The major problem with democracy is the foolishness of our fellow citizens. This may sound like an arrogantly partisan remark, but it is not. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, we all agree on that. Each of us would describe foolishness differently, no doubt, but no one denies that it’s there. And that raises an interesting possibility: Would it be possible for right and left to agree on the general specification of foolishness in politics?

Politically speaking, I am way out on what is often misleadingly called “the right” (i.e., the libertarian and conservative lot), but my general view would certainly be echoed by left-wingers, who are constantly astonished at the dumb way in which Americans vote for Bush or the British have gone along with the duplicities of Tony Blair over the Iraq war. And whenever tensions arise about Third World migration, many people express fright at the thought that “right-wing extremists” (not at all, dear reader, “on the right,” the way I am) might go on the rampage. The attempt to regulate “hate speech” assumes that simple and horrible people “out there” among the masses possess so little rationality that inciting words may induce them to commit vile acts.

These fears are rational, yet, as democrats, we are compelled by consistency to respect the opinions of others because we are reluctant to take away their right to vote. I conclude from this that the study of political naiveté, or foolishness, or perhaps downright stupidity, is a category we have long ignored out of piety and politeness. And if we were to give it some thought, we might all be able to agree on a few basic principles.

Such a study would have to begin from the fact that some classes of people are more dangerously naive than others. This was implied by the principle on which earlier generations restricted the franchise to property owners. If you had an estate to manage, you had some experience and also perhaps skill in thinking about the responsibilities of public policy. Correspondingly, it was felt that “the mob” or (in later sociological terminology) “the crowd” constituted a set of impulsive and irrational people who must at all costs be kept away from the levers of power. That this opinion was not at all foolish may be seen from the fact that the organized intimidation of mobs facilitated the totalitarian destruction of democracy in many countries during the twentieth century.

A special sort of political incompetence would thus seem to characterize certain sets of people, and in our time we should have to begin with pointing the finger at actors and artists, in films, stage and television, and the plastic arts. These are conspicuously not the people one would consult in seeking models of political savvy. The number of entertainments in which the massed ranks of artistry have been assembled to persuade us that war is hell is a notable example of the grinding moralism of those who traffic in the imagination. Actors and artists live among fictions; one might almost say their lives are “make believe.” Further, their profession requires that they should respond to fictions with strong and passionate emotions. The striking thing about the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century was that they dealt in melodramatics—desperate struggles between good and evil. And it was often the clean moral lines of ideological commitment that so attracted actors and writers. The skill of politics, by contrast, lies in keeping melodrama at bay for as long as possible. The state is notoriously a “cold monster.”

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule, as there are to any such generalization. Ronald Reagan was a very capable president of the U.S., and Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be a reasonably competent governor of California. But both of these men moved slowly into politics after earlier apprenticeship to the political. Further, they were both “right wing” in the same sense to which I have confessed, and this kind of “right wing” is based on reality in a way that (for better or worse) left-wing views are not. The reason is that “right wing” in my sense means concerned with preserving the order of things that has so far worked with reasonable success in Western parts over the last few hundred years, whereas to be “left wing” is to embark on an adventure towards some as yet untried versions of reform or perfection. One might thus suggest that artists suffer a professional deficiency—what the French call une déformation professionelle—in their grasp of political reality.

This particular kind of naiveté is illustrated by the recent response of Cate Blanchett to the rioting in Sydney over the conduct of Lebanese immigrants. Miss Blanchett is an enchanting artist, and her hoisting of the banner of “Tolerance” an admirable sentiment. She was also reported as expressing her views by wearing a tee shirt with the encouraging admonition “Think!” on it. Again, unimpeachable! Who are we to repudiate so interesting a command? Yet as a cooling draft on the passions of a lot of surfers thundering around the beaches of South Sydney looking for men of Mediterranean appearance, it does not quite hit the spot. The problem lies not in the pious banality of the slogans so much as the fact that those engaged in what was described as a “riot” were people with a grievance. It may or may not have been a real grievance. It may have been that they were animated by the thing called “prejudice,” perhaps even racial prejudice, but there would only be two sensible ways of dealing with it: a strong police presence invoking law and order, and/or a certain amount of attention to the grievances they thought they were responding to. They already had “thoughts”; the problem was not to make them think, but to come to terms in some way with what they were already thinking. Invoking an abstraction was not really quite à propos.

Nor is it irrelevant, though it is incorrect politically, to observe that Miss Blanchett is a woman. It is now about a century since women were accorded the franchise in Western countries, and our Western practice has generally been to accord to many classes of people the right to vote before there is much evidence of their wisdom in civil affairs. The hope is that time will be a great educator. We have suffered no great disasters as a result of this policy, though it may be wondered whether we have enjoyed any notable access of wisdom either. The assumption of the old limited franchise was that voters brought to their political judgments the attitudes they had developed in other areas of life. People bring to politics the experiences of their daily life. A century ago, female experience was largely of the domestic realm, and we may suspect that women regarded law and order problems as those of running a household full of unruly children. Such a cast of mind construes a law as if it were a prohibition, for which reason one might well regard Prohibition in the United States as the first great triumph of feminine politics. It did not turn out to be a successful way of dealing with drunkenness.

Since those days, of course, women have greatly broadened their experience, and lobbyists often take it for granted that our society is marked by the constitutional injustice of excessive masculinity in our legislatures. Only a fifty-fifty distribution of gender power would be an equitable outcome. This argument is never debated in terms of women and wisdom; the lobbyists fiercely eyeball any critic who dares to challenge the view that women are in any way less wise or rational in politics than men. Yet, I do not think that this rather important question should be another of that large class of things relegated to the ghetto of political incorrectness. Is it really the case that women in politics are as wise as men?

There are certainly two things to be said. One of them must be that those women who have come to rule us seem to bring to politics a special kind of skill. Queen Elizabeth I may have been an immensely irritating woman to deal with, but she was a highly successful ruler. She often operated by evasion and irrelevance, but she knew when to be decisive, and she did not seek to do more in controlling her subjects than to keep the peace. She did not want to “make windows in men’s souls.” Catherine in Russia had similar talents. And in recent times, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher have been notably smart politicians. The point about both of them, of course, is that they came up the hard way, no doubt overcoming male prejudice on the way. They certainly knew what politics was about. And when it became necessary to use the military, they may have hesitated (as indeed they ought to have done), but they did not shrink.

It is striking that feminists seldom see these figures as role models. Many regarded Margaret Thatcher as having sold out: no female icon, she! For the assumptions shared by feminists and male chauvinist pigs alike is that women are different. Some feminists cherish the hope that the coming equality of women in the councils of state will move us towards a time of internationality and peace. The male chauvinist position on this question is that women are creatures of emotion rather than reason, and that their talent is for mercy rather than justice. Pollsters have long been conscious of a “gender gap” in voter judgment, and the general principle seems to be that women incline towards such causes as generous welfare provision, disinclination to use the military, environmentalism, the alleviation of world poverty, and similar positions. Such views exhibit a no doubt admirable spirit of generosity, but in politics generosity must be funded, usually by other people’s money. In other words, we seem to have here another of those feminine analogies between the state and the household, leading to a disposition to think that everybody ought to get an equal share. In Western politics over the last century, the heart has pushed for generous redistribution to the needy, and the head has increasingly called a halt on the grounds that without incentives to economic enterprise, there is ever less to redistribute. In this grand internal dialogue, women commonly prefer the heart to the head.

Not all women, of course—and again one must emphasize that there are always many exceptions to any generalization of this kind. Fortunately, perhaps, women have so far tended to be less politically ambitious and indeed also a good deal less interested in the boring minutia of economics and politics than men. Michael Oakeshott once suggested that politics was for the old rather than the young, and the reason lay in their virtues rather than their defects. I believe in the same spirit that it is the virtues of women rather than their defects that make many of them unsuitable for politics. For the most part, they have better things to do. And those who do get involved are often the passionate partisans of some single political cause rather than ambitious spirits interested in thinking about the whole picture with the balance and caution that politics requires.

Whether women ought to be prominent in politics has long been a matter of drawing room discussion, but any Platonist who embarks on this question of who ought to rule is not likely to limit the scope of the inquiry. Other classes of person exhibiting civil simplicity of mind will soon be clamoring for attention. The belief that education and political skill belong together has always been taken for granted, to the point that mere literacy has sometimes been suggested as a necessary condition for sensible voting. In the modern world, university professors might therefore seem to be pre-eminent examples of political wisdom. But one remarkable fact might well give us pause. It has been reported that 90 percent of American professors, particularly in departments of humanities and the social sciences, are either registered Democrats, or commonly vote for the Democrats. Now it might be that we have discovered a striking fact about modern politics: that the Democrats are the intelligent party and the Republicans the stupid one. John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century described the Conservatives as “the stupid party,” but in Britain, the charge of stupidity is by no means necessarily fatal. Britain has a culture in which the height of condemnation is to be “clever clever.” Mill’s remark could thus be taken up as indicating that the Conservatives have the virtue of taking time to come to their judgments and of being more cautious than their opponents. To be stupid in this sense might thus be a tribute to civil wisdom.

The American case is quite different. Since the rhythm of American politics has long exhibited a successful alternation between Democrats and Republicans, one might conclude that wisdom must be found in a continuing dialogue between them. Given all those professorial Democrats in the Academy, we seem forced to choose between two unappealing conclusions. The first is that Americans have been wrong all these years in managing their public affairs in terms of this dialogue. The second is that there is something a bit unsound about the judgments of most university professors.

In opting for the second of these possibilities, I can find support in the immemorial opinion that theorists are dangerous in practical affairs, and that living amid abstractions is not a good training for practical wisdom. It will be remembered that Thales, notionally the first philosopher, fell down a well because he was looking at the stars. It might even be remembered that Immanuel Kant construed marriage as a contract for the mutual use of sexual organs, and Heidegger was for a time a supporter of the Nazi Party. Some very nutty opinions can be found floating around the Academy. Professors are marvellous at scholarship, and sometimes at discovering things we deeply need to know, and where would we be if they did not take our teenagers off our hands for a few years in early adulthood? They do, however, need to be treated with a certain amount of caution in practical matters. This is especially true in recent times, when some of them have acquired a propensity for throwing their professional weight around. A famous set of 364 economists in Britain collectively declared Margaret Thatcher’s policies unsound just at the point where these policies were beginning to bring home the bacon, and herds of independent minds in American political science have recently been worrying away at the statistics about increasing inequality in American society.

My argument suggests that the class of people with the wisdom to make a contribution to politics is a good deal less extensive than democrats commonly think. And that forces us to ask: what classes of people might be thought capable of making sensible judgments on politics?

Politics is taking unavoidable risks in conditions of uncertainty. Those who are best at it are presumably those who do it every day: farmers, businessmen, doctors and nurses, workers, soldiers, and others whom reality occasionally kicks in the teeth. No one, of course, is immune to the slings and arrows of fortune, but such things as tenure, secure pensions, and life contracts can have a remarkably relaxing effect upon human beings. And here the crucial point lies in the distinction between interests and ideals. Interests are no doubt self-serving, but they are real. Ideals may not be self-serving, but they belong to an unreal world of aspirations. No doubt we need both elements in a balanced political life, but interests are crucial.

The reality test of earlier societies was direct and brutal: war and famine were terrible, and most people had a pretty good grip on where their interests lay. Our marvellous prosperity has created an almost fatal disconnection between cause and consequence, between the good things we enjoy and the conditions in which we enjoy them. Interests can certainly be corrupt, especially where they require subsidies from governments, but they do provide a useful reality test. A man is never less harmfully employed, Dr. Johnson remarked, as when he is making money. But a great deal of money floats around Western states without anyone having to do any actual work—sweat-of-the-brow work—in order to get it. The consequence is that large numbers of people develop “notions” about doing good in the world. Some will be found luxuriating in their own goodness as they entertain these ideas. In Britain and abroad, recently, thousands of people attended pop concerts whose point was to “make poverty history,” especially in Africa. This is the kind of thing that makes Don Quixote, mistaking windmills for evil giants, look like a pretty hard-headed chap. Bob Geldof (another of those artists earlier mentioned) believes that “African poverty is our problem.” It may indeed have consequences for us, and we certainly ought to help where we can, but the bedrock reality has to be that poverty in Africa is their problem. Western states were sufficiently impressed by this movement to write off a tranche of African debt. I suppose that one must say how good-hearted all this was, but as an exercise in political stupidity it could hardly have been bettered. And this was not merely the stupidity of the sillier classes of people. It was that of the rulers we have democratically elected! Our national stock of wisdom does seem to be diminishing in almost exact proportion to the ambition of our rulers to control ever more of our national life.