Too Dumb To Vote, Part VII – Post-Democracy And The New Asshole

Lots of the shit I lament in earlier posts is human. We can’t eliminate ‘people being affected by language’ or ‘people having cultural points of view’ without fundamentally changing what humans are, or by eliminating ‘people’.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t go some way in alleviating & ameliorating the situation, at least insofar as politics is concerned.

What follows are a raft of measures which attempt to clean up the shit. I’d call it Neo-Platonism, but that name has already been taken by some Third Century mystic critters. For now, ‘Post-Democratic Theory’ will have to do. These propositions are designed to be cumulative, starting with the least radical and building to the most, but need not necessarily be so. Propositions 2 and 3 are the most contentious, but I’d be gloriously happy with 1,4,5 and 6 being considered in their absence.

1.) Education

This would include the mandatory secondary school teaching of critical thought (argument analysis, rhetoric/psychology, logic, source/data analysis, problem-solving), of the basis of key political issues and of basic economic theories. Resources would be made freely available on the internet and in public libraries, education centres etc. to provide similar skills to adults.

It is really remarkable that we don’t teach this already. Critical thought is useful and applicable to most aspects of everyday life, including the world of business, higher education, dinner-table discussions and reading the newspaper. It can be taught quite straightforwardly; indeed there is already an A-level qualification.

Read all about it.

As for politics and economics, this is a formalisation of my Platonic supposition that to vote on an issue, you should know about it. That is, after all, the only way you can actually assess how x issue might affect either you or the country. It blows my mind that many in the political classes are urging for a referendum on Britain’s EU Membership. This is a hugely complex issue, involving global macroeconomics, theories of international justice, sovereignty, supra-national identity and so on. The majority of people voting in such a referendum tomorrow would not have much grasp of these issues. I know that’s patronising, educationalist, chuavanist, classist, whatever you want to call it. But it’s true. I don’t want to punish people for not knowing; I want to educate future people, so eventually, the electorate will actually understand what it’s voting on. That would make John Stuart Mill happy, and when he’s happy, everyone’s happy.

2.) Limit representation

Given that appropriate education should now be plentifully available, no candidate for election as a representative ought to be permitted without proof of reasonable proficiency. As such, prospective candidate will have to pass examinations in the three fields described above.

The syllabus and examination will be created and monitored by an independent commission and regularly reviewed by the whole public, ensuring it tests skills, not positions (i.e. appreciating the difference between strong and weak arguments for republicanism, rather than supporting republicanism and penalising monarchism). The review system and commission should include representatives from minorities concerned that their exclusion would lead to an unfairly restricted definition of a certain skill or issue. Nonetheless, the examinations should be substantially rigorous.

In practical terms, those seeking election or re-election would need to pass said examinations before their standing is approved by the electoral commission.

Follow the Worms

3.) Limit franchise

You saw this coming a mile off, right?

Citizens wishing to vote must pass similar examinations to political candidates, albeit slightly easier. Since all the required resources (other than ‘effort’) are already freely available, this step is vital not only in ensuring the entire electorate possess appropriate levels of understanding to evaluate arguments, spot bullshit and grasp issue, but also as a social leveller. It has been argued that ‘the political class’ is largely synonymous with the upper class at present. I’m not sure I agree – few union members would like the label – but in any case, a universal standard will act as a great leveller.

Not those Levellers…

You may, no doubt, argue that people from lesser socio-economically developed backgrounds are likely to grow up in worse areas with less literacy or academic emphasis, and worse educational standards. This is uncontested; I merely argue that this is a separate issue, and I would support the utmost efforts to improve education (generally and in these terms), both as a result of these new measures or without them. Given power, I would consider incentivising passing the franchise-exam (and voting) with a small tax-cut on low earners. Yay, equality!

The education will include caveats noting a voter’s natural biases against ‘the Other’. By acknowledging and actively attempting to combat such biases, and focusing better on policy rationality, more representative class-, gender- and ethnic- levels of representation should be achieved.

Remember, when you are criticising this, that we already limit the franchise a little, on the basis that some people don’t understand enough to vote. In many countries, criminals do not have the franchise; this is under debate in the UK as we speak. But you might disagree, so ignore that. Children. Children can’t vote. They don’t get it.
But honestly, there are some bright 14 year olds who have just as much political understanding and maturity as some adults I know. So if you really hold to radical universal democracy, you’d better pram diddums to the polling station.

4.) Limit forums of discussion

Censorship! Not only has he done a pooh all over our right to vote, now he wants to stop us talking!

Yes. Sort of.

Censorship is fun, even Hollywood stars do it 🙂

I would like to limit i) public campaigns and ii) parliamentary debates to paper format and vetted phrasing. No pictures (maps and graphs fine, I mean photos of politicians, graphic posters etc). No rhetoric. No extraneous data. Just cold, logical arguments backed up by clearly-referenced data.
Campaign material and government bills would be submitted to another commission, similarly diverse (as above) but with enough psycho-linguistic, statistical, and philosophical expertise to largely agree on what is and is not permissible.
Real-time house debates would take place in separate booths, and communication would be limited to e-messaging (e.g. MSN, Facebook chat…just imagine “HOC-talk”) or physical paper, both vetted by the commission. The commission, and they alone, would pick one elected representative to act as ‘Speaker’ to moderate real-time house debates.

Compared to the Commons as we have it today, such a system would eliminate biases and actions based on appearance, dress, body language, tone, crowd-emotion and party mentality. Individual representatives would become more personally responsible for their contributions and their votes, since they would only have the solid arguments and facts in front of them.

Again, this system would increase electoral meritocracy by making discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc impossible – all you would know of the candidates you were evaluating is their policies, qualifications and record. So we get the best candidates!

This dump leads us to the steaming matter of

5.) Blind elections

Yeah, not looking so much like democracy anymore…

This next step would largely negate the importance of parties. When a voter arrives at a polling station, rather than one vote for one candidate, they will answer multiple mini-votes, each presenting a policy sphere (e.g. immigration policy) and each candidate’s stance on that policy, unconnected to the candidates name or party.

The voter, after completing the questionnaire, will have some discretion over their feeling of the weight certain issues hold (e.g. prioritising their immigration policy preferences over their environmental policy preferences). Through an algorithm (MATHS!) it is perfectly possible to then ascertain the party whose policies most conform to the voter’s preferences, cutting out problems like party loyalty, media portrayals of parties etc.

Pretty cool, huh?

6.) Legislative cleavage

Teehee, he wrote ‘cleavage’!

Yeah I did.

It  should be beneficial to create a separation between those i) elected to introduce and argue for/against legislation, and ii) those elected as representatives of constituencies to vote onbills that the former group had introduced and amended. This second group would be limited to a single term, and these terms would run out-of-phase with the first group, i.e. elections for Group i) are held half way between the terms of Group ii) and vice-versa. To stand for the second group, candidates would have to complete an advanced course on logical argument, rhetoric, economics etc. (i.e. a harder version of the proposed ‘franchise test’). The House of Lords could evolve into such a body. This would convey a number of benefits above the current political system:

–          Candidates to Group (i) would be chosen for and through their own individual policy convictions, unconstrained by party whips etc.

–          Those voted into Group (ii) would have no seat or job in/security dependant on their voting behaviour, or on their party manifesto/reputation/leader/traditional record. They would in fact only be required to adhere to their publicised convictions, and to publicly explain U-turns (in clear rhetoric-free language).

–          Group (i) would remain representative of individual constituencies, meaning the chamber of the Group (i) would be something of a ‘debating chamber’ for
1. local issues and
2.the introduction and argumentation of bills [if our manifesto policy for all-written bills is defeated]

–          Group (i) would still be required to form a government for international dealings and day-to-day decisions. This way, the electorate could ‘vote for the man (not the party)’ without ‘incidentally/accidentally’ helping the party.

–          A Grand Committee of the Group (ii) might be ideal for appointing a body for the rhetorical vetting of electioneering and for voter education.

So there you have it. Post-democracy in a nutshell. I am far from sure that it will work, but I have been thinking and discussing it for a long time, and have yet to find any flaws that knock it down. But then again, I’m just a biased, shitty human. Throw some argument-rocks at me.
Next post I’ll explain some of the criticisms and responses I’ve already encountered. Won’t that be exciting?

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13 thoughts on “Too Dumb To Vote, Part VII – Post-Democracy And The New Asshole

  1. Pingback: You’re Shit And You’re Doing Nothing About It [Part I - Introduction] | Haywire Thought

  2. So I haven’t quite finished reading this. But I have an impassioned response to your idea of limited franchise which can’t wait.

    You say: “You may, no doubt, argue that people from lesser socio-economically developed backgrounds are likely to grow up in worse areas with less literacy or academic emphasis, and worse educational standards. This is uncontested; I merely argue that this is a separate issue, and I would support the utmost efforts to improve education (generally and in these terms), both as a result of these new measures or without them. Given power, I would consider incentivising passing the franchise-exam (and voting) with a small tax-cut on low earners. Yay, equality!”

    I disagree that educational disadvantage is a separate issue. You seem to gloss over it. You say that you would “support the utmost efforts to improve education”, but offer no suggestion as to what you would actually do – sounds a little wishy-washy. Your idea to incentivise passing the exam wouldn’t give kids who’ve had a rubbish education a good education.

    You don’t address the fact that educational disadvantage is linked to poverty, and also to first or second generation immigrants, hence to ethnic minorities. Poor people and ethnic minorities would be hugely under-represented in your democratic system. Consider the fact that out of the children who attend the school Emily will be teaching in – a school with a very poor record of academic performance – 80% speak English as a second language and something like 50% are on free school meals. Race, poverty, educational disadvantage, all very much bound together. Consider the predominance of white faces and ex-public school students at Oxford.

    My argument is that educational disadvantage would become a “franchise disadvantage” in your system. By basing the right to vote upon an examination which presupposes a good education, you would inadvertently be creating a democratic system which privileged the white and the wealthy. This would be the case unless you reformed the school system in the UK to such an extent that you ensured that every child, had equal educational opportunities. And that looks like a long time coming.

    Furthermore, it’s fallacious to compare your “limited franchise” idea to children not being allowed to vote. Your limited franchise idea brings with it a whole host of exacerbated inequalities, whereas children not being allowed to vote does not. It’s straightforward. Nobody, no matter their background, can vote until the age of eighteen. Everybody, no matter their background, can vote at the age of eighteen.

    A little quibble now. You suggest with regard to the examination for political representatives that you propose: “The syllabus and examination will be created and monitored by an independent commission and regularly reviewed by the whole public, ensuring it tests skills, not positions”

    But given that your premiss is that the public needs to be properly educated in order to vote, surely “the whole public” would not be entitled to review such an important syllabus and examination? What about their shit thinking? Surely another examination would be required to make sure that the public was properly skilled to carry out this review? And, if so, how many examinations would people need to pass before they got a say in any of this?

    Back to the main argument. I suspect that the privileging of the white and the wealthy which would be the result of a limited franchise policy, at least if it were implemented in today’s society, would be perpetuated over generations, just like educational advantage/disadvantage is perpetuated over generations in the UK today. There would be areas in the UK where people typically didn’t vote, the same areas where people typically don’t receive.a good education.

    And that wouldn’t be cool.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks for such a full response.

      My calling educational inequality a “separate issue” was not meant as a sidestep, but rather an acknowledgement that this blog series has been dealing in abstract/theoretical terms with the problem of democracy; whilst clearly intertwined, the problem of education would deserve (and might eventually get) its own focus. It’s a massive topic.
      I don’t entirely concede your “franchise disadvantage” argument, since it seems to presuppose that franchise-holders/ the ‘voting class’ will in some way self-perpetuate or exclude others from franchise. Whilst not impossible, I’d say that seems counter to the ideals of widespread political understanding that these proposals are based on. I would actually presume that the system would produce much more effective government, which I hope would have a beneficial effect on the education system, especially in areas without a voting tradition. I see you don’t accept my suggestion that voters with an understanding of ‘Otherness’ are likely to be more inclusive.

      Moreover, of course I’d love to reinvigorate the education system – and would point out that Proposal One does feature a significant overhaul, with a range of new mandatory subjects and free resource provision to adults.

      Before the ‘famous’ civil rights movement in the US in the 50s/60s, one of the major ways blacks were barred from voting in the Deep South was by requiring voters to pass literacy tests. This was a very calculated apartheid policy, almost explicitly designed to keep the rednecks in control. But! Understandably, this was not cool with the ex-slave population, who went to great efforts to educate their own communities (through schooling, church, and informally). They, of course, had to contend with lynchings, apartheid laws and racist police, which are laaargely not problems in the UK (to anything like that extent).
      Having no impediments, governmental encouragement, freely available material, and a tax motive to learn the (not-too-tricky) syllabus should help. Indeed, looking at current voting statistics, I would venture a guess that, if this policy was introduced on an appropriately cautious timescale, several years after proposal one, and with plenty of publicity explaining benefits and resource availability, then it might well create better de facto political engagement. Those who initially feel excluded have a very clear path to inclusion – we might get a situation where Unions, counter-culture groups (e.g. punk) etc are so hostile to the proposals that they pass the exam to try and vote it away! [I don’t for a moment suggest that any of those groups are illiterate or couldn’t pass the exam otherwise]

      Your little quibble – for ‘vetting the syllabus’, I meant current-electors (i.e. those who had passed the franchise test). I don’t want to get into an ad infinitum regression…
      I’m really happy you’re challenging this, though. Do you have any issue with my identification of the ‘problem’ of democracy, and if so, do you have any suggested alternative solutions?

  3. I like this J.

    1.) Yeah great. In France they teach philosophy in school from a young age.

    2.) & 3.) Perhaps an academic test is too narrow a measure and would exclude some people? I think 2) could happen soon but 3) is very far off because of all the stuff Sarah said.

    How about a test for journalists?

    4.) I think there is a danger of making politics really boring with this. It takes longer to take meaning from masses of text than from a cartoon, video etc and just isn’t as exciting. The negatives from turning people off might outweigh your benefits?

    You could have a sort of WHICH? Poltics. An independent expert body doing some basic logic and fact checking. That could happen today. Obviously there are think tanks already but one authoritative, trusted, well-publicised voice would do a lot of good.

    5.) I don’t think you could make a test subtle enough to express political opinions properly.
    e.g. Do you agree with wind farm subsidies? Y/N
    I’d like to say ‘no there should be a carbon tax’ but that’s not an option. This is a contrived example but political questionnaires I’ve seen have all been restrictive.
    (also typo: algorithm not logarithm)

    6.) How are the second chamber accountable?

    As an overall criticism I think your ideas are designed for a world where people are much more engaged with politics than they are now and perhaps than they will ever be. I can’t see people reading great text debates and individually analysing a large number of individual candidates/MPs. There is some value in having politics simplified to three different parties and largely judging people by their party instead of having to keep track of a large number of candidates.

    I also wouldn’t put your suggestions down as being our priorities for electoral reform (I’d put big money in politics there) but I don’t think you’re suggesting that they should be?

    Overall I agree with what you’re saying and am thoroughly enjoying the blog.

    • Hello Olly,
      Yeah, I had an impression that the French have a better general political understanding, perhaps thanks to their (comparatively) recent revolutions and government changes. Yay for them.
      In what way is an academic test too narrow? (I don’t mean that to attack you, just that I don’t understand you.) Do you mean that some people have very high capability in non-academic disciplines, and they should be able to vote (e.g. artists, craftsmen, sportspeople, carers?) If so I think (to maintain this D’sA position) I would disagree, in that the political process, either current or in my hypothesis, remains hugely academic. Both the practise and evaluation of politics requires memory and evaluation of bodies of information and synthesis into positions and solutions. If someone can compose a wonderful opera, but cannot deal with information in such a way, then they should quite possibly be important in the royal society for music, but have little grounds for political office/franchise.
      I’d be very wary of a test for journalists. Firstly, given (1), both they and their readers should theoretically have had better bullshit-spouting and bullshit-spotting educations, which I’d hope would reduce some of the media excesses seen currently. Perhaps the education in (1) should include a brief summary of the political leanings of the larger media bastions.
      Secondly, such a dramatic imposition of state power on the media would not only provoke uproar, but could limit legitimate comment from those with non-mainstream views, fearing for their livelihood. I’d be quite happy to maintain the role of journalism in reporting And commenting, hopefully providing the public with interesting counter- or supporting- facts and arguments that neither political ‘side’ on a given issue had considered, or reframing debates in creative ways.
      As an aside, basic critical thinking really isn’t that hard, which is perhaps why it’s seen as a ‘weak’ A-level by most universities. As a completely unfounded guestimate, I’d imagine 80% of adults could get to the kind of level I’d postulate the ‘Franchise Exam’ pass-score was with reasonable study.
      4-and-end-comments) I’m happy someone has criticised this, you’re the first. I can see it being a bit more boring, yes, although overall I don’t think it’d be a problem. Firstly, it would make most bills/campaigns much shorter and easier to digest. Secondly, I’d hope that a better-educated public would be more interested in politics than they currently are, more than counteracting the problem of “Oh no Boris can’t tell jokes!” Thirdly, I’d presume that, having devoted at least some time and effort to passing a franchise exam, electors would be more inclined to use that vote (and use it wisely).
      Your idea of a WHICH?Politics would certainly be an excellent step in the right direction, which I’d fully support.
      5) Thanks for the typo.
      I think perhaps I haven’t explained this now. I’m not saying that each elector would get some kind of free rein decision per policy sphere. I’m saying you’d get to the booth, and for each sphere (e.g. environment) you would see a summary of the relevant policies from each party, e.g. “Party A intend to levy an extra 5% on fuel duty and 12.5% on aircraft fuel…Party D intend to introduce a Carbon Tax at x%…Party F would subsidise Solar Panels but not Wind Farms”.
      The elector would then pick the one closest to their views (or, to make things more complicated still, Rank them as per AV).
      Then, after weighting, the algorithm would see which party you are closest to overall and assign you that vote.
      6.) The second chamber wouldn’t be very accountable. This is somewhat intentional, since they’d be free to vote according to their convictions, and thus act as representatives for the people who chose them for their views. The one-term limit acts as a safeguard against them going completely rogue. Of course, they would be accountable in the media and to current parliamentary practise expectations in terms of corruption.
      No, I’m not saying this is a priority. Big money in politics, and then Lords, would seem more immediate, (although both are more than passingly related.)
      Thanks very much for all of this, it got me thinking xx

      • Another thought on multiple choice policy questions instead of voting for candidates: This could lead to unrealistic, poorly balanced policy recommendations e.g. everyone wants more doctors and nurses. The real question is what do you want more a nurse or a teacher? or a teacher but slightly higher tax rates?

        How do you ensure voters vote for balanced budgets? Well actually I guess you could have a costing for each proposal and an indication of the effects of this on tax rates?

        Would there be any legal mandate for politicians to act on the policy votes?

      • How funny – this very problem occurred to me just as I was replying to Jo. The system is pretty complex as it is – I guess the only way of having realistic budget proposals is to have income-measures towards the end of the (now electronic) ballot form, and grey-out more and more tax-cutting options as ‘voter x’ chooses more and more expensive policies. Otherwise virtually everyone would say ‘cut taxes’ ‘improve hospitals’ ‘improve schools’ ‘borrow less’ ‘cut deficit’ and that wouldn’t mean anything…

        Mandates always strike me as very subjective and debatable. I’ll put it this way – I think that a government which won election by this system (especially if the earlier voter-education and suffrage test measures were in place) would have a stronger mandate than by the current system.

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  7. (So, this is my own, fairly un-educated-in-this-area opinion, but:)

    Why doesn’t communism, in theory, seem to work in large groups? Because people do not have the same motivation to “succeed”. It seems to require, on some level, people to work for the good of the group (and who is going to clean the public toilets in a commune?). People have more difficultly empathising with larger and larger groups that they’re a part of. It’s not logical, it’s an emotional response and it’s just how we seem to be wired.

    So it seems to me that communism is a system that is not congruent with human nature. Now, agree or more likely disagree with this oversimplified example if you will, but I think you’ll agree that a political system should be designed with human psychology and emotion involved in mind. Here, you seem to treat people as logical robots, who know what is in their best interest.

    You seem to be describing politics for a society that we don’t have. People who want to be educated. People who want to spend more time thinking about politics, rather than enjoying themselves in more TV/consumerist ways. People that would be happy for it to be more difficult to vote.

    People that would be happy to be represented by someone that they couldn’t vote for because they failed the entry requirements. Fuck it, people who would be happy to do an extra test. Nobody likes exams.

    You think people that want an emotionless approach to policy, if is in their own interest?

    We already have a poor enough turnout (65%) to vote. If we have a revolution, it needs to be in the direction of transparency, accountability, trust – not just in the government but news outlets too. More independent fact checking and clear breakdowns of politicians positions. We need to engage with people. If necessary, more American style “personality politics” – it definitely taps into that part of the human psyche that connects with a person more than an idea, and that gets people engaged in politics.

    We need to work with the society we have now, with the expectation that it won’t change for the better, rather than the hope for a new society via education which would work with your proposed system.

    It’s not about it being difficult to implement; it’s that even with the best implementation, the society we have wouldn’t accept it. So I’d say: stop thinking logos, start thinking pathos.

    • That’s interesting Will. I certainly don’t disagree that it’s success would require a huge cultural shift (or that relatively few people would vote if measure #2 were in place,even if the test was quite easy.)

      Communism – no, I don’t really agree with your evaluation. I see what you mean, and I certainly think that it works better with the ability to see the ‘fruits of your labours’- more on that in my book. I tend to think criticisms of Comm based on history are quite invalid as communist states tend to be impositions on populations with significant uneducated, neutral or actively unwilling populations. Vietnam actually seems to be doing ok, given how much the French ravaged it, then the war of course. Ideally I’d imagine a Menshevik system is more robust (wherein the whole pop, led by the bourgeoisie, gradually turn commie.) The ideas of Antonio Gramsci are particularly interesting here – he argues that ‘political revolutions’ (in the military/coup sense) are only the final, least-important phase, and that it’s far more important to first convince the intelligentsia and other elites, of the wisdom of your position. I think this equally applies to my post-democracy. An education and public discourse which puts greater emphasis on the civil responsibility and privilege of voting might gradually make the later measures more acceptable or desirable (a phase which this blog itself might be seen as a small element of.)

      Moreover, I see your argument about people currently not wanting to do exams or learn more about elections, and that’s exactly my point. If they aren’t willing to make an informed choice, then their vote is illegitimate and they should not be allowed to make a choice at all.

      I quite agree that we need more transparency, accountability and trust, sure. However any move towards American personality politics seems abhorrent both to those goals,a nd to others of mine.

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