Blaming the People

Is democracy really the problem?

By Jan-Werner Müller
How many bizarre electoral outcomes does it take to shake our faith in democracy? Apparently, one is enough. Even before the presidential election last November, New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan was fretting about so-called “hyperdemocracies,” in which people have an unquenchable thirst for equality and refuse to accept limits on the popular will. This summer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Kirchik concluded from the Brexit vote and the recent snap election in the United Kingdom that “our duly elected representatives” should have the courage to ignore “the uninformed opinion of the masses.”
Social scientists as well as political philosophers have been ready to second that opinion: Ever since Philip Converse’s pioneering studies in the 1950s, American political scientists have amassed a wealth of evidence confirming just how little voters know—and just how incoherent or plain illogical their political choices can be. This empirical work has run in tandem with that of political theorists less worried about voters’ ignorance than about their intolerance. John Rawls, still the most influential liberal philosopher in the United States today, argued that for a liberal polity to be stable, “unreasonable” citizens would have to be “contained” just like “war and disease.”

One might think that the obvious answer to voter ignorance is education, and the answer to the more specific quandary of voter unreasonableness is perhaps some sort of civic reeducation. But the political philosopher Jason Brennan is having none of this argument. In his book Against Democracy, Brennan points to evidence that the generally rising education levels in the United States have not made citizens more knowledgeable about politics. Like many social scientists, he thinks there’s a simple explanation for why Americans remain so clueless: Ignorance is a rational choice. Since one’s individual vote has an infinitesimally small chance of actually deciding the outcome of an election, it simply isn’t worth the time and effort to bone up on policy basics—or even read the Constitution. As Brennan argues in another of his writings on the subject, democracy’s “essential flaw” is that it spreads power out widely, thereby removing any incentive for individual voters to use their own, more diffuse power wisely.

Of course, some voters seem happy to participate in the process nevertheless; they still display a passionate interest in political, and even constitutional, matters. But most of them, according to Brennan, treat politics like a spectator sport or, even worse, a brutal contact sport. The completely ignorant are what he calls “hobbits”; by contrast, those who root for one team and hate the other are “hooligans.” For hooligans, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: They understand enough to be deeply convinced that their team is on the side of the angels and that the other side are devils (witness how 40 percent of Trump supporters in Florida thought that Hillary Clinton had literally emerged from hell). But they are incapable of rationally weighing policy options or even comprehending their own basic interests. For the hooligans, it’s all about identity.

In Brennan’s peculiar typology, there is a third species of voter, which he calls “vulcans.” Vulcans coolly examine the evidence and then form their political judgments accordingly. Needless to say, they’re a minuscule minority, and, less obviously, they cannot be upheld as anything resembling role models: After all, most people simply don’t have the leisure to become vulcans—as Oscar Wilde once said of socialism, it takes too many evenings. More worryingly still, hobbits are so ignorant and ill-informed that they can’t recognize the superior reasoning of the vulcans and take their cues from them. For these low-information voters, Brennan asserts, certified experts are more or less on the same level as the far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones when it comes to professional reputation and credibility.

Brennan’s answer to this “essential flaw” of democracy is as drastic as it is seemingly logical: Restrict the franchise on the grounds of some basic test of knowledge. Following the philosopher David Estlund, Brennan dubs this “epistocracy”—rule by the knowledgeable—which has a long and disturbingly distinguished history in Western political thought: Plato advocated it, as did, in much attenuated form, a 19th-century liberal like John Stuart Mill, who wanted university graduates to have additional votes. (He got his wish: In the UK, “university constituencies”—which allowed Oxbridge alumni to cast two ballots—were only abolished in 1950, by a Labour government.)

Although Republicans remain busy in the United States restricting the franchise on the basis of essentially fraudulent claims about “voter fraud,” neither the Republican nor the Democratic party openly advocates for the exclusion of voters on the grounds of incompetence—a notion that is still taboo in contemporary democracies. Even so, excluding children and the mentally incapacitated from casting a ballot is a largely uncontroversial practice across these same democracies; and in many American states, felons are disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.
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