Qualunquismo

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One sense of the difficult-to-translate Italian term “qualunquismo” (average-Joe-ism might be a start)  is a distrust of politics. Underneath this notion is the idea that what animates politics, disagreement, is motivated mostly by self-interested people. Most people, average people, or what they call l’uomo qualunque, know that these disagreements are pernicious.

Strolling through Twitter this morning, I stumbled upon a repost of an article from NPR Illinois comparing then-candidate Trump to current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. The basis of the comparison is not the bombast, but rather the outsiderist pitch: I’m not in government, I’m average, I distrust it like you, it’s a swamp of special interests, etc.

Much has been made of Trump’s appeal among voters who tend toward authoritarianism. But that’s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governor’s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they don’t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they don’t like the process. The three main components of the idea have to do with misunderstanding how much people agree on a public agenda, a disdain for self-interested policymakers and intense dislike of the arguments and mess inherent in democratic governance. Seen through the framework of stealth democracy, Rauner is a most typical American.

“People tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: “We need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madigan’s caucus to do the right thing.” Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, they’re being pressured to do a “right thing” that is not what Rauner has in mind. Where Democrats would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, Rauner says he would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts only after passing business-friendly legislation and weakening collective bargaining.

When the governor makes this case, which he’s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters don’t understand why politicians are always fighting. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write that because most people are not interested in getting informed on more than a few issues — if that — they can’t see what all the fuss is about: “When it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate — namely, the influence of special interests.”
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“People’s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perot’s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would ‘just fix it’ resonated so deeply with the people,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Rauner’s campaign slogan? “Shake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.” And Trump’s? “Make America great again.” They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on what’s best for the nation, and that achieving those results ought to be as simple as putting a bill up and voting for it, we should not be surprised when people see no need for debate and compromise.

This thesis of Stealth Democracy seems to be that people are essentially qualunquisti. Underlying the qualunquista thesis is a fundamental intolerance of disagreement, especially motivated, partisan disagreement.

In the end, qualunquismo is somewhat of a meta position. It’s a position about positions whereby the taking of a position is inherently suspect. Or alternatively, the existence of disagreement is ipso facto a sign of something amiss. This is a very attractive view to hold when you don’t have any knowledge of what people are disagreeing about. Normally, or rather, to some, the existence of a disagreement is a sign that views about that position diverge. The existence of divergent views, about which one is unaware, is strong evidence then that there’s something important one knows nothing about.

Taking the qualunquistic approach saves one the trouble of thinking themselves ignorant of something important or consequential. It also rewards one with the feeling that they’ve seen through the disagreement about the subject they know nothing about. They’ve seen that it’s partisan bluster or corrupt, machine politics. In Illinois, we might call this Madiganism, after Michael Madigan, the Democratic Speaker of the House everyone seems to blame for the fact that our state went two years without a state budget. He appears infrequently in public so he makes this easy.

It seems obvious to me that qualunquismo is self-refuting. Not having a view is a view for the same reason that a color-blind society is silly racial politics.

The trick is that qualunquismo has a built-in defense: it’s almost impossible to explain why, if they don’t trust disagreement, they’re wrong.

2 thoughts on “Qualunquismo”

  1. Hey John, I like the thought that the Q-thesis is self-refuting, but could I get a clarification? The view is, as you put it, a “meta position,” averse to taking any of the ‘positions,’ and consequently holds disagreement about policy (and the wrangling) as corrupt nonsense. I don’t see that as self-refuting yet — is it self-refuting, when one has to *govern with that as a view? If so, it’s not a semantic self-refutation the view has, but a pragmatic or performative self-refutation? Or is there something I’m missing?

  2. Hi Scott,

    Good question. I’d say it’s the second one, but maybe a case could be made for the first. In one sense, “Disagreement is a sign of corruption” is by definition, since it’s a view, a possible part of a disagreement. Put another way, it’s a contestable view in that it’s not logically necessary, so it’s likely (and actually true) that someone disagrees with it. So if there exist other views, and there do exist other views, then Qism is different from those views. The funny thing is that, now that I think about it, the claim seems to include the fact that there exist other views, so in these sense it seems like a semantic contradiction: “disagreement is bad, which is why one should be suspicious of views that disagree with this one.” As the performance goes, asserting, as a matter of political practice, that disagreements are based on self-interest effectively puts the starting point just where you stand, without arguing for it (and so disagreeing with the alternatives).

    *I edited this about 5 minutes after posting it.

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