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Pox Populi

Trump is a symptom of a disease deep within democracy's bones.


By Jason Brennan JUNE 19, 2016 PREMIUM

H ow did Donald Trump become a serious contender for president of the

United States? Its the question everyone is asking, but its the wrong question.
Instead, given how ignorant and irrational voters tend to be, we should be asking how
it is that someone like Trump a candidate seemingly as ill-informed as he is
uninterested in policy hasnt already made it to the Oval Office.
Americans widely believe that democracy is a uniquely just form of government, and
that political participation enlightens and ennobles citizens. Call it democratic
triumphalism. It is the American creed, so ubiquitous that it goes unquestioned.
Philosophers and laypeople, optimists and cynics, partisans of the left and the right,
your activist aunt and your languid uncle, all take it for granted. The three most
important political philosophers of the past 50 years John Rawls, Robert Nozick,
and G.A. Cohen disagreed about almost everything. Yet all three embraced some
form of democratic triumphalism. As the Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro writes,
"The democratic idea is close to nonnegotiable in todays world."

Sure, everyone admits democracy has problems. But the problems are superficial, like
acne or a bad hairdo. And despite its flaws, the argument goes, democracy is better
than the alternatives. If the wrong candidate wins, its because of gerrymandering or
the influence of rich donors. If politicians push bad policies, its because theyve been
bought by the special interests.

The solution to what ails democracy, nearly everyone concludes, is more democracy.
In the late 1800s, 70 to 80 percent of eligible Americans voted in major elections. We
now muster, at most, 60 percent for a presidential election and 40 percent for
midterm, state, and local elections. Because the greatness of democracy is an axiom in
American life, were unshakeable in our faith that if more people voted, our politics
would improve. Were like Europeans in the Middle Ages; disease and poverty dont
shake our faith in an omnibenevolent God, and we blame the Devil for everything.
But the rise of Trump should challenge our faith in democracy. Thats because the
presumptive Republican nominee is not an anomaly so much as a symptom of a
disease deep within democracys bones.

J ohn Stuart Mill believed that we should institute whatever form of government

produces the best results. He speculated that the more people got involved in politics,
the more concerned theyd become about the common good. Getting a factory worker
to think about politics would be like getting a fish to discover theres a world outside
the ocean. Political engagement would cause us to look beyond our immediate
interests, hardening our minds but softening our hearts.

Mill wrote more than 150 years ago, when few people could participate in politics.
His was a reasonable but untested hypothesis. The results are now in. They are largely
negative. I think Mill would agree.
For the past 60 years, political scientists and others have been studying voters what
they care about, what they know, how they process information (if they have any),
and how information affects their behavior. In general, scholars have found that voters
are ignorant, misinformed, and irrational. Most Americans cannot identify any
congressional candidates in their district. Voters generally dont know which party
controls Congress. They dont know how much is spent on Social Security. Ilya
Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University and author of Democracy and
Political Ignorance, concludes that at least 35 percent of American voters are know-
nothings.

Experimental work in political psychology reveals that most people process political
information in a way that is biased and partisan, not dispassionate and rational. They
pay attention to evidence that confirms the views they already hold. As the University
of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz has found, citizens who can adequately
explain political opinions other than their own rarely vote or participate in politics. Its
no surprise, then, that Trump voters ignore evidence that Trump is lying, and worse,
dig in their heels.

Decades of social-science research suggest that political engagement tends not only to
fail to educate or ennoble us, but also often to stultify and corrupt us. Joseph
Schumpeter had it right: "The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental
performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way
which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.
He becomes a primitive again."

Contrary to what Mill expected, getting citizens to deliberate together typically


backfires. Deliberation does not bring us together; it leads to polarization and anger.
The model Mill imagined of citizens solving problems together like dispassionate
scientists is mostly fantasy. The reality is that we are bad at politics, and politics is
bad for us. For the sake of our characters and our country, most of us should minimize
our involvement.

Theres little that democracies can do to fix these problems. More education and
easier access to information have not helped. In 1940 less than 40 percent of adults
over age 25 had a high-school diploma; now more than 80 percent do. Though
Americans are better educated, and though political information has never been easier
to acquire, people are as ignorant about politics today as they were 40 years ago. As
the joke goes, "I have a device in my pocket capable of accessing all information
known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers."

Voters are dumb because democracy makes them dumb. Democracy spreads power
among a vast number of people; everyone gets an equal but tiny share expressed
through our vote so small that none of us have an incentive to use our power
wisely. The chance that an individual vote will make any difference in a national
election is on par with the odds of winning Powerball. Voters have every incentive to
remain ignorant about politics and to indulge their worst biases.

We cannot "fix" democratic ignorance, because we cannot change the incentives built
into democracy. But perhaps we can mitigate the problem by changing our political
system. What if instead of trying to make voters better informed and more reasonable,
we tried to screen out the least reasonable and most misinformed voters? What if
instead of a democracy, we had an epistocracy?

An epistocracy would look much like a modern democracy, with constitutional limits
on power, a bill of rights, contests among political parties, free and open political
speech, regular elections, checks and balances, division of powers, and the like. The
difference is that not everyone would have equal voting power. Political power would
be, by law, distributed according to competence, skill, and the good faith to act upon
that skill. Suffrage would be widespread but not universal. An epistocracy would
grant better-informed voters extra votes. It might require citizens to earn the right to
vote by passing a test of basic political knowledge. Or it might allow panels of
appointed experts to veto harmful legislation, just as the Supreme Court vetoes
unconstitutional legislation.
To state the obvious: Any realistic form of epistocracy will be subject to abuse. If
there is a voter "exam," special interests will try to rig the test in their favor. If getting
a college degree gets you three extra votes, politicians will mess around with what
counts as a degree in order to further empower their voters. Epistocracy will have
warts. But so does democracy. Politicians already gerrymander districts, lie to voters,
and abuse voter-ID laws. Democracies sometimes choose disastrous leaders. The
question isnt whether epistocracy would be ideal, but whether it would be better than
democracy.

Epistocracy might seem repulsive or dangerous. But before dismissing it out of hand,
consider that built-in epistocratic checks the disproportionate power of elites are
what stopped us from already having a President Trump. Political parties normally run
establishment candidates. However corrupt the parties might be, they are generally
better informed and more forward-looking than the typical voter. They keep populism
in check. What we see now, with the rise of Trump, is what happens when the party
system breaks down, and the worst of We the People get what we want.

Jason Brennan is an associate professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public


policy at Georgetown University. His new book, Against Democracy, will be
published by Princeton University Press in August.

This article is part of:


The Trump Issue

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 2016 issue.