'In order that society should exist [...] it is necessary that the minds of all its citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot be the case unless each of them sometimes draws his opinions from the common source and consents to accept certain matters of belief already formed.'
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Marianne is a concerned citizen who routinely spouts off on the issues of the day. Many of her opinions are boilerplate politics, but some are beyond zany. Worried that camaraderie was in short supply among the citizenry of her native Sweden, she proposed that every display of 'solidarity' should henceforth be rewarded with a tax deduction. The idea was to coax the general public into acting with greater generosity towards one another.
I tested her idea on a few friends over dinner the other evening. By the time dessert arrived we were unanimous: Marianne's idea seemed well ahead of its time. One guest even qualified it as an 'exceptional' contribution to contemporary political debate.
However, the fact is that, statistically speaking, the idea could have occurred to nearly anyone. According to the Swedish Central Bureau of Statistics, Marianne is the embodiment of the average Swede: single, 40 years old and childless, she lives alone in a two-room flat and her annual income is 181,200 Swedish kronor (about £12,550).
Taking this profile as his yardstick, Måns Wrange, the suave Swedish artist, set up a media campaign in collaboration with a professional search firm to find the 'most average' person of all. Through radio programmes and newspaper articles he invited the least remarkable members of the public to step forward, promising that the 'winner' would have a monument erected in their honour in Simrishamn - an unusually average Swedish town. Marianne swept to victory.
What makes this scheme more than just another rerun of Conceptual art is that Wrange didn't just have his eyes on an art audience. In collaboration with the architect Igor Isaksson he assembled a team that includes a lobbyist, a political adviser to the Swedish government, a headhunter, a speechwriter, a copywriter employed by Absolut and IKEA, and a media consultant. After a series of interviews with Marianne, Wrange and the team began seeping her fundamental beliefs into the social consciousness, and shaping public opinion. In effect, he was handing an ordinary citizen an open mike and, with it, all the influence that a polished advertising agency can muster. By stealthily converging Marianne's ideas with existing media streams, the team could plausibly reason they were tapping into the hearts and minds of the nation at large. With the co-operation of the director and screenwriter of the popular Swedish television show Doctor in the Archipelago, Marianne's 'solidarity' idea was written into a morally decisive script thrashing out the plight of refugees. On the evening the episode was broadcast her idea reached 2,420,000 citizens, or 26.9% of the viewing population. A poll later revealed that 6.2% of the audience had seriously debated Marianne's proposal.
Wrange and the team went on to infiltrate newspapers, radio, the Swedish Parliament, magazines and novels. They even convinced the city council of Lund to endorse Marianne's appeal for society to embrace camaraderie amongst its citizenry with the same commitment it showed to fighting unemployment. It is hard to ignore the fact that at the centre of Marianne's ideals there are often some eccentric conjunctions. Promote socialization? Of course. Reduce joblessness? No argument. But what links these two initiatives? How do they relate to a wider strategy? Nevertheless, Marianne was accruing influence and when public opinion swayed, the team tracked the wake of her radiating persuasion like statistical bloodhounds.
Any textbook reading of grass-roots democracy would tell you that differing interests are not only justified, but that the groups representing them must be permitted to engage in open debate, allowing for political opinions to bloom within a pluralistic society. This alone provides the justification for an individual citizen to represent the larger population. The other side of that coin is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's precept articulated in The Social Contract (1763) which goes: 'Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to obey it by the whole body politic, which means nothing else but that he will be forced to be free.' Safeguarding the distinction between the rights of the individual and the general will was the hallmark of success among the earliest democracies. Initially this will was expressed through the ballot box. Centuries later, with the advent of statistical forecasting, popular opinion could be plotted and reflected back to the electorate by a myriad of media campaigns, including the sly medley Wrange has marshalled.
James Garfield, the 20th President of the US, seemed to understand that statistical forecasting could change the course of history when, in 1869, he wrote: 'The developments of statistics are causing history to be rewritten. Until recently, the historian studied nations in the aggregate, and gave us only the story of princes, dynasties, sieges and battles [...] Now statistical inquiry leads him into the hovels, homes, workshops, mines, fields, prisons, hospitals, and all other places where human nature displays its weakness and its strength. In these explorations he discovers the seeds of national growth and decay, and thus becomes the prophet of his generation.' Without doubt, modern statisticians see themselves as Garfield saw them: prophets of a secular Eden, the architects of a transparent and efficient organization of society and government. Statistics hold out the promise to engineer the truest of democracies. But do they work?
The use of averages cannot help but undermine the credibility of statistical forecasting because it inevitably creates an ideology parallel to the general will. Gunnar Myrdal, the Nobel Laureate in economics, observed: 'When you begin to work with averages and indices, you lose so many considerations. What happens then is that from the technically oriented social policy discussion a new socio-political ideology begins to grow.' He knew that statistics could hand down a version of 'public opinion' untethered to the public. When statistics erase nuance and subtlety in favour of a homogenized democracy the fate of true democracy is open to question.
By every available measurement Marianne epitomizes the mainstream in Sweden, but it does not follow that her socio-political beliefs are shared by the majority. Many of her opinions are simply naive. But when her ideas lack finesse, the media streams begin to flow, and the tail wags the dog. Deftly leveraging the media's persuasive sirens against her beliefs, Marianne's voice permeates the majority and invites consent as individual expression elegantly blurs into the majority will. Should Wrange be accused of exploiting democracy for having turned the opinions of an average citizen into a measurable political influence? The question points to a biting paradox.