Zócalo Public Square has discussion today on democracies and the problem of demagogues. Here’s my piece. Excerpt:
In a well-functioning democracy, elites and the people keep each other in check. To some extent, the elites keep the people from implementing dumb policies, policies the people support only because they’re badly informed. To some extent, the people keep the elites from simply running the government to their own advantage at the expense of everyone else. Many supporters of democracy decry the power of elites. They should be careful what they wish for. Donald Trump is what happens when we the people get what we want.
We cannot “fix” democratic ignorance because we cannot change the incentives built into democracy. But perhaps we can reduce the problem by changing our political system. Trump’s supporters tend to be relatively low-information voters. What if instead of trying to make voters better informed and more reasonable, we tried to screen out the least reasonable and most misinformed voters? What if instead of a democracy we had an epistocracy?
…To state the obvious: Any realistic form of epistocracy will be subject to abuse. If there is a voter “exam,” special interests will try to rig the test in their favor. If getting a college degree gets you three extra votes, politicians will mess around with what counts as a degree in order to help empower their voters. Epistocracy will have warts. But so does democracy. Politicians already gerrymander districts, lie to voters, and abuse voter ID laws. Democracies sometimes choose disastrous leaders. The question isn’t whether epistocracy would be ideal, but whether it would be better than democracy.