Demystifying democracy

Print edition : November 25, 2016
For a democracy to work, you need an electorate that has the basic knowledge of civic and social systems, but the author says democracies lack a knowledgeable body of voters.

THE word democracy has its roots in Classical Greece dating back to the 5th century B.C. and denotes a system of government run by representatives elected by the people. Originally, democracy denoted a representative government freely elected only by adult men, with women and slaves kept out of the election process. In fact, modern democracy began to take true shape only with the universal suffrage movements in the 19th century that guaranteed the woman the right to vote. In other words, this system of governance is a work in progress and is subject to considerable abuse.

In a democracy, a government elected and changed through free and fair elections guarantees equal protection under the law to all the citizens, ensures equal rights for all and thrives on the participation of its citizens in civic affairs. However, real-world democracy is different from what idealised democratic processes suggest. Democratic theory needs someone to play the devil’s advocate, which is primarily the intention of Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy. It is clear that 200 years’ liberal background of the democratic process at work in the West and the resounding lectures on liberalism in university halls have not ushered in a truly democratic culture.

In the name of democracy, justice and altruism, imperialism has committed more genocide around the world than the two major wars. What matters most is not only the operation of democratic values within a country but also the values that are enshrined in the foreign policy of a nation that uphold the rights of people and their opinion as the guiding force behind all state action and policy.

The ruling class is not solely responsible for the sins committed in a democracy. The people are as much to be blamed. Brennan unsettles his fellow voters by questioning their knowledge about politics; very few voters, according to him, are informed. Not many would know the name of the Vice President of the United States or the role of the U.S. military in Syria or Libya. Voters, as he puts it rather uncharitably, are “biased, ill-informed football hooligans” who “can present arguments for their beliefs, but cannot explain alternative points of view”. Along with them are the “hobbits”, as Brennan labels a section of people, who lack fixed strong views on all political matters. These two categories have their antithesis in the “Vulcans”, who, Brennan argues, “think scientifically and rationally about politics”.

What is generally missing in democracies is a knowledgeable body of voters. Brennan finds the idea of epistocracy relevant here. The political theorist Catharine Holst is of the view that “the role of knowledge in political decision-making has been a central topic in political theory and social science for centuries. One central branch of these discussions has focussed on the role of religious knowledge and authority in political rule and variations of ‘theocracy’, or ‘rule of priests’.” However, the central knowledge basis of a society or a political system is not necessarily of a religious kind. In many contemporary societies, “the most crucial knowledge source is scientific and professional knowledge”.

The concern of Brennan, therefore, is to understand how people perform while voting. Interestingly, half the population in advanced nations have “no stable ideology, they do not care and have no interest in participating in politics”. And the other half is “super biased” and regard the “other as evil”. This has clearly been the manifesto of Republicans who have used unilateralism and the idea of white supremacist America as a “divisive, dispassionate and irrational” policy, deeming all opponents and non-nationals as malevolent. Trumpism is an outstanding example of this syndrome.

The right to vote

Brennan demystifies three fallacies. First, any kind of participation in politics makes you a superior person. He says it does not. Secondly, your political input is good for you. His rejoinder to this is, “No, it isn’t.” And thirdly, democracy is the most objective system available to us. He disagrees again. Undoubtedly, “moving from monarchy to democracy is good, but it has to be admitted that the value that democracy has is only instrumental”. There is no other existing system that is better. As Brennan explained in a recent interview, democracy was alright as the “hammer” that we have but if there was a “wrench” we might go for it.

Clearly, you do not get a say in democracy and the right to vote does not get you much either. In small democracies, the right to vote might work, but in modern nation states it gives no power whatsoever to the individual. In fact, democracies are opposed to vesting power in the individual and “favour empowering the collective”. Brennan explains that women were empowered when given the right to franchise but as individuals they remained as ineffective as ever in a patriarchal world. However, women as a group wield significantly more power. Right to vote, therefore, claims Brennan, is nothing but symbolic of equal rights and the avowal of the fact that each citizen is valuable as he has the right to vote, a kind of mythical hoodwinking or a hypnotic spell on the public of their satisfaction in possessing the inherent right to participate. In reality, you are given the right to vote to elect your representatives who then begin to enjoy the right to impose their will upon you.

Brennan, therefore, castigates the very right to vote in a democracy. This inherent universal right is to a great extent responsible for the inefficient democratic governments that are elected. Democracy as a concept is unworkable because voters are incompetent and have a low level of information on social sciences or politics. They have little idea if immigration is of any advantage economically, or if it is wrong for the U.S. to withdraw support to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Interestingly, many voters in the U.S. would not know the answers to these simple questions, which might result in the election of a President who is a liar, incapable of taking prompt decisions on military or foreign policy, or who may ban Muslims, tear up the global agreements on climate change, kill the families of suspected fundamentalists and have no understanding of the use of nuclear power.

Brennan’s thesis focusses on the information that the public has, which will have a direct impact on the policy of the government. For example, voters do not vote arbitrarily; they exercise a prejudice when they vote and visualise a meaningful or beneficial change.

Consequently, it has been seen throughout history that the use of referendum has always gone haywire. If left to referendums, you would never have had the success of the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the empowerment of the lesgay community. It can be concluded that people vote not on policy but for an individual, often leading to the rise of proto-fascism for which the uninformed voter is entirely answerable.

A test for voters

Political battles indicate that voters are really “dumb”, argues Brennan. Voting does not matter in the running of the government or in the implementation of policies. It is in this connection that Brennan suggests the idea of epistocracy. His idea of giving a basic test to the voters to decide who is adequately informed might lead to a leadership that is more suitable to rule. But will this mean that a few mugged-up answers qualify you for voting? Will it keep the ignorant out and privilege the educated? Are advantaged people not more interested in politics than the uneducated? And do people vote selfishly or altruistically for the collective good of all? Will it be sexist or racist as it might keep many uneducated blacks out?

What Brennan is envisaging is a “better hammer”, one “which works”. Giving the right to vote to all has not helped in formulating better state policies or in initiating the economic advancement of the blacks, or in making new laws on property rights, or in deciding on the allocation of funds to education. The whole exercise apparently is the creation of a delusionary manifesto and ideology that will appeal to the section that has traditionally shown leanings towards the adversary. The uninformed voter is either led by the nose or ends up exercising his bias.

It cannot be denied that emphasising the need for an educated electorate amounts to the creation of an elitist intellectual class, whereas a level playing field is the sine qua non of a democracy.

The undereducated “non-rational” person stands marginalised. However, democracy has to evolve a system where the critical ingredient of education of the masses becomes imperative for the production of a culture with a deeper awareness and a broader and more critical understanding of the functioning of government institutions.

Unfortunately, all systems of government foster an element of corruption. Weeding out the abuse of power and money would be ideal, and a historic victory for democracy. For a democracy to work, you need an electorate that has the basic knowledge of civic and social systems, a respect for the law of the land and a sense of honour and pride and ownership in their community, city and country. The vital question is, What can I do for my democracy?

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