Why Democracy Needs Signaling

Philip Dhingra
Feb 23, 2019 · 2 min read

A lot of hay has been made about Millennials and virtue signaling. The classic example is the belief that switching your Facebook profile photo to a single color will change the world. But what are the positive aspects of signaling? Just as bees can’t produce hives without pheromones, humans wouldn’t have a functional democracy without signaling.

On the surface of it, it’s a miracle that democracy even works. Assume for a minute we didn’t already have democracy, would you invent a form of government based on it? Your first concern would be chaos and noise. The Enlightenment thinkers talked about these problems, but ultimately they took a leap of faith. They assumed that some version of the “wisdom of crowds” would happen, and fortunately for the world, it did.

The average voter is clueless, and so the expected result should be completely uninformed policies. Instead, the wisdom of the democratic crowd comes from signaling. We receive signals from trusted authorities as to what is and isn’t good. The cues we receive are 5% informational, 95% viral. We’re either told that illegal immigration is the beginning of the downfall of America. Or we’re told that it is our moral duty as Americans to accept refugees. Beneath those positions, there is some smart thinking, but most of what we hear is designed for catchiness. The tug-of-war between ideas leads to an approximation as to what’s best for everybody. Is it perfect? No. But the fact that it even works is thanks to the magic of signaling.

So, before we diss social conventions such as political correctness, Overton Windows, and virtue signaling, we should examine the ways in which without those things, civilization would fall apart.


Complete essays from Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric

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