“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
— Winston Churchill
It’s Election Day in the United States. Watching this election unfold with all the intellect and decorum of a Jerry Springer episode [and not even one of the good ones, about homewrecking lesbian strippers], I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that democracy – as it stands in 21st-century America, largely defined by this once every four years dog-and-pony show – is a failed institution.
“That’s positively un-American!” I hear you gasp. To which I respond… Well, duh – not American, remember? Because of that I won’t be voting, since I’m ineligible – which I guess counts as payback, a reversal on that whole “no taxation without representation” thing that triggered the Revolution. It will be the third Presidential election since I moved out here, meaning it has now been 15 years since I cast any kind of ballot. I feel absolutely no sense of loss at this, and heartily recommend this to others as a course of action. No matter who gets in, when they screw up – as they inevitably do – you get to roll your eyes and say, “Well, I didn’t vote for him.”
Of course, don’t ever make the mistake of confusing democracy and freedom. It’s quite possible to have one without the other, and the latter is much, much more important, obviously. The problem is not so much the concept of democracy, as when democracy gets ground down to the lowest common denominator through the mythical concept of universal suffrage – the idea that everyone, somehow, is equally capable of choosing a government, so their opinion deserves equal merit. It hardly needs saying that this is complete bollocks – and goes directly against the concepts American’s founding fathers had in mind as they set the whole thing up.
When George Washington was elected the first President in 1789, one estimate is that only 6% of the population could vote: men, over the age of 25, who owned sufficient property. This was not an accident. Founding father John Adams, one of the most revered men of his time, wrote to James Sullivan on the perils of universal suffrage:
Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level.
It was true then, and it’s even more true now, given the vastly more complex nature of the world in which we live. How many of us genuinely understand economics or foreign policy? I know I don’t. But somehow, I’m an oath of allegiance away from being given the right to help decide the country’s direction. Frankly, this scares me, and the mob rule which results would be unthinkable in almost any area requiring expertise: “I’m sorry, doc – I know you said our kid’s headaches are just the flu, but my wife and I both believe it’s a brain aneurysm, so we’ve scheduled the operation for Monday, ok?” Lunacy. Except in politics, where it’s called “democracy.”
The most important thing about the restrictions which were set in place initially for the United States was not that only men could vote, or those who owned property – but that these limitations, as a result, meant that the voters were almost always the best-educated members of society – the ones you probably want choosing the direction of the country. It remained that was for the first half of the 19th century, but the block of voters was gradually increased, until the requirements are now a) being 18, and b) having a pulse (with the latter optional in Chicago). Standards have declined to the point where we are today, which Adams pretty much nailed, writing two hundred years ago:
Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men, who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.
This is what we see. The dirty little secret of democracy is that very few people vote for the candidate who would be best for the country. It’s almost entirely done on the basis of pure self-interest: which candidate would be best for me? Who’ll put more money in my pocket? Who’ll let me marry who I want? Of course, people will deny this, but you try to find someone who can honestly say, “While Party X is better for me personally, I’m voting for Party Y, because they’ll do a better job running the United States.” I’ll be here. Not holding my breath.
Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are stupider than that.
— George Carlin
The way the system currently stands, parties play to those stupid people, because they are so much easier to influence. You can’t possibly hope to explain the subtleties of balancing the national debt in a 30-second TV commercial. But you can make outrageous claims that the opposing side’s candidates enjoys eating babies for breakfast, because he’s a Muslim who wants to legalize rape. That’ll do just as well, because it doesn’t matter whether the voter genuinely believes in your policies or has simply been scared into voting against “the other guy,” it still goes into your box. Parties don’t want an informed, well-educated electorate. That’s too much like hard work, because they are harder to influence. Smarter voters tend to be more suspicious, simply because it’s almost impossible to be aware of what’s going on, without becoming cynical.
Parties, indeed, are a large part of the problem. They remove the need for intelligent thought at the polls: just check the boxes corresponding to your chosen tribe, and you’re done with exercising your democratic rights for another four years. That’s the way it works for most people. Remove the labels, ban the political advertising and… Wait, what? You mean I have to find out what the candidates actually stand for? And think about the issues? You mean there’s more to it than blindly following the party line which I’ve been spoon-fed?
Personally, I’d strongly favor some kind of quick test at the polling station. Nothing too taxing, mind: just locate Afghanistan on a map, say. I mean, you invaded the fucking place, I presume we know where it is? Turns out 88% of young Americans don’t. Other tests have shown similar levels of ignorance: only 36% of adults could name the Russian Prime Minister, and a third couldn’t even name the governor of their own state. These are the ones who need to be weeded out of the voting population, with extreme prejudice. Because they’re not the solution, they’re part of the problem: a system that promotes and indeed almost demands, ignorance, fear and selfishness.
As noted above, I haven’t voted in 15 years, and in all likelihood, will never vote again. This doesn’t make me feel any less invested in the economy, world affairs or any other aspect of society. And I’d fully support a return to the level of enfranchisement seen in Washington’s days. Because I’d far rather the government which oversees our everyday life was decided by the six smartest percent of the population, rather than the 51 dumbest.