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Why Democracy Doesn't Work

Jan 28, 2015

Democracy is a beautiful concept:

Democracy is a form of government where citizens choose and replace the government through free and fair elections. Democracies allow active participation of the citizens in politics and civic life, protect the human rights of its citizens and apply laws and procedures equally to all citizens.

(source: Wikipedia)

Equal distribution of power among citizens: power to vote, power to stand for office, power to be free... Surely such a system would lead to a society which is best for everyone.

Unfortunately this is not the case, and as far as I can tell, a large part of it is down to 3 particular human traits:

  • A large proportion of any population is easily persuaded.
  • A large proportion of any population is very stuck in their ways on particular issues, and it is almost impossible to persuade them otherwise.
  • A large proportion of any population just doesn't care enough about political issues.

And although perhaps counter intuitive, these traits are by no means mutually exclusive, and in fact a lot of the time enforce each other. Let's dive into it in a little more detail...

People are "Easily Persuaded"

I probably don't need to explain this one, but I'll go ahead anyway. If people were not easily persuaded, there would be no such thing as propaganda, as of course it would ineffective. (I'm using persuaded here to also mean successfully misguided, or tricked, as well as, of course, bringing people over to your line of thinking, or at least the line of thinking that you want someone to follow).

If persuasion was not such an effective tool, we wouldn't ever have things like religious cults, Nazis and terrorist organisations. However it's also used in a much more subtle way in our every day lives, in politics and capitalism.

With capitalism for example, we have an unfortunate number of entities trying, successfully, to persuade more vulnerable members of the public to make bad financial decisions using the brilliant power of advertising. Think pay day loans, unnecessary insurance policies, gambling websites, financial plans with ridiculous APRs and get out clauses etc...

(I absolutely loathe these institutions)

And with politics, it's unfortunately not just limited to politicians persuading the public that they can fulfil particular goals (even if in fact they can't), it's actually used to persuade the public that a particular political goal is the right one to be following. This is the dangerous skill, generally wielded by the more manipulative among us, that can lead to ideals, which brings us nicely onto the next trait...

People are "Stuck in Their Ways"

If it hasn't yet become apparent, after first persuading someone of an idea, you can make it very hard for anyone else to dissuade them of that same idea (religious cults, Nazis, terrorists etc...); this is that self enforcing property I was talking about. And of course directly applies to the less radical political and capital manipulation I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Another good, and also probably unintuitive example of where this is rife is the internet. The internet is a perfect environment for insular social interaction. Although the internet, in general, allows anyone to communicate with anyone, people generally visit sites and online communities that reinforce their own views and ideals, and on more open networks like twitter or reddit, people again generally only follow people and topics that they already align with. Internet users rarely venture outside their comfort zone, and when they do, it's not uncommon for them to be persuaded of new ideals (see trait A), or for flame wars to ensue between groups of people with opposing views, each refusing to budge.

People "Just Don't Care"

This is the trait that I most empathise with, yet still refuse to submit myself to. There are a number of reasons that people result in "not caring" (specifically about politics / society):

  • They generally feel they will be unaffected by the result.
  • They feel any effect they do have will be negligible, or feel they have no power.
  • They Are disillusioned with their current government, and refuse to take part.
  • They Don't feel they can put the effort in to learn all they need to to make an informed decision.
  • Or they just generally have an apathetic attitude.

And these can have a few different symptoms:

  • Not doing adequate research before voting / voting based on misunderstanding or misinformation.
  • Not voting.
  • Not taking part in political movements that matter on a personal level.

The misguided voting is probably the most serious of the three, and can of course be very strongly influenced by either of the first two traits. For example, people voting for a particular party just because that has been the traditional party to vote for in said family / neighborhood / constituency, or because they've been a die-hard supporter of said party for their entire life and not because of party policy, or prevailing motives of the party members... (cough cough... not pointing fingers at any particular 3-letter country the other side of the atlantic).

What makes this better?

Well, there is one thing that can lead to the negative effects of these traits being reduced... Education!. It's probably not too hard to see that in general, those that have had a higher quality of education are more aware of these traits, or have them to much lesser degrees. It's also quite obvious that those who are able to take advantage of the presence of these traits in others are generally more highly educated than average.

More specifically, we could vastly improve the negative effects of the first two traits by educating ourselves on the fact that these two traits exist, and what effect they have on our society. If for example, more people were conscious of the fact that the public are generally quite easily manipulated, and that particular people like to take advantage of that, then less people would take what politicians say at face value, or believe the pros that a pay day loan advert touts.

This is not to say that people will never believe what anyone says ever again, just that they will pay attention to more of the subtle undertones, and of course there is also the flip side, that we want to allow people to open up their mind more. People should be aware of negative effects that refusing to ever change their mind on a particular issue can have. Venturing outside of your comfort zone can be healthy, and shape you into a "better" person.

In essence, what people need more of is mindfulness. Think about what you're thinking about, and why you're thinking about it. Take a step back and say to yourself "should I really be thinking in this manner?", and take the time to carefully consider what others say. Debate is healthy, flame wars are not.

The third trait is the most difficult of the three to deal with, even after much education, there will still be plenty of people who would feel as though they can't really make a difference. There are after all plenty of extremely smart people who are completely apathetic towards politics. And in fairness, a lot of the time their arguments are very valid... so as well as education, we need to somehow allow for a system where each individual really has a much greater effect on society than they do currently.

That last bit though... is a topic for another day. There are many ways in which we can work towards much more fair and healthy political and social systems where people have much more impact; that being said, western "democractic" societies have given us the highest quality of life in our species' history, even if arguably, no nation is yet a true democracy.

(Also as an aside, I would really love to see a few more politicians in the public eye who are happy to admit when they are wrong or when they change their mind. This is a sign of a down-to-earth person, and not a sign of weakness.)


Sam Lanning

Sam Lanning

Studied Computer Science @ Oxford University. Interested in Communication, Security, Privacy, Anonymity, P2P, E2E, Mesh, Censorship Resistance etc...

Oxford - UK