Democracy is a difficult form of government to get right. It requires a delicate balancing act of education, non-discrimination, and non-repression. These components make it possible that representatives, policies, and legislation are selected that benefit as many people as possible without tyrannizing over minority groups and individual rights. This requires a nation’s education system to be robust so that individuals learn how to think critically about issues and for the media to provide adequate information on facts for the public to deliberate on.
This deliberation can become very messy, complex, and nuanced. It’s hard not to in any society that has cultural diversity and pluralistic values. Beliefs will often conflict and create situations in which at least one party will potentially lose. Even when that is true, the public should hope to elect representatives that understand this messiness and make decisions with the greatest benefit in mind.
The main issue seems to be that democracy requires deliberation among the electorate on how best to organize society. Societal organization can’t hope to land on the best system on the first try. It requires constant change and experimentation. Even if democracy did select the best possible organization for society on the first try, it would need constant updating and change due to fact that new people and needs will enter the system over time and change the balance of what is best.
In order to choose the best organization for this moment in time, the voting public needs to have access to information. If the public doesn’t have access to valid, nuanced information, they can’t deliberate from facts.
Deliberation in a democracy ought to be based on reason, argument, and evidence. If the public is voting on a candidate that is addressing a complex issue like immigration, they ought to be aware of exactly how immigration affects the country in both the short and long term. This requires understanding complex ideas in economics and politics and cannot be boiled down to a simple headline such as, “Immigrants Steal Jobs” or “Everyone Wins with Free Trade”.
News outlets are our primary source for the information we need in making choices. These news outlets can be either publicly or privately owned and both have negatives. Public ownership of news outlets has the potential to be abused by currently sitting politicians who can manipulate information to their advantage. Private ownership, as the majority of the media system is structured now, obligates companies to maximize profit if they have shareholders and generally compete with firms to remain open and be able to cover their costs.
This latter point often requires getting as many eyeballs on the news outlet’s channel or paper as possible. In order to do this, media sources act much like other companies in that they turn to catchy headlines and soundbites that drive ratings, in essence giving their customers what they want. Many people have written about the “banality of good”, but I like Matthieu Ricard’s short summary from Altruism best when he writes, “everyday good does not make much commotion and people rarely pay attention to it; it doesn’t make the headlines in the media like an arson, a horrible crime, or the sexual habits of a politician” (p. 94).
Complexity versus Simplicity
One way of interpreting the media’s insistent negative press is to view it as a product of “cause and effect” thinking. Most of modern society has been built on the scientific method in some capacity. We use it everyday, even if we aren’t always aware of it, to make our lives better. The roads we drive on, the buildings we inhabit, the food we eat, and just about everything else we can point to is a product of scientists’ and engineers’ thinking very hard about how to improve our lives by searching for cause and effect relationships and isolating variables.
However, this reliance on cause and effect thinking that arises from our societal love of the scientific method creates a problem when situations are complex. We intuitively look for a single cause and try to point to it as the solution of whatever problem we might be facing. This has the typical result of destroying nuance and multidimensionality in problem solving. This destruction of nuance and complexity when it is needed, such as in the political and economic arena of democracy, makes differentiation among candidates difficult without resorting to moving away from the center to more extreme positions.
Now we come to the real problem. Democracy requires information. That information is distributed by news outlets that must maintain ratings to make a profit. This forces the media to focus on simple and direct cause and effect thinking that is easily captured in soundbites and short phrases, or even single words. This simplification of what is needed for positive change by eliminating nuance and complexity promotes extreme positions taken by candidates for a very simple reason - the need to differentiate to win votes.
Think about it this way. If you know that whatever you say will be captured in a headline and that many people will not read the entire story or place it within a larger context, you cannot argue over details and minutia that separate you from another “center” candidate. You have to aim at a headline that will grab attention while avoiding complexity. This necessitates a move outward to further positions on the left or right or you will sound just like every other candidate when broken into center-positioned soundbites by the news.
We see this today on both sides of the political spectrum in America. A good example from the Democratic platform was Obama’s entire 2008 message of “Hope” and “Change”. You literally can’t get anymore simple than single word platforms, but in reality these two words are meaningless outside of complex contexts and it would be genuinely idiotic to endorse him and his party on the basis of these two words.
We ought to immediately ask ourselves, “What kind of change? What specific things do you plan to change, and how?” This obviously involves much more digging into details and specifics with possibly conflicting solutions for multiple problems. But until we know these things, we can’t assume any change is good change. Plenty of change can be bad.
Which takes us to his second message of “Hope”, which is essentially the opposite of what we should be looking for in a candidate. The electorate should not be closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, and hoping for a better tomorrow. They should be digging into the messiness that is political economy with eyes wide open and experimenting with solutions continuously to see what does and does not work.
This requires no hope at all. Just a willingness to do the work. And a willingness to suffer through some failures of experimentation to arrive at a better future.
Getting to the Point
The point is positive improvement for the greatest number. Democracy generally accomplishes this better than other systems we have experimented with as humans trying to organize society, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect.
The system itself pushes potential representatives to extreme positions in their attempt to differentiate and win elections. Occasionally, an extreme position may be just what is called for, especially on issues that entail more socially inclusive policies around human and civil rights for disenfranchised, discriminated against, or oppressed members of a society.
But more often than not, the changes necessary to make daily life better for all require a holistic image of the entire system and how it will be impacted by shifts of its different components. This type of “routine” change doesn’t require flashy language and partisan extremism. It only requires engaged, caring, and knowledgeable representatives who have everyone’s best interests at heart. In cases like these, sometimes (most often) the best candidate will be the boring one who has done the work, not the exciting one who yells the loudest.