24 September, 2012

The Democratic Voter

Intro

October is just around the corner, and that means that elections at all levels are a scant two months away. The blogosphere is alive with pundits-in-their-own-minds discussing the latest revelations of the political media (what faux-pas did candidate X make while he was speaking off the cuff? more at 10), and I'm not particularly interested in the specifics of any given election in any case, so I'm going to restrain my comments to more general and abstract themes.
Instead of hearing me talk about which candidate I support, or why one specific policy is better than another, I'm going to focus myself on what I see as the deeper, and more significant issues; to wit, I'm going to write about the democratic/republican system we have, its theories, and its flaws and shortcomings. I will also write about how the different social and cultural circumstances of this modern age render some of the foundational precepts of a liberal republic no longer strictly relevant.
But in this first post, I am going to touch on the throbbing heart of these issues, the reality which must confront any defender of democracy and/or republicanism. That is to say, I am going to describe the democratic voter in his/her natural habitat.

The Ideal Voter

Before I go any further, I think that it is necessary for me to describe a myth which is often alluded to in the press and in common discourse today- the ideal voter. This voter, though he or she is not called such in practical conversation, is the archetype against which all others are measured, either implicitly or explicitly (as will be the case here). 
This voter is educated on all the relevant issues. It is not enough simply to know what the issues are and to have an opinion on them- the ideal voter must have access to and knowledge of all of the relevant factual matters involved. This is obviously easier said than done, but it is nevertheless possible, given enough time and intelligence, for somebody to become well-enough acquainted with the pertinent details to be considered 'educated' for these purposes.
This voter must also be a rational voter. To put it another way, this ideal voter must be capable of analyzing all of these facts he/she has acquired in the process of education and synthesizing them logically and cogently in to a cohesive opinion on a given issue. He/she must be able to form objective opinions on the issues free from emotional baggage, faulty reasoning, ignorance of precedents, etc.
Finally, this voter must be an active voter; he or she must actually have a vote, have that vote count, and use that vote. In practicality, one or more of those conditions will be missing either de jure as in the United States or de facto as in a pure democracy, but for the sake of establishing this ideal, we assume that these three criteria are met.
 
The Reality 

Having thus defined this mythical beast, let us now dispense with the Platonic discussion of ideal forms and return to the concrete world as we can actually observe it. Nowhere and at no time has this ideal voter been seen to exist in anything other than the collective imaginations of the talking heads and pundits.
The sad reality is that voters in a democratic state are not educated. Even if they have a deep and extensive knowledge into one particular issue (e.g. an obstetrician in respect to abortion), they are usually to that extent ignorant of other issues at large (e.g., the same obstetrician may have very little knowledge of macroeconomic policy). Well-meaning as the voters may be, they have either theoretical limits (what is the upper bound of the human brain's capacity to retain information?) or, more commonly, practical limits (time, effort, and money spent on educating oneself may be otherwise spent) on their knowledge of relevant issues, and so degrade most commonly into one of two distinct types of uneducated voters:
1) The single issue voter, who casts his or her vote for the candidate who appears to best match his or her opinion on the one topic for which they are adequately informed, or
2) The emotional voter, who simply allows themselves to be completely influence by the emotional appeals of one candidate's advertising over the others' advertising.
They are aided and abetted in this descent by their lack of rationality. As discussed above, the ideal voter is also a rational voter. How do our voters in realty stack up? Well, as it turns out, some voters do indeed attempt to vote rationally. They are hobbled, however, by their ipso facto lack of knowledge, and so they reason from false or non-existent premises. Rational though they attempt to be, they are incapable of truly rational behavior because of these limits. As my old logic professor used to say, "garbage in, garbage out," no matter how good the system.
Other voters are incapable of rational voting by another defect: they are unable to reason at all. This sort of phenomenon is rather well established- across the bible-belt, for instance, we see many peoole who display a positive suspension of rational faculties on a daily basis as a part of their foundational philosophy (if it may be called such at that point), though the lack of rationality in voting is by no means confined to the recesses of the American South. Plenty of voters in the North and West of the U.S. (for example) do not wish to undergo the burdens of logical thought, and so suspend their reason in favor of the easier way of deciding questions; to wit, thinking with the gut and the heart rather than the brain. These voters abandon the rational process altogether.
In the absence of reason, these voters must nevertheless decide which candidate to support. Lacking the rational, logical processes of the rational voter, they instead resort to voting my emotion. The candidates are all to eager to supply them with emotional issues- every day during election season, one is bombarded with advertisements which seek to associate one's own candidate with positive emotions or one's enemy with negative ones. Seldom are many figures or facts used (beyond vague statistical data provided with no interpretation or background, but I digress); instead, the focus is firmly on canonizing one politician and demonizing the other. Even the musical accompaniment and color schemes are consciously chosen to further this emotional impact. Since emotional thinking does not have the checks and critical 'razors' of rational thinking, emotional appeals often go unchallenged into the voter's very beliefs.
All of this is moot, of course, if the voter in question simply doesn't vote (or, in the case of our system here in the United States, if their vote simply doesn't count, an issue I'll discuss to greater length in later posts). Even if a voter were educated (which they can't be), and even if that voter could vote rationally (and they can't), it is all for naught if they are unable, or unwilling, to go to the ballot box. Which leads me right into my next point, namely, are people democratic by nature?

Are People Democratic In Nature?

The short answer is 'no,' but I feel that I need to qualify this answer with some argument since I speculate that the majority of my readers will disagree with this (rather misanthropic and negativistic) sentiment.
I hearken back to (and paraphrase) Hobbes when I say that in absence of society, a human life is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. I add my own qualifiers when I say that, in their very nature, the vast majority of humans are incapable of a real liberal understanding of democracy. To most people, democracy is not the sovereignty of each individual, but the sovereignty of a single entity chosen by the individuals subjugated under it.
Our evolutionary heritage seems to support the idea that our brains are, somehow, 'wired' for despotism. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, organize their societies around a patriarchal hegemony, where the alpha male retains all the leadership and all the other members of that troupe are subjugated to what might be called his rule. I suspect that if chimpanzees had just a little more symbolic intelligence, they might put a crown on the alpha male's head and bow the knee to it.
Humans by their very nature are not democratic animals. A few (rather more intelligent) humans have been able to conceive of democratic ideals and to organize the societies in which they live into democracies, but it has always been largely without popular consent and it has never been particularly permanent. The longest-lasting so-called democratic government, the United States, has only narrowly missed implosion because its founders were wise enough to know that democracies run against human nature and so tried to isolate some of the fragile democratic processes from the public at large through a system of Constitutional checks against popular sovereignty and through a tiered republic rather than a direct democracy.
Humans are not democratic animals.

Democracy and the Democratic Voter

 At no point and at no time have the supposed participants in  and benefactors of democracy, the voters, lived up to their hypothetical ideal. Through a combination of innate human limitations and outright purposeful knavery (the positive will for stupidity seems to be a near-universal phenomenon here in Idaho), they are completely unable to even approach this pie-in-the-sky.
This is damning enough for those who seek to retain any romantic notions about human potential, particularly for self-government, but it is particularly damning, as I will discuss next time, for those who seek to posit a democracy as the ideal form of government. Democracies are directly dependent upon their constituent voters; as the voters go, so goes the democracy. When you have uneducated, irrational voters, you get uneducated and irrational government.
More next time.

 

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