We need more democracy, not less

Getty/Mario Tama

Voters aren’t very popular these days. First, Republican primary voters defied all expectations by making Donald Trump the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Then, voters in the UK shocked the world by leaving the European Union. Not to be outdone, a referendum in Colombia rejected the peace deal to end a Civil War that’s gone on for half a century.

As a result of this tumult, we’re seeing a steady stream of takes arguing that this is what happens when you give the people too much democracy: They make dumb decisions!

Of these hot takes, Jason Brennan, at QZ, offered the most sizzling, essentially arguing for a return to Jim Crow:

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives, and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.

The idea here is that smart people can look at policy, effectively analyze it, and then make rational decisions based on the evidence. It is, presumably, a path towards Neil Degrasse Tyson’s utopian #Rationalia, where “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

These men believe there is some universal truth; a basic good for everybody that can be achieved if only the smart people got together and decided for the rest of us. They think our politics suck because there are simply too many dumb people participating in what should be a hermetic laboratory where only the qualified experts get to play with the test tubes.

But this betrays a basic misunderstanding of the business of politics, which at its heart is a Manichaean struggle between different sectors of a society to see who gets what. Facts and evidence are only useful to serve as a means to an end. But what is the end for Tyson or Brennan? They never say. Is ending poverty a goal? Or is it maximizing corporate profits? No matter how much reason you apply to the facts, it can’t answer these questions of priorities.

The idea that the system can be entrusted into an enlightened technocratic elite who will virtuously rule over the ignorant masses is so preposterous that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, the U.S. has been living a version of de facto elite rule for several decades now. According to a landmark study by Martin Gilens at Princeton University, the interests of the public at large are basically irrelevant when it comes to crafting policy—and it is “economic elites” whose interests are wholly catered to.

Economic elites tend to be very well-educated. In Brennan’s fantasy land, these people should then be making rational decisions that benefit society. In reality, what we’ve seen is a steady dismantling of the New Deal welfare state, a transfer of power towards business interests (especially the financial sector), and spiraling inequality. This is not news: Studies show that elites, whether they are Republican or Democrat, don’t actually give a damn about income inequality.

This should not come as a surprise. People tend to take what they can get, if they can get it. There are hundreds of cliches that one could name (power corrupts, etc.). Which is why if we do want to build a just, equitable society, we need to dole out the power to decide who gets what in a just and equitable way. That means more democracy.

Democracy is admittedly a vagueish thing. At its core, it means that ultimate authority should rest with the people. Any system of authority has to be at the consent of the people. When you look at the situation between the police in the U.S.and African Americans, you get an idea of what a coercive authority absent the consent of its citizens looks like. It’s a fundamentally undemocratic relationship. Likewise with the NSA’s programs of collecting data on millions of Americans suspected of no crimes or even wrongdoing.

To be fair, pure “Yes or No” referendums on a national level aren’t necessarily the way to go either. Referendums can be quite easily corrupted and, in pluralistic societies, minority rights have to be protected from a popular vote. That said, voting is only a small part of what democracy is, and recent decades have seen a systematic drive to reduce the degree to which people can control their lives through the standard mechanisms of voting.

In the U.S., they’ve simply made it harder to vote. A lot has been written about this already so it’s not even worth going into in too much detail. Suffice to say that the Republican Party has been working very hard (with a nice assist from the Supreme Court) to effectively disenfranchise poor and minority voters through things like voter ID laws and gerrymandering. Fusion produced an entire documentary about this called “Rigged,” the premise being that, “You don’t choose your politicians; your politicians choose you.”

The more subtle change has been the degree to which daily economic life has been stripped of any democratic control. At least a third of our day (or more) is spent working some job. The vast majority of us work for a private company of some sort. The extent to which we can exert democratic control over them has radically decreased in recent decades.

Imperfect as they were, labor unions used to play a role in democratizing the nation’s economic affairs. At the height of their power, they provided workers with rising wages, job security, pensions, safety conditions, and addressed other concerns. Business interests have waged a very effective and vicious anti-union campaign precisely because they do not want to have to give workers all those things, leading to a decline in worker power and increase in the power of executives and managers. They’re winning the war over who gets what—and they’re keeping it all for themselves.

This has been coupled with the increase of the power of the financial sector. For most of the 20th century, banking was a boring profession that represented a small fraction of total corporate profits. But with new technology came the ability to internationalize finance, essentially making it stateless and outside of government control. This was exacerbated by policies that deregulated finance in the U.S. and has led to a situation in which the financial sector acts as a sort of parasite on the economy, sucking out huge amounts of money while remaining impervious to any attempt to reign it in through democratic means; only one banker went to jail after the 2008 economic crash.

The U.S. has also seen a massive consolidation in the corporate sector. According to The Economist, “Since 2008 American firms have engaged in one of the largest rounds of mergers in their country’s history, worth $10 trillion.” As a result, not only are corporate profits at an all-time high, but the profits of individual companies are more persistent than ever.

This means that corporations are amassing unprecedented amounts of power. It’s evident when you see that, despite these dizzying profits, corporations are now paying record low taxes. They’re using their power to game the system and to keep profits high even though we’re living in a low-wage and low-growth world.

Aside from stagnating wages and decreased job security, the effect that this can have on the everyday lives of normal people can be profound in more imperceptible ways.

“Main Street institutions that once allowed people to walk down the road to sort things out with other human beings have been phased out,” wrote Matt Taibbi. “In their place now rest distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies.” This means people can’t get their insurance companies on the phone, their local banks don’t serve them except as a “glorified ATM machine,” and, among the chopped salad of mortgage securities, people don’t even know who holds the lender’s note on their home.

Not to speak in cliches, but your life is very different if you work at a small mom-and-pop store than if you work for Walmart. In the former, you have a semblance and control and agency; in the latter you’re a faceless cog in a massive global machine.

Much of Europe has seen a sharp decline in democracy as well, but through different means. The European Union essentially put control of the continent’s economic affairs in the hands of a handful of bureaucrats in Brussels. When citizens of EU countries vote in an anti-austerity government, as in Greece, that government is powerless to reshape its own economy. Whether you believe that Greece should implement austerity or not is irrelevant; the fact is that Greeks themselves have no control over it. As the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis put it, “Saying that the European Union suffers from a democratic deficit is like saying an astronaut on the moon suffers from an oxygen deficit.”

We live in an age of inequality. A small handful are able to accumulate a grotesque amount of wealth. This fact itself belies that we live in a real democracy, for the people—mostly the havenots—aren’t on the path toward seizing and redistributing the haves’ extraordinary wealth.

Our democracy is, instead, only a thin veneer in which we have the illusion of choice. As economic actors, it may seem like we have more choices than ever—but this too is mainly an illusion. What’s more, 90% of the media we consume is controlled by six corporations.

People can sense this in their bones. We’re all voting for lousy people we hate handed to us by two dominant parties; eating the same crap given to us by a handful of corporations; and watching the same poor excuses for news and entertainment.

When people feel powerless, it is not surprising to see them act violently to try and assert some control over their lives. Trump, Brexit, and the “No” vote in Colombia have one thing in common: They appealed to the authoritarianism that is all too common in people who feel like they don’t have real control over their lives.

What we need is more democracy, more freedom, and more control over our lives.