What is Democracy? (73): A Summary Definition

I’ve now written 72 posts in this series, and so it’s time for a summary. Most of those posts focused on one or the other characteristic of democracy – including characteristics it shouldn’t have – but the big picture is still missing. That’s why I’ll now try to offer my own, undoubtedly controversial definition of democracy.

What is a democracy, or better, what should it be, ideally? The short version: democracy is a form of government – government of a state or of any other group of people – in which all of the main positions of power are filled by way of elections, and in which decisions on important public issues are taken by vote (a vote either among those previously elected, or among the population at large; preferably a mix of both systems).

This core definition comes with a series of prerequisites. Elected holders of power should not be subordinate to other, unelected holders of power, such as the military or religious bodies. In addition, elections, popular votes on issues (e.g. referenda) and votes among groups of elected representatives should be inclusive, competitive, free and fair, and their results should represent the will of the people. Let’s break that down a bit.

  1. “Inclusive” means that all or most adult residents should have a right to vote, and that most of these people actually vote. The word “residents” covers of course citizens, but some non-citizens should probably also get the right to vote. The same is true for ex-felons.
  2. “Competitive” means that there is a real choice between candidates and policies. Also, when there is a real choice, the available options to choose from are not set by a minority or by some authority. Everyone has the right to become a candidate and to put an issue up for a vote. (Some restrictions may be acceptable in order to avoid very large numbers of candidates or issues: for example, candidates or ballot initiatives only pass when there’s a large number of signed approvals). Term limits are also a means to improve competitiveness and to counteract any advantage that incumbents may have over challengers (see below). An election can only be competitive when the merits of each candidate can be clearly established. Government transparency and accountability, including free and equal access to government information, are therefore required. For the same reason, we should try to limit the influence of money on politics.
  3. “Free and fair” means that the choice between candidates and policies should not be  artificially driven towards one candidate or policy, for example by incumbents monopolizing the media or the resources of the state, by efforts to discourage or intimidate certain voters, etc. Media neutrality or media balance may have to be enforced. Vote counting should be correct and independently monitored. The ballot must be secret when voter intimidation is a risk.
  4. “Representative of the will of the people” means that the elections and votes should respect the rule that one person has only one vote. (Representation is, however, not unidirectional: the will of the people may be shaped by the representatives. The latter can present points of view which are then internalized and expressed by the people). The requirement of representativity may entail a need to circumscribe the voting population: local decisions should be decided locally. Having too many people who can vote – including people who do not have a stake in the matter up for a vote –  can be just as harmful as having too few. Federalism, devolution etc. are therefore required by democracy. However, federalism may lead to gerrymandering, which should be prohibited because it reduces representativity.

The inclusive, competitive, free, fair and representative nature of elections and votes is a prerequisite for a democracy, but it also has its own prerequisites. We need political freedom and equality – which means the equal freedom to try to influence the outcomes of elections and votes. All individuals should be free to express their will equally and in peace, to discuss it with others, to persuade and be persuaded, to join forces in free organizations, and to have their preferences weighed equally in collective and peaceful elections and votes. Candidates as well should have this freedom and equality.

Political freedom and equality in turn depend on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial enforcement and the regulation of the role of money in politics. Candidates should have physical security, freedom of speech and association, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The same is true for the voting population. If necessary, these rights should be enforced by a judiciary that is independent from the elected legislature and executive (and that is therefore not subject to election itself). Equal influence depends on equal suffrage rights and other rights, on the enforcement of these rights within a judicial system that is protected by the principle of the separation of powers, but also on the regulation of party financing, campaign financing and lobbying.

All these arrangements – rights, separation of powers and the regulation of money – create upper and lower levels of resources and capabilities, and hence create political freedom that is more or less equal (it can never be completely equal for a variety of reasons that can’t be remedied: differences in talent and motivation, social networks etc.).

Why do we need these arrangements? Equal political freedom means equal influence, but some people may lack the rights, resources or capabilities to exercise their influence. People can’t exercise their civil and political rights if they suffer arbitrary arrest, violence or poverty, if they don’t have a minimum of education, lack proper healthcare, or have to spend their time struggling to survive whereas others can spend a fortune to influence politicians. Just as insufficient rights, resources or capabilities undermine the equality of influence that is typical of a democracy, so can large excesses of resources. Hence we need regulations aimed at limiting the political advantage and influence of the wealthy (e.g. limits on the size of individual donations, limits on election expenditure, transparency in party funding etc.).

There are also other, less precise prerequisites. How much confidence do people have in the fairness of elections, in the impartiality of the judicial process, or in each other? How do they perceive corruption? Do they experience the government as a representative institution? And so on. These subjective perceptions of institutional arrangements are just as important as the institutional arrangements themselves.

All the things I’ve listed here are necessary for a full democracy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call something a democracy when some of these things are missing. There wouldn’t be a single democracy if that were the case. But it does mean that democracy is a work in progress and a sometimes elusive ideal. It also means that it’s wrong to say that a country is either a democracy or something else. The concept of democracy is continuous. A country can be more or less democratic and can evolve up or down the scale.

Given this description of an ideal democracy and the acknowledgment of the fact that countries can be more or less democratic (as well as not democratic at all, of course), the question is whether there’s room for the idea that democracy can be many different and equally valuable things. I think there is. Different circumstances require different institutions, and different institutions may realize certain norms equally well. Conversely, the same institutions in different countries and contexts will yield a very unequal quality of democracy. For example, a very small country may not require a federal structure.

The characteristics of an ideal democracy that I have given here should therefore be viewed as applicable to the average country only. However, while it’s unwise to demand that all countries adopt or strive towards an identical political construction, it’s equally unwise to give every country the freedom to define democracy according to its own wishes. There’s a limit to the flexibility of concepts. A democracy should, ideally, have certain characteristics or attributes, and not others. Over to you.

What is Democracy? (71): An Instantaneous Face-Based Competence Assessment

We already knew that good looks give political candidates a sizable advantage. We’ve probably known this for ages, even before we had television. Now it seems that looks are important in democracies in other ways as well, and not just because they are intrinsically appealing. They tell us something about candidates’ competence to rule over us, or at least that’s what we think. Let me rephrase that, because “think” is too strong a word here. We “feel” it, and we do so immediately. Here’s a new study that claims voters judge politicians’ competence levels on the basis of a quick, almost instantaneous look at their faces:

[Princeton psychologist Alexander] Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates. … While we are never forced to vote based on one factor alone, the apparent predictive power of competence judgements reveals how deeply that quick impression may color our evaluation of more serious considerations. (source)

This reminds me of the equally well established finding that the voice of a politician also influences his or her share of the votes. I’m not here to undermine your belief in democracy, on the contrary, but a reality based belief is always better than a naive one.

More about lookism. More posts in this series.

What is Democracy? (66): A Sports-Based Selection Process For Politicians

I’ve already documented several ways in which democracy tends to malfunction. Democracy seems to be a system for

Here’s another one:

It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. (source)

Compared to some of the previously cited distortions of the democratic process, this one is particularly disturbing. You could still argue that the way politicians look or sound has at least some relevance to the political process, even though it shouldn’t determine elections. You could also argue, even if it means stretching your neurons to breaking point, that a long spell of bad weather has an adverse effect on the economy, that politicians should take countermeasures, and that they should be punished if they don’t. If you’re feeling very generous, you could even say that the order effect is a general human bias and that we shouldn’t single out democracy for condemnation when we see this effect appearing in elections.

However, there seems to be no possible excuse for voting in favor of incumbents simply because your local football team scores a win. OK, I can understand that the exhilaration makes you feel good about everything, including perhaps the performance of the incumbents and the status quo in general, but that means we should see the same distortions when people vote after having had sex or after having eaten a chocolate bar. And those latter distortions may have an even greater impact on elections, given the fact that eating chocolate and having sex is more common than watching football. Given the large number of possible distortions like these, I simply can’t convince myself that they really do occur.

Bonus malfunction:

In the summer of 1916 … a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (63): Rule of the People, and Not Just of a Part of the People

Voter turnout rates are a constant worry for proponents of democracy. Wherever voting is not compulsory – and that covers the majority of democracies – large numbers of voters choose not to exercise their right to vote, ever. (And it is a right, by the way). Even if it’s wrong to take this as a rejection of democracy – it’s quite possible for an individual to like living in a democracy and at the same time choose not to participate (he or she may count on others to make it work) – it’s not a sign of a strong and widespread endorsement either. It’s probably just indifference and lack of enthusiasm for democracy. But why should we worry about this? Why would we, ideally, want to see higher rates of participation? Is it not enough for the highly committed to vote? Can’t we leave the others alone and stop moralizing?

Many would answer those latter questions affirmatively, and say that there’s really nothing to worry about for one of these three reasons:

  1. There are those who argue that “the common people” should not vote anyway because they are ignorant. So it’s good if they don’t. As a matter of fact, turnout rates should even be lower than they are today given the general lack of knowledge.
  2. Others say that it’s not the people’s fault that they don’t vote; they don’t because they don’t have a choice and because they don’t have a choice they shouldn’t be pushed into voting. Politicians are all alike, at least in their actions, and no single politician accurately represents all the different opinions that single voters may hold.
  3. And then there are those who claim that voting doesn’t make a difference because there are simply too many votes and a single one almost never tips the scales. Rational people, they say, have better things to do with their time and should be free not to vote.

Here’s a short and hasty reply to these “stay at home” arguments, with some links to more elaborate replies:

  1. Is it really so difficult to understand that ignorance – to the extent that it is common – is the result of rather than a reason for non-participation, and that participation creates knowledge?
  2. Also, we could perhaps ask the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the millions of US citizens without health insurance whether voting for one guy rather than the other does indeed make no difference at all. And to the extent that there is sometimes a lack of difference, we should make the case to politicians that rather than chasing the median voter they should take their roles as “authors and not actors” more seriously.
  3. Finally, isn’t voting about more than bean counting? Even if your individual vote doesn’t tip the scales, can’t you have other reasons to vote? E.g. express yourself, make yourself heard, form associations, shape you identity? Etc. The “drop in the ocean” argument against voting can also be recast as an argument in favor of more power for local and small scale government: if a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference, then instead of telling people not to vote, we can just as well change the denominator: reduce the total population that decides a certain matter by making democracy more local.

Another problem with the “stay at home” arguments: if large numbers of people don’t vote, then they will have to abide by laws that they didn’t approve, that are tailored to the interests of others and that are likely damaging to their own interests. There are two ways of replying to this:

  • Either people will decide to vote if they see that their nonparticipation starts to hurt them – as long as they don’t participate they accept the consequences.
  • Or some people ruling over others is something that happens all the time in a system of majority vote and that is not limited to the situation in which groups don’t vote. However, majorities and minorities are always different – depending on the issue at stake – whereas non-voters tend to be an unchanging block. The latter always bear the brunt. For example, if poor people tend not to vote, do they really have a right to complain when non-poor voters approve the dismantling of the welfare state?

Even for those who do vote, there are some risks attached to the presence of large and possibly increasing numbers of non-voters. If a lot of people decide not to vote, then why should we have to retain democracy for those who do vote? Maybe non-voters are right in their rejection of democracy and then we should get rid of it altogether. That wouldn’t necessarily be in the interest of those who vote.

Those are some of the reasons to worry about voter turnout rates.

What is Democracy? (62): Impossible?

When you start to think about it, democracy looks more and more like an impossible form of government. And this happens not only when you conceptualize it in a maximalist manner – although its impossibility obviously becomes more and more apparent with each additional requirement we impose on it. This is disconcerting for those of us who believe democracy is worth having.

Let’s begin with democracy in its most basic form: a system of government that is supposedly best equipped to help people protect their interests. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

that the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed to stand up for them. (source)

Here we already run into problems. What are people’s interests and how exactly do they “stand up for them”? Take the example of alcohol: people have an interest in not suffering the bad consequences of alcohol abuse, either their own abuse or that of others. That sounds simple enough, but upon reflection it’s not so easy to define this interest correctly, let alone act efficiently on the basis of it. At some point in time, the potential or actual alcoholic may believe it is in his interest to have laws that make it impossible for him to buy alcohol. At other points in time, this may seem too harsh and he may believe that it’s better for him to try to restrain himself. After all, a real cure for (potential) alcoholism is inner conviction, not outside coercion. Coercion will simply drive the market underground. But then again, alcohol abuse destroys the inner conviction that is necessary to stop it. So, what to do? Is it in his interest to vote for prohibition and solve the problem of deficiency of conviction? Or is it in his interest to trust human agency?

Hence a first difficulty with the basic model of democracy is the determination of the interests that democracy should serve and of the policies that are best suited to protect these interests. Lot’s of possible choices, value judgments and empirical facts come into play, including facts about future consequences. Moreover, thinking about and examining the facts won’t suffice: testing, trial and error etc. are also necessary.

Hence a second problem: even if interests and the policies that best promote these interests can be clearly determined, it’s not necessarily true that the people are best placed to do this. Experts may be more likely to hit the mark. But how to select the experts? We can’t let the people select them, because if the people were able to select them then they would need to be experts themselves. We can’t just let the experts select themselves, because then everyone could claim to be an expert. Peer selection is also fraught with problems: who’s a peer? How to select the peers?

A third problem: most of us believe, correctly, that people should not simply pursue their self-interest – if that is something they are even able to do. People are expected to discover the common interest as well as those policies most likely to realize the common interest. The common interest can be defined in several ways, but in one interpretation it’s that which is best according to moral standards about justice, rights etc. We also don’t believe that this common interest and those moral standards result automatically from effective self-interested actions.

Here we have exactly the same difficulties as with self-interest: what is the common interest, and which policies serve it best? Arguably the problem here is even more difficult: one’s self-interest is probably less complex, and one is at least motivated to determine it. Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee success – as I argued above – but success in matters of morality and justice is even further away. If even the best philosophers can’t agree on these matters, how could ordinary citizens?

Fourth problem: even if all this is doable in theory, wouldn’t it require an enormous effort? Do people have the time to do all this, or would doing it require the sacrifice of other goals that may be just as important or even more important from a moral point of view? One could argue that the refusal to participate in democracy is a moral requirement given the cost and effort required by democracy. Even voting and participating in an uninformed manner seems to require too much of too many. 

Fifth problem: even if all of the problems above could somehow be overcome, there are huge practical problems involved in allowing large numbers of people to vote on issues. Hence, deliberation about interests, justice, laws and policies takes place not in preparation of a vote on the substance of the matter but in preparation of the election of politicians who in turn will vote on the substance. This results in an additional problem: once – or better if – the people have decided on matters of interest, justice, law and policy, they’ll have to select those politicians most likely to hold the same views. That, obviously, is a problem. Not only can politicians pretend to hold certain views and do something completely different once in office. It’s also unlikely that people find a politician that holds all the good views. Hence, people have to elect politicians who will, predictably, implement some wrong views. This leads to a conclusion in favor of votes on issues rather than votes on people. In other words, a conclusion in favor of direct democracy. However, this type of democracy imposes even more duties on citizens and raises a whole new set of difficulties.

So the conclusion seems to be that democracy is a poor system for generating laws and policies that effectively protect both people’s interests and the common interest. We can try to save democracy by arguing that the problems cited above aren’t caused by democracy and aren’t limited to democracy. They are what life is about: “what is my self-interest” is just another way of asking “what do I want in life”? And people seem to have a hard time ignoring the big questions about morality and justice. The problems don’t go away when democracy goes away. If it’s clear how difficult the problems are for democracy, it’s not at all clear how they are less difficult for other forms of government.

I admit, that is a weak defense of democracy, so more needs to be said. We could, for instance, argue that problems 1 to 3 above are knowledge problems. Now, I’ve argued before that democracy has certain things going for it in that respect. The massive participation in open and free public discussion typical of a democracy makes it possible to show, examine and argue for points of view, and this in turn can lead to a filtering out of weak points of view and a selection of the better ones. In other words, democracy may be able to solve the knowledge problems that seem to render it impossible. In addition, problems 4 and 5 above also don’t look fatal to me: they are of a practical nature and can perhaps be solved by technological developments and increased productivity.

If all that’s the case, then democracy may not be as bad after all.

For My American Readers: Should You Vote Tomorrow, or Would That Be a Complete Waste of Time?

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.

Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome – at least most of the time – and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless and futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.

It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the immediate benefits (if any).

There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. (It’s a variation on the Kantian categorical imperative: it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on). Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.

Similarly, when a certain number of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.

A better way to express this idea:

The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.

So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)

So, drag yourself outside tomorrow, if necessary, and do your duty, which is a duty both to your community and to yourself.

What is Democracy? (56): The Effect of Unconscious Priming?

People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. The same seems to be true in democratic politics. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. This effect can last up to 8 months. Exposure to the Confederate activates negativity toward Blacks and results in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. In 2007, Israeli researchers showed that even subliminal exposure to a national flag influences voters (in their study, it encourages voters to support politically moderate views).

This is proof of a lack of voter rationality and of the limited effect or even the futility of deliberation. It’s all very depressing and, when taken together with some other disturbing facts about democracy, it makes you reconsider the supposedly good reasons for promoting democratic governance. Let’s hope nobody in the Middle East is listening.

More posts in this series are here.