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The New York Times Rejects Majority Rule

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In a recent front-page New York Times article (October 5, 2016) two authors reviewed what they thought were disastrous results of referendums around the world, including Brexit in the U.K., the peace accords in Colombia, a constitution in Thailand, and more.

The results of these referendums, according to The Times, “eroded their own [the voters] rights and ignited political crises,” thereby underpinning “why many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous.” Referendums “often subvert democracy rather than serve it,” because “voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging – which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters.”

The article continues by quoting a professor who “in some cases” found that “most people” couldn’t remember the arguments on either side of the controversy and were “not really quite sure why they voted yes or no.” This observation led to the article’s conclusion, a quote by Harvard economics Professor Kenneth Rogoff: “The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily ‘democratic’ is a perversion of the term.”

Aside from the fact the article gives the impression ordinary voters are stupid, surely the authors based their conclusions on shaky evidence. When they say “many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous,” they leave open the possibility that many more political scientists view the referendum as an essential tool of democracy. And when they write that in “some cases” “most people” couldn’t remember the arguments, they leave open the possibility that in the vast majority of cases most people do remember the arguments. And while they discount referendums as a democratic instrument, their arguments equally apply to all elections in democratic societies since voters are compelled to again “rely on political messaging – which puts power in the hands of political elites.”

More importantly, however, the article completely overlooks how much the mainstream media – including The New York Times – is responsible for leaving the electorate “with relatively little information” to make an informed decision.

During the Brexit campaign, for example, right-wing politicians pushing for Brexit advertised that the £350 million a week that the U.K. gives to the European Union could instead go to the underfunded National Health System if the British voted to leave the E.U. The day after the leave vote prevailed, the same politicians admitted this promise wasn’t going to be kept.

But a responsible media could have alerted the public that the promise was most likely hollow. First, the right wing does not support the popular public health system but has been intent on privatizing it and so is not really interested in fully funding it. Second, while the U.K. gives the E.U. £350 million a week, it gets back more than it gives, making the promise to divert £350 million to the health care system look financially untenable.

More recently, the British mainstream media ran countless articles on an episode involving Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and Richard Branson, who heads up Virgin Trains. The British railways were privatized in the 1990s, and many argue the service has deteriorated. Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor of one of Branson’s trains while complaining of overcrowding. In response, Branson posted a film showing Corbyn walking by many vacant seats on the train. In one clip, however, the seats are clearly marked with tickets indicating they are reserved. And some passengers reported that in another clip seats that might look empty from the camera angle in fact had clothing on them to signal they were taken. Corbyn explained that he was looking for two seats together so he could sit with his wife. Even The New York Times jumped into the fray and reported on the Corbyn-Branson episode.

Despite all the coverage, it was impossible for the reader to draw any hard conclusions, given the data that was provided. But more importantly, frankly, who cares? Conversely, it would have been extremely useful for the media to conduct a study of the British railway system both before and after privatization so that the British people could make an informed decision over which system offers the better service. In fact, 58 percent of the British public favors re-nationalization, but a comparative study would give them hard evidence that either supports their position or provides convincing grounds for changing it.

During his recent campaign for leadership of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was repeatedly vilified by his opponents. The media dutifully and uncritically reported the attacks and seldom gave space for Corbyn’s responses. The coverage was so bad that 51 percent of the British public said the media were biased against Corbyn. Even worse, researchers at the London School of Economics conducted a study that found 75 percent of the press reports “misrepresents” Corbyn.

The New York Times coverage of the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders primary did not sink to the depths of depravity as the British press coverage of Corbyn. But The Times had its own way of spinning the information to favor Clinton. Her successes were prominently displayed on the front page; Sanders were buried in the back pages. Initially, The Times treated Sanders as a fringe candidate, showing how much the paper is out of touch with ordinary people. And The Times went out of its way to find economists who would disparage Sanders’ platform while ignoring those that supported him.

There should be no surprise that the mainstream media have little interest in giving socialists, or even social democrats, a fair hearing, nor do they have much interest in conducting the kind of investigative journalism that might support the superiority of nationalized industries. The private corporate media have their own interests to defend.

Next time The New York Times chooses to deride ordinary people, it would do well to look in the mirror. Its dark conclusions are only a dim reflection of itself. And although majority rule might be messy, it is superior to the minority rule of self-appointed “elites.”

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

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