Thursday, March 8, 2012

Democracy makes your head hurt? What else you got?

A fellow writer and thoughtful Facebook-friend posted a link the other day to an article titled People Aren't Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say. The article was published on Yahoo! News, and describes research by a pair of scientists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, of Cornell and New York Universities respectively, who have 'discovered' that no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them.

The two scientists, says the article, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills.

(Please, don't burst my bubble by telling me that I demonstrate this human fallibility twice a week, right here on my very own blog. Pretty please?)

The thing is, as I responded to my writer pal on FB, this is old news. It put me in mind immediately of one of my favorite New Yorker articles of the 'oughts: Louis Menand's The Unpolitical Animal, of 30 August 2004. Excerpting:
Skepticism about the competence of the masses to govern themselves is as old as mass self-government. Even so, when that competence began to be measured statistically, around the end of the Second World War, the numbers startled almost everyone. The data were interpreted most powerfully by the political scientist Philip Converse, in an article on "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," published in 1964. Forty years later, Converse’s conclusions are still the bones at which the science of voting behavior picks.

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people
"ideologues," by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what" -- of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like "liberal" and "conservative," but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of "constraint": they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

I mentioned in this blog's Monday post that I'd just picked up a copy of The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Here, from that volume, is Snyder to Ginsberg on 10 Aug 1960:
Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won't stand for it -- how can the internal economics be put in order when everybody wants everything? Any sane monetary policy or farm policy doomed to ruin. Ditto by logical extension foreign policy. Bread and Circuses.
Are we seeing a trending assessment here? I asked it last month, but in the wake of Super-indecisive Tuesday's indecision I'll ask again: have you been watching the G.O.P. race to the bottom? ... I mean, contest for the party's presidential nomination?

At dinner the other night the topic of politics in China came up, as it often does (as half of our household was born and raised there). My partner had just read a story about Li Xiaolin, daughter of the fourth Premier of the PRC, Li Peng, a.k.a. the "Butcher of Beijing" for his role in advocating force in response to the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square.

Ms. Li, now a powerful CEO in China's power industry, has recently argued to her fellow delegates at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for the compilation of a morality file on all citizens to control everyone and give them a "sense of shame." (Cf. 'Fashion show' at China's parliamentary meetings, U.K. Telegraph, 6 Mar 2012.)

A morality file.

Hello, Stasi....

Well, I suppose that's just the sort of thing one can look forward to should one act on a scientific determination that democracy is a bust because people are too dumb to know what's good for them.

I'm not saying Philip Converse or David Dunning are wrong. And in my humble opinion, Gary Snyder is just about always right.

I'm only pointing out that maybe, just maybe, the alternative to democracy's failings is ... worse.

Happy International Women's Day to all and sundry!

Thanks to lynnepet (Lynne Pettinger) for her image of  a ballot paper from the May 2010 general election in the U.K.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Books everyone should read 
Californians aren't whores
Things people believe
Katinsf says: Ordinary People Can Change the World


  1. I am of the opinion that voting should be mandatory - or at least as mandatory as anything else in this country. The franchise should extend to 13-year-olds or younger. There are 5-year-olds as smart as many an adult.

    If there aren't going to be intelligence tests for voting (and there shouldn't be) then why shouldn't a ten year old vote?

  2. Hey Glenn ... I guess I agree adults should be made to feel like shirkers if they don't engage politically (I would give some room for people who engage in political activity but don't vote -- there's more than one way to influence the body politic).

    But ... are you serious about The Kid Vote? For me the problem with that is where theory collides with reality: most kids tend to let their parents think on their behalf. So what you're getting -- for the most part, I think -- by enfranchising kids is greater weight given to the political choices of people based on how many kids they have. Is that a formula for a better world? Maybe not so much...?

  3. You silly billy. You just did a whole post telling us how independent adults are a bunch of numbskulls - and now you want to insist that kids are even dumber? Not buying it. Most adults let other people do their thinking for them, should we make proving you came to your own opinions via your own thought processes a condition for voting?

    And you think a kid should have less representation in government because he has more siblings? Why should this limitation cease upon his reaching the age of 18?

    I don't think people should be made to feel like shirkers for not voting. I think they should be fined. If they continue not to vote they should be imprisoned for failure to obey the law. In prison they would be voting because, you know, prison is all about doing what you're told. Maybe that would improve prison conditions. Prisoners should be required to work toward a bachelors degree. If you don't turn in your research paper - it's the hole for you!

    Not that you should be worried. Society is not going to be testing my vision any time soon.

  4. @Glenn: Poets and their visions........... Oh. But then I did quote Gary Snyder, didn't I?