One sense of the difficult-to-translate Italian term â€œqualunquismoâ€ (average-Joe-ism might be a start) Â 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 callÂ 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: Iâ€™m not in government, Iâ€™m average, I distrust it like you, itâ€™s a swamp of special interests, etc.
Much has been made of Trumpâ€™s appeal among voters whoÂ tend toward authoritarianism. But thatâ€™s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governorâ€™s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 bookÂ Stealth Democracy: Americansâ€™ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they donâ€™t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they donâ€™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.
â€œPeople tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,â€ Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: â€œWe need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madiganâ€™s caucus to do the right thing.â€ Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, theyâ€™re being pressured to do a â€œright thingâ€ 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 heâ€™s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters donâ€™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 â€” if that â€” they canâ€™t see what all the fuss is about: â€œWhen it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate â€” namely, the influence of special interests.â€
â€œPeopleâ€™s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perotâ€™s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would â€˜just fix itâ€™ resonated so deeply with the people,â€ Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Raunerâ€™s campaign slogan? â€œShake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.â€ And Trumpâ€™s? â€œMake America great again.â€ They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on whatâ€™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. Itâ€™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 donâ€™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 thereâ€™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 theyâ€™ve seen through the disagreement about the subject they know nothing about. Theyâ€™ve seen that itâ€™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 thatÂ qualunquismo has a built-in defense: it’s almost impossible to explain why, if they don’t trust disagreement, they’re wrong.