With the world seeing the rise of right-wing nationalism despite not having a great track record in governance, a natural question comes into mind regarding factors responsible for this change. There are many other instances in different parts of the world where the least probable ones got elected to power. It has left political scientists in those places struggling to find reasons for their success. The strange choice of the electorate is often attributed to a rise in numbers of uninformed voters. There is another view which emphasizes that public opinion gets managed, which in turn delivers the required electoral majority. Many political scientists feel that a lack of credible alternatives in terms of political narrative leaves the people with no choice. Does this mean that public intellectuals have failed to create a known alternative for the uninformed voter? If true, let us issue death certificate to intellectual influence and proceed with the autopsy.

Intellectuals defined

Before investigating the influence, it is essential that we first determine who is an intellectual. This question has been dealt with by many philosophers and thinkers in the last century. This term was borrowed from the Latin term ‘intelectualis’ and is concerned with intelligence, knowledge, and understanding. The term ‘intellectual’ was used as an ‘adjective’ earlier and started to be used as ‘noun’ only in the late 19th century. Most regard them as thinkers who often raise uncomfortable questions to people in power or the religious orthodoxy. Intellectuals are known by the number of publications, participation in social movements, and by leading intense debates in media. It is a widespread belief that intellectuals generally dress shabbily with a mop of unruly hair and an untrimmed beard. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Confessions that he began his transformation into an intellectual by choosing untidy dresses and letting his beard and hair grow. He also grew shaggy eyebrows. Later, his Armenian attire also became the topic of discussion.

A more appropriate term in the present context would be “public intellectual.” It is defined as the one who provides opinions on issues of political and ideological concern. They must participate in the debate to let their observations known and provide clarity on issues of concern to the masses. Public intellectuals think ideologically, debate vehemently, battle for their public values by mobilizing supporters, and winning elections.

Role of public intellectual concerning public opinion

Before going into the role of an intellectual in framing public opinion, it is essential to understand what constitutes a public opinion. There are various definitions of public opinion, but most acceptable one states that some consensus on an issue between some opinion-makers such that it enjoys some influence then that consensus can be called public opinion. Public opinion can be taken as “national will” on any given issue at an extended level.

Walter Lippmann argued that skilled organizers of public opinion know well enough to create majorities on the election day. “Public intellectuals are in a position to expose the policies of government and opposition to the people. They can also unravel the policy complexities and the hidden agenda. It is easily possible in societies that value freedom of expression, right to information, and have protection to easily avail political liberty.

Uninformed voters influence in a significant way the election result. Uninformed voters not only constitute the ones who do not have the relevant information but also of those who do not know what to do of that information. An eighteen-year-old youth cannot correctly analyze the complex issues related to economics, foreign policy, or rural development. Similarly, an illiterate voter in the Indian subcontinent cannot understand and correctly analyze policies related to education and food security. Hence, they have no option but to vote on identity considerations. Also, there is another category of misinformed voters who fall victim to a concentrated campaign of lies, deceptions, and manipulations of issues. This grouping of uninformed/misinformed voters has been used cleverly by all political ideologies in every part of the world.  It is a well-known fact that voting age was lowered in the oldest and largest democracy when the incumbent governments had become highly unpopular. Therefore, to regain their popularity ratings, they needed voters who would value rhetoric more than the substance. The role of intellectuals is vital in societies where residents are by and large disadvantaged about public-funded schooling, access to information, or independent media. For uninformed voters’ public intellectuals can easily present the truth behind the farrago of distortions and misrepresentations. With their counter-narrative laced with reasoning, public intellectuals can quickly turn uninformed/misinformed voters into semi-informed or informed voters.

Democracy integrated with Intellectocracy.

It has become more necessary that public intellectuals devise some mechanism in partnership with institutions that most of the uninformed/misinformed voters develop a similar level of understanding with regards to public issues, which are essential in electoral politics. It can be done quickly by implementing a requirement of renewal of voter id card after every three years. A mandatory continuing education (CE) credits requirement should be fulfilled at every renewal. This education can be related to economic policy, education policy, health care, foreign policy, and farmer issues. Not necessarily online education, but the network of government schools can be utilized to get these continuing education credits done. In third-world countries, it will motivate all political parties to work sincerely for everybody’s minimum level of education. Therefore, it is high time that democracy gets integrated with “intellectocracy.”

Accountability

There has been growing concern about the lack of accountability of voters who make strange choices, and everyone suffers in the long run. This lack of accountability creates another class of voters, namely disinterested voters. After repeated terms of disappointment, the size of this group is naturally bound to increase. Disinterested voters are the natural result of wrong choices of uninformed and misinformed voters. It has become imperative that voters are made accountable for the non-performance of government and impact less opposition.

Some ways have been suggested to improve the situation.

Justification of voting preference

As explained above, the voter id card should be renewed every three years only after voters have completed a certain agreeable number of continuing education credits. There should also be a short declaration by the voter, which justifies his/her choice in the last election in terms of policies of the voted party. It would provide an opportunity for introspection by the voter hence may motivate him for better choices in the future.

Revisiting provision of secret ballot

Most of the voters because of family, ethnic and communal reasons tend to vote as a block at the behest of political and ideological bosses. It generally means voting is not done with an emphasis on developmental issues and the creation of a better society. Therefore, the secret ballot was helpful as it provided an option for those voters who wanted to vote as per their own choice devoid of any social pressure. There is a growing consensus among many political scientists that doing away with the secret ballot will promote the visibility and accountability of voters in terms of their voting choice. In the last few years, many scholars have written in favor of the abolition of secret ballot.

Political intellectuals can voice their concerns regarding the policies of the government but also regarding the impact of opposition. For a healthy democracy, the opposition must have an impact else progress of the country goes off the track. The primary role of intellectuals is to ensure that political actors are never short of value-based ideas, which can help them formulate strategies for the common good and well-being of the country. Everybody agrees that political intellectuals are the only ones who can provide both the political diagnosis and the prescription.

 

Nadeem Khan is an author and speaker based in Toronto.


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