Saturday, May 21, 2011

Possible titles: Dumb-ocracy? Demo-crazy?

Well, my daily hits counter has been showing successively smaller numbers for the last two weeks. All I can say to this is what's wrong with you people? If I didn't know better, I might suspect you didn't like reading block quotes from obscure Nineteenth Century travel novels.

Ordinarily when I notice people losing interest in my output, my immediate response is to throw out an easy crowd-pleaser: an 8EB comic featuring the Tetris blocks, a whole bunch of words about Final Fantasy, et cetera. Well, not this time. Seeing as how nobody is reading this anyway, tonight I'll be getting a few things off my chest, which I am now puffing out like the pompous elitist you always knew I was.

So the Arab Spring (I refuse to say twitter revolution) happened and is still happening. Everyone's talking about it, everyone's excited about it. Although it remains to be seen how and to what extent, it promises to leave a lasting and significant mark on the global order of the new century.

Democracy buds throughout the Middle East. One by one, the tyrants fall before the people's will that a new and more equitable system of self-rule should be established. I'm all for the deposition of brutal autocrats, but I disagree with the Arabs' choice of an alternative. Democracy doesn't work.

There. I've said it.

Meanwhile, over here in the U. S. of A., the partisans, lobbyists, and activists are gearing up for what will surely be one of the most intense presidential contests in decades. A few years ago, back when I was a ravenous politics junkie, I might have found this thrilling. Election season used to give me the same rush that football fans experience during the playoffs.

There is no incongruity in such a comparison. The drama investing the United States political sphere during even-numbered years is very much like that surrounding the NFL after Wild Card Weekend. The touchdowns and fumbles! The victorious underdogs and sure bets that choke! The rivalries and on-mic trash talk! The screaming maniacs in the bleachers! And the media coverage! Those last four months leading up to the big night in November are like a 120-day halftime show running 24 hours through the blogs, cable, and radio: a loud, poppy, delightful hullabaloo whose engineers get paid by the number of eyes looking its way.

Truly, the United States' election cycle is the best entertainment America has to offer. Unfortunately, it is also the basis of our government -- the process by which the American public selects the architects and executors of its domestic and foreign policies, chooses its head of state, and (at least putatively) sets the political and social agenda for the next two/four years.

I try very hard not to think too much about this. Whenever I do, I always find myself directing a fervent prayer to God for the invention of cigarettes. The alternative responses -- taking up heavy drinking, moving in with a commune of Berlin squatters, leaning how to build pipe bombs -- are a lot more potentially toxic.

American Democracy is not "government of the people, by the people, for the people," as President Lincoln had it. American Democracy is a televised game of blind man's bluff masquerading as serious governance.

It is not impossible that a national constitution founded on democratic principles can work, and I certainly wish the incipient new government of Egypt -- and possibly of Libya and Syria -- every success in figuring it out. But they should take fastidious care to achieve, as close as possible, that difficult balance between "We the People" and "idiot-proof," and not repeat the bad example set by American Democracy.

The problem with American Democracy is simple: everybody gets to vote.

You'll remember from high school history class (I hope) that in the Republic's early years, enfranchised public consisted almost solely of white, landowning males. Yes, it was sexist. Yes, it was racist. Yes, it was classist. But when the Constitution was drafted in 1787, its framers presumed that wealthy landowners were more likely be educated, engaged with the affairs of their communities, and abreast of current events within the nation and beyond.

Managing the affairs of a nation is not an easy business. The people placed in charge of establishing, enforcing, and interpreting the laws of the land must be supremely fit for such a responsibility, educated and principled, capable and willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions, to choose what is best for the nation's long term interests over short-term gratification.

Of course, it sometimes happens that these aren't the people interested in attaining public office. Politics attracts a great deal of narcissists, opportunists, twits, demagogues, charlatans, shysters, and cynics. Any good huckster can sell shit to a simpleton; in public elections, it is often the case that the shit he sells is himself.

In order to ensure that the government is run only by those who are most capable of doing it well -- instead of those with the best ad campaigns or corporate sponsorships -- the citizens responsible for electing them must be able to tell the difference between statesman and celebrities. They must be willing to do their homework, to check facts, recognize when they're being bamboozled, differentiate between empty and substantive rhetoric, and keep up to date with with geopolitics and international affairs.

But this isn't the case. We let everyone vote, just as long as they're over eighteen years old and haven't committed any felonies -- regardless of how ignorant, shortsighted, bigoted, ignorant, uneducated, or uninformed they might be. We cast votes inspired by sound bites, television smiles, bumper sticker colors, pundit noise, television ads, inane catchphrases ("change we can believe in," "legalize the constitution") and appeals to emotion, nationalism, prejudice, fear, and groundless optimism.

We're allowing the inmates to run the asylum. We're letting the children in the backseat tell the driver where to go.

Governance is too important to be steered by people who don't even know how their government works. (A statistic released in 2008 suggests that only two out of five American voters -- and we can presume "voters" is a deliberate word choice referring to the people who show up at the polls and not every citizen of voting age -- can identify the three branches of government.) People who can't even point to Afghanistan on a map have no business influencing policy decisions regarding that region. People who know and care more about television series and celebrity gossip than they do they issues of our times should not be allowed to participate in democracy. It can only be called irresponsible.

We seem to fail to teach our students in civics class (hell, do we even teach civics anymore?) that the extent to which democracy is a blessing is proportionate to how much of a burden it places upon its subjects.

The dangers of letting incompetent voters participate in civics should be self-evident. (George W. Bush was a two-term president for god's sake.) It is for the same reason that American citizens are required to apply for a license and undergo an evaluation before they can drive a car, own a gun, or participate in most other undertakings that could potentially endanger the public welfare. Why does this not apply to voting? It is no less in the interest of the public that the people showing up at the November polls aren't choosing a candidate under the assumption that he will personally pay for their gasoline and mortgages.

This brings us to my humble proposition that universal suffrage be abolished and replaced with something safer and more sensible. Rather than using gender, race, or wealth as a metric for decision-making competence, why don't we establish a written test like the ones administered to foreign-born prospective citizens? If you pass the test, you acquire a voting license. If you fail, you'll have to wait another year or two and try again.

Naturally, there would not be just one test -- voting for different offices would entail meeting different qualifications. Some suggestions:

  • Anyone can vote in local elections, provided they are over 18. It is, after all, only reasonable that an American citizen should have a say in the affairs of his own neighborhood. (Having a say in the direction of the nation as a whole is a different matter.)

  • Anyone can vote in state elections, provided they have completed high school or earned a GED. (If circumstances prevent a citizen from finishing primary school or earning a GED, a basic diagnostic test -- reading, mathematics, some basic science and social studies -- would suffice as well. All the afterwards mentioned offices include this same requirement.)

  • Voting for a Representative requires passing a basic civics exam and being able to demonstrate and understanding of American history, current events, and economics.

  • Voting for President requires passing a more difficult civics/history/current events test, as well as demonstrating a firm knowledge of international relations, geography, world history, etc.

  • Voting for Senators requires passing a similar test as voting for the President, but perhaps it should be subject to a more stringent evaluation. After all, Senators serve the longest terms of any publicly-elected federal officials, as the Senate was conceived to be the more sober and fickle opinion-proof of the two houses. (Surely you recall from history class that Senators were not even elected by public ballot until 1913.)

If you'd like to argue that establishing such a standard wouldn't result in more informed and more sensible voting public, by all means -- I'd like to know your reasoning. What I envision is a nation of voters unimpressed by soundbites; that demands sober debate instead of shouting matches, investigative journalism instead of infotainment, and substantive discussion instead of marketing consultant-devised zingwords. (The fact that Obama had to frame his State of the Union address around an idiotic catchphrase like "win the future" says a great deal about the competence of the American voting public under universal suffrage.)

This will never happen, of course: those in power have too much to lose if the voting bloc becomes restricted to the intelligent, engaged, and informed. The mere suggestion of such a thing on a public platform would be lambasted as un-American, elitist, socialist (somehow), and contrary to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Concerned parties would spend billions burying such an effort (thank you very much, Citizens United), and the backroom argument-framers would ensure that any future discussion of the issue is addressed in terms of "pro-voting" and "anti-voting." Meanwhile, back-and-forths on Twitter become the standard format for presidential election debates and prospective Senate candidates realize they have a better chance of beating incumbents by foregoing the campaign trail in favor of a series of hit appearances on American Idol.

Enjoy the show!


  1. I've seen the testing subject brought up before. While I personally believe that it would be ultimately beneficial, most of the responses claimed that a test would be fascist. Anti-American.

    But isn't the uninformed majority just as fascist when they are led by the words of political pundits?

  2. I've thought of this before. I agree, but I don't think you'll ever see this happen. For starters, the Republicans will remind the public that the liberals have already taken over colleges and high schools, and by posing a high school requirement, they're putting ever house in their favor. Even though that may be true (and says a lot about conservatives' policies and voting base), that statement alone will be enough to convince every red state to vote it down, in fear they will no longer be a red state come next election.

    In addition to that, it's important to remember that a required test to vote will not keep out the uninformed and keep in the college-educated, idealist voters. It will also include CEOs of companies, wealthy business owners, and all-around sleazy people. In this scenario, there will be wealthy areas of states with mostly voters, and inner cities with almost none. As much as I'd like to have faith in the good-nature of people, I wouldn't be surprised to see politicians elected by the rich making cuts to programs for the poor, most of which have no say in the matter. Say what you what about the unfairness of the Electoral College, but I don't want a country where laws and policies are made for people without even a superficial "say" in the matter, even if this say is come charade of an election. Don't say we didn't warn you.

    My solution? Education. As it stands now, standardized testing in NJ assesses students for reading, writing, math, and science (but only every few years). Social Studies is not listed at all. Although I do not agree with standardized testing as a means for gathering data (or the introduction of yet more testing), it does send a message. Is it more important we can total shopping bills quickly and write grammatically-correct fan mail to American Idol than it is to understand how our government works and how our world was affected by our past mistakes and failures?

    In short, being an informed and educated citizen is considered a secondary skill, behind the push for reading, writing, and math. If that could somehow change, you could have a more intelligent voting base, making their votes count in their best interests, without the argument (which, I feel, has some validity) that all citizens should be able to vote, since the result affects all of us.

  3. I, at first whim, loved your idea. Heck, I even started thinking how to popularize it, making it viral, improving its chances of being tried somewhere.

    However, while doing so, and calculating how the idea would be heatly opposed by the very people more likely to fail at such test -rednecks, soccer moms, self-entitled "barely legal" youths, etc.- I stumbled with one very real and very damaging objection to the whole thing:

    Well educated, wordly and intellectually able individuals are breed and nurtured mainly in a certain kind of environment, that of the better favored. (I feel the need to state here that I totally acknowledge that there's a percentage of "better favored" that have the same civic responsibility and relevance of a small pebble, while a percentage of the worst favored classes are, in fact, very well informed and full of civic responsibility. However, simple common sense will tell you that these percentages are minorities in their objective groups.)

    Now, it would be very easy to dismiss this with a "well, too bad for them not to get to participate, but it would be even worse to allow their ignorance to put a crook in the head of government." This, however, would painfully betray naivety on the matter of human nature: If given the chance, a subset of human beings with the power of electing a governance to their best judgement, they will almost invariably choose a system that will favor themselves at the cost of everyone not involved in that choice. It goes without saying that in this case, the ones paying the cost would be the least able to do it, while the ones being indulged would be the ones that least necessitate the indulgence.

    Note that I'm not trying to equal "well-educated" with "corruptible" or "self-serving," but rather stating 1) the almost unconscious and perhaps instinctual impulse of humans to have their actions benefit mostly themselves and their close of kin and 2) that even the most altruistic or more socially responsible ones are almost by principle, disconnected from those they reckon as worse favored, only knowing about their actual needs and woes from hearsay or well-intended speculation.

    No, the ones whose lack of education, wordliness, or simply wherewithal make them unable to pass any test that involves knowing stuff beyond that which will hopefully put a very literal bread in a very literal tomorrow, also need to have a say in the way they are represented.

    The solution, then, it's not to restrict the choice to those educated, but rather, to increase the amount of the educated, at least in certain vital points. The problem is that, as the system works now, the precious time that should be invested in educating the masses on these affairs, are wasted in a media circus that makes of the whole thing a popularity contest, in which misinformation, distracting elements and outright lies are all valid ways of getting a vote. Not unlike your run-of-the-mill reality show.

  4. Huh, I take it you didn't like my argument for a direct meritocracy? My biggest problem with your system is that it keeps representatives who will obvious keep bundling together issues that needn't be bundled (abortion, with defense, with economics and so on). I argued my ideas to you before and I can't help but feel mine are better. I'm up for a debate if you wanna use an instant messenger.

  5. Zukonub: I don't think it's fascist, necessarily -- though it sorta depends which pundits we are talking about, who they are cheering for, how loud they are cheering, and how they respond to the expression of alternative views.

    Maokun: Yeah, that's something else -- it doesn't have to follow that being educated and informed leads to being scrupulous. We don't just need better-educated people: we need BETTER people, period. (Even though I am an atheist, I will grudgingly admit that an upbringing in which children are catechized to be tolerant, charitable, altruistic, honest, etc. likely leads to better-behaved adults, and that secularism hasn't really stepped up in replacing this facet of the religious lifestyle.)

    Zade: Oh, there's no need for a debate: I agree that a meritocracy would be a far, far, far better foundation for most any society. But I was writing under the assumption that we're not trying to replace the current system, but just improve it some. Think, though: if we could expect vehement opposition from the capitalists and demagogues toward revising our voting laws (and we very likely can), imagine how much of a fight they would put up if it were seriously suggested that the order in which they enjoy so much power be altogether toppled.

  6. Addendum to Maokun:

    The solution, then, it's not to restrict the choice to those educated, but rather, to increase the amount of the educated

    More sensible words than this have never appeared on this blog.

  7. Jeff: Whoa! Sorry for not answering sooner; your comment got marked as spam for some reason. Since I'm typing from da office and I'll see you tomorrow evening anyway, I'll save my longer answer until then. But you and Mr. Maokun both get gold stars.

  8. Awesome, another star for my collection.

    I definitely agree with you that building better human beings from the childhood would contribute to a betterment of the society as a whole. Sadly, the modern dismissal of religion has managed to throw away the baby with the proverbial bathwater and people almost back away in disgust whenever they catch themselves doing anything that slightly resembles religious (or communist -the second great horror) behavior, like telling their offspring that sharing, or being kind or forgiving to others is a neat thing to do.