Why Democracy Always Fails

Human behavior boils down to only a few things. On the plus side, there is transcendence and ego-death; on the negative side, there is projection, transference and tunnel vision arising from solipsism, or the process of staying confined within our minds and the minds of those who share our immediate fascinations.

The grim truth of this is that it may not be all that human so much as the result of cognitive limits. People need to be able to come to decisions quickly that, while not perfect, form a working model upon which more can be built and greater detail ascertained. This requires avoiding imminent pitfalls while keeping as many options open as possible.

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking works poorly for leadership, aesthetics and moral questions. Its speed and simplicity makes it an ethic of convenience which evades entirely larger questions and long-term needs. In this way, our evolution which is so brilliant defeats us.

Some are able to escape this trap. They tend to have higher intelligence and be concerned with accuracy, namely how closely the impressions and predictions in their minds match the working of reality outside of the mind. They also have a moral sense which is not, in the herd style, a defensive morality aimed at avoiding loss of life, but a creative morality which strives to improve the quality of life as an existential experience.

Those are rare, however, and when the vote is taken, there are fewer of them than homeless guys voting for free toilet paper in every election, and so they are statistically eliminated early in the process. On top of that, however, we can see another reason why democracy always fails: voters choose appearance over reality.

One of the successful metaphors describing the mind is a ‘cognitive miser’. When we need to make a decision, particularly when we have little knowledge, we rely on shortcuts: hunches, ‘gut’ responses, stereotypes. We use shortcuts because it is easy. We are ready to leap to conclusions, especially when we are too lazy or busy to look for hard evidence. And most of us are cognitively lazy or busy some of the time. When it comes to decisions about strangers, the easiest, most accessible shortcut is our first impression. Unknowledgeable voters go for this shortcut.

Do the effects obtained in contrived lab demonstrations make a difference in the real world? In close races, unknowledgeable or ‘appearance-based’ voters can sway the outcome of the races. Lenz and Lawson estimated that candidates who appear slightly more competent than their opponents can get as much as 5 per cent more votes from unknowledgeable, TV-loving voters. Recently, Lenz and his students conducted experiments with voters in California and 18 other states. In the two weeks before an election day, voters were shown the ballots either with pictures of the candidates or without pictures, and asked to express their intention to vote. Depending on the race – primary or general – when the voters saw the pictures, the best-looking candidates got a boost between 10 per cent and 20 per cent over the appearance-disadvantaged candidates.

Attractive people and interesting, charismatic actors will always win over competent but less exciting candidates. This is no surprise to those of us who are lifelong democracy foes, because we realize that voters choose appearance every time in a more fundamental way: they pick the candidates whose platforms virtue signal, promise pacifism, or give the voters a feeling of confidence or the sensation that society is sympathetic to them (this is what modern people call “empathy”: the thought that if society cares for its most miserable, it also cares for everyone else, especially the individual talking about “empathy”).

Voters follow a hedonistic imperative when it comes to voting. They want to feel good. Things that make them feel good are forms of compassion that make them feel powerful, much as the guy handing a dollar to a homeless person feels a sense of wealth, power and moral superiority. They like pacifism because it makes them feel safe since it promises to neuter the powerful, even if on their own side, mainly because that is the only group of powerful people that voters have control over.

They like to act generous and tolerant because they are LARPing at being kings, even if they do not understand the root of constructive generosity. And so on: a group of talking monkeys with car keys posing and preening chooses whatever candidate it feels makes the best adornment for its personal narratives. People choose candidates like they buy clothing or movies.

For example, a person will select a romantic comedy (ugh) because they want to “feel good” about their position in the world. They watch sad movies when they are sad, goofy comedies when they want to be happy, and “serious” documentaries when they want to impress their friends with how deep they are. Everywhere, monkeys are acting out their emotional needs on the world, and seem not to care that their votes have effect.

As the bloom fades from liberal democracy in the West, and we tally the dead and destroyed from our campaign to make it work by squashing anyone who disagreed with it, people are speaking out more about the failures of democracy. These failures occur at such a fundamental level that there is no way to fix them, as the failure of the US Constitution to belay mob rule indicates.

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