have no difficulty reconciling their economic and immigration views.  For my PhD, I have researched different types of attitude towards EU membership, particularly on immigration and economic questions.  Having analysed a range of survey data, I have found no empirical evidence suggesting economic and identity attitudes on the EU question are anything but one-dimensional.  Economic and identity concerns are tightly correlated - i.e. they face the same way, either against or for membership.  They only form observable separate dimensions when survey indicators are 'cherry-picked' to conform to the beloved two-dimensional theory (E.g. Boomgaarden et al., 2011, Mapping EU attitudes: conceptual and empirical dimensions of EU support.  European Union Politics, 12(2) 241-266).

Some of my research is displayed below.  The table shows a range of 'items' or survey question responses from British voters (vertically) to the 'Intune' survey of 2009 (random-probability sampling).  Some of these questions ('Diffuse Identity items') tap voter feelings of attachment and belonging to Europe and represent deep-seated emotional ties - 'hard support' if you like.  The second set of questions are more specific and are meant to tap rational (economic) evaluations of membership and EU performance, such as whether it benefits me personally or the country. This group of items represents so called 'soft support'.  According to the received wisdom of academia, these two sets of attitudes should not load onto one dimension, but load onto two dimensions.  In other words, the set of hard identity items should correlate with each other, and so should the set of soft performance evaluation items.  But the two groups should not correlate together as one because they are different dimensions.  This is not the case.  The one dimensional model is a better fit to the data than the multidimensional model (denoted by a higher Bentler-Bonnet test score and a lower Standardised RMR test score).  This means it more accurately reflects public attitudes to Europe.  The public see the questions of identity and economics as one.  The idea of two dimensions is a fiction, according to my research. 

Imaging British public attitudes as one-dimensional helps explain why support changes in response to new information - and it does. If British EU opinion is a 'great concrete block' of deep-seated unconscious prejudice - as Tony Blair's pollster Philip Gould* said in 2002 - why should it move in a meaningful and measurable way?  But it does.  You will have to wait for my PhD to be published for more on the structure of EU support, and why levels of British public support go up and down.  Suffice to say now, the main implication of my work is that we need to take the wisdom of the voting crowd far more seriously than the existing academic literature would suggest. 

For campaigners, this is yet more reason to adopt a bottom-up approach where the public are engaged by the respective sides and take part in the debate.  Don't think they will be influenced by elite arguments like they were in 1975.  The public know a lot more about the EU now, and elites are less trusted.  In my PhD I also provide multivariate modelling of time-series data, showing that the power of politicians to influence public attitudes has reduced sharply, particularly during the Eurozone crisis between 2008-2012.  The public are increasingly drawing their own conclusions, armed with new information on EU performance.  They now have sufficiently well structured views to be repelled by patronising politicians who they don't trust much.  They are far more likely to listen to the rest of the public, which could make crowd sourced 'bottom-up' campaigning a decisive tactic, if anyone knows how to do it.  And don't imagine that their judgements won't change sharply in response to new information on the immigration issue, on EU or domestic economic performance, or moving evaluations of the party leaders.

I don't believe that either side of the debate (particularly remain) are ready to really trust the public with a crowd-sourced campaign.  The expensive PR agencies of central London will be in heavy demand once again, producing winning arguments and clever slogans led by often suspect opinion polling.  Inside their lavish offices the detached members of the political elite will devise plans to manipulate the conscious thoughts and unconscious desires of the public.  The public will never be granted ownership of the campaign with a buzzing and gamified online strategy.  By this I mean voter / activist / spokesmen profiles and fund-raising; grass-root campaigning leaderboards and prizes; cartoon, blog, and vlog competitions; online ratings of politicians or arguments and prediction tournaments on what might happen.  If you haven't heard of this stuff, its because it has never happened.  Instead the public will be cajoled as a plaything, not treated as players - never granted ownership of the campaign, for example on which spokesman should get to appear in the media. Excellent spokesman could emerge from the general public providing a greater voltage to the debate, perhaps having been voted as a winner within an online competition.  Who is to say there is not a brilliant communicator out there amongst the general public who has yet to be unearthed?  Such a campaign would not be devoid of PR spin. Any campaign that could show authenticity in listening to the public would have the right image.  The voters would feel part of their own movement.

The blog below on the pernicious impact of Sigmund Freud and family discusses why our intellectual culture has been anti the 'wisdom of crowds' idea - that the many are smarter than the few.  It's the underlying reason why academics justify crowd stupidity and is most prevalent on the more established 'remain' side of the EU debate.  The remain lobby has never believed in the wisdom of crowds since the days of Monnet.  But their elite-centric view of the world of grand top-down plans and big centrally coordinated groups, is fast being pummelled into a flat expanse of rubble by the Internet.  If there is a long term underlying cultural change that will see 'remain' lose, this is it.  The crowd will understand it faster than the planners and Europhiles. The future is theirs.


Sigmund Freud and family have a lot to answer for - a rant against Freudianism in theory and practice
Apart from advocating cocaine as an anti-depressant, Sigmund Freud first suggested that our behaviour owes more to emotions and desires lurking in the unconscious than the rational assessments we make consciously.  Western civilisation represses these base instincts Freud maintained. Subsequently, such repression would either be considered bad (as the Nazis thought, along with the lunatic Wihelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse and a school of modern day Marxists); or for good (as the generation of post-war paternalists believed).  What united both the fascists, Marxists, lunatics and the post-war interventionists, was a believe that the unconscious desires of the masses were there to be either let loose or managed by elites who always knew more.  Effectively, by giving a pseudo-scientific account of the dangerous capacity of the masses, Freud had legitimised any amount of subtle controlling by our leaders, benign or not.  ‘Nudge theory’ is merely the latest incarnation of the supposedly benign variety.  Blair was perhaps the most pernicious recent exponent of mass manipulation of the public into support for his just causes, such as his liberal interventionist foreign policy and support for EU membership. Without compunction, he and Alistair Campbell happily 'sexed up' the dossier justifying war in Iraq in 2003.
Before the Internet, and the emergence of a new faith in ‘crowd wisdom’, twentieth century business followed the political manual of Freud, thanks in part to Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays. He pioneered techniques to deceive the public into rampant consumerism (helping to contribute to the Wall Street Crash of 1929).  He was the first to talk of 'public relations', a disingenuous term for as practice in 1920s America of tapping public emotions over reason. One of his first jobs was to break the taboo on women smoking in America by shoving cigarettes in the mouths of suffragettes (who were then photographed) to connect the activity with female emancipation.  The Freudians understood cigarettes at the time to be represented in the subconscious mind as penises, so suddenly women had willies.  After WW2 he worked for the American government stoking up the emotions of Americans against a perfectly legitimate new government in Guatemala, the original 'Banana Republic', that threatened US banana interests and was made to pose a communist threat to US security through his falsehoods.  If you haven't watched Adam Curtis' documentary, 'The Century of the Self' (BBC, 2002), please do. ('TheMayfair Set' by him from 1999 is brilliant too – spot a similar theme).  Bernays’ favourite word was stupidity.  In fact he called most people around him stupid.
Naturally enough, the alternative position to believing in 'crowd wisdom' is considering the public stupid and advocating paternalism.  They are really two ends of the scale.  Perhaps the greatest exercise in paternalism since 1945 has been European integration. Think of the dominant narrative of European Studies departments about British voters and the EU: that European integration is objectively beneficial but remote and complicated, beyond the cognition of generally uninterested voters.  Instead those voters are falsely conscious of their interests.  They are obsessed with the threat posed to British identity by EU governance and EU immigration.  (See my critique of Hugo Young's 'This Blessed Plot' on this website - May 2013).  In his final interview as Prime Minister, Blair offered a frank summary of the false  consciousness theory in respect to EU integration: 'The British people are sensible enough to know that, even if they have a certain prejudice about Europe, they don't expect their government necessarily to share it or act upon it' he said. 
More broadly, this narrative on public support for the EU is incompatible with a whole branch of classical political science rooted in the assumption that man is capable of pursuing his own interests, or as Anthony Downs puts it (1957:2) “that there is a pattern – or ordering of political behaviour that is rational, i.e. ‘reasonably directed towards the achievement of conscious goals’. This is fundamental to the study of voter attitudes, because ‘only if human actions form some pattern can they ever be forecast or the relations between them be subject to some analysis’. The alternative approach, that has the currency in European Studies departments, elevates psychological, social and emotional factors over economic ones in voter decision-making and is sometimes called 'behavioural economics'.
My PhD thesis (summarised in my blog from April 2015) argues that the whole study of public support for EU membership has become deeply confused and unhelpful because it is now dominated by this pessimistic approach to voter motivations, incorrectly specifying two distinct and conflicting dimensions to public EU support: soft (cognitive / economic / rational) and hard (emotional / identity - from the unconscious). No consistent theory is supplied about how these dimensions might be related and when each component becomes more important, and hence no rational theory is possible for what causes over time change in attitudes. It is really a failure to find a third way approach between believing in the wisdom of crowds and believing in their stupidity. 
This link is an easy to understand exposition of the behavioural theory from Prof. Richard Thaler, given in a lecture a few months ago at the LSE. (University of Chicago, co-author of ‘Nudge’ - that attempt to intellectualise paternalist government).  I dislike the sneering tone of Thaler, seemingly a common trait with most behavioural economists. The lecture is full of tiresome jokes about how daft (other) people are. The most ghastly behavioural economists (like Thaler) love anecdotes deriding their opponents and are deeply patronising of the public.  Paul Dolan, a professor at the LSE also talks briefly after Thaler (at 39:40). He says one preposterous thing. Before GE2015, he was a huge fan of Betfair as 'a really brilliant prediction market' in politics - suggesting, somewhat inconsistently, belief in the predictive power of 'crowd wisdom'. However since the election in May his view has undergone a 180 degree volte face, because the market got it wrong.  This is just one example of how people who try and occupy the middle ground between believing in crowd wisdom and psychological theory are just confused.  Of course, the informative value of a betting market on a future outcome cannot be judged on one case, however important that case may be.  Favourites do not always win, they only win a percentage of the time. Therefore the predictive quality of markets must be judged probabilistically, on multiple cases over time.
One of Thaler's buddies is Cass Sunstein, who wrote a largely admirable book on crowd wisdom called 'Infotopia' (2007).  Unfortunately he is also a 'nudger' like Thaler, believing that failures in crowd wisdom are caused by groups becoming 'cocooned' by 'information cascades' (essentially herding), and need to be corrected by the great and the good - the nudgers like him.  But when do we know that such action is required?  And who can we ever trust to nudge?   What do you think?  Listen to the podcast and don't waste £11.99 on Sunstein and Thaler's book.

* The late Philip Gould was well meaning.  He thought through his focus groups New Labour could actually listen and measure what the public wanted.  This was an improvement on Labour in the 1980s, but the 1997 Labour election victory was not 'an end to the elitist politics that has governed Britain for the last 100 years' - see here at 3.46:00.  In government Blair maintained the old paternalism.