By Vexen Crabtree 2016
If democracy is to work, the electorate need to be informed decisions and evidence-based decisions1. Too often, mass delusion overwhelms good sense. Such problems undermined several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century2. Founding thinkers such as Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli taught that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy3. It is sensible to argue that if you don't understand a topic then you shouldn't vote on it4. But the problem is, many do vote on issues based purely on sound-bites, one-liners, sensationalist newspaper stories and anecdotal evidence5. A "race to the bottom" condition is created whereby parties come into power based on who has the most pithy reactionary statements rather than who has the best policies6.
Such are the issues referred to when commentators worry about "post-truth politics". In a world where reality-TV is orders of magnitude more popular than politician's policies most news reporting centres on interpersonal battles that ought to be kept private. News outlets report trash because it sells; and politics continues a nosedive into rash popularism. If the populace do not soon began to vote with deliberation, then, the entire democratic project runs the risk of failure5.
“But will not democracy both undermine the stability of the social order and generate mediocrity, as government by the wise is replaced by government by the many? Further [...] might not the legislative power of the majority be deployed to subvert the liberties of minorities?”
"Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics"
Martin Loughlin (2000)1
If you don't understand the issues and can't comprehend the consequences, then, there is no true meaning in whatever course of action you choose to take. It is so important to have knowledge of a subject before deciding to act that Aristotle in 350BCE said that "ignorance" is a cause of involuntary actions (alongside 'compulsion')7. Therefore, argued Aristotle, it is voluntary and informed decisions that attract praise or blame8. The requirement for extended deliberation over moral choices was also raised by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, who worried that "morals themselves are liable to all sorts of corruption" and it is easy to get lost, and allow biases and subconscious subjective desires to influence our decisions9. In other words, to really act morally requires a lot of thought and attention. Sometimes it requires education, sometimes it requires experience of others' lives10. History has shown that any attempt to enforce ethics based on simple elements of doctrine tend to backfire - the world's religions are mired in the shadows of such attempts. The basis of Humanism and other non-religious naturalistic ethics is in the encouragement of people to devote time to working out what the best ways of behaving are, but without stipulating any particular rules of behaviour. The only exception to this subjective and cultural maze is the absolute nature of human rights, which have been worked-out by scores of dedicated moralists in order to arrive at very basic concepts which it is always wrong to deny. In short, freewill requires knowledge and the mere fact of 'having a choice' is not enough of a basis on which to judge.”
Mass stupidity has undermined democracy since its inception and marred several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century2. Professor of Law M. Loughlin points out that the founders of modern political theory believed that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy:
See Jon Elster (ed.), Deliberative Democracy
Cambridge University Press, 1998.
“The common theme in the thinking of Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli is that, notwithstanding the vast differences in the societies about which they are writing, politics remains intimately connected to dispute, debate and some notion of self-government, and this tradition is maintained today in a revival of the idea that deliberation, rather than simply voting, provides the key aspect of democratic decision-making.”
"Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics" by Martin Loughlin (2000)3
Deliberation requires time and information. You can't have democracy without informed choice, and, you can't have that without knowledge of facts and figures. It is just the problem that every industry and governmental endeavour is so complicated, with all kinds of side-effects, long-term effects and subtle problems that need to be addressed. It simply isn't the case that most people have enough understanding on most issues to vote sensibly on them.
“... the issue is too complex for the average person to understand. For example, you might be asked to vote on whether to construct a nuclear power plant in your area. In some cases, we might be able to understand the issues but we don't have the time or resources to do a proper investigation. Or, we might be asked to switch power companies from a privately owned enterprise to a public utility. How should a critical thinker respond in such situations? Some might argue that if you don't understand an issue, you shouldn't vote on it. That sounds reasonable, but it might mean that most people should stop voting on issues altogether. We would have to consider whether that is a consequence we are willing to accept in a democracy.'”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)4
The making of choices carefully distinguishes good governance from misguided meandering; but even when decisions are being made by experts at the top there are always considerations for what comes from the bottom:
“Ideally, ministers, officials and outsiders with relevant expertise should formulate policy on the basis of informed discussion of the possible alternatives and after taking due account of the relevant history and precedents, the positions of the institutions involved and the legality of what is proposed. [But] foreign policy is not made in a political vacuum but is shaped by domestic factors (such as public opinion) [and lobbying, and other factors].”
In International Affairs (2004)12
This page is about what happens when intelligence can no longer resist the mob-like masses, who are invariably making decisions on a less than informed basis.
It has actually gotten to the stage in most arenas of human knowledge that specialists are the only ones truly capable of understanding any given field. To approach politics in a meaningful way you need to be educated. Not only educated, but also intelligent.
If the masses are stupid, democracy doesn't work. The government has to rule by stealth, tricking the people through things that merely sound good but in intelligent society promoting and doing things that are good, or democracy shoots itself in its foot and causes the downfall of the nation into an anarchic mess. Shallow policies do not make for good government, but, most stupid people vote on shallow issues. The solution is to trick the stupid people into voting for you or to educate them. A good-intentioned deception is nearly always much easier and will never be dispensed with, the only alternative is to restrict voting for uneducated people. This is the dilemma of modern Western democracy!
The pertinent issues for a government wishing to rule well are not the same as the shallow issues that the people can be incited to vote on. Therefore a form of deception has become the status-quo in all political campaigns: This holds true across many of the countries of the West, not just countries like the USA, the UK and Greece. The social analyst Frank Furedi bemoans this in his book "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?" (2004), stating that a stupid public are "only affected by sound-bites and short-term ideas", and that the decline of intelligence and the rise of voter apathy, all since the 1960s, undermines the authority of democratic government5.
It has come to the point that most politics now centres on centre-stage announcements and loud policies; whereas we all know that the best schemes are those worked-out quietly in back rooms, where statistics and plans outweigh rhetoric. Instead, politicians have come to rely on appearances, slogans and image rather than substance and content.
Naom Chomsky writes bitterly about the methods of dumbed-down politics which is really nothing more than a soap opera. It is summarized by Chomsky into what was known as the "Mohawk Valley Formula": the use of hollow slogans and appealing (but shallow) campaigns for the stupid masses. It is unclear if he puts the blame more on the government, for not turning around and running full-on campaigns aimed at increasing the electorate's understanding of the world, or, if he is blaming the electorate for being shallow and blind.
“They were called "scientific methods of strike-breaking," and worked very effectively by mobilizing community opinion in favor of vapid, empty concepts like Americanism. Who can be against that? Or harmony. Who can be against that? Or, as in the Persian Gulf War, "Support Our Troops." Who can be against that? Or yellow ribbons. Who can be against that? Anything that's totally vacuous.
In fact, what does it mean if somebody asks you, Do you support the people in Iowa? Can you say, Yes I support them, or No, I don't support them? It's not even a question. It doesn't mean anything. That's the point. The point of public relations slogans like "Support our troops" is that they don't mean anything. They mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa. Of course, there was an issue. The issue was, Do you support our policy? But you don't want people to think about that issue. That's the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That's the one you're not allowed to talk about. So you have people arguing about support for the troops? "Of course I don't not support them." Then you've won. That's like Americanism and harmony. We're all together, empty slogans, let's join in, let's make sure we don't have these bad people around to disrupt our harmony with their talk about class struggle, rights and that sort of business.”
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda" by Naom Chomsky (2002)6
It is a catch-22 situation. The government, in order to maintain democracy, must keep people voting. But the campaigns are so shallow and dumbed-down for the masses that the issues actually being voted for are irrelevant to the what the politicians want to do. So, only a shallow, almost fake, democracy is upheld.
There is an obvious solution to poor voting behaviour that has been debated and occasionally employed in history. That is to restrict voting to certain people. But it is so very difficult to judge by qualifications or exams who is an "intelligent" voter. There are many highly educated people who have no qualifications; and many qualified people who are unintelligent and who lack basic knowledge of the world.
Another less stark method is to make the worth of an "intelligent" vote equal to twice that of others. On the face of it, this leads to a more sensible government where dumbed-down campaigns have less affect and therefore trash culture no longer makes democracy hollow. This semi-democratic meritocracy has already been proposed by social theorists down the decades.
“Liberals have expressed particular reservations about democracy not merely because of the danger of majority rule but also because of the make-up of the majority in modern, industrial societies. As far as J. S. Mill was concerned, for instance, political wisdom is unequally distributed and is largely related to education. [...] He proposed a system of plural voting that would disenfranchise the illiterate and allocate one, two, three or four votes to people depending upon their level of education or social position. Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), the Spanish social thinker, expressed such fears more dramatically in The Revolt of the Masses (1930). Gasset warned that the arrival of mass democracy had led to the overthrow of civilized society and the moral order, paving the way for authoritarian rulers to come to power by appealing to the basest instincts of the masses.”
All you need is a system to sort out "intelligent" people from "dumb" ones. But the search for such a system is what has made the implementation of stratified voting problematic. Any intelligent person knows that it's next to impossible to devise accurate tests. There are biases in-place: the rich can get normally get a better education, and therefore, can control the voting system. It may be that meritocratic stratification of voting leads to a class-divide of power more than there is at present. But the crises of democracy has gotten so bad through the combination of voter apathy and mass ignorance that calls for stratified voting continue, regardless of its weaknesses.
On Democracy: Its Foundations and Modern Challenges I summarize many of the generic threats facing democracy:
And a section on The Mass Media:
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Seven Stories Press, New York USA.
(2003) Political Ideologies. Paperback book. 3rd edition. Originally published 1992. Current version published by Palgrave MacMillan.
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913).
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Paperback book. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co..