The Greek statesman Pericles once said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you”. Politics is important. Indeed, the decisions made by politicians in office define all our lives no matter if we personally agree with them or not.
If politics shapes the way we live, then democracy facilitates the demos at its core. It follows that the very quality of our governance depends on us and, in turn, upon whom we elect. Since the 1940s, democracy has been diffusing around the world. Today, some argue that 50 per cent of the worldwide population finds itself living in a democratic country, even though there are significant questions regarding the extent to which many of these states can be considered democratic.
Given that democracy has such a significant impact upon our lives, is the current version the best one we can come up with? As Jason Brennan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, argues in his book “Against Democracy” (2016), we can do better. Brennan, who concerned himself with democratic theory and voting ethics throughout his career, claims that the majority of voters are incompetent and that giving the general right to vote to everybody is dangerous.
In particular, Brennan identifies three types of voters and voting behaviour: “Hobbits” – indifferent citizens, who could not care less about politics; “Hooligans” - dedicated politics fans wholeheartedly supporting one team and feeling deep animosity for the opposing side; and “Vulcanians” – perfectly rational voters, casting their vote without any partisanship or emotion. According to him the vast majority of voters fits in the first two categories, with only a few people coming even close to the status of a “Vulcanian”. He presents data which shows that most voters, when casting their ballot, intend to vote for what is best for society; the catch being that it is the individual’s perceived reality and their own narrow, subjective opinion on what is best for society.
Bias and the 'swing-voter' phenomenon
The work of Marti Barletta, author of "Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach, and Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market" (2003), exemplifies this bias. She considers men to perceive the world in competitive terms - faster/slower, first/second, higher/lower. Whereas women, it seems, are more prone to revolve around leverage of similar-to or different-from comparisons.
The fortuitous and unintended appeal of the Trump campaign to women as 'swing-voters' was in his comparisons he made of himself to the competition. From 'Little Marco' to 'Crooked Hillary' or 'Crazy Bernie' and 'Low Energy Jeb', Trump neatly played to comparisons that differentiated similar and unimpressive nominees. Similarly, Brexit appealed to this audience on account of the figures bill-boarded around the country. Notably, the big red Brexit-bus stating "We send the EU £350 million a week, let's fund our NHS instead". Messages such as these directly appeal to the contingent of female 'swing-voters' drawn in by how a UK outside of European legislation would be different from the current NHS in a perpetual state of crisis and 'not-fit-for-purpose'.
Given that democracy has such a significant impact upon our lives, is the current version the best one we can come up with?
A structural bias?
Behavioural science has been concerned with the issue of how we make decisions as humans for quite a while. Most recently, this topic has gained traction with Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow” (2011). Years of research have led the author to the conclusion that we take biased decisions on a daily basis, and often unconsciously. It would be remiss not to believe voting behaviour is similarly affected.
Furthermore, certain studies have shown that humans have an innate preference for attractive candidates over those who do not fit their aesthetic ideals. Certain facial structures signify power, while others invoke weakness. One may like to think the candidates running for office are the best suited to the role. In reality, it appears unlikely. Voting ought to be predicated on meritocratic principles of experience or knowledge for a successfully functioning democratic society. Unfortunately, gut instinct and the associated biases often win over.
Given that the significant majority of voters lack basic socio-economic knowledge (as shown in Brennan’s research) and display partiality, Brennan asks why we accept this status quo. A single, well-intentioned voter should not contribute unwittingly to the victory of an incompetent majority in a neatly functioning democracy.
Brennan later progresses to propose epistocratic alternatives as capable of solving these dilemmas. A fairly new concept that has yet to be exhaustively defined, translates to “rule of the knowledgeable”; yet draws on older philosophical trappings of Plato's Philosopher Kings. This epistocratic society would feature similar institutions to democracy, but differ in the means of electing representatives.
Any normative assessment of the adequacy of the incumbent system of governance and universal suffrage is contentious. According to Brennan, people perceive the right to vote as a universal human right, and thus impose a symbolic value upon something intrinsically desirable that is meant to be the facilitator of our government.
Epistocracy needs fleshing out, however, despite the aversion one may feel to proposals of limiting our right to vote, given the current precedent of ineffectual outcomes and due process, it may be a notion worth exploring.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process. Yet accepting the status quo as a privileged ideal to which we all abide by and live to negates any and all possibility of seeking out a better, more equitable and socially desirable alternative to democracy.
Modified 'plural voting' as the solution
Brennan introduces many aspects of epistocracy, such as the idea of “plural voting”. The latter was first suggested by John Stuart Mill in “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform” (1859), where he advocated that in elections, the votes of the educated should be attributed more weight than others. While this sounds like the rule of elite over the rest, Brennan tweaks Mill’s original idea and proposes that every person would get one vote at a certain age and throughout her life they can acquire additional votes. This could happen via education, for example graduating high school and college, or perhaps through some kind of test on political competence. This way everyone would have the right to vote, but different peoples’ votes would count differently. Brennan compares this idea to how people have to acquire a driver’s license before they are legally allowed to operate a vehicle. Someone without any experience in driving poses a risk to the rest of the population just as – to Brennan – a majority of incompetent voters present a risk to society.
A majority in numerical scope of the demos voting for what they believed to be the right choice does not always offer the desired outcome, and electoral systems play an important role in the story. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump and yet lost because of the electoral college and be extension swing state structuring. The 2015 UK General Election was another striking instance of skewed voting preferences, based around constituency sizing and shaping. UKIP won 12.6 per cent of the popular vote and ended up with one seat, having lost the other. Meanwhile, the conservatives achieved 6.5 per cent or 2 million more of the share of votes than Labour, equating to 99 more seats.
The demos is tasked with competency in decisions surrounding elections. However, when questioned as to what 'competency' entails, we come a cropper. A definitively divisive term, wherein consensus of definition seems improbable. Brennan seeks to dispel the uncertainty by proposing political knowledge tests, such as geographical and historical awareness, basic logic and values and customs.
Logistically, it would prove challenging to customise tests for individual elections. Likewise, inclusion and exclusion of test specifics would undoubtedly ruffle some feathers.
Two obvious complications of Brennan’s proposal: firstly, the moral reluctance in the public toward change; secondly, the endemic ignorance for current demographic (ageing population and ethnic group association) conditions when implementing a plural voting system.
An indispensable voting right
After publishing his book, Brennan received some backlash in the media. Tom Clark, writing in the Guardian, stated: “in practice [epistocracy] means denying the vote to people who haven’t got quite such good exam results as him (Brennan)”. People seem to be morally opposed to the idea of some kind of restriction on their ability to vote. In fact, for many citizens their right to vote has an instrumental value, as a means of expressing their opinion, to voicing their cynicism toward the mainstream politics or the ability to symbolically abstain from voting. Otherwise it seems like people don’t care too much about politics. As a survey of the Pew Research centre in 2014 shows, only 36 per cent percent of the US population expressed an interest in politics. This is a similar position to the U.K. where a 2012 survey of the NatCen Social Research institute found that only 36 per cent of respondents show “quite a lot” of interest in politics.
Despite the public's lack of interest in politics, Palfrey and Rosenthal's 'pivotal voter model' shows that voters care solely about the outcome of the election. The model explored the options and experience of deliberation. It suggests that the individual's decision to vote one way over another is moulded by their beliefs about the likelihood of casting the decisive vote. Experimental evidence has supported the somewhat counter-intuitive claims made by this theory of swing voter preferences.
Ultimately, the single vote rarely sways an election. Those citizens who believe in the outcome orientation of suffrage are subject to ignis fatuus at best, to borderline delusional tendencies at worst. The significance of their individual action to secure their desired outcome is overestimated. Instead, these values attached to the right to vote are little more than social constructions and so carry no real instrumental value in isolation under conditions of a fair ballot.
The disrespect and resentment for having voices drowned out ushers in defences from the other side. Brennan equates voting participation to the division of labour, claiming we would not want a layman performing open heart surgery on us if there was a capable doctor on hand. While strained, politics is concerned with such important aspects of our lives, from education to healthcare, that the decisions made in the annals of power can be as life altering to some as those of a surgeon.
The degradation people may feel from withholding their right to vote is more than offset by the importance of politics to wider society. An incompetent and ill-informed majority that votes in a President with no former political career - with promises to 'drain the swamp' from whence he came and is the only world leader to pull out of the Paris climate change accords - should not, by rational expectation be allowed to command the world's superpower.
It is worth acknowledging that plural voting does not preclude candidates like Donald Trump, Kanye West or Mark Zuckerberg from running, but it greatly reduces their chances of winning. In theory, epistocracy would 'wash out' the celebrity factor America, and other states, sometimes suffer from. While these amateur political candidates may appeal to the masses, they might not capture the reasoned minds of a politically educated voter pool as easily. The legitimate means for this plurality would be via a free and readily accessible test, privy to all the population to have the opportunity to raise their electoral value.
People are scared that a modification in the voting system would lead to more inequality and to the rule of an elite. But is the society we currently live in actually equal?
People are scared that a modification in the voting system would lead to more inequality and to the rule of an elite. But is the society we currently live in actually equal? Take the distinction between White Americans and other ethnic groups such as African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans in the USA. Indeed, on the American Human Development Index (ADHI) – a measure of wellbeing and opportunity on a scale from 0 to 10 - these ethnic groups score an entire index point below Whites. This applies to women too. Overall, they score similar to men, but on closer inspection, there is a two-point gap between genders in terms of income.
While the U.S. can be all too readily drawn upon as the modern day first-world charity case, such patterns are also visible in Germany, where, under the exact same circumstances, women earn on average 5.5 per cent less than their male counterparts (according to research published on Glassdoor - in German). Note that this inequality is happening under the nose of democratic governance.
Epistocracy in a socially unequal context
How can we expect all groups to be equally represented in an epistocracy? Would not those already advantaged have it easier to acquire additional votes and thus become more influential?
Brennan acknowledges the demographic factor and has a solution: we could offer incentives to underrepresented groups for them to prepare and take the test. However, this proposal overlooks the possibility that disadvantaged groups are in this position because they do not have the same opportunities other groups have on account of years of inequality. If we are striving toward a more just society, every group needs to be equally represented, and thus we should make the share of votes of underrepresented groups count as much as those of the others.
Theory is only as good as its real world application. The pragmatic implications of policy implementation are complex on account of humans being the flawed decision makers.
Looking at society presently, we may see that progress toward a global community has been trivial. Unconscious gut instincts are more inclined to prefer men as leaders over women, alongside the preference for aesthetically pleasing candidates. Indeed, only 19.6 per cent of the US Congress is made up of women, and in Germany's Reichstag the figure is a mere 30 per cent - a 6 per cent decline after this year’s election. Furthermore, the underlying influence of preference-evaluating muddies the waters. Especially so when demagogues are allowed to run and manipulate without appeal to fact and reason.
While epistocracy poses several challenges and is yet to be perfected, opening the possibilities to alternative forms of governance should be sought, if only as opportunities to improve the system. With careful consideration and potentially years of development, epistocracy may offer us a path to a more equal and better functioning society.
What is proposed is not to preclude swathes of the populace from voting and participating in the political sphere. Instead, it is demanding of them that they reach a certain calibre of moral and literate capacity from which they can engage meaningfully.
To conclude, a quote from Biller Maher, an American talk show host who believes political apathy to be the enemy of a functioning democracy: "Freedom isn’t free. It shouldn’t be a bragging point that ‘Oh, I don’t get involved in politics’, as if that somehow makes someone cleaner. No. That makes you derelict of duty. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable.’
Edited 16/11/2017 08:12 GMT for design malfunction reasons, empirical accuracy and image edition.