Back in the old days (2016) when Brexit surprised everyone including those who’d been lying shamelessly to promote it and Trump’s victory overturned the USA’s entire history, clever journalists and academics wrote lengthy articles “explaining” these phenomenon. Common notions were that “ordinary people” had been “left behind” by globalisation and that what was needed was more attention paid to social and economic equality. What the clever journalists and academics resolutely ignored, however, was reality.
The reality was that Brexit and Trump were the results of deep systemic failings in the very idea of representative democracy, coupled to an age in which misinformation can spread at the speed of a click provided it is packaged appropriately: one simple idea, easy-to-remember sound-bites, a meme to encapsulate a lot of emotional resonance.
Now, three years on, a very small number of journalists and academics are gradually waking up to the fact that Brexit and Trump were not the results of the “left behind” or the “economically disadvantaged.” In fact Brexit and Trump relied on the same factors and were supported by the same sorts of people, who voted not because they had conducted rational analyses of real-world data but because they’d been manipulated and weren’t bright enough to realize that fact. Over two thousand five hundred years ago Plato cautioned against democracy because he realized how easy it was for a glib-tongued demagogue to stir the less thoughtful into a passion that would sweep all before it and lead inexorably to self-harm and destruction. He was of course correct: the great Athenian experiment with democracy lasted less than a century. Today we’re coming to the end of our accidental experiment with representative democracy and the stakes are far higher than they were back in Plato’s day.
So why is representative democracy such a terrible idea? After all, we’ve repeatedly been told, pace Winston Churchill, that it’s better than all other systems of government that have from time to time been tried. And that is true: we can’t return to the rule of the “strongman” because that is invariably disastrous, whether you dress it up in the guise of “democracy” (like The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) or are more honest and simply call it a Kingdom or an Empire. But comparison with other failed approaches isn’t really legitimization. I mean, how would you feel if your next commercial flight involved being strapped to the wing of the Wright Brother’s Flyer and being told that while it would only carry you a mile or so and would crash-land at the end, “it’s better than all other forms of heavier-than-air transportation that have from time to time been tried?” Or if you visited an automobile showroom and the only vehicles on offer were the Model A Ford because this was “better than all the other mechanical driving machines that have from time to time been tried?”
We live in a world of continuous improvement. Today’s cheap wristwatch is accurate to a few second a year whereas the most expensive timepiece of a century ago was accurate to a few minutes a week. Today’s cheap automobile is infinitely better, safer, and more comfortable than the most expensive car of a century ago. And so on and so on across practically every field of human endeavor except… for the way we govern ourselves. Democracy barely stumbled along during Victorian times; it showed itself inadequate to deal with the major challenges of the twentieth century and it is totally inadequate to deal with the complex challenges presented by a world in which human actions have global consequences for both commerce and the environment. We expect representative democracy to cope with complexity that is quite literally beyond most human comprehension while having made no meaningful changes at all to its fundamental principles over the last couple of centuries. That’s like hoping a Babbage mechanical calculating machine could underpin the modern Internet.
Let’s look at some implicit assumptions of representative democracy and how they are all in fact utterly hollow.
First of all, our so-called “representatives.” These came into existence because in sizable nations you can’t gather all voters together in the same place at the same time as per Athenian democracy. It’s not feasible to ask five million people to down tools and trek to the capital on a regular basis to debate and vote on policies. So instead villages and towns elected representatives to carry their interests to the parliament. Nice idea, except… imagine a dinner party of 300 people where everyone is talking at the same time and no one is listening. So representatives quickly realized they had to band together in order to be effective. This in turn meant dropping a lot of what the voters back home wanted, in favor of agreeing on a sub-set of general policies that the representatives felt they could “sell” to their constituents. And so, very early on, representatives stopped being representatives and in fact became salespeople for their newly-formed Parties. That was a dramatic change but hardly any historian has noted the fact.
As time passed, representatives naturally became quite keen on being re-elected. Power is a lovely thing to have and the perks of being a politician are frequently addictive. Staying in power became the over-riding objective and voters back home came to be regarded more or less as sheep to be herded on election night. True representation was lost in favor of easy-to-explain policies with emotional (rather than rational) appeal.
Now let’s look at ourselves, the voters. Today our western democracies have universal franchise. This is because we learned from experience that with partial enfranchisement the enfranchised will support measures that benefit them but harm the disenfranchised. We use age as a proxy for mental capability: provided you live past the age of majority in your country, you can vote. But age is a very poor proxy for capability. Many of us know extremely intelligent and well-ready teenagers and extremely dull-witted ignorant adults. It is far from clear why we should prevent the capable teen from voting while enabling the older dullard to vote on a whim, because of irrational prejudice, from force of habit (“I’ve always voted X and I’m not changing now”) or on the basis of complete misunderstanding of the issues at hand.
An additional effect of using age is that politicians can buy votes with expensive policies that will ultimately be paid for by those currently too young or too unborn to have a place at the table. Thus nearly every western democracy is running a budget deficit despite decades of above-average economic growth relative to the historical norm. So not only do we see total irrationality in voting empowerment but we get the inevitable corollary of runaway deficit spending to bribe today’s voters at the expense of tomorrow’s citizens.
This is merely to touch the tip of the problems of representative democracy. We know from countless studies that the vast majority of people vote irrationally. We are more likely to vote for the incumbent when our sports team has just won a game, or when the weather has been pleasant. We are easily tricked by simple-minded lies because our brains have evolved to do as little thinking as possible. (This is because during almost all of our evolutionary history calories were scarce and so conserving calories was of utmost importance. As the brain can consume 30% of blood glucose while active, not thinking was a great survival strategy and one which we still cling to today even though our circumstances have changed beyond recognition.) As we’re a group species we have inbuilt mental habits such as deferring to authority and looking for a “strong” leader. In times of apparent crisis this desire for a “strong” leader coupled to our simple-mindedness has inevitably catastrophic consequences.
These factors, and a great many more, help explain why all around the world we see the rise of populism and the collapse of old norms and values. They help explain why we see people eagerly embracing simple-minded “solutions” to extremely complex problems. It explains why the simple-minded lie, especially if delivered in an entertaining manner, will always be preferred to the complex truth. Our primate brains, evolved to cope with the relatively simple challenges of the African savanna and the primordial forests of Eurasia, are simply not up to the task of operating in a complex globally interconnected world.
So, what can we do about it? Must we sit passively while our civilization slides into chaos and barbarism? We’ve just enjoyed the longest period of peace in the West since the collapse of the Roman Empire, after which it took nearly fifteen hundred years to regain much of what had been lost. Are we doomed to enter another millennia-long Dark Ages?
The good news is that there are solutions to our problems. The bad news is that we most likely can’t get to them from here without first passing though some very bad times indeed, because we resist change and will cling tenaciously to what we know even when it is serving us very poorly indeed. There is therefore very little reason for short-term optimism, but there is equally reason for longer-term hope. For some of the possible solutions to dealing with the challenges of a complex globally-interconnected world, please read the next article.