Politically Inept: Why Americans Are Too Stupid To Handle Democracy
By David Metcalfe
March 14, 2018
The “Xbox Nation”
Imagine this scenario for a moment:
The school system has decided that the “tyrannical” system of teachers being able to make all of the decisions in the classroom should be abolished, and replaced by a democracy. The teacher is now reduced to the power of one vote, equal to the vote of the students. The decision making begins with deciding on what to do in the morning. Up until that point, there had been a math class.
Majority of the students are unsure of what to do, but a few are very confident. One student stands up and says, “Math class is boring! We need to play video games instead!” (the students cheer uproariously). The teacher objects, “But you need to learn math. It’s a foundation of our society. Science and economics would not be possible without it!”. The student grabs a math textbook in one hand and an Xbox in the other and asks, “what would you guys rather do?”. The students confidently cheer for the Xbox.
Eventually the classroom becomes solely for the purpose of playing Xbox. There is an election every year, and without fail, the teacher tries to convince the students to learn math, but they choose the Xbox instead.
So, the question is: what went wrong?
Well, the reason that we don’t currently have a democracy in primary schools is because the teacher knows better than the students as to what they should be learning. It’s quite literally subjugation based on intelligence and wisdom. But I have to ask: is American democracy letting us play Xbox when we should be learning math?
American voters are not all that different from a group of primary students. They are often impulsive, selfish, and irrational. They have very little idea of what is going on in politics, let alone the issues themselves. A quick google search of “the uninformed voter” gives hundreds of articles outlining a number of disconcerting statistics. Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, cited a huge number of these in his book, “Democracy and Political Ignorance”. A couple that were well pointed out in Jared Meyer’s article for Forbes, was that only 34% of American voters can even name the three branches of government, and that one third of Americans think foreign aid is the government’s largest expense (Meyer, 2016). And, of course, knowing the branches of government is not in and of itself vital, but if you watch or read news at all, they will come up several times, so it is indicative of general ignorance. And the government actually only spends 1% on foreign aid, so thinking it is the biggest expenditure is horribly off base (Somin, 2016).
Yellow Journalism and Feeding Ignorance
In case you are not yet convinced of the stupidity of American voters, I would like to expose you to this harsh reality through some terrible political discourse I have had to suffer through lately.
Ted Cruz Senate Campaign
Here is a recent radio ad by Ted Cruz, who is trying to mock his new opponent, Robert O’Rourke:
He tries to make fun of O’Rourke for changing his name to “Beto”. Problem is, not only is Beto a long-time childhood nickname for him, but Ted Cruz’s original name is actually Rafael! The whole song is just pandering garbage, with no actual facts. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to work! Millions of Texans will be thinking: “Robert O’Rourke is a no-good liberal who wants to take our guns and let the Mexicans rob us!”.
Franklin Graham has nearly 7 million followers on Facebook, and even counsels the President. Yesterday he posted a very troubling message on his page, suggesting that atheists are unfit to serve in government. He says that “atheism and secularism is devastating for a life and for a nation”. What an absurd statement to make! Since atheists make up about 20% of Americans, they obviously deserve representation in government. But, of course, there is much worse as you continue to scroll down.
On March 8, he said that “liberalism leaves homelessness, drug abuse, and garbage in its wake.” Now, what on earth he thinks liberalism is, is apparently lost on me. Liberalism actually means a government based on the principles of liberty and equality. But he goes on to explain himself, saying, “Liberalism’s socialist policies wreck an economy. Socialism has been said to be the world’s greatest generator of poverty. More importantly, these socialist policies abandon God in favor of godless secularism.”
Every sentence spews ignorance. First, he assumes that liberalism also means socialism, which is not true, and then he assumes that socialism “wrecks economies”. Does he not realize that Mexico is way more capitalist than Norway? Which one is doing better, Mr. Graham? Sometimes socialism works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it certainly can’t be said that it automatically wrecks every economy. And “socialism has been said”…by who? Trying to gain credibility by identifying an unknown statement makes no sense. “It has been said that dogs can talk”. Who cares if something’s “been said”? Then, last but certainly not least, he thinks that socialism is equivalent to godless secularism. Because, apparently, in the mind of Franklin Graham, the Bible contains specific economic policies for all of us to adhere to, and of all things, they are capitalist…?
And just think, this guy is counselling millions of Americans, who see him almost as a prophet of God. He has significant influence. Great ignorance and great influence combined are the greatest of all dangers to American democracy, and certain evangelical Christians are carrying that to new levels by putting misplaced theology into uninformed political stances.
Hating on Justin Trudeau
Canada is no better. Andrew Scheer is the leader of the Conservative Party, and I’ll admit, an intelligent man. Much more so than Franklin Graham. However, in order to get to the position he’s in, he has pandered to the stupidity and emotions of Canadians. On March 10, he recently posted a well informed and interesting critique of Justin Trudeau. But then he ends it with “Canadians are starting to realize Liberals are just in it for themselves.” Like…what? He makes this absurd, ad hominem statement suggesting that all Liberals are only serving in government for selfish motives. And then, of course, you see posts popping up from Conservative morons all over the place, slandering Liberals and anyone who agrees with them. They see it in their political leaders, and think it’s appropriate political discourse.
Right Wing Radicals
I noticed a recent article from the Conservative Tribune, a radical right-wing publication, that said “Oprah Gets Brutal Surprise After Latest Film Outright Bans Christianity”. In the article, they suggest that the reason “A Wrinkle In Time” didn’t do well in the box office is because it didn’t include God or Jesus in the story line. I don’t even know how to argue something so stupid. Like, they think that movies including God and Jesus get increased box office success? Where was Jesus in “The Dark Knight”, “Titanic” or the “Avengers” movies? I cannot deal with these people (Zeal, 2018).
You might be saying, “Hey, why are you hating on all the right-wing sources? Left-wing sources have bias too, right?” Well, yes, they do. However, I have not come across the same kind of blatant ignorance in left-wing publications. They certainly put a spin on things. I can’t say I was too impressed with Nicole Knight’s recent article, “Iowa State Senate Passes ‘Unconstitutional’ Total Abortion Ban”. She only presented one side of the argument, and did it in a fairly dishonest way (Knight, 2018). However, there were no straight up facts that were obviously wrong. While there may be left-wing publications that are ignorant of basic facts, I do not come across them even close as much as the right-wing ones.
One of the scariest things for political misinformation has come in the form of Donald Trump, and the discourse around “fake news”. Anything that supports him, he calls real news. Anything that is against him, he calls fake news. This has resulted in much of his less educated fan base believing that he can do no wrong. Whenever they see something about him sexually assaulting a woman, not paying his employees, contradicting himself on policy decisions, etc. they simply dismiss it as fake news. There is fake news out there, but we cannot discern it by asking whether or not it supports our bias. With biased journalism running wild, citizens need to be more informed and wise than ever. But are Americans really up to the task?
Too Stupid For Democracy
We all have people in our lives who know nothing about politics, and that is fine. But why should someone who knows nothing have just as much power as someone who does know things?
I recently talked to a lady who voted for Trudeau because she thought he was “hot”. Many Americans openly said they voted for Obama because he was black.
With the law students at Queen’s University, they are very knowledgeable, well informed people. Some of the politics professors are the most politically intelligent people I have ever seen. They know an incredible amount about how politics works and how we can implement better policies for our nation’s benefit. But their votes count the same as the people who just think Justin Trudeau is “hot”!?!?! What is this madness??
Well, some would say it’s like the teacher only having one vote, and despite being correct about learning math, ends up not getting her way, due to the ignorance of the majority.
Caleb Crain wrote a fantastic article in November of 2016 called “The Case Against Democracy” for The New Yorker. He describes how this is actually a very common and long-lasting issue that political philosophers have been dealing with for centuries. John Stuart Mill had suggested that people with university degrees should have supplementary votes. In the United States, literacy tests were made to restrict uneducated people from voting up until about 1975 (Crain, 2016).
David Estlund, a political philosopher at Brown University, is in favor of what’s called an “epistocracy” i.e. government by the knowledgeable (Estlund, 2008). He goes through various arguments, and makes a convincing case. Two analogies came to mind as I read through his work: driver’s licenses and jury duty.
We would never let just anyone drive a car. Even when someone is legally old enough, it doesn’t automatically guarantee they are fit to drive. They must spend lots of time learning, and then pass an exam. If we deem it too dangerous to drive without having certain knowledge, could the same not be said for decision making for the future of the country?
If someone is vehemently biased in a certain way, like racist, sexist, or has something personal to gain from a certain verdict, they are relieved of jury duty. We only allow people to make the decision based on the evidence that is presented. And if someone did not show up to jury duty, we would not let them decide on the verdict. Everyone has to be unbiased and hear all of the available evidence before making a decision. But a voter can be as biased as they want, and doesn’t have to hear any evidence at all! They can just show up and randomly choose whatever they feel like.
Why Democracy Is Still The Best
The place I realized that there was something severely wrong with Estlund’s argument was when he said that “universal suffrage is so established in our minds as a default that giving the knowledgeable power over the ignorant will always feel more unjust than giving those in the majority power over those in the minority.” Caleb Crain passes it off, saying “as defenses of democracy go, these are even less rousing than Churchill’s shruggie.”
But I have severe trouble merely passing this off as a casual argument in favor of democracy. Estlund makes the absurd assumption that universal suffrage is nothing more than a social custom that people have become accustomed to. Is the 15th amendment, guaranteeing black people the right to vote, simply a social custom? Was the Klu Klux Klan beating and murdering hundreds of black people attempting to vote, simply rejecting a casual social custom?
Or consider women’s suffrage. Was the passage of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, simply a social custom? Why would women and black people fight so hard and sacrifice so much for something that doesn’t even matter?
Agency is a fundamental affirmation of human value. If we deny someone the agency to vote based on sex, race, or knowledge, we are unfairly discriminating against them. If everyone is to be equal, there is an obligation for us to uphold equal agency. As Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” If we begin to limit voting rights, we begin to rob people of the right to equal liberty in choosing their government. In fact, this was largely the reason that America split from Britain in the first place. Very few people at the time thought democracy would work on such a large scale, but yet it has. When it worked in America, other countries began to follow suit.
Here is a map of countries by level of democracy:
(Democracy Index, 2015)
Looking at this map, did you notice that the more democratic a country is, the better it is to live there? Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden and Finland are consistently countries who rate highest for quality of life. Countries with slightly less democracy, like United States, South Africa, Japan, Spain, etc. are often a little lower for quality of life. Then on the other extreme, countries like Saudi Arabia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Korea, etc. are some of the worst for quality of life. Is it a coincidence that democracy so closely aligns with quality of life?
But what about the teacher in the classroom, driver’s licenses, and jury duty? Would this logic of affirming equality and freedom lead one to change those as well? No, and here’s why:
Teacher Analogy: Education is a right guaranteed to all Americans. Allowing them to vote against that is actually in violation of that right. Schools have a certain educational standard that we could equate to the Constitution of the United States. Basically, if the majority of Americans voted in favor of murdering people with orange hats, we would not allow it to pass, as it would be deemed unconstitutional. The basis of society being defined by the constitution prevents any degree of severe ignorance, if ever it were to happen.
Driver’s License Analogy: The freedom to operate a motor vehicle is very different than the freedom to choose who you are governed by. If I do not drive, I am not obliged to follow the traffic rules that driving entails. But if I am a citizen, I am by default subject to the rules of the state. Tyranny exists when you have no say in the laws that control you.
Jury Duty Analogy: The jury is making a decision that is separate from themselves. They are deciding the fate of another person. The decision has no direct effect on the members of the jury. The defendant has a right to a fair trial, and the people deciding on their behalf need to be a certain standard in order to uphold that right. Voting in an election has a direct effect on each individual, and is not a matter separate from themselves.
It’s Kind of an Oligarchy, Anyway
America does not have what we might call a “pure democracy”. They are simply electing officials to make decisions in their place. What America has is a republic, which limits democracy. So really, America looks closer to an oligarchy, where the decision making actually happens within a select group of ruling people. Referendums would be an exception to that. However, the people retain power in a larger sense, because the elected officials are always accountable to the people. This means that the American people do not actually need to know everything about politics. It alleviates the knowledge burden by placing it on the government. If the government makes decisions that don’t work, even people who know almost nothing about politics will figure it out and elect someone else.
There is, of course, a huge problem with people actually identifying the correct problems in a government. I’ve heard people say that Bush caused the 2008 recession, and I’ve heard people say that Obama caused the 2008 recession. Since it happened right around the succession of the Presidency, it ends up being up to the whim of the individual. But regardless, things were not working out with the Republican Party, and people ushered in a change. The same reactionary politics is commonly thought to have gotten Trump elected in 2016 as well.
But what we consistently find is that even if a bunch of people voted for Trudeau because he’s “hot” or a bunch of people voted for Trump because he’s “Christian”, things seem to work out ok. Trudeau and Trump are far from great intellects. I honestly don’t know if Trump has even read the constitution, as his thinking seems to negate major aspects of it, but there are a bunch of Senators, Congressman, and Judges who have read the constitution, and uphold it no matter what crazy thing Trump says.
Same goes for Trudeau. He has a fantastic team of researchers and political thinkers around him. He might not understand many aspects of government, but he doesn’t have to, because hundreds of great minds are working behind the scenes to make things happen.
The Canadian and American people are actually pretty good at sniffing out stupidity in their prospective leaders. And more so, our government has such a fantastic foundation through the separation of powers and equal representation that it is almost impossible for even a really stupid leader to really mess things up.
In addition, people often choose their political affiliation in accordance with someone they deem to be more knowledgeable than themselves. Pastors, although generally discouraged to be political, often end up informally telling everyone in their congregation who to vote for. People like Franklin Graham can literally swing a couple million votes if they want. University students will often vote in accordance with a favorite professor, or a particular ideology espoused by the university. I myself vote based on the principles of the Founding Fathers, and try to see how they might best apply for human flourishing in our current times. The vast majority of people are voting in the same way Estlund’s proposed “epistocracy” would work anyway. So, if you are an intelligent person who thinks you deserve more votes, all you need to do is apply persuasion to your political discourse and change people’s minds. The sheep are looking for knowledgeable shepherds to guide them.
As Frederic Bastiat wrote in “The Law”,
“If law were confined to causing all persons, all liberties, and all properties to be respected-if it were merely the organisation of individual right and individual defense-if it were merely the obstacle, the check, the chastisement to all oppression, to all plunder-is it likely that we should dispute much, as citizens, on the subject of the greater or less universality of suffrage?” (Bastiat, 1850).
While there is often discourse around America giving the “power to the people”, that’s not really the purpose of government. The purpose of government is simply to prevent the violations of our rights, so that we are all free to pursue happiness as we see fit. These fundamental rights to life, liberty and property are set out for us by the constitution.
While we may have a lot of stupid, uninformed people voting, our system has many safeguards in place that prevent these people from ruling over the rest of us with their ignorance. Most notable of these are the obligation to uphold fundamental rights to all citizens, electing more capable officials to make decisions in our place, the separation of powers, and the nature of sheep to follow a more knowledgeable shepherd.
Many Americans may want to play Xbox instead of learn math, but it is the teacher’s duty to help them understand why math is important. Giving up on them in favor of tyranny is not a viable solution. Journalists, religious leaders, law makers, and politicians have a unique responsibility to be educated, and educate others, on government, with the ultimate purpose of promoting truth in all matters. It is through the potential of every person to be enlightened towards upholding the rights of their fellow man that gives me hope through the disconcerting ignorance so prevalent in political discourse today.
Bastiat, F. (1850). The Law.
Crain, C. (2016). The Case Against Democracy. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/07/the-case-against-democracy
Democracy Index. (2015). Democracy in an age of anxiety. The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.yabiladi.com/img/content/EIU-Democracy-Index-2015.pdf
Estlund, D. (2008). Democratic Authority.
Knight, N. (2018). Iowa State Senate Passes ‘Unconstitutional’ Total Abortion Ban. Rewire News. Retrieved from https://rewire.news/article/2018/03/02/iowa-state-senate-passes-unconstitutional-total-abortion-ban/
Meyers, J. (2016). The Ignorant Voter. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaredmeyer/2016/06/27/american-voters-are-ignorant-but-not-stupid/#65d1d1b7ff17
Somin, I. (2016). Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Way Smarter. Stanford University Press.
Zeal, C. (2018). Oprah Gets Brutal Surprise After Latest Film Outright Bans Christianity. Conservative Tribune. Retrieved from https://conservativetribune.com/oprah-gets-brutal-surprise-film/