Voices, ideas, and power

So, a day or so ago I was discussing the problems facing a democracy when a group of people, previously able to control outcomes with their vote, lose power. They may, not getting what they want democratically, turn to undemocratic approaches — the dangerous last gasp of a majority group becoming a minority.

Apparently, it turns out that that is not a problem we will have to deal with soon.

But it is with some irony that, tables turned, am today thinking about the limits of democracy. That was not on my mind yesterday morning.

Clearly, I need to come to grip with the fact that I and many of my friends were not hearing a lot of voices, or if we heard them, we dismissed them as uninformed, ignorant, and potentially irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. That is wrong for at least two reasons. First, duh, you end up losing. Each voice comes with a vote attached. But also, it just isn’t OK to dismiss people, even “bad” people. My main weapon against the Trump phenomenon of the last year was utter derision. That made me feel better (and I’m not giving it up) but it didn’t help stop him, and who knows, maybe it even helped fuel the response we saw last night?

If voices cannot and should not be ignored or somehow put on the sidelines, I don’t think the same goes for ideas. Ideas can vary from the brilliant to the disastrous, and we desperately need some way to sort them and then to make them stay where they belong. I’m not talking about censorship. Again, that’s focusing on voices. I’m talking about finding a way to make sure bad ideas are clearly, obviously so to everyone.

This has been a problem since the beginning of time, and it is clear that we are not very close to solving it. Back in olden days we had a system like this:

good idea bad idea
king likes happens, yay happens, disaster
king dislikes does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This turns out not to be fantastic system for decision-making, so we switched over to this:

good idea bad idea
people like happens, yay happens, disaster
people dislike does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This is much better, as people should generally like things that are good, or at least the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision. But if you believe that idea popularity and idea quality are not strongly correlated, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Well, idea popularity and idea quality are not particularly well correlated. This is something that the Framers would have taken as prima facie obvious. The technology of the day would not have allowed for direct democracy, but they would not have wanted it anyway. They discussed this at length and put plenty of checks into the system to make sure runaway bad ideas do not gain power. Most of the time, in fact, I tend to think they put in too many checks. (That I suddenly feel different today says what?)

Well, my theory is that we relied on extra-governmental institutions: newspapers, intellectuals, clergy, to help pre-sort ideas. The most hideous ideas were put in the trash heap long before they became birdies whispering in candidates ears. I grew up in a world where it appeared that elites had pretty good power over ideas. They could not kill them, of course, but they could push them out of certain spaces, and that was good enough to keep them out of the mainstream and the ballot box.

That’s over. Unless the intellectually motivated, the curious, the skeptical, the open-minded, the thoughtful, the trained, the expert, the conservative, somehow reassert power over ideas, things are going to get worse.

How do we do it?

4 thoughts on “Voices, ideas, and power”

  1. As you know, I am of the “this is evidence of a last-gasp” school. But I am not sure that even if ideas are sorted by the managers of newspapers, the professors at the college, and elected political leaders, that the ideas underlying Trumpism fail to rise to the surface. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are pretty durable ideas, and have been important in politics. The difference is that they were visible on the surface this time. My faith in the institutions of American democracy have been shaken pretty badly, but soldier on with democracy we must. That may mean changing some institutions. But it also means changing people’s minds, and, as you say, paying attention to problems (although now I think that the problems people were pointing to as a cause of Trumpism are distributed across the electorate, and that Trumps supporters are not uniformly threatened by economic hardship or economic irrelevance).

  2. Of course, I agree that we can’t jettison democracy, nor do we want to. And we can’t make racism and misogyny go away. But we really do need to continue to make them unacceptable as a public platform. Yesterday was am epic setback on that front. This is not a problem that government can solve. It is a problem that we must solve in order to save government.

  3. “the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision”

    This is not at all true in a democracy. The majority vote to impose their will on the minority. (“Tax the rich”, etc.) If this were true there would be no need for things like the Bill of Rights to protect the minority.

    1. I was speaking in aggregate, “the people” being all the people. You are right that majorities put burdens onto minorities in democracies, but I don’t think that is counter to my point, but just orthogonal. It happens, but it also happens that majorities just screw up on their own benefit from time to time.

      I believe this is definitely one of those times, but I hope I am wrong. Will a trade war help anybody in the rust belt at this point? I’m pretty sure it won’t, but it looks like that’s one of the things people voted for.

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