The Downside Of Democracy…

It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.

In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)

One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.

Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms. 

All gravy, no gristle.

Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.

There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.

In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.

In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:

“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”

Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred. 

Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.

I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America. 

I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….


  1. Florida – despised for its previous misadventures – suffers the same fate. Perhaps we need to tie representation to tax dollars where, in Florida the urban areas contribute far more than the sparsely populates rural counties.

  2. Neil Postman’s 1985 study “Amusing Ourselves to Death” still holds great value. Our citizenry is not so much informed, he argued, as it is entertained. The sort of intelligent discourse demanded of Lincoln and Douglas is gone and replaced by strings of slogans. The essay has given way to the paragraph which ceded to the sentence and now to the sound bite. Our politics, our religion, and our pedagogy is caught up in a show biz world. Paradox and perplexity are shunned and all problems can be solved in one hour increments with time our for commercials. O brave new world that has such people in it.

  3. “In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support.”

    An example of “The Downside Of Democracy” was flagrantly displayed in Trump’s first Impeachment; will that be replayed next week? Also the “standing O” Marjorie Taylor Greene received last night by Republicans; but to add democracy to that situation, we have only seen her past comments and support for Qanon which she now claims to be removing herself from. We need to see her campaign foundation to know possibly why she was elected by those informed voters who continue to support Qanon, et al.

    “Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different.”

    Comparing American democracy with UK’s Brexit action removing that country from the EU MIGHT be compared to our State’s Rights system which this Covid-19 Pandemic has bared a life-and-death situation where there is no one in charge of governing the country to save lives. It is “every state save yourself” system governed by red states against blue states; even traveling between states is a major problem due to rule change once you cross state lines.

    “Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.”

    States Rights are part of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but in this Pandemic crisis it is not a safeguard of individual rights including our right to life.

  4. We rank 25th as a global democracy, but I’m not sure it is totally the fault of uninformed voters.

    Oregon, and much of the West Coast, will attract tens of millions of young people stranded in Middle America who’ve grown up with backward policymakers like Indiana.

    Meanwhile, the Lilly Foundation will spend millions on studying the “brain drain.” LOL

    Newsflash: We’re not a democracy, so no worries. We’ve been an oligarchy since our inception.

    I love this conclusion from an analysis of an article I read last week:

    “As a result, the American economy has begun to resemble a new, modern feudalism with a small technocracy dominated by Silicon Valley tech overlords and Wall Street billionaires at the top, and a large, uneducated, rapidly growing serf class at the bottom with no social safety net to protect it. . Even if the wealth gap were to be considerably reduced by transfer from rich to poor, precarity would persist because it is rooted not in inequality, but in a depleted public sector, in a public authority that has abandoned the public and increasingly become a vehicle for predatory capitalism.”

    In 1949, Albert Einstein told Truman and the world that our main problem was we remain in a “predatory phase of capitalism.”


  5. Bob G mentioned Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Postman’s observations in 1985 prophetically described exactly where we are today and how we got here. And with technology driving the proliferation of personal electronic devices used to entertain and flood us with information (some accurate, most propaganda), our blind progression has increased to warp speed.

  6. The system was designed this way because the “Founders,” such as James Madison were terrified by the thought of “majority rule.” The Southern states were sure that unless there were “safeguards” to prevent that, slavery would be outlawed in a short time.

    If you read the Federalist Papers, you will see how Madison and Hamilton rationalized the electoral college system. Hamilton’s writing style was sometimes a bit opaque, but they both felt that the system that was designed would keep the country functioning.

    So now, we are paying the price for the fear of majority rule.

  7. So here’s a question I thought I’d never ask. Are we capable of self government? Can we adapt our short attention span to take in all of the complexities of governance or can we adapt those complexities to our short attention span? It seems like we’ve been trying to do the latter with social media and so far the results don’t look good.

    Just when I feel like I’m getting to the age where wisdom should kick in, I find myself with more questions than answers.

  8. Great post on how “representative” democracy can actually work to eliminate “majority rule” to which I would add that the red states, overwhelmingly, take more from the federal government they claim to despise than they give and areas that voted Democratic produce 70 percent of the country’s wealth. We are actually dominated by “takers” who spend their time claiming the “takes” are “the other.” Bumpy rides ahead.

  9. Daniel Kahneman writes that people with “low information” who make up their minds in the absence of much data are actually MORE confident about what they believe than people who make decisions after exposure to all the available facts. It turns out the thing the human brain finds most convincing for confidence is not accuracy based on adequate information; our brains instead love a simple, cohesive story which is easier to achieve with less data! “If elected, I will make America great again.”
    Highly recommended: Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

  10. I would like to add yet another “Yes” vote to recommending Neil Postman’s work. In addition to “Amusing Ourselves to Death” he also a book, “How to Watch TV News” with Steve Powers. Both illustrate very important perspectives to have when consuming any media.

  11. In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support.
    Yes I follow these rules religiously every time I vote for the 38 judges in Marion on the ballot every four years. LOL

  12. Peggy,
    That you find yourself with more questions than answers is precisely because you have wisdom enough to ask those questions, I’d venture to guess.
    Obviously “informed” is the operative word.
    Postman’s book is now on my ever expanding “To read” list. Is that book the source of what I have, now, long believed to be the case, that we are the least informed, and most entertained nation on the planet? Or, did he simply codify the concept?
    “Those who live in a fairy-tale world are more apt to be eaten by the wolf than those who do not,” , is my view, and statement, in regard to those who live to be entertained. Here comes the Super Bowl, and I do like to see beautiful athleticism, but many people, maybe especially the “uneducated(?)” will be crazed for the next few days about an almost barbaric display (Roman coliseum?) while congress works toward a probably missed opportunity to put ethics, and the constitution, to good use.

  13. To show how ancient I am, when I was a child the meme of “gossip” was housewives talking between themselves about others over the back fence. Now of course gossip is the fuel of entertainment and social media. It’s the product that they sell by profiting from providing the transmission means (the gel in the Petrie Dish). Who establishes in those communications what the topic is, what the content is, who it’s about, the truth, the whole truth, the nothing but the truth content? The self-interest of anybody who launches a gossip virus.

    How can democracy that requires an educated and informed electorate in a world getting more complex by the day survive in that environment?

  14. The people in New York voted in a governor who was not problem solving in his mindset as seen by his unwillingness to place Covid patients into hospitals built for that purpose by the federal government, he didn’t want to work with the President for political reasons and then under reported the Covid deaths of seniors in nursing homes that the state had a contract for beds with.;;; Is there not a manslaughter charge for this man? He was well informed about how the elderly and not the youth would fall prey to this virus, but it appears that people dont matter to our elected officials. How long does he have left until that state can rid themselves of this evil behavior mandating doom from his office?
    Imagine you getting a call from your moms nursing home stating theres an outbreak because they were forced ro accept Covid patients, attending a funeral and prematurely saying good bye to her. So sad how our politicians let us down.

  15. Just to set you at ease about some gossip:

    What Cuomo really did was worry about having sufficient empty and available hospital beds in the days when we had no idea how effectively the virus spread could be limited. Part of that was a directive that said when a hospital determines a patient cured of covid they should send them home instead of tying up that bed longer out of an overabundance of caution. Those who came from nursing homes went home to them.

    There’s no evidence at all that that directive cost lives.

  16. The fallibility of majority rule is but one of the reasons to worry about the sustainability of democracy. The fact that the fragility of our system was exploited by a know-nothing who merely wanted to create chaos for his own enrichment is a second. The fact that this amoral man found avid supporters among a formerly respectable group of politicians and large segments of the public is another. The fact that our Supreme Court is confused about the role of money in politics is another. The fact that conspiracy theorists can attract political adherents is yet another. The fact that so many people can be so easily misled must be added. The fact that a heedless politician can contribute to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and remain free from accountability is undeniably relevant. The fact that a man devoid of empathy can be elected president is equally concerning. The fact that Congress can be rendered inoperable for more than a decade by the will of a single individual is right up there. The fact that a president is allowed to appoint incompetent people to run vital departments that they don’t understand is worth adding to the list. The fact that a president is allowed to demand absolute obedience or be fired and humiliated should not be at the end of a list. And the fact that the Justice Department is so easily corrupted must be taken into account.

    The time has come, I would suggest, to consider whether a reformulation of democracy in a system that is less corruptible and less prone to distortion via intentional promotion of misinformation has arrived. A Constitutional Convention for the 21st century, now that we understand people and democracy and the universality of corruption a little better, is in order. There is no shame in having proven durable for 240 years, but our current Constitution is no longer up to the task. There’s way too much built-in fragility. Let’s have another go at it.

  17. What the Brexit vote to leave the EU and Trumpism have in common is lack of reality. What happens in the aftermath is not considered. It is the fantasy belief that once we leave the EU or follow The Trumpet everything will improve.

    The GOP is having it’s own internal struggles. Like it or not Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is the new face of the GOP. Greene is Sarah Palin on steroids.

    “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” McConnell groused in a statement that did not name Greene explicitly. Sen. Todd C. Young of Indiana, a close colleague of McConnell’s, picked up the baton on Tuesday, calling Greene “nutty” and “an embarrassment to our party.”

    This is rather tepid criticism of Greene. It is way for some of the elected GOP to try to avoid the fact that Greene represents Trumpism without crossing The Trumpet.

    The Trumpet still controls the GOP from his Mar A Lago Bunker. He lost the presidency but he still wields power and power is what The Trumpet has always craved.

    The Democrats have a chance a slim chance. The Democrats must go on the Attack. None of this let’s hug, kiss and make-up crap. You know when the GOP hugs you their knife is ready to stab you.

  18. Did John S get his “informed comments” from Fox News? All hospitals must maintain empty beds in ICU and other areas due to emergency patients with health issues other than Covid being admitted daily to save lives.

    Gov. Holcomb and Republicans set up for all Indiana residents to schedule a Covid vaccination appointment. I went to that site; the first question is where you want to schedule your appointment, this list is by county, simply click on the site in your county. I chose Community Hospital East because it is 12-15 blocks from my home; I filled out identification information, no appointment available till Feb. 22nd and I opted for that date at the 4:50 p.m. appointment. Perused the Public Health requirements and their licensing and security, the list of my rights as a patient. Then clicked to Submit my appointment request and received a message that Community Hospital East is NOT a Covid vaccine site. I am unable to drive to other locations due to my disabilities…IF they are actually Covid vaccine sites. “Honest to Goodness Indiana” motto still needs to be changed to “WTF Indiana”>

  19. There is also an important neurological explanation about why Trump’s appeal to emotion (particularly fear) was so effective. I am borrowing Jill Bolte Taylor’s over simplified but clear explanation of what happens when we receive sensory input of any kind. She says that our lizard brain, the amygdala and related structures, put the information in one of three categories: safe, unsafe or not sure. This happens in a very small fraction of a second. Fear also triggers the fight flight or freeze response. Intense emotion can also impair communication between the lizard and the thinking brain. The thinking brain starts analyzing sensory data in a fraction of a second. However, it takes a significantly longer fraction of a second for the thinking brain to communicate with the feeling brain and body than it takes for the lizard brain to trigger a more primitive response. Most of us prefer to believe that we start by thinking through whatever we perceive through our senses. Not so. We feel it and then start analyzing it to greater or lessor degrees depending on who we are. But all of us are always playing catch up with our feelings from the get go. This is what makes us so vulnerable to fear mongering.

    “My Stroke of Insight”. Jill Bolte Taylor (she has a Ted talk with same title)

  20. In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support.

    Yes I follow these rules religiously every time I vote for the 38 judges in Marion County on the ballot every four years. LOL

  21. Adam Smith, a Scot and a contemporary of Madison and Jefferson who is worshipped as “the father of modern economics,” became well known during our revolutionary times. Smith saw a meeting of the minds between buyer and seller as an equally informed duet, one in which each side had all the information necessary to conclude the transaction. Later Stiglitz won a Nobel for his study of this very British and gentlemanly assumption as played out in the rough and tough take no prisoners world of today’s capitalism. Somewhere between 1776, the date of publication of Smith’s “Wealth of the Nations” (and Jefferson’s Preamble), if not before but definitely after, things changed in the commercial world (see East India Tea and its grant of royal monopoly for Indian trade – in return for a piece of the action to the royals). Stiglitz brought Smith up to date. Not everyone in the agora is nice or forthcoming with a buck in view.

    This is only one area among many referred to by Sheila today that has become far more complicated than in Smith’s day. A simple bill of lading has morphed into agents galore, including importers, longshoremen’s unions, financiers, insurors, corporate shareholders, leases, international politics in re oil tankers in the Persian Gulf etc., and there are similarly complicated changes in every other area today what with not only new devices and products undreamed of in Smith’s day but also in legal and other institutions that facilitated and are continuing to facilitate continuing changes.

    The politics of Smith’s day were static since kings and sultans chosen by God ran the shows. It was only when the people (other than women and slaves) were given the right to choose their rulers via a Jeffersonian take on Athenian democracy that trouble via misinformation and cunning began in earnest – and here we are. Of course lying and misrepresentation has always been with us, as even biblical history attests, but it is worrisome that it is now practiced in broad daylight by those who seek political and economic advantage. An “informed vote” has become elusive what with serial lying and misrepresentation on Fox News, right wing radio and such as the WSJ, among others. So what to do? Critically think for yourselves, respect science, agitate for more humanities and less STEM curriculum in the schools and finally – defend and expand what is left of our democracy, the most precious asset we hold in common.

  22. If you want informed voters, test them for critical thinking about governance.
    Sounds great, but it elicits the fear response first. Same as genetic engineering to prevent Down Syndrome or sickle cell anemia. Or vaccination.
    Idiocracy is the right term.
    We can’t fix it with crippled fake democracy.

    p.s. Did you know I’m a Technocrat, as in Technocracy.
    These people were on to a good thing.

  23. I also have read Neil Postman’s book , and highly recommend it. Now as Football, and other competitive”sports gaming” events takes over News and Educationally Informed Shows on all channels, along with political party competitiveness, think he was brilliant with his foresight.

    Hope Paul, as he cites Jill Bolt Taylor’s outstanding and educated report of her personal experience with a stroke, also supports using the concept and practice of mind training, aka meditation, to calm the rapid firing of of our neurons. Try it, you might find you learn to like it and even find it beneficial.

  24. If you’r old enough to remember Andy Griffith in the hilarious movie, “No Time For Sergeants,” you’re likely way ahead of me here. This concerns a new assignment for Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG). No more committees for education or budget for her! She denies that the children and adults of Sandy Hook and Parkland schools are dead. No sirree! She is well suited for PLO (Permanent Latrine Orderly). Visualize Andy and his pal stomping the lever that made 10 or more toilet seats automatically fly up. Tell me that’s not a fitting assignment for MTG at the People’s House. She can still claim that she works at the Capitol. Her pay grade ($175,000/yr) will be adjusted accordingly.

  25. Much food for thought here –

    Two quick comments today –
    Terry wants a constitution convention. That scares the hell out of me. I am not so certain we won’t have balanced budgets (iron clad), ceilings on taxes, abortion bans, etc. Our first try came up with that “highly successful” Articles of Confederation. I fear that the new constitution will be halfway between that and what we have now. No, that scares me.
    I will say about the constitutional convention what I say about the best government – the best government is a benevolent dictator, but I only trust myself to do that right — and I don’t want the job.

    Second, it has been a while, but didn’t the Greeks talk about degenerate forms of government? If I recall, democracy degenerates into — Trump and today’s Republican Party
    That may be what Madison and Hamilton feared.

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