Human beings are too dumb for democracy. That’s the thesis of a paper delivered by political psychologist Shawn Rosenberg at the Annual Conference of Political Psychology last July, approvingly covered in a Politico column in September, and soon to be published in an essay collection entitled Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms.
Of course, Rosenberg presents his thesis in the putatively objective prose of academia. “The existing research suggests that, for the most part, people lack the requisite cognitive capacities for integration and abstraction needed for the kind of systemic understanding, considered judgment and critical reflection that liberal democracy requires of its citizenry,” he writes. This theme of the average person’s fundamental stupidity is repeated throughout the paper: “citizens lack the capacity to meet the requirements of liberal democratic governance and therefore will find its principles and practices incomprehensible, alien and difficult to enact”; “the majority of Americans are generally unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required”; and “as democratic governance confronts people with political context that is hard to comprehend or value, so it also asks them to participate in a public sphere in ways they cannot understand and in which they cannot appropriately act.”
More Equal than Pigs
This is not a new thesis—Plato said much the same thing 2,500 years ago. “Tyranny springs from democracy much as democracy springs from oligarchy. Both arise from excess; one from excess of wealth, the other from excess of freedom,” he writes in The Republic. Although Rosenberg has dressed up Plato in the modern haberdashery of political theory and cognitive psychology, his paper not only reflects this age-old elitist disdain for the hoi polloi, but serves as an effective manifesto to justify the continual attempts to impeach American President Donald Trump, the continual blockade of Brexit by British Members of Parliament and the UK Supreme Court and the leftist panic over the growing popularity of anti-immigration leaders in Europe.
The fact that Rosenberg is contemptuous of ordinary people does not mean that he is wrong. Yet wrong he is because his paper is bereft of political philosophy, misapplies the psychological research and cherry-picks the political data.
Let’s start with Rosenberg’s dismissal of the average person’s political judgement:
The research on citizens’ levels of political information indicate that despite the public schooling of several generations of Americans through the age of 18 and the widespread availability of mass mediated political information, they still seem to have very little information regarding democratic institutions or contemporary political problems (Delli Carpini, 1997). Not only are they not adequately informed, but they also do not seem to integrate the particular information they have into some broader understanding or perspective.
As proof, Rosenberg cites the rise of the AfD in Germany, Brexit, and the growing popularity of the Northern League in Italy and Marie Le Pen in France.
Rosenberg claims that he focuses on right-wing populism because of its greater presence in North America and Europe and, although he adds that “not much additional is required to address left wing populism as well,” he cites not one ill from that historically more oppressive and murderous ideological pole. Instead, he asserts that “Right wing populism provides the lost, lonely, alienated and frightened souls of democracy with an alternative vision and practice that is readily comprehensible, morally sensible and personally satisfying.” This is nothing but an ad hominem. Rosenberg writes that “RWP governance also entails the structuring of the qualities of individuals … The very way a person thinks renders him or her dependent on others. Here to understand something is to know how it is linked to other actions or actors. This in turn depends on direct personal observation or others’ report of the linkages in question.” But doesn’t this passage, with its emphasis on dependence, personal views and others’ opinions, more accurately describe the far more prevalent ideology of identity politics?
In any case, despite his nod to the defects of left-wing populism, Rosenberg seems unaware of the limitations of the Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale, which he is using to explain why democracy is an unsuitable political arrangement for the masses. That scale was created by psychologist Robert Altemeyer in 1981 and has always been the subject of academic disputes. Political scientist Philip Tetlock, for example, notes in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment that “Most studies have found that those on the political right tend to score higher on psychological measures for simplicity and closure than those on the left and the center of the ideological spectrum. By contrast, we have found that those on the left and right ends of the spectrum in our sample obtain roughly comparable scores on such measures and both groups score higher than those toward the center of the spectrum.” Rosenberg holds that RWP is comprised of political attitudes that can be divided into three clusters: populism, nativism and authoritarianism. But, according to the original RWA, authoritarians are characterized by obedience to authorities whom the individual considers to be established and legitimate, general aggression against groups considered undesirable by these authorities, and a high degree of adherence to social conventions—all of which would seem to apply at least equally to the woke social justice crowd as to people with right-wing beliefs.
In 2017, a team of American political psychologists tested the validity of the RWA scale by creating a Left-Wing Authoritarian test, which used Altemeyer’s questions to address issues pertinent to left-leaning individuals. For example, a statement designed to measure obedience to authorities in the RWA—“It’s always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people’s minds”—was changed in the LWA scale to read “It’s always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in science with respect to issues like global warming and evolution than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people’s minds.” Similarly, references to ethnicity and race in the RWA were replaced by references to fundamentalist Christian groups in the LWA. And, just as the RWA did for right-wing views, this test found a significant correlation between leftism, dogmatism, prejudice and attitude strength.
Given Rosenberg’s premise that most people are stupid and ignorant, the corollary is that social stability and progress depend on the minority of smart and well-informed citizens. These civic exemplars, Rosenberg writes, “are able to reflect on their own perspective and thus on the reasoned bases of their own understanding and judgments. They are also able to listen to the claims and judgments of others and to integrate them in a way that allows them to understand the subjective perspective that others are bringing to the discussion. Armed with this understanding, they can communicate constructively by giving reasons and justifications in terms which their listeners can comprehend and potentially accept. Moreover they are able to do so in a way that is respectful of others and the views they express and is caring of those others and their well-being.”
This argument, however, is belied by both the historical data and political logic. Both Thomas Sowell in Intellectuals and Society and John Carey in The Intellectuals and the Masses have provided ample evidence that, in many ways, the majority of intellectuals are not only more opposed to democratic principles than the average citizen but more drawn to authoritarian systems. As psychologist Drew Westen notes in his book The Political Brain, “The empirical record linking moral action and intellectual rigor isn’t very strong.” Most such intellectuals come from the humanities, particularly philosophy and literature, which, one would think, would imbue them with the traits that Rosenberg asserts are necessary for effective democracy.
Economist Bryan Caplan asserts in The Myth of the Rational Voter that the ordinary voter is typically misguided and therefore political outcomes are better when controlled by a high-information cadre. Caplan even argues that a low voter turnout is better for society, since this limits the influence of the less educated members of the electorate on electoral outcomes:
A moderate reform suggested by my analysis is to reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout. Education and age are the two best predictors of turnout. Since the former is the strongest predictor of economic literacy, and the latter has little connection with it, the median voter’s economic literacy exceeds the median citizen’s. If “get out the vote” campaigns led to 100% participation, politicians would have to compete for the affection of noticeably more biased voters than they do today.
Rosenberg, in similar fashion, takes it as a given that the average person is easily brainwashed by media messaging, and then, descending into complete incoherence, he argues that democracy is collapsing because elites no longer control such messages:
An authoritative and powerful democratic elite would be able to control people’s perceptions of those problems and the range of possible ways of dealing with them so that particular politicians or policies are rejected, rather than systems of democratic governance … This has entailed an ever greater dismantling of hierarchical structures and a de-legitimation of conventional or traditional authority. One crucial aspect of this ongoing process is the increasing loss of elite control over the public sphere.
Naturally, Rosenberg also disapproves of untrammeled free speech. He criticizes the internet, the computer and the smartphone because these technologies “have been developed in ways that give individuals both an increasing range of choices and a greater ability to express preferences in a very public way,” allowing “an alienated, uneducated, working class ranch hand living in east Texas” access to information from major television channels and national newspapers controlled by elites, but also to what Rosenberg describes as “less culturally sanctioned sources.” And, worst of all, such a person is “now able to choose which messages he or she wants to receive.”
Here is the crux of the matter. Because technology has allowed a democracy of ideas to flourish, Rosenberg and his ilk believe that democracy as a sociopolitical system is collapsing. As Rick Shenkman puts it in his Politico piece: “The irony is that more democracy—ushered in by social media and the Internet, where information flows more freely than ever before—is what has unmoored our politics, and is leading us towards authoritarianism.” Historically, this has been the standard response of the elites to any development which gives more people more say in their affairs: from the invention of the printing press, to the expansion of voting rights, to the emergence of the novel, radio and television and, now, Facebook and YouTube.
Thus, according to Rosenberg, twenty-first century authoritarianism is manifesting itself through the loss of power in institutions designed to control citizens. Here’s his very long-winded rationale:
The structure of democracy as a system of relationships among self-constituting individuals is realized in its institutions as well. Some institutions are designed to translate individual claims and wants into collective judgments and decisions. These include processes such as referendums on specific issues and elections of representatives in which there is free and equal participation by all individual citizens. This is extended to the functioning of legislative bodies where the voting procedures are used to aggregate the preferences of elected representatives to make policies directing state action. These collective decision-making institutions are supplemented by judiciary ones. Their primary responsibility is to act as referees and adjudicate conflicts that arise between individuals and between individuals and the state. In doing so, the mandate of these institutions is to protect the integrity and equality of citizens who are interdependent. Typically this is embodied in codes that prioritize individual rights, private property and contracts between individuals. Thus the rule of law is a critical element of democratic institutions.
Of course, the 24 September ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court, which effectively undermined the 2016 referendum result preferred by the majority of citizens, shows how hollow this argument is. Similarly, the impeachment proceedings now being considered by the US Congress reveal how easily institutions can be subverted by elites, rather than used to bolster democracy.
Near to the Madding Crowd
Democracy is not a perfect system—to cite Winston Churchill, it’s the worst possible system, except for all others. But, as political philosopher Bernard Crick points out in his classic In Defense of Politics, “No government or authority can govern and survive unless it is based on consent—be it only the consent of the praetorian guard or the officer corps.” This is the most fundamental point missed by Rosenberg in his dismissal of democracy as an indispensable part of any working polity. As Crick argues, “If there is no democratic element, a State will be oligarchic or despotic; if democracy alone prevails, the result is anarchy—the opportunity of demagogues to become despots. Democracy, then, is to be appreciated not as a principle of government on its own, but as a political principle, or an element within politics.”
The real question, therefore, is how does one strike a balance between democracy and mob rule? Rosenberg’s main recommendation is anemic at best:
The Madisonian strategy of managing inadequate citizens with less democratic, more republican institutions is no longer a viable option. The alternative is to create the citizenry that has the cognitive and emotional capacities democracy requires. This would entail a massive educational initiative, one that would have to be premised on recognizing the dramatic failure of prior efforts.
Note, though, that even this policy is based on the assumption that ordinary people are readily subject to the right kind of indoctrination by intellectual elites, while paradoxically positing a pedagogical approach that can overcome people’s cognitive limitations. Caplan and others have suggested variations on the authoritarian alternative, such as giving extra votes to persons or groups who are economically literate or only allowing people who have passed a civics test to vote. Of course, history teaches us that individuals or groups who do not qualify on such bases will be ill-served by the political directorate, since they have been effectively disenfranchised, hence creating oppression or revolution.
Surprisingly, Rosenberg almost suggests a more pragmatic approach. “Perhaps most important is the effect of the capitalist organization of the economy,” he writes:
Like democratic governance, capitalism also operates as a system, albeit an economic one, that both regulates and is responsive to individual economic actors … As such, the capitalist economy favors innovation and creativity over traditional practices and conformity. In so doing, it emancipates and empowers individuals to act on their own and with one another in a way that parallels and supports the democratic structuring of political life.
Yet this paragraph remains isolated, and the logical inference—the reduction of state power over citizens—is not pursued by Rosenberg.
The founding fathers of the United States addressed the mob rule problem through the creation of the electoral college. In the United Kingdom, democratic balance was achieved through an unwritten constitution, constrained by custom and common law precedents. Building institutional safeguards against majority oppression or injustice is not impossible. The problem is, democracy has always functioned best in homogenous societies, such as the Scandinavian and East Asian nations, to the extent that, even under authoritarian political systems, democratic social norms have served as a bulwark against failed-state status. But Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has shown that democracy is unstable in heterogeneous societies, where the two-party system tends to be undermined by the pressure of many competing constituencies.
Nonetheless, just instituting a different voting system, such as range voting (where candidates are approval ranked from, say, 1 to 5, and the winner is whoever gets the highest overall score) can deepen democratic practice, while limiting majority transgressions. This by itself is insufficient, however—as Caplan has correctly pointed out, people have no incentive to vote to solve social problems save to “boost their self-worth by casting off the workaday shackles of objectivity.” A technical solution would be to create some cost to voting, perhaps by literally putting a price on votes. But this would obviously provide a direct advantage to wealthy individuals, even by the misleading metric of 1% of the richest American households owning 40% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 90% holds less than a quarter. Still, creating an incentive system for elections is not beyond the capacity of creative political scientists.
The best policy, however, may be the simplest one: do nothing drastic. Although the technology is new, the upheavals we are now seeing are not. What we are experiencing now is a transition and, given that people have muddled through far more drastic changes and come out more peaceful and prosperous, it is improbable that these twenty-first century trends will lead to chronic deprivation, wars or civilizational collapse. This is why history trumps political or economics: because it is history that provides the best reasons for calm optimism about humanity’s future.