Friday, February 24, 2012

Why a high turnout is bad for democracy

This is going to be one of my most controversial posts so far. The subject is turnout, and why a high turnout, contrary to popular belief, isn't really good for democracy or for anything else.

First, let's start with my basic assumptions:

There are those who are interested in politics, and those who are not. How do we draw the line? Ask yourself this question: Do I care enough to read both candidates (general election candidates, that is) election manifestos? Do I care enough to factcheck the candidates claims that they make during debates and in ads? Do I ever discuss politics with my friends, or at the dinner table with my family? Do I identify with any ideology? If I don't, do I at least have well-defined positions in most issues?

If you answer No to more than one of those questions, you should probably think about whether you should vote. Voting, contrary to popular belief, is not a duty at all.

Now, the kind of people who engage in "go vote" campaigns would probably counter with "but people died for your right to vote".


But the same people who died for your right to vote also died for your right to carry arms. Does that mean that everyone should carry arms, even those who lack the knowledge and self-control to handle them safely? Of course not. A right is not the same as a duty. Similarly, if you don't have the knowledge and self-control that is necessary not to fall for a candidate like Donald Trump (who used to be a frontrunner, remember), then you shouldn't vote. The voters who fell for Donald Trump were low-information voters who fell for Trump just because he seemed cool and could talk tough. It's like a 13-year old girl who falls in love with the toughest guy in school, the guy who smokes cigarettes on the schoolground and tells the principal to F*** off.

Can we all agree on that 13-year old girls should not vote? Good. Can we all agree on that those who have the same level of maturity in their political thinking as a 13-year old girl, should not vote either? I hope so.

But how does a high turnout threaten democracy?

You see, low information voters - the kind of people who vote en masse in high-turnout elections - just want things fixed. They don't care about values, about realism or about anything else. They're motto is "Just fix it!". And so, they vote for politicians who promise a quick fix.

That "quick fix" could be anything from "tax the rich" to "cut taxes" to "eliminate the undermenschen".

As conservatives, we believe governments don't solve problems. People solve problems. Low-information voters disagree (knowingly or unknowingly), and vote for candidates who promise to solve things. These types of candidates, once elected, then centralize power: They're elected to solve problems, and solve them fast, and to do that, they need to take power from people like you and me and give it to themselves.

At the same time, low-information voters rarely care if problems are really solved. In the next election, they'll vote for the candidate with the best ads, the best slogans and the cutest smile once again. So, once elected, most representatives will simply do just enough to make sure they have some achievements that look good on paper that they can turn into slogans. Or, they'll promote an agenda most intelligent voters don't agree with - knowing fully well that they'll still be re-elected because of their cool slogans and good looks by the idiot voters.

Many people talk about the black vote becoming a deciding factor in elections. Others emphasize the growing importance of the hispanic vote. Still more commentators talk about the female vote. But sadly, none of those are going to decide the outcome of the presidential election. Instead, what will decide the outcome of the Presidential election this year is what I would like to call the Dumb vote.

Simply, the candidate who wins will be the one who can attract voters who really aren't that smart. Smart voters (smart meaning in a political sense, as in well-informed) have mostly made up their minds decades before the election; they have well-defined political views that are unlikely to change, and they change their minds only after careful consideration - hence, you can only convince so many of them in one election campaign.

Don't believe that the Dumb vote is important? Check out Goldwater, 1964. He was clearly a really intelligent guy with an intellectual approach to things - and he lost badly to the guy who had nothing but a nice slogan about the "Great society" and who promised to fix everything if the voters would just send him to the White House.

The Dumb vote is dumbing down politics. Because of the significant Dumb vote that exists, maybe in particular in primary elections, politicians have to "dumb down" their message to appeal to these voters who shouldn't even be allowed to vote (I'm getting to that). Instead of spending time developing sophisticated solutions to the issues we face, they have to spend time making 30-second ads, injecting botox into their faces to look good (though that's mostly democrats), and figuring out witty slogans.

Tim Pawlenty and "Obamneycare" is a classic example. Here we have a smart guy, fully qualified to be President, who was just so desperate to find a way to appeal to the "bread and circus" voters. He tried to act tough, but at the end of the day he couldn't be someone he wasn't. Instead of laying out an intellectual argument regarding the similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare, he had to call it "Obamneycare" to make the people who form the Dumb vote pay attention to him. Any form of intellectual argument causes these voters to fall asleep, so it had to be "Obamneycare" instead. Of course, the whole thing backfired, but it's easy to see why Pawlenty used it in the first place.

Mitt Romney is another example, although he's much more skilled than Pawlenty when it comes to dumbing down his message. Everyone, even those who may hate Mitt Romney, can see that he's a really smart guy. The kind of guy you would not want to play chess with, because he'd certainly have you checkmated after two moves. I can definitely see Mitt Romney lecturing at a university - not so with Donald Trump or Michele Bachmann.

Mitt Romney's problem is that while he has a steady base made up of (mostly) informed voters, that base is just 20-25 % (yes, I know Romney has been above those numbers, but typically not for very long). That's not to say that 75-80 % of Republicans are stupid, but it certainly is the case that Romney does better with well-informed voters than other candidates. Of course that doesn't mean Romney is the best candidate, but he is the kind of candidate who comes up with more complex solutions that can't easily be turned into slogans. That, not Romneycare, is his biggest weakness in my opinion.

Romney though has managed to attract a significant enough share of the Dumb vote to make sure he still is the frontrunner. He's had to practice a lot for sure, but today he can speak in a way that even many dumb voters can understand. This is one of the reasons I've opted against a political career (which I dreamed of when I was younger): The humiliation of having to turn my sophisticated ideas into 30-second ads would simply be too much. I've spent a lot of time developing smart ideas and I don't ever want to dumb them down. I really feel for Romney who has to dumb down his ideas to appeal to voters who have no business voting.

If you don't believe that low-information voters are damaging to democracy, consider Germany in the 1930's: Hitler was not elected by academicians, but by those who desired simple solutions and who were "turned on" by tough slogans like "One people, one reich, one fuhrer". Hitler was elected by low-information voters, because Nazism with its simple premises and easily refutable conspiracy theories can only appeal to such voters. The Dumb vote essentially caused the holocaust, which I think should put to rest any doubt about the fact that the Dumb vote has to be eliminated or at least minimized if democracy is to survive in the long run.

But there are more recent examples. The Dumb vote caused the Irish to elect a government that subsidized housing in the midst of a housing bubble and which cut taxes when the economy was overheated - for a low-informed voter with no knowledge of business cycles, that certainly made a lot of sense. But looking back, maybe it would have been better if they had just stayed home. And now, because of the Dumb vote in Ireland and elsewhere, Europe is about to go down in flames and there are riots in Greece that are so massive there are fears this might turn into a real civil war. Can anyone really doubt that low-information voters aren't good for democracy?

The Dumb vote made Americans elect Barack Obama in 2008. "Just elect me and I'll fix everything tomorrow" (not an exact quote, but it pretty much summarizes Obama's campaign) - that's exactly the kind of stuff the voters whom the Dumb vote consists of likes. Nothing concrete, nothing complicated, just a promise to fix everything.

So how do we solve this problem?

The first step, of course, is to stop encouraging people to vote. If you're an informed voter with an interest in politics, you will vote whether or not someone encourages you to do it or not. What we should do is to encourage people to get engaged in politics and to really take time and learn about the issues, ideologies and candidates. That's a noble cause - voting for the sake of voting is not.

However, I'm afraid things have gone too far for that to be enough. What I would love to see (yes, I'm aware that it's not going to happen) is a "voter's exam": If you want to vote, you must pass a test to prove you're not a complete idiot.

I'm not talking about some type of complicated political science exam, just a test that would weed out the worst voters. Here are some examples of questions you should have to answer before voting: Who is the president of the United States? Who is your local congressman/what are the names of the two senators representing your state? Who was the first president of the United States? From what country did the US gain its independence?

Very basic questions - but questions that an embarrassing number of Americans wouldn't be able to answer (after all, 1/4 of all americans don't know that the US won independence from the UK). You may wonder what that has to do with the election - after all, what country the US became independent from isn't exactly a hot political topic. But if you don't know that, that sort of gives away that you're the kind of person who isn't very interested in your country. And if you're not interested in your country, you shouldn't vote. It's really that simple.

At a general election level, it might take a constitutional amendment to institute a test. At a primary level though, I'm pretty sure the parties are free to set their own rules. If the Republican party had required every primary voter in Delaware to correctly answer the question "From what country did the US gain its independence", that might very well have been enough to prevent Christine O'Donnell from winning. As a matter of fact, even a question like "Is the earth round or flat?" might have done the trick.

Now before someone accuses me of saying that Republicans are "the stupid party", I should point out that the same problem exists within the Democrats. Case in point: Hillary Clinton was far more qualified than Barack Obama (and has done a much better job as sec. of state than he has as President), yet the Dumb vote made sure Obama got the nomination.

Note that I'm not in any way bashing those who do not have college degrees; being a dumb or a smart voter has nothing to do with whether or not you've gone to college. I've met plenty of politically clueless college students during my time at university (and sadly, quite a few politically clueless professors...). A "smart" voter is a voter that figures out what he or she thinks, takes the time to read election manifestos, check records, follow the news etc. and who then makes a decision based on all these things about whom to vote for. You don't need a college degree to be a smart voter.

Neither am I bashing those who don't care about politics. It's okay, I get it - you have a stressful job, plus a wife and two kids who demands your attention, and you just don't have the time or the energy to learn about politics. There is nothing wrong with that - I'm not judging you. Just do us all a favour and don't vote.

Everyone recognizes that the right to vote has to be limited in order for democracy to survive - that's why we don't allow people below the age of 18 to vote. Yet, we allow people who are just as interested and know as much about politics as a 2-year toddler does to vote. You may be tempted to leave a comment ranting about how anti-democratic I am, but if you do that, please also take the time to explain to me why this makes sense.

This will do for now. Thank you for reading.

John Gustavsson


Anonymous said...

It used to be that land ownership was the qualification to vote because landowners paid the bulk of taxes. Nowadays, we should make it so that only full taxpayers can vote. That would disqualify several Democrat luminaries like Geitner, Tom Daschle, and Warren Buffet. It would also disqualify those a good chunk of the dem party who vote themselves handouts from the Chinese treasury.

Machtyn said...

The founding fathers argued these same points. It is why we have an Electoral College. It is why, for a very long time, the People didn't directly choose some of their representatives.

The founders, in my opinion, felt it a duty that everyone educate themselves on community matters and then exercise their Right to make informed decisions. The problem is that people like to group others. Since there are civicly minded people within all groups, you can't exclude on groups. This was how it was done in the past, groups were excluded (women, minorities).

A simple one question test could be all that is necessary, if we wanted to do that. Pick a random question from a set of basic civic questions. "Who was the first president" is a good one. "Who is our current President" might be good. "In what State do you live" would be a good one (you'd be surprised) (Of course, you'd likely get a smart alec who says, "I don't live in any State! I live in a Commonwealth." Of course, they'd have passed their test if they live in MA, VA, KY, and several other members of the Union). One question could even be, "Name a ballot initiative" (Correct answers would be vote for POTUS, vote for representative, vote for some law change... whatever.) They could have 2 chances at getting a question correct. (First missed answer, a new question is asked.)

Here is an interesting article regarding voting history in the colonies and US nation: Voting in Early America.

The problem with enacting restrictions is that it is subject to fraud. See Background on Voting. But now we see intimidation coming the other way, and a test could be argued as intimidating.

The issue is complicated, certainly. My personal opinion is that we must at least prove citizenship.