(With apologies – of debatable sincerity – to Oliver Kamm. If you’ve not read his piece, what follows will be pretty meaningless to you.)
Political voting has come of age. At least, that is the idea behind the UK’s forthcoming elections to local councils and devolved administrations. The supporters of these elections argue that voters provide more acute and independent political decisions than traditional autocracy, owing to the absence of a dictator detached from the concerns of ordinary people’s lives.
The BBC and other news outlets have screened a number of reports featuring these voters, many of whom deserve continual correction on points of fact. They thereby illustrate voting’s central characteristic danger. It is a democratic medium, allowing anyone to participate in political decision-making without an intermediary, at little or no cost. But it is a direct and not deliberative form of appointing national leaders. You need no competence to join in.
To some, that is a virtue. Democrats invoke the notion of the wisdom of crowds: rulers emerge in a collaborative process rather than seizing power themselves. But voters are not the required type of crowd. They are, by definition, a self-selecting group of the politically motivated who have time on their hands.
Elections are providers not of laws but of legislators. This would be a good thing if voting extended the range of available talent in the public sphere. But it does not; paradoxically, it narrows it. This happens because elections typically do not add to the available stock of expertise and opinion: they are purely parasitic on the names and faces of the traditional elite. If, say, Tony Blair or David Cameron did not exist, a significant part of the electorate (a grimly pretentious neologism) would have no purpose and nothing to react to.
The great innovation of public election campaigns is that voters may select minutely the party literature and broadcasts they read and watch. The corollary is that they may filter out views they find uncongenial. This is a problem for a healthy democracy, which depends on a forum for competing views.
In its paucity of knowledge and predictability of prejudices, the electorate provides a parody of democratic deliberation. But it gets worse. Politics, wrote the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, is a conversation, not an argument. The conversation candidates have with their target voters is more like an echo chamber, in which conclusions are pre-specified and targets selected. The outcome is horrifying. The intention of drawing voters into the conversation by means of a facility for expressing their opinion results in an immense volume of abusive material directed at public figures.
Electoral democracy, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted – overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.
(Less sarcastic responses to Kamm can be found here and here, and another slightly sarcastic one here.)