Social class in the 2024 UK general election

UK election results by social class

One of my obsessions is the social-class inversion that has been visible in several countries in the 21st century, in which parties of the left draw their strongest support from highly educated, “professional” voters and those on the right appeal best to the working class. Under those circumstances, left parties will block bold economic initiatives (which would cost their voters), and right parties may offer ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism, since libertarian economic policies have little relevance to workers. This is potentially a road to fascism.

The full exit polls from yesterday's UK election do not seem to be available yet (I assume they are still embargoed for the media companies that subscribe to Ipsos' service), so I have used Ipsos' final pre-election survey as a rough substitute. The interactive graphic above lets you see each party's support by social class.

The image above this post simplifies matters by grouping the Tories and Reform as "all right," and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists as "all left."

You can see evidence here of a class inversion, but it is not as dramatic as in some 21st century elections. The Reform and Green parties illustrate the pattern best, drawing their support (respectively) from the bottom and the top of the social class structure. The Conservatives perform best at the bottom, but only by a bit. In all, the right does considerably better among semi-skilled and unskilled workers than among managers and professionals, but Labour holds its own across all categories, blurring the pattern.

I would argue that Labour must pursue policies that benefit the lowest social class category, not only for social justice but also to reverse the class inversion that threatens democracy itself.

See also: social class inversion in the 2022 US elections;  class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesissocial class in the French election.

some basics

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
-- Wallace Stevens, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" (1921)

For those who are interested in the most fundamental questions, it has often proven useful to ask about the thinker rather than what is thought. We can derive insights about the world by first understanding our own predispositions and limitations.

Hence the early Buddhists went searching for the self and found only the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, consciousness), Socrates tested various kinds of expertise, Aristotle based his system on logic, the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng found truth in his own original nature once all attachments fell away, Ibn al-Haytham explored optics to understand space and matter, Descartes proposed to ground philosophy on a critical theory of reason, Hegel analyzed the logic of history because he saw reason as cumulative, Husserl turned to pure experience, and Wittgenstein looked to the ordinary language with which we express thoughts.

These are examples of examining the subjective to understand what is objective.

For me, the most basic truth about our thought is that we use brains that evolved for specific needs, leaving us with severely limited cognitive powers and motives that are dubious, even by our own lights.

Indeed, we come into the world knowing almost nothing and hold most of our beliefs because of what other members of our species have told us. We are able to believe many different things, but what we actually believe depends in large part on who has influenced us, which is the result of our surrounding social structure–things like schools and publishers and churches and governments. And all social structures are dubious, even by our own lights.

I would believe very different things if I were a medieval Catholic, let alone a dolphin. Each organism has its own Umwelt (self-centered world), or kyogai (bounded consciousness, in Zen), or “mundo” in Stevens’ idiosyncratic vocabulary.

This relativism is grounds for humility but not an excuse for blanket skepticism. We can make and test specific inferences. Our understanding can accumulate, albeit from many starting points. We are obliged to think as well as we can and not to ignore what we have reason to believe.

Considering the knowledge that has accumulated for me, I think I discern two main pillars.

One is natural science, which assumes and reinforces a picture of nature as impersonal, purposeless. Things happen because things previously happened.

The other is ethics, in the very general sense that what matters is experience, not only my experience. “Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering” (Shantideva, 8.102-3).

Science and ethics stand separately. Neither lends support to the other. Each can be doubted in a very abstract way. Many human beings have denied each of them, and I could deny them as well. But such doubt is abstract because I have been formed by accumulated thought that supports both pillars.

Further, these two assumptions are responsible. Not to care about others is selfish; not to accept the basic purposelessness of nature is sentimental. We are to address suffering in a world that will not offer respite by itself. To doubt science or ethics is a mere temptation, not a responsible option.

On this planet, the general principles of a purposeless nature have generated the logic of natural selection, which causes increasingly complex organisms to proliferate against the current of entropy. In earth’s animal kingdom, this complexity has yielded sensitivity and, ultimately, experience.

Nothing suggests that evolution would tend toward happiness. On the contrary, a sensitive animal is more likely to survive if it experiences negative emotions, such as fear and aversion. Nor is there any reason to expect that an evolved brain would be able to understand itself. The first-person world–the stream of consciousness–is a slippery thing for us because we are not well designed for meta-cognition. We can describe the Umwelt of a deer-tick but not our own. We resort to crude words like “self” and “world” or “cause” and “effect” that seem inadequate to what we experience.

Recognizing the abstract idea that the world is experienced differently by other kinds of people and species reminds us that it has unplumbed depths. Attending very closely to our own experience offers hints of what we normally miss. Listening to others describe their experience enriches our own and encourages compassion by directing attention to their emotions and the causes of their experiences, something that our evolved brains seem able to do.

Genuine compassion demands action, and action to address suffering keeps one from marinating in one’s own concerns. We should listen not only to homo sapiens but also to other sentient creatures. But it is a mistake to attend only to others, since each of us is usually best placed to hear and respond to our own stream of consciousness, which is easy for us to ignore. If we can find ways to share what we find within, without burdening other people with self-indulgent confessions, then what we share about ourselves may be a gift for them.

Modern philosophers call the very close description of one’s own experience “phenomenology.” This practice has ancient roots. For Husserl, the ancient Buddhist Pali Canon was exemplary of phenomenology. He wrote that understanding its “joyous mastery of the world … means a great adventure” for those who start with different assumptions–in his case, with concepts derived from Protestantism (trans. in Hanna 1995). In other words, the Pali Canon offered both a skillful description of human experience in general and an alternative to Husserl’s local context. Exploring this alternative liberated him from himself.

Not only ancient Buddhist scriptures and dense modern phenomenological treatises but also many literary texts and images offer hints about consciousness as experienced by specific people. Since the mind is constantly attentive to the world and to other minds, a work that describes nature or people is also an account of the one who experiences such things. Thus a poem about a nightingale or a painting of a haystack or a fiction about one day in Dublin is also a kind of phenomenology. As Stevens said (I am on a Stevens kick right now), “Poetry is one of the enlargements of life.”

We have brains designed for survival, which means that they are destined for suffering. But this inheritance has equipped us with the capacity to “enlarge” ourselves by listening generously–listening to others, to nature, and to ourselves.

Again, to listen seriously compels compassionate action. If we act for the sake of a good outcome, we will inevitably be frustrated, so we must act just to be compassionate (which, however, implies thoughtfully choosing the most effective means). And since each of us is cognitively limited and motivationally flawed, we should almost always decide what to do together. This is where the inner life and civic life come together.

Sources: F.J. Hanna, “Husserl on the teachings of the Buddha,” The Humanistic Psychologist, 23(3), (1995) 365–372; Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; verdant mountains usually walk; Montaigne the bodhisattva?; Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; the fetter; thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; joys and limitations of phenomenology; and a Husserlian meditation.

beyond Chevron

Since my 1999 book, The Future of Democracy, I have been critical of delegation: the practice of passing vague laws and asking regulators to work out the details. This practice has become pervasive, not only in the United States but in all the wealthy societies that I know about.

We are taught that the US federal government has three branches, but it has actually had at least four for the past century. The fourth branch consists of the regulatory agencies, which generate 72 pages of regulations for every single page of law passed by Congress.

Congress often intentionally enacts values that are in tension or impossible to achieve fully, so that regulators have the responsibility to make tradeoffs. For instance, the authorizing legislation for the Environmental Protection Agency requires the “Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, … to the end that the Nation may … attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences.”

Of course, the whole Environmental Protection Act is more detailed than this, but it leaves a vast amount for the agency to decide. When an EPA policy does not avoid all undesirable consequences (and how could it?), legislators can complain and thereby act as if they were exercising “oversight” even though they have ceded their power to the agency.

Delegation would be appropriate if good policy could be determined by science, but policy choices always involve values. Delegation would be appropriate if utilitarianism (in the form of cost-benefit analysis) were an adequate theory of value, but it is not. Thus, in practice, Congress gives bureaucracies the discretion to govern. This is undemocratic, whether we think of democracy as majority-rule, public deliberation, or accountability. Delegation is also inconsistent with rule-of-law because it generates mutable and inconsistent rules that are hard to predict and follow.

Therefore, in 1999, I favored something like last week’s Loper decision, which held that “courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.”

I favored this kind of ruling because I thought it would force the legislative branch to make important decisions instead of enacting vague statutes that might end up being decided by judges. This is not the Supreme Court’s intention in Loper. The decision anticipates that courts will decide what laws mean, using “the traditional tools of statutory construction” to resolve ambiguities, which is the “special competence” of judges. But no judge can decide what the law really means when Congress has written it vaguely. The court will simply make the law. I thought that Congress would be compelled to avoid this absurd outcome by passing clear statutes, which would return both power and accountability to the elected legislature.

What has changed is my confidence that Congress can actually legislate, in the sense of passing or updating substantive statutes. In 1965 alone, Congress passed at least 10 landmark bills that established agencies or dramatically altered national policies. Congress has passed fewer than 10 such laws in the last half century put together.

As an example, Congress has never passed legislation explicitly about the climate. Federal regulatory agencies are using the 1970s Clean Air Act (written before Congress was really aware of climate change) to try to regulate carbon. Likewise, federal financial laws were passed before cryptocurrency; and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 still governs despite some minor new developments, such as social media and smartphones.

I’ve previously explored several explanations for the decline of lawmaking, including the weakening of parties as actual institutions, the altered media system, a loss of confidence and clarity among both progressives and libertarians, and polarization.

A recent example supports blaming the media. Biden did sign landmark environmental legislation, but it has been almost entirely ignored. Why would a legislature be responsible and effective if it passes several trillion dollars of new spending and no one notices?

Another explanation is weak legislative capacity. I will digress briefly to explain that concept: A legislative body votes on bills. That is a zero-sum process: each “no” vote cancels each “aye” vote. But bills must come from somewhere. Developing legislation requires awareness, research, consultation, design, and persuasion. The number and sophistication of pending bills is not zero-sum; legislatures can have more or less capacity to develop legislation.

Today, only five percent of Hill staffers surveyed by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Partnership for Public Service believe that Congress has adequate capacity, and the other 95 percent are correct. Congress can barely get it together to pass budgets that merely modify current spending. With the exceptions of the environmental bills that Biden signed, Congress has little capacity to develop laws–whether conservative or progressive.

Under these circumstances, the Loper decision will shift power from the regulatory agencies to the courts. Given the composition of the federal judiciary, this shift will make regulations more conservative, regardless of what the public might want. Congress will not easily fix this problem, because Congress cannot write ambitious and extensive laws.

However, the best solution remains the same: responsibility must shift to Congress. Here are four ways to accomplish that:

  • Enhance the capacity of Congress. More people could work for the legislative branch, developing detailed statutes or amendments that determine outcomes without delegating decisions to bureaucracies. There are proposals for enhancing the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, and the Congressional Budget Office–all bureaus of the legislative branch. These agencies are about 20 percent smaller than they were in the later 20th century, and a fourth one, the Office of Technology Assessment, is now defunct (Select Committee, 2022, p. 127). Staff could also be added to congressional offices and committees; and whole new nonpartisan bureaus could be formed. The general strategy is to do the same kind of work now assigned to the executive branch but within Congress.
  • Taxing and spending instead of regulating: I believe that wealthy people and companies should bear most of the burden of addressing social problems. Regulations may shift costs and alter behavior for the better. However, the costs and effects of regulation are difficult to predict and account for. They do not appear on the balance sheets of the government. It is possible for burdens to fall on the wrong people (e.g., consumers instead of investors) or not to be efficient. In general, it is more transparent and democratic to impose burdens in the form of explicit taxes and then to use the revenues to purchase things that voters can assess. Taxing and spending are clearly constitutional; there is little that activist conservative jurists could do to stop it. What it requires is political will.
  • Codification: After a large body of detailed law has emerged over a long period, one option is to codify it: to impanel a committee that analyzes the whole corpus and replaces it with a much more concise and general structure. Justinian did this with Roman law, ca. 534. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 did the same for the many specific laws that the French revolutionary governments had passed since 1790. The Model Penal Code of 1962 was an attempt to codify US state criminal laws. At nearly 200,000 [sic!] printed pages, the Code of Federal Regulation is ripe for codification, either as one whole corpus or in big chunks, such as environment and labor. Today’s Congress certainly cannot codify, but a commission could produce a draft for Congress to approve. Congress could create this commission or, in theory, it could form in civil society and simply ask Congress to consider its recommendations. I am generally skeptical of AI, but codification is a task that computers might assist.
  • Public engagement: A commission would be dominated by experts, but representative people can be selected for juries or other kinds of deliberative panels that consider value-laden questions and make decisions. The US EPA offers a page about Citizen Juries, which is one such model. There is a burgeoning literature on “sortition” (randomly selected decision-makers), in both theory and practice, with many of the ambitious examples coming from overseas. Sortition is also a form of delegation, but random selection and a deliberative format provide a different kind of legitimacy. Congress might have to amend the Administrative Procedures Act to make courts defer to citizen panels, but nothing would prevent such an amendment.

Do I expect any of these solutions? Essentially, I expect very little positive to come from Washington over the next two years or more. Nevertheless, now is an important time to envision a better system. We are likely to experience instability or even chaos, and we should be aiming to come through that to a period of real reform.

Source: Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Final Report, 2022. See also a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking real money; judicial activism when the legislative branch is broken; legislative capacity is not zero-sum

Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens (1921)

After the first stanza, it’s reasonable to think: I should have a wintry mind so that I can regard this winter landscape appreciatively. I should be appropriately attuned to what I observe, especially if it is nature. I should be worthy of what I experience.

We are used to people who admonish us: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordworth). Before we can have “glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn,” we must change ourselves. Legions of religious thinkers have also urged us to make ourselves worthy of glimpses of the divine. As the Psalmist says, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”

This theory of the poem can survive the second stanza, where being “cold a long time” plays the role of having “a mind of winter,” and the objects are junipers with ice instead of pines with snow. It seems as if we should be cold like the trees. We may even feel a tinge of regret if we are too comfortable to regard nature’s austere beauty.

But this theory collapses in the third stanza, with the word “not.” It seems that we can regard a snowy landscape with or without a mind that resembles it. Only if the mind is not wintry and cold can we perceive misery. If we hear misery in the winter wind, we do not have a wintry mind.

Wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = no sensation of misery
Non-wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = sensation of misery

I, for one, assume that I ought to be able to feel suffering in nature. That would be an indication of my sensitivity, a virtue that poems often recommend.

Now I am beginning to wonder if I should avoid having a wintry mind and being cold for a long time. After all, the dead are the ones who are coldest for the longest. They are the ones without compassion.

Reading on (through the single sentence of this poem), we learn that the sound that could make us think of misery is a wind that blows “for the listener.” Does it have a purpose, an intention? Does it want to instruct us about misery–or about something else?

Before it concludes, the poem’s single sentence refutes such anthropomorphism. The land can’t think or talk. The poem instructs us that the listener (a “he”) is nothing; he only sees what the objective world offers, and he perceives nothing that actually is.

There isn’t misery in “the sound of a few leaves,” nor is there misery in the beholder (a listener and viewer), but there is misery–as well as “distant glitter”–in the experience, unless one is dead. The poem is a representation of the relationship between the mind and object (which, together, make a “snow man”).

One must have the wintry mind of an abstract modernist not to hear sadness in this.

[After I wrote this, I searched my own blog and found a response to the same poem that I’d written in 2012: the tree and the rock. See also: Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; and the fetter; Cuttings.]

Grounded Normative Theory

We human beings must constantly struggle to understand justice: how society should be organized and what we should do to make it better.

We are cognitively limited and prone to bias, and we come into the world knowing nothing. Our only chance of reaching a satisfactory understanding of justice during the time we have is to join some kind of ongoing conversation.

People participate in many such conversations, including those in religious traditions and all kinds of communities. One venue–among many others–is academic work within political theory and political philosophy.

Like anyone else, an academic who seeks to understand justice must join a conversation. One way to do this–which I endorse–is to engage with significant written works. If such texts are old, they may have generated secondary literatures that include critical responses which are also significant. If they are new, they typically benefit from previous works. Contributing to the secondary literature is one way to advance the conversation about justice.

Another way is to learn from people who are currently striving to advance justice in various settings. We can learn from the writing (and audio and video material) that they produce for public consumption. That approach is like reading books about politics, except that the genres, authors, and audiences are different.

We can also learn from the less formal, less polished, less public discourse (and activity) that occurs within communities, organizations, and movements as they decide what they should do.

This is the approach that Brooke Ackerly and colleagues (2021) call “grounded normative theory.” Please also visit engagedtheory.net to learn more. Today, Ackerly is visiting the Institute for Civically Engaged Research, which I co-lead at Tufts with Samantha Majic and Adriano Udani on behalf of the American Political Science Association.

In my view, grounded normative theory is not descriptive qualitative research, although it often begins with that. Its purpose is not to interpret or explain what people are saying. Its goal is to decide what we should do, and the input or data is the discourse of practical groups. Activists, organizers, and participants in movements provide insights, and the theorist is obliged to respond independently. Ideally, both partners learn from the exchange.

Because a grounded normative theorist is interested in what people are thinking and saying to each other–not necessarily what they have produced for public consumption– the theorist must engage personally with such groups. For instance, Ackerly is a co-founder of the Global Feminisms Collaborative, not just an observer of it.

A lot of engaged normative theory looks to marginalized communities and adversarial social movements. There is an enormous amount to learn from such sources. I would add, however, that we can develop important normative insights from more “bourgeois” practitioners. For example, the Justice in Schools project “helps moral, political, and educational theorists ask the right questions about justice in non-ideal contexts, develops new language to talk about educational ethics, and provides empirically-informed frameworks for developing a philosophically rigorous and pragmatically useful theory of educational justice.” Justice in Schools has produced a large collection of “normative case studies” that are often written by teachers for teachers. The program not only serves an audience of educators but also enriches political philosophy by posing new questions, much as bioethics has done for decades.

Lately, I am being drawn into projects on Artificial Intelligence. I am most interested in deriving questions and insights from developers and computer scientists. At least at this stage in the history of political philosophy, the pre-cooked normative theories seem rather stale; but it is exciting to engage with novel ethical questions that emerge from practice.

See: Ackerly, B., Cabrera, L., Forman, F., Johnson, G. F., Tenove, C., & Wiener, A. (2021). Unearthing grounded normative theory: practices and commitments of empirical research in political theory. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy27(2), 156–182. See also why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems; bootstrapping value commitments