Seems like everyone is talking about Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders. Sober commentators are wondering how such significant portions of the electorate can be opting for pure fantasy, and the general consensus is that “anger” is driving people to ignore reality in favor of candidates who channel disillusion and dissatisfaction with the status quo. In this analysis, a significant portion of the population is opting for wholly impractical ideas spouted by wholly inadequate candidates because people feel that politics-as-usual has failed them and that only a strong leader who “tells it like it is” can save us from Washington As Usual.

The problem with this analysis is that it’s superficial, akin to saying that passengers on the Titanic are annoyed about the water that’s getting into their shoes and thus looking for someone to provide a big fluffy towel.

A more penetrating analysis suggests that Trunp, Sanders, and (elsewhere in the world) people like Corbyn, LePen, Orban, and Hollande are merely symptoms of a much more fundamental problem: we have more or less reached the end of the road for our present system of self-governance.

Representative democracy came into existence because Enlightenment thinkers understood that hereditary rule was a very bad idea with very poor outcomes; equally awful was rule by the strongest. The concept of assigning limited power on a temporary basis was the breakthrough, but the question was: how to manage this in practice? After all, anything but the smallest group of people will simply be too large for direct democracy to work. So we invented the concept of electing individuals to represent our interests and this inevitably led to the development of political parties that attempt to aggregate interests into a semi-coherent bundle of policies. Consequently for the last couple of hundred years or so we’ve largely voted for parties and what we think they represent, rather than for individuals per se. Even voting for a President is really voting for the party that he or she represents. It’s been more than a century since US citizens last elected an independent candidate.

So this abstraction of democracy whereby representatives nominally develop policies in the interests of the voters is where we like to think we are today.

The problems with representative democracy are, however, legion. An insular cadre of professional politicians implies a lack of connection with and interest in the concerns of their nominal constituents; it leads to moral hazard whereby policies are selected based on their probability of boosting careers rather than on promoting national interests; and of course it also means that the behavior of professional politicians can be influenced by wealthy and powerful benefactors. Another problem is that a democracy of any sort depends on voters being intelligent enough to understand complex issues and being diligent enough to educate themselves on all matters of national importance. Nowhere in the world are these requirements fulfilled. Consequently, politicians quickly learn to apply themselves to capturing less-inquisitive voters and ignoring those of greater intelligence. This is because the less inquisitive are easily captured with simple ideas (no matter how erroneous) and, once captured, tend to stay captured. The more inquisitive voters are conversely much harder to capture because they require more cogent arguments and are often inclined to change their minds as new information becomes available. Thus less-inquisitive voters reward the effort required to capture them whereas the more inquisitive voters do not. Over time this leads to the dominance of foolish but easy-to-sell policies and the effective disenfranchisement of the more intelligent members of society. The bloc of“foolish” voters can be (and is) led by the nose and will regularly support policies that act against the interests of everyone except a powerful elite, simply because the “foolish” voter can’t grasp the difference between rhetoric and reality. Policies that favor a few at the expense of the many then exacerbate the various problems facing society and accelerate the overall decline.

The inevitable conclusion of this process is, of course, the collapse of the system after many years of increasingly acute dysfunction whereupon a “strong leader” steps into the breach to “save” the nation. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We saw several examples in the Twentieth Century and it appears that we’re about to see several more in the coming years. And it never ends well.

So if representative democracy is fundamentally flawed, what can we design to replace it so that we can hope to avoid another return to dictatorship and the horrors that implies?

Fortunately there is a way forward, though the theoretical design is relatively simple compared with the many challenges of implementing it in the face of resistance from every vested interest incumbent today. But the Enlightenment thinkers understood that the first step to making something better is to consider what must be done. The question of how it can be done then follows, but is dependent on answering the first question.

In my next post I’ll examine in more detail the incurable structural flaws of representative democracy and then proceed to discussing how a more adequate system of democratic self-governance can be achieved.

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