Problems with Democracy

There are two approaches to engaging with political systems. The first, most common approach, is to engage with the system as it is and try to achieve better outcomes. The second is to imagine and work towards a different system. 

The First Approach: Working within the System

For many change agents, democratic impact means succeeding in the game of elections. This includes fielding candidates, funding campaigns, promoting progressive ideas and developing technology to help all these efforts. It means deploying volunteers, organizing, mobilizing and educating. It is a vast effort. But it is one that cannot be ignored, because winning or losing in elections has immediate repercussions on all fronts. 

The wins of a well-fought election campaign can be significant. Victories in the White House and Congress can create a hugely powerful policy mandate that can shape the future of the country in many areas. However, the converse is also true. Our two-party dynamic is an arms race, and there is no guarantee the “better” side will win. Engaging with the political system as it is can be unpredictable and disappointing. For example, the Democrats under Obama were successful in large part because of huge strides made in adapting internet technology to the goals of their campaign. Momentarily, it seemed that technology was to be an ally of the progressives. This moment quickly passed however as the Republican movement learned those techniques, innovated and surpassed the Democrats. The baton is passed back and forth.

It is true that, despite the pendulum swing of political wins and losses, there is a forward march. But how much credit our political system can take for these advances is up for debate. Certainly, electoral politics permits the competition of ideas, and when the inevitability of a winning idea is made evident then it becomes the norm. So ideas such as the equality of race or gender are now taken for granted, at least formally. There have been advances in women’s rights (abortion), and now LGBTQ rights (marriage). But on closer inspection, these were legal victories. They were arrived at against a backdrop of civil activism, free speech and constitutional rights that were certainly by-products of democracy. But the democratically elected politicians followed, rather than led these changes.

On other issues, the persistent failures of our democracy is more evident. How is it that people still live in poverty, on the streets, in such numbers? No one wants homelessness, everyone wants to be free of the threat of poverty. How is it that low-income families are often put in the position of choosing between medical care and education? Embarrassingly, Cuba, long an impoverished and totalitarian state, had better access to health care, education and life essentials than the US. 

The Crisis of Democracy

These are some of the many problems that cause people - especially young people - to lose faith in democracy. There is a disturbing, but growing trend of sympathy towards benevolent dictators or autocracies who can pass laws that overcome the resistance. 

Recently, the World Values Survey documented these worrying shifts in attitude. While in the 1930 and 40s about two-thirds of people said that it was essential to live in a democracy, less than one-third of millennials believe this now.  In 1964, 76 percent of respondents to the American National Election Studies survey had faith in the government to do what is right “always” or “most” of the time. In 2015 it was only 19 percent. Twenty years ago, 6% of young affluent Americans said they were open to military rule; now it is 35%. It has increased 6x. 

This decline of faith in democracy has even been given a name: “deconsolidation.” It has been shown that strong signs of deconsolidation were found prior to the rise of authoritarian, anti-democratic leaders such as Venezuela pre-Hugo Chavez and in other countries. The decline of faith in democracies parallels another trend - a 20-year decline of the spread of democracies in the world (our world in data). 

This crisis of faith in democracy has not gone unnoticed by the geopolitical competitors. China is openly mocking of America’s faith in democracy, pointing to Donald Trump as an illustration <article, article>. They describe their system as a meritocracy, rather than an autocracy as it is framed in the west <article>. While Americans may be cynical of such descriptions, pointing to the obvious suppression of human rights, developing nations who are benefiting from China’s expansionist economic policies are not so sure. Russia is no less effectively exploiting democracies' weak points. Russia’s apparent success in, if not electing Donald Trump at least having contributed to his election highlights some of democracy’s weak points and lack of stability. 

Have we given democracy a fair try?

While Western democracy is clearly showing cracks in its infrastructure (or foundation or something…), the question must be asked; is it the IDEA of democracy that is flawed, or the particular instantiation that we are working with? It must be remembered that what we call American democracy was invented more than 250 years ago - 50 years before even the telegram. It has weathered the test of time - but has that stability perhaps been a flaw? Aside from increasing the body of eligible voters and the size of congress, few significant changes have been made to the mechanics of US democracy. While internet technology has deeply penetrated how campaigning and lobbying is done, it has made almost no inroads into how voting is done.

In fact, we should make a clear separation between the idea of democracy and our particular instance. Viewed as a “political opinion aggregation technology”, our current democratic system is archaic. Why should it be, for example, that people are given the power to voice their opinion only once every four years? And why are they being asked a simple binary question - this party or that party? It is not just American elections - the Brexit question was also reduced to a simplistic binary outcome where the choices were not even clearly defined. If there must be a flow of intelligence from the electorate to the leadership, such a restrictive process creates a pinhole bottleneck that removes all coherence. There is a saying: “ask a stupid question, and get a stupid answer.” Are the stupid answers we are getting from democracy the results of asking stupid questions?

If we want to engender trust from voters, they need to see intelligent outcomes. And since that intelligence ultimately rests on their own intelligence, we must have a system that actually engages their intelligence.

The Power and Potential of Democracy

The factors which have made democracy strong are: Note what democracy gave us, or the elements that go with it. Free speech. Rule of law. Constitutional hierarchy. Human rights. Division of powers. Equality of influence. Local autonomy, global principles.

Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Also “power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Democracy offers a model of distributed power that has been the lifeline of progressive evolution - in many cases, the only thing that has kept things on track.

American philosopher John Rawls proposed a framework for analyzing democracy and justifying its existence as the basis of our society. He argued that democratic principles, even in the purest ideal of democracy, would not prevent inequality nor should they. However, he proposed that a properly constructed democracy would put a limit on the extent of that inequality. 

Rawls proposed a test to determine where the line should be drawn. Imagine, he said, all members of society seated at a vast conference table, as they negotiate the terms of the social contract - the laws, regulations, policies and even customs of society. But there is a catch; no one at the table knows who they will be born as when the negotiation is done. There is a “veil of ignorance” which enforces a risk-management approach to the negotiations. While some level of inequality may be justified - there is a benefit to all of us that the Elon Musks of the world have more resources to play with - there is a limit to the risk a rational actor would accept. A system that has 21% children living in poverty while an elite 5% own more than half the wealth would not survive Rawls’ analysis.

Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” test caused instant debate about how it should be applied. But the idea of this test, so far as philosophy has such things, was a great breakthrough. Democracies rest on the idea of “assumed agreement” that can be imputed to all members of society; they have “contracted” to belong to society and thus are bound by its rules. This is the source of the legitimacy of the state over the individual. Obviously, our current state is not working for everyone - to impute agreement to a child living in poverty is to stretch a philosophy beyond reason. But perhaps we do not need socialism to arrive at an answer to gross inequality. The answer can be found in democracy - but a better-designed democracy than we have now.

Democracy in Context

The historical roots of democracy are twisted, knotty and reach far back into a much more primitive time. Skip the Greeks. Modern large-scale democracy began in England with the revolt of the house of Lords against the King in the 13th century, and a gradual extension over centuries of voting rights down through the classes - but it was only in 1918 that the right to vote was extended to all men and women. The US jumped ahead of the Uk to become the most democratic country in the world in 1778. When it did so, we created a system of checks and balances designed - Congress, the Courts and President, to ensure no centre of power came to dominate. They have largely succeeded in creating an exceptionally stable system. However, this stability itself has a dark side, because it been a wall against improvements.

The past 250 years of US democracy have seen many changes as the country has grown. Some changes have been relatively smooth. The extension of suffrage to new groups - non-whites, women, non-propertied classes were consistent with its basic structures. The introduction of mechanical voting machines and improved validation processes were also a simple extension. However, in other respects, the structures of our democracy have not weathered the test of time so gracefully. 

As the population has grown, so have regional disparities in representation; a congressional voter in Wyoming has 60 times the voting power of one in California [5].  In some respects, this is simply a product of history. However, some disparities in representation are more malign. Population growth has required the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries, a responsibility that has been abused routinely to benefit the parties in power. These efforts at gerrymandering are now almost a science <article>. 

While it is quite easy to imagine court rulings or changes to election legislation that could address the inequities with electoral boundaries, there is one problem that is very hard to address. And that is simply, how many people live in our democracy today. The ratio of eligible voters per congressperson has grown from 3,000 voters per congressperson in 1789? to 600,000 in 2016 [1, 2, 3, 4]. The problem is the scale of things.

When the Quantitative becomes Qualitative

Our current democratic systems are being asked to scale in a way never imagined at their onset. When the pressure on systems grows in magnitude, at a certain point there is a qualitative, and not merely quantitative change in behaviour. A wire that works well carrying 100 volts behaves fundamentally differently when it is carrying 100,000 volts. In the same way, we must be alert to the possibility that the dynamics of representation at a 3000-to-1 ratio could be fundamentally different than those at the 600,000-to-1 ratio. And not necessarily better. At that level, the concept of “representation” takes on a fundamentally different meaning.

“Quantitative changes suddenly become qualitative changes. From all of Marxism, which I once thought attractive enough, I find only this dictum remaining in the realm of my opinions. Water grows colder and colder and colder, and suddenly it's ice. The day grows darker and darker, and suddenly it's night. Man ages and ages, and suddenly he's dead. Quantitative changes suddenly become qualitative changes; differences in degree lead to differences in kind.” - John Barth

One answer might be to increase the number of representatives, to restore the old ratio. But that would lead to a House of Representatives composed of almost 100,000 people. Not workable. Even at the current 400, they are straining at the limits of traditional Rules of Parliamentary Procedure to achieve effective outcomes. We are struggling against the maximum group size for decision-making.

The problem is; our existing systems of democracy do not scale smoothly. A fundamentally new paradigm is needed.  While tools of political campaigning have progressed incredibly, the actual machinery of democracy itself has not changed.  If we look at democracy as an “opinion aggregation technology” - which the act of counting votes is, essentially - it hasn’t evolved significantly since the telegram. 

But if a new system is needed, then let us take a very hard look at what is wrong. Adjusting something so fundamental and such a source of stability to the United States as our system of democracy would be a tremendous undertaking. Just like a large enterprise deciding to upgrade all its computer systems, a 50% or 100% improvement is not enough to justify the effort. A change must provide orders of magnitude improvement - 10x, 100x improvement. Otherwise it is not worth it. And even then - it may not be.

The Second Approach: Changing the System

Frustration with existing democratic systems has given rise to a variety of efforts to redesign it. Such efforts are not new - they date back to the 1800s actually and have given birth to include such ideas as proportional representation. However, none of the alternatives offered such a clear benefit so as to attract enough energy overhaul of something so fundamental was merited. That however is changing, 

The difference is two-fold. On the one hand, there is growing dissatisfaction with the current situation. On the other, there is a growing realization of the possibilities offered by the internet. Just as the internet has revolutionized communication and collaboration in the consumer and business sector, so too it holds out the promise of a truly revolutionary improvement to democracy itself.

The effort to design, engineer and manifest a new way of doing democracy has a name: “Democracy 2.0.” It is a blanket term that covers a wide variety of initiatives across many sectors united towards a general goal of solving some of the fundamental problems with our current system.

The Essential Challenge, and Opportunity

Fixing something effectively requires a strong grasp of what the problem is. With our current system of democracy, there is a catalogue of problems that could be listed. But some problems go deeper than others. And at the very root of all the problems, is not a problem at all, but a general challenge that must be addressed. And that is the challenge of scale.

In Rawls’ thought experiment of an “ideal democracy”, he proposed a thought experiment in which everyone in society would sit together around a table, each representing themselves. But this is not possible, practically or even theoretically.

We can all imagine a well-functioning democracy of two. In fact, many of us are participants in such a social contract. We can even imagine a well-functioning democracy of 5 or 6. However, as the size of groups gets bigger, their ability to engage in reasoned dialogue and make decisions together begins to degrade. 

Studies show that the optimal size of groups for business decision-making is between 5 and 7 people. With training in parliamentary procedures such as Robert’s Rules of Order, that number can be increased to hundreds of people. However, we soon arrive at a relatively hard limit.  There is no example of a group of thousands of people who cannot make complex decisions, except through delegation and representation. 

However, that is not to say it cannot be done! There are many examples of large groups making simple decisions. In contests where people guess the number of jelly-beans in a large glass jar, for example, many studies have shown that the average guess of a large group is almost always within just a few jelly-beans of the correct amount.  In simple decisions, with fine granularity of choice, groups can be much “smarter” than any individual. Such a idiot-savante talent does not necessarily lead to better public policy. But channelled properly, there is wisdom in crowds that is the inherent genius of democracy. 

We have seen how autocratic regimes such as China and Russia have turned - one might say twisted - internet technology to their benefit. The great firewall of China is an example. The Russian government’s unofficial legions of election hackers is another. Democracy, it would seem, has largely failed to benefit from the internet. But from a theoretical perspective - it should benefit more than any system.  The values of transparency, collaboration, distributed problem-solving that are the hallmarks of the internet are also the core strengths of democracy. So, there is reason to hope.

November 07th, 2021 | | 0 Comments