Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Democracy is Overrated

The electorate is very poorly informed about most political matters. Grass roots politics is dead, killed by silly and wrong-headed "reforms."

Few adult citizens can name a Senator from their state. Fewer can name a representative. Almost no one can name even one Supreme Court justice.

This matters two ways:
1. It means that we cannot use elections to control corruption or bad actions of elected officials. We don't even know their names! Interest groups and backroom deals are more powerful, unless voters become aroused over some issue temporarily.
2. It means that the standard "majority = morality" argument doesn't hold for legislation. Generally, we want to argue that the reason you have to accept legislation you disagree with is that we obey the majority will. But since only a fraction of voters turn out (55% is a good year for Presidential races, and all others are smaller), that means that only perhaps 1/4, or less, of registered voters voted for even a popular President. What kind of mandate is this? Worse, even those voters who did vote probably could not tell their candidate's positions on more than two issues. Yet the President makes decisions in our name on dozens of policies. The speaker of the House got a majority of the vote in one district in one state. That might be 75,000 voters. How can the Speaker of the House claim a "democratic" mandate for all 250 million of us?

There are two countervailing factors, which mean things might not be so bad.

1. The media may be able to keep us informed. But people aren't going to switch from "Survivor: Atlantic City!" to the news unless the scandal involves sex or ...well, frankly, sex is the only thing we'll pay attention to.

2. Parties can discipline candidates by withholding campaign funds, and by allocating volunteers to (re)election efforts. But parties are very weak in the U.S., especially after McCain-Feingold cut out a source of "soft money" contributions to parties, and then doubled the limits on hard money, so that incumbents are even more independent.

Is my perspective "antidemocratic"? Sure: Democracy is overrated. In fact, "Democracy" is best translated "mob rule," in its original Greek form. The common people are simply not qualified, or interested, enough to be in in charge. Consider Plato's view of "democracy":
"Democracy is precisely the constitution out of which tyranny comes; from extreme liberty, it seems, comes a slavery most complete and most cruel...When a democratic city gets worthless butlers presiding over its wine, and has drunk too deep of liberty's heady draught, then, I think, if the rulers are not very obliging and won't provide plenty of liberty, it calls them blackguards and oligarchs and chastises them...and any who obey the rulers they trample in the dust as willing slaves and not worth a jot." Plato, THE REPUBLIC, Book IV, 560A-564A
What to do? I would advocate two things, as solutions:
A. Give a test, like a drivers' license test, before you get your registration card. 20 questions, basic civics stuff, but you would have to show you know what political choices, and "road signs" mean.
B. Reduce the scope of government powers, cut the domain of collective choice. We have criminalized too many behaviors, federalized too many local choices. Government is too important in our lives, and we have no control over it.
To finish, one more quote, my favorite:
"It [is impossible] to separate the democratic idea from the
theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and
ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the
scale—that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes
superiority—nay, the superiority of superiorities. What
baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly
and by a sort of seraphic intuition. This notion . . . originated
in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels—
sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that
the ass was overladen, proposed to reform transportation
by putting him in the cart." (H.L. Mencken, from Notes on
Democracy, 1926)

(Nod to JM for the title)


Ralph said...

I agree...a depressing lot.

I guess we'll both be registering libertarian :)

Anonymous said...

K. Grease is already registered Libertarian.

(You can check Wake County database!)
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Anonymous said...

A few things...
Some argue that there are ways around the total ignorance of the common voter. Some even use terms like "rational ignorance" to make it not seem so bad. It isn't necessarily true that lacking knowledge of political facts means one can't make informed political decisions. Some also refer to on-line processing theory, where voters tally up their likes/dislikes, but almost immediately forgeting the relevant information used to update their "running tally." Also, there is the use of heuristics that can also help people get around their apparent ignorance of political facts. Yes, this is all quite optimistic, but I would like to sleep well tonight.

Also, even if all voters were perfectly informed, I would never claim that majority = morality. That is just scary to me. Government laws are just government laws. Democractic rule is not some way of "getting to morality". It has to do with governing a polity, which isn't the same thing. Yeah, I'm not Hobbes. And when I say this, I'm also thinking of the religious right, who wants to "legislate morality." Crazy guys.

Anonymous said...

If what the government is up to is so important why does no one pay attention?

Fun with online quotation searches:

"Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor."

-James Russell Lowell