Abraham Lincoln once beautifully described democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. By that standard, we do not live in a democracy. Instead, American politics could more accurately be described as government of the politicians and the political parties, brought to us by the news media, and for powerful special interests. Especially at the highest levels of government, the “people” don’t really enter into the equation, and so it should not be surprising that we–as a people–are surrounded by failing institutions, broken communities, and widespread cynicism.
Elections are increasingly coming under fire for contributing to this deep political crisis. Many individuals and groups are working hard to fix some of elections’ worst bugs–distorting factors such as the floods of campaign dollars, the armies of skilled lobbyists, gerrymandering, the manipulative power of the news media, and the vulnerability of voting machines to hacking. These are noble efforts, but even if they succeed they will just scratch the surface of the problems with traditional electoral politics. This is because along with these worrisome bugs, traditional elections have many worrisome features–problems that they suffer from and create by design.
Traditional elections inevitably turn politics into a game that the vast majority of us merely watch on TV. We are given little relevant information about the candidates and can only guess as to what qualifications are important, since most of us have never been in government. All the while, we are bombarded by highly-manipulative marketing campaigns, and then we get to cast a vote every few years that is probably statistically insignificant. Is it any wonder that voter turnout is so low?
The select few that get to play this game tend to be those with the most charisma, cunning, and connections. It also takes status and influence to win elections (and usually massive amounts of money), so those elected don’t tend to look like us, live like us, or share our concerns. Should we really be surprised when they don’t seem to represent us or our interests either?
Even if those elected want to represent us well the odds are stacked against them. Assuming that we can somehow get money out of politics and remove the need for politicians to prioritize their party and donors above us, politicians rarely have the time or the expertise to become sufficiently knowledgeable about, or even read, the countless complex bills they vote on (that’s where staff, party, and lobbyists come in). How good can those decisions be?
Moreover, their decision making can be heavily distorted by the pressure to set themselves up well for the next election–even when it is years away. This means playing a variety of stupid legislative games simply to make themselves look good and their political opponents look bad. It also means regularly sacrificing the long-run well being of their communities or the country in favor of shortsighted policies that will reflect well on them before the next campaign season. And it certainly means avoiding necessary and common-sense policies anytime they require us to sacrifice in the short run. For example, running trillions of dollars in debt is clearly fiscally irresponsible and will someday undoubtedly cripple our economy, but it will continue since proposing tax increases or service cuts is one of the quickest ways to end a political career.
We put up with all of these highly problematic features because we are taught that through voting we can select the best leaders and hold them accountable. But does anyone really believe that this works? The characteristics that are needed to run a successful election campaign are not the same characteristics that are required to govern wisely. And so, many citizens who could govern well cannot win an election, and many of those who win elections cannot govern well. And our elected officials make far too many decisions (most of which we are unaware of) for us to effectively hold them to their promises with a simple ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ grade every two-six years, especially when our only other option is usually a rival candidate who seems even worse.
So, traditional elections are plagued by many serious bugs, and even if we somehow manage to fix those bugs we are left with a host of problematic features that are baked into the electoral process, a process that does not effectively do the few things it is suppose to. How is it that we so famously embrace innovation in virtually all aspects of our lives and yet we cling to elections even when they clearly don’t work and will never work? If we want good, democratic government, then we need to start exploring other options.
What other options are there? I think the most promising one is a different form of election: election by lot. You can read all about this important democratic alternative on my post: The advantages of legislature by lottery
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