By Enrique Lescure
The excellent Blog Borderstone did recently outline a series of problems with democracy, related to aspects of voter behaviour and how political parties exploit that behaviour. They also suggested a few alterations to the democratic system, which would mean a function similar to the “consumer ombudsman”/”consumer authority” that would limit the amounts of “bad advertising” political parties are engaging in. I would argue that while I agree with Borderstone that there are major problems with voter behaviour, any set of solutions should really focus primarily on the voters, rather than on the political parties.
What comes first?
This really says it all.
Democratic Elections are really just another form of a market system. The goal for any political party, or political candidate for that matter, is to scramble enough votes to be able to exert policies (and on the flopside, try to maximise the social status and the income of the participants, if we are subscribing to a more misantropic view of humanity) which benefit the voters.
To be able to achieve this, political parties should be able to reach enough voters to be able to make a difference. This means that the goal is to grab the attention of the voters. Politics is a complex subject, but to be able to gain attention, any political party must be able to generalise and comprime information in such a manner that they can attract just the amount of voters they need to be able to exert influence.
One of the great revolutions of the 20th century, was the birth of mass media and the mass entertainment industry. A typical human being in a developed economy receives as much new information daily as a farmer in the 18th century received during an entire year. While it can be argued that most of this new information is consisting of junk, it is still grabbing the attention of the individual and creates intellectual processing.
Thus, there is an ongoing evolutionary struggle within the sphere of memetics, to be able to occupy human minds with information. Billboards, signs, news headlines, adverts, TV channels and Internet are the battlefields of this struggle, which is about control of human psychology.
Just like in nature, evolution strives after achieving the greatest possible outcomes with the necessary, optimal means. That is for example why humans and most animals have just two eyes, because two eyes are optimal for being able to determine where is up and where is down. Three eyes could achieve the same thing, but the third eye would be superfluous (unless you’re into New Age).
Regarding mass media, which is reminding of democratic politics in more than one way, newspapers for example need to attract buyers. This has led to an increasing emphasis on things which engage people – namely celebrities and sport – which are things that humans are biologically hardwired to understand.
We might be irritated about all these “news” about which celebrities have divorced, about scandals on Ex on the beach and “infotainment” programs such as Deadliest Warrior, but ultimately it is we as a collective that are responsible for programs such as Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty and Biggest Loser. Certainly, many people are preferring shows like Cosmos and Vetenskapens värld, but since things like reality shows and infotainment is existing, it shows that there is a popular demand for things like that – since that is what people want.
Why do people like to consume crap?
Because it’s cheap.
And no, when it comes to dumbed-down information (which often is flawed and appealing to emotions), it is not a question of money. Rather, it is a question of time and mental capacity. It is easier for the brain to just accept the information that gets filtered through, than to analyse it from all viewpoints and to come to a conclusion based on a combination of reason and values.
Also, it is cheap in the terms of not wanting to be proven wrong. Often, successful parties operating in a democratic system are ascribing to certain cultural or social identities with conflicting interests (I will return to that and explain why I think an ombudsman is a bad idea later), and individuals do not want to be proven wrong. People who are on the left on the political spectrum might want all social problems to be defined as environmental constructs, while hard right-leaners might want everything to be genetic. There is also this large group of voters who have low education, low ability to learn and/or very little interest of taking information.
Those people have voting rights too (and they should have that, because if not no one would take into account their interests, especially not within the framework of a free market system).
Given that, my conclusion is that the current level of political discourse is the result of popular will.
Revisit the market analogy
The free market does not want you to take responsibility, but neither does it care about you.
It becomes very dangerous when that kind of ideology is influencing the democratic discourse. Since the 1950’s – when consumer capitalism became established, the market has increasingly come to define not only our way of working and eating, but also our identity. To a large extent, this has led to a breakdown of civic ideals in western societies, and (what Marx warned about) the commodification of the human identity. This means that we – primarily, in all aspects – are treated foremost as receptors, consumers, and not as actors with an own will.
We should really all feel very insulted when newspapers, TV channels and political parties speak to us like if we were children. They are treating us with contempt, and their view of the public is told through the quality of their programming. And to a very large extent, I would suspect that being fed information that doesn’t challenge us, nor contribute to our intellectual development, has gradually come to reduce the quality of our ability to understand information.
When democratic elections start to work after the same principles, it becomes really dangerous, since it can make the public unable to detect hidden dangers, or be able to withstand demagoguery. It can be discussed if this process is some kind of aware progress towards a society run by international elites, since an uninformed, disinterested electorate can make it easier to enact treaties such as ACTA, TTIP and MAI. Western democracies today are really run after principles where both the dominating parties (usually a left-centre and right-centre party) are striving after the same long-term goals in economic and foreign policies, and then it is of course “good” if public participation is reduced and politics as a whole are “dumbed down”.
What is the solution then?
The course that EOS sees for the future is direct-democratic within the context of voluntary confederations. However, this remains a distant goal in the future, and even if introduced, such a system would possibly have the same problems as our current systems, and might degrade further since a direct democracy in the hands of an electorate which has learnt to constantly be fooled by messages which are directed towards children rather than adults can yield some frightening results.
An ombudsman would however be a bad idea too, as well as laws limiting what politicians might send out for messages. It would lead to constant legal proceedings, where rival parties would accuse one another before court of misleading adverts and of lying, and it can serve to destabilise societies further, when polarising issues such as immigration, climate change and economic issues emerge. Also, if the state in question has a dominating party, this party would have the resources to legally persecute their opponents, thus creating a semi-democracy or an authoritarian state.
No. The best route forward is probably to encourage people to think, to create a society where more is demanded than that we should pursue our identity through consumerism. It is paramount that both children and adults learn about scientific reasoning, and about logics and especially logical fallacies. Of course, all people would not be able to fully master these processes, but if a significant amount are, and if such behaviour is promoted amongst the public (instead of the ideals presented by Jersey Shore and America’s Next Top Model), then we would be a significant amount of way ahead.
This course is a very good initiation to that world, by the way.