What is western democracy?
In western civilization, we have become inordinately fond of the idea of mass "democracy". Enthusiastic as we are, we often mistake it for a great basis for selecting our government and our public policies. But the most brilliant and innovative creators of government in history – the framers of the American Constitution in 1787 – by no means thought democracy a great principle. They were so skeptical of egalitarian democracy that they wrote a constitution specifically intended to prevent it. For their driving motive was not the achievement of democracy, it was the prevention of tyranny. That, along with competence and responsiveness in government, was what the U.S. Constitution and the central government it set up were intended to achieve. A limited measure of representative democracy simply turned out to be a useful part of that anti-tyrannical system.
The only "democratic" aspect of the original US government was the direct election of the lower house of the Congress by land-owning men of some substance, largely of the "gentry" class. The individual states would decide who could vote in their state, but this would not include dependents, employees, servants or slaves, women, laborers, muledrivers ... not even school teachers. The founders, who thought the worst kind of government would be to have decisions made by the unlettered "rabble", limited the decision-making, i.e., voting, to those who could be expected to understand the issues being decided. (Put that way, it doesn't sound exactly idiotic as a rule for decision-making in general...) None of the rest of the government – the president, the senate, or the courts – would be elected by the people, but by selected politicians.
Before we are too harsh on the 18th century founders for their lack of inclusiveness, let's keep in mind that in their time, when the most rapid form of communication on land was by horse, and at sea by sail, there was a vast chasm in education and understanding of matters of state between the gentry and everyone else; most of the latter couldn't read or write. Keep in mind also the revolutionary nature of this new self-governing republic; it was very much an experiment, as nothing of the sort existed in the known world.
The paradox of representative democracy
Today, we have nearly a quarter of a millennium of experience with what the founders designed and its subsequent evolution. They would not have guessed how our governing has evolved, though they saw the dangers in reducing policy decisions to the level of understanding of the majority of an ill-informed population. That was unthinkable in their time. We can inquire whether it's any better plan in our time.
So here's our problem: Our modern version of democratic governance is not designed to give us the most competent political leadership, the best government, or the best policies. And practice has followed theory: what we have is in fact neither the most competent leadership, nor the best government, nor the best policies. Shall we compare the first four US presidents with the four most recent? The highly respected giants of their time, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – the finest the nation could produce, versus the collection of self-absorbed climbers, amateurs, and buffoons Clinton, G.W.Bush, Obama, and Trump. The process of the masses choosing leaders and policy ensures that these reflect the views and limitations of the masses. In our modern western republics – and I include the seven European pretend-monarchies (Scandinavia , Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain), they're actually republics – this system that seemed foolish to our founders today seems normal and right to most citizens. Though they may grumble about the evident incompetence of their leadership, government, and policies, the mass of citizens innocently believe that the principles of mass democracy form the best basis for government.
Over the past two centuries, the most significant development in western democracies has been the expansion of the franchise. Suffrage expanded in the late 19th century to remove barriers based on race, religion, and economic status. In the early 20th century sex was removed as a limit on suffrage, and later in the 20th century maturity was also removed as a criterion, as the voting age was generally reduced (typically from 21 to 18 years of age) both in the US and Europe. In some locations there are movements to lower the voting age even further. (In the US the national constitution sets the voting age at 18, but nothing prevents a constituent state from setting a lower age, say 12. We can expect such moves in the future, as each state tries to increase its influence.) These expansions of the franchise were in no case motivated by the desire to improve governmental decisions and policies, but in all cases by the populistic idea that everyone's voice should count equally in these decisions and policies.
But not quite everyone, of course, as we have still left out the 0-17 age group. And why have we left them out? The reason is clearly that we consider these young citizens not capable of understanding the needs of the nation, or to choose the policies that will best fit those needs. So is that our standard? Should those who lack understanding not be voting? That sounds like the founders' principle. We have any number of examples of just that kind of practice: we cannot legally drive a car until we have learned and demonstrated our ability to operate the car safely on the roads; we cannot string electric wiring in a house without training and a license, similarly we cannot weld steel in a building's structure, give legal advice, practice medicine, pilot a plane, or do any number of activities without training and demonstrated competence. The reason for this caution is the same in all cases: it is highly important that these jobs be done right, usually because a hazard can easily ensue if they are done incompetently.
It seems reasonable to ask, then, what about the activity of voting for a nation's government and policies? Is steering the government as important as steering a car, laying wiring, or giving legal advice? I tend to think it is.
The consequences of an ignorant electorate
Recently we've seen several mass-democracy decisions that suggest that neither the people at large nor the politicians they have elected are adequate for the job they've been given. None is more illustrative than the case of the United Kingdom, where in the parliamentary election in May, 2015, David Cameron's Conservative Party achieved a pure majority in Parliament. A decisive factor was anti-European Union and anti-uncontrolled-migration sentiments in Britain. These issues are two sides of the same coin, since EU membership requires allowing free flow of "labor" among the member countries. As EU expanded (28 members currently) to include poorer eastern European countries, a vast labor force from the east – where unemployment has been high – has flowed into western European countries, including Britain. Mr. Cameron tapped into British frustration with EU rules and costs to carelessly promise the voters a popular referendum on continued EU membership based on being able to negotiate special terms with the EU to alleviate the migrant pressures and relieve the UK budget of some EU fees. The election ploy worked and the Conservatives won.
Mr. Cameron set out to negotiate with EU, with the "threat" of the promised referendum in hand. Unfortunately, the EU was unimpressed with his referendum, and Cameron got essentially nothing. The EU knew that giving concessions to Britain would mean giving them to many other EU countries, undermining EU's unity and authority. Mr. Cameron should have known, and perhaps did know, that the negotiations would lead nowhere. What he didn't grasp was the depth of dislike for the EU in Britain, so when the referendum was held in June, 2016, and the people of Britain chose exit from the EU, both he and his party – who had favored remaining in the EU – were shocked, but felt they had no choice but to carry out the wishes of the voters.
I dwell on this example because it's a prime case of an ignorant decision made by an ignorant electorate. The campaign leading to the national referendum was characterized by an abundance of simplistic electioneering and an absence of the information that was actually needed. There was exaggerated fear of migration, and overblown promises of savings, with no serious analysis that could be understood by the electorate at large, and in the end the people voted for a course which would have been understood to be harmful for the country if the voters were capable of understanding the known facts.
Such examples abound; in the US we have the case of California, which is fond of presenting complicated issues to the public for a vote, without hearings, testimony, or expertise. In that way the state has passed laws chock-full of surprise features, and bond issue after bond issue to the point where the state's credit rating has plummeted, further increasing the cost of their debt.
The "beauty" of an ignorant electorate is evident to those who wish to manipulate the voters, and such manipulation becomes the inevitable result of an ignorant electorate. It follows that an electorate that is not well informed is a ready victim of populist politicians, and that the effective campaign tactic when the one thing that matters is getting bulk votes from an ignorant electorate is demagoguery – the appeal to base instincts and charactization of political opponents as dangerous enemies.
We can ask, do we have, here in the USA, an ignorant electorate? Yes, we do. Poll after poll have demonstrated the lack of even a basic knowledge of issues among voters. This is reflected in our election campaigns, which are carried on by bumper stickers and slogans with appeal to party loyalty. In such elections the amount of high-visibility advertising usually determines the outcome; especially effective is "dirt" dug up against the opponent and sent out immediately before the election. In elections with an informed and thoughtful electorate, rational discussion of issues would characterize the campaign. Our campaigns in the US are as far from that description as it is possible to be.
So is this article an attempt at "voter suppression"? Yes, it is, and it is anti-demagogic. Just as we don't allow unqualified doctors, pilots, welders, or lawyers to practice those trades, unqualified voters ought not to be steering the ship of state. In short, mass democracy with universal suffrage is a bad idea. So, who would qualify to vote? I'm not going to suggest specific criteria, for the reason I've mentioned: I'm not well enough informed. I will, however, recommend returning a measure of maturity to the requirements, by restoring the 21-year age requirement for voting (I'd even support going to 23 years). I've been 18, I remember it well. That's no age to be deciding on matters of state.