Just over twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama declared liberal democracy the end of history. But history marched on, revealing rot in democracy’s roots. Around the world, from radical leftists in Venezuela and Greece to American Trump supporters, bitter voters wave their banners around populist demagogues. Nationalist movements, echoing those that lead to the first world war, are on the rise. The working classes reject globalization, immigration and economic liberalism. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and other countries may soon follow suit. In the United States, the political parties are more polarized than ever before, with the most right-wing Democrat to the left of the most left-wing Republican. As a result, the United States faces gridlock and tribal politics rather than compromise solutions.
These movements are driven by low-information voters and the politicians who serve them. The past few decades have been perhaps the best in human history, with more people around the world rising out of absolute poverty than ever before. But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.
On the symbolic value of the right to vote:
Many people understand that individual votes matter little. They instead invoke the symbolic value of the right to vote. In Western democracies, we treat the right to vote as a metaphorical badge of dignity and equality. We imbue people with the equal right to vote in order to express that they are full and equal members of the national club. Many philosophers believe that democracy necessarily expresses that all citizens have equal worth.
This widely held view is odd. Democracy is not a poem or a painting. Democracy is a political system. It is a method for deciding how and when an institution claiming a monopoly on legitimate violence will flex its muscles. Government is supposed to protect the peace, provide public goods and advance justice. It’s not in the first instance an institution intended to boost, maintain or regulate our self-esteem.
Political theorist and British MP Auberon Herbert said, “The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that, having nearly worn out our capacity for treating kings and such kind of persons as sacred, we are ready to invest a majority of our own selves with the same kind of reverence.” In feudal times, we regarded the king, in virtue of holding power, as possessing a kind of majesty. In a democracy, we instead imagine every voter, in virtue of sharing what was the king’s power, as possessing that same majesty. But there’s no obvious reason why we should think that way.
The Competence Principle
Ample empirical research shows that voters are systematically ignorant, misinformed and irrational. That’s not just a bad thing. It might be an injustice.
As an analogy, suppose a jury were deciding a capital murder case. But suppose instead of carefully considering the evidence, the jury found the defendant guilty out of caprice or malice. Suppose a third of jurors paid no attention to the evidence, and just decided, by coin flip, to call the defendant guilty. Suppose another third decided to find the defendant guilty because they dislike his skin color. Suppose the final third paid attention to the evidence, but found the defendant guilty not because the evidence suggested he was, but because they subscribed to a bizarre conspiracy theory.
If we knew a jury behaved that way, we’d demand a retrial. The defendant’s property, welfare, liberty and possibly life are at stake. The jury owes the defendant and the rest of us to take proper care in making its decision. It should decide competently and in good faith.