Democracy of Noobs

There is a lot to be said about the value of cross-disciplinary research. Fresh perspectives and beginner’s luck and not being trapped by a field’s entrenched paradigms can be game-changers and spawn innovative breakthroughs.

But sometimes, ignorance just rears its ugly head in these cases. And it’s usually in the conclusions. Somewhere between the results of a study and the media picking it up, someone stretches the conclusions way too far. Such as concluding this: democracy is broken because political or policy noobs don’t realize they are noobs and are therefore incompetent to vote wisely. The money quote:

The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. But a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

Well someone here apparently is noobish about government and politics. The first sentence makes a number of erroneous leaps that few political scientists would make:
  1. That there is an objective, measurable ‘best’ and ‘mediocre’ candidate or policy idea
  2. That if there is an objective ‘best’ that it persists over time, rather than being momentary
  3. That the democratic process relies on citizen expertise to function
  4. That elections select a known quantity of leadership and policies that remains constant after the election
  5. That elections can produce leadership or policy results
  6. That election results are driven solely by voter preferences, and not influenced by political contributions, the media, the economy, the political party-based system of primaries and contested elections, recent news events, the relative effect on turnout of competing campaign GOTV efforts, election rules and even the weather
  7. That policy or leadership results are driven solely by those who win the elections, and are not influenced by political contributions, the media, the economy, foreign affairs, the next election, the news cycle, the budget, surprises, the linking of previously unlinked policies in negotiations, personal relationships, random chance, procedural hurdles, etc.

With all of these other factors, whether voters are experts, think they’re experts when they are noobs, know they’re noobs, or don’t know, may not matter that much. Or it could matter a lot. But simply launching from the finding that the inability of people to evaluate their own cluelessness on an issue to concluding that democracy can’t function as a result is a leap too far. Here are 4 reasons why:

  1. Democracy thrives on voters’ first impressions, the accumulated expression of non-expert assessments of leadership and policy preferences. Malcolm Gladwell covered this phenomenon in ‘Blink‘ and we have all experienced it when seeing Pat Buchanan and Dennis Kucinich campaign for President.
  2. You can’t separate out leadership from policy preferences in either the campaign phase or the governing phase. The two are intertwined sometimes, and completely separate in others and can be both at the same time when it comes to different issues. Some voters choose strictly based on leadership qualities, others solely on one or many policy preferences. We don’t have separate leadership and policy preference elections: every elected official has the support of some people strictly on one or the other or a mix. Mingling these two makes it impossible to separate them out as being ‘best’ or ‘mediocre’ as far as what voters chose.
  3. Current research on political candidates suggests that they pretty much stick to their stated policy goals. And usually hardcore experts are less certain of the ‘best’ policy in their area than those who know much less. So who can make the call on what is the ‘best’ policy?
  4. The ignorance, illiteracy, and blood alcohol content levels of voters over the last 200 years of our democracy (at the national level) have declined dramatically, especially since the 1920s when Prohibition and compulsory high school kicked in. If there is an iota of data to back up the idea that ignorance hurts democracy, then the measures (which I am heavily skeptical of) should show that democracy’s level of functioning has improved dramatically over time (all other things equal).

I’m not claiming that democracy is perfect, or that it is operating in peak condition here in the US. But I smell a ridiculous stretch here that feeds the conventional wisdom about how our system of government is worse than it has ever been. And that conventional wisdom has fueled a thousand science fiction stories that ignore political science so badly that if they were made about the physical science realm, they would be laughed right out of the slush pile.

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