Arnold’s carved out an intermediate position about who’s responsible for bad policies. Yes, the public currently opposes e.g. raising the retirement age. But:

It depends on how the issue is framed. When Al Gore framed it during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2000, he framed it as forcing a single-mom waitress to keep working after age 65. And most politicians frame it as if people aged 67 today would be forced back to work.

Instead, it might be framed as, “If you are under the age of 50, we will cut your Social Security taxes in exchange for raising the age at which you collect benefits to 70. Our other choice is to wait until you are 65, and then cut your benefits based on what we think we can afford at that time. Deal?”

Perhaps, but let’s pursue this a little deeper. Suppose we gave BOTH the most articulate proponent AND the most articulate opponent of raising the retirement age equal time to address the public. They engage in “competitive manipulation”: each speaker has an equal chance to frame the issue and change minds. Who wins?

I’d think it’s pretty clear that the opponent of Arnold’s position would win. A majority would still be with him, and he might even on net increase support for his views. Why? Because he’s eloquently telling the public what it wants to believe anyway.

You can blame politicians for manipulating the public. But if the public responded positively to a different style of rhetoric, politicians would supply it. The public gets manipulated the way that it does because in a deep sense it wants to be so manipulated. That’s why demagogues hold the reins of power, while Arnold and I are niche bloggers.

I make this point in a chapter in the Ed Younkins’ forthcoming Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literacy Companion:

At times, admittedly, Rand seems to accuse intellectuals – the “mystics of spirit” and the “mystics of muscle” – of ideologically seducing the public. Yet the intellectuals’ contradictions are too blatant to make this a credible excuse. All it takes to see through their rhetoric is the common sense of a Fred Kinnan: “Save it for Jim Taggart, Doc… I know what I’m talking about. That’s because I never went to college.” (p.507) If intellectuals brainwash the public, they brainwash it by engraved invitation.

If you’re as big of an Ayn Rand geek as me and Alex Tabarrok, you’ll get the joke. But either way, you get the point.