June 2009 STATEMENT TO ACCOMPANY RELEASE
OF “RED GENES BLUE GENES: EXPOSING POLITICAL IRRATIONALITY”
Lessons from Behavioral Politics:
Why It’s Time to Try Democracy
Guillermo C. Jimenez[*]
I. The Emerging Science of Political Irrationality
A survey of recent research from over a dozen different academic disciplines now allows us to assert, with a good deal of confidence, that humans are systematically irrational in their political thinking. Although it is widely-accepted that humans are frequently irrational in the management of their economic and emotional affairs, it now appears that humans are also especially and acutely subject to irrationality in the political sphere.
My book “Red Genes, Blue Genes: Exposing Political Irrationality,” (“RGBG”) provides the first book-length, cross-disciplinary analysis of human political irrationality. I not only introduce and review the evidence for political irrationality, I also review suggestions for antidotes and correctives, new ways of working toward rational democracy in the future.
Coping with political irrationality is arguably the world’s most important challenge. All attempts to manage humanity’s other problems (war, disease, environmental degradation, poverty, etc.) will be hampered by ineffective government. Government failure is an inevitable by-product of political irrationality.
Perhaps the biggest cost of our irrational group-bias is that it sustains an inefficient two-party duopoly. The elites of both parties are able to perennially escape scrutiny by provoking hostility against the other party. Democrats exploit hostility toward Republicans in order to monopolize liberals, while Republicans exploit hatred of liberals to monopolize conservatives. Americans become like the citizens of two parallel, Soviet states, with most voters turning out at every election to vote for the same party as in the previous election. Consequently, our Congressional incumbents are re-elected at the Soviet-style rate of 95%.
However, though we continue to vote our politicians into office, we have recently been reminded that we cannot trust political elites to look out for the public interest. This was demonstrated in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which occurred when politicians from both parties were bribed by Wall Street to look the other way. Regrettably, most citizens are so blinded by partisan bias that they habitually blame all social ills on the other political party, limiting their political hopes to fantasies of permanent electoral victory. There is a better way.
An understanding of political irrationality provides us with a fresh perspective on the illogic of our current political landscape. Consider the following brief examples, each of which is explored further below (or at length in RGBG):
A. President Barack Obama’s post-partisan objectives – President Obama is right to try to mitigate partisanship, but in the medium-term any hopes of post-partisanship are naïve. Complete non-partisanship is not only biologically and culturally impossible, it would not even be desirable. In the coming years, intense partisanship will increase not only in the U.S. but worldwide, due to the lingering after-effects of the global economic recession. In many countries around the world, non-partisanship is hopelessly unrealistic because party affiliation correlates with ethnicity, which makes partisan bias even stronger and more intransigent. Violent partisan conflict is the Achilles heel of modern republics and one reason we are likely to see a forced evolution toward different, more rational forms of democracy in the coming decades.
B. The responsibility of politicians for the economic crisis – Our current crisis occurred because we keep hiring biased regulators (in the form of politicians) who are allowed to accept campaign contributions from the very people they supposedly regulate. This is the essential structural flaw which plagues republics. It is irrational for any citizen to trust a self-interested regulator or representative, yet our entire so-called “representative democracy” is built on this illogic. You don’t hire the Cookie Monster to guard the cookie jar, yet that’s what we do, and then we’re surprised to find it empty later. It is now time to institute a system of citizen auditors and citizen juries to review our financial regulations, and eventually, all of our laws and administrative actions.
C. Political scandals – The Blagojevich affair, echoed by the recent parliamentary crisis in the UK over corrupt reimbursement of M.P.’s personal living expenses, are evidence of the same principle outlined above – politicians can never be trusted. This is not because they are bad people, but because they are ordinary people. Modern cognitive psychology has established that ordinary people can be unbelievably self-serving. We shouldn’t expect politicians to be any better than we would be in their places, showered with perks and privilege, and shielded from view. Cognitive psychology tells us that we would probably stuff our pockets just the way they do. The key is to avoid putting people – any people -- in that position of extreme temptation.
D. Permanent hubris – Each change of presidential administration is accompanied with irrational over-confidence that victory will be permanent. Just four years ago, journalists analyzed the evanescence of the Democratic Party and Karl Rove seriously plotted his permanent Republican majority. Today, those same journalists have put the Republican Party on the endangered watch list. The truth, which the press conceals from the public, is that presidential elections are determined by the economy, and not by the performance of presidents, nor by the skill of campaign consultants. Therefore, power will always rotate eventually between the parties, because the economy fluctuates unpredictably. Today, the global economy is beyond American control. Therefore, no future American president can ever be fully the master of his or her own fate. A truly great president could be toppled by an unforeseeable or uncontrollable financial situation, while even the most mediocre president could be lifted to a second term by a buoyant economy. Some would argue we have seen that happen already, and recently. In any event, it is likely that we will see it again in the future.
E. Afghanistan Amnesia – Americans have essentially stopped noticing that their country is in the midst of a major war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. Democrats are so blinded by self-serving bias that they have decided not to notice that their new President’s Iraq strategy is remarkably similar to Bush and McCain’s. Obama is “leaving” Iraq in more or less the same fashion that McCain promised to “stay the course.” Moreover, Obama has not sufficiently explained to the country why we are in Afghanistan and why we are conducting so many lethal cross-border strikes in Pakistan. The explanations given so far are reminiscent of Democratic administration explanations in 1965-1967 when the U.S. ramped up operations in Vietnam. That is not a reassuring analogy.
Cognitive psychology and history are two disciplines that caution us never to trust leaders when they lead us into war. The theory of political irrationality warns us further that we should always be skeptical of war. However, when the “anti-war party” is in power and decides to start a war, who is left to protest?
F. Prisoners of irrationality – Politicians not only exploit an irrational public, they are constrained by that same public to do things they know are wrong. For example, consider President Obama’s recent comments on marijuana legalization, made during a highly-touted Internet “town hall” meeting. Obama smirked at the notion that marijuana could be legalized, and even made a disparaging remark about the people posing the question, though thousands of passionately-loyal Obama voters had asked precisely that question. Given Obama’s liberal voting record in the Senate, I simply do not believe that he is against marijuana legalization. Obama is very well-informed on the catastrophic failure of the criminalization of marijuana; he knows what’s up. It has been scientifically-established beyond any doubt that the toxicity of marijuana, while significant, is much less than that of alcohol, tobacco or such popular legal pharmaceuticals as Xanax or Adderall. Our marijuana laws today are therefore completely irrational and highly-costly to society, and Obama knows that better than anyone else. However, he clearly felt that the political risks of making such a statement were excessive, given that he had so many other problems on his plate. As a result, he did what politicians always do in this circumstance: he lied. He said he thought marijuana legalization was stupid when deep inside he certainly doesn’t think it is stupid at all. Most partisan voters have now become so used to this kind of facile lying from their public officials that they are not even upset by it any more: “He just said that because he needs Ohio in 2012. It’s not his fault.” But if we cannot even trust our politicians to tell us what they truly believe, why should we listen to them at all? How can we be sure when they are sincere and when they are just playing to the cameras?
II. Elements of political irrationality? How is it manifested?
Obviously, there is a good deal of irrationality in the political sphere, but is there any evidence that political thinking on the whole is especially subject to irrationality? We use the term “irrationality” pretty loosely when we talk about politics, and usually it just designates some point of view that we disagree with or that history has proven unsound. More specifically, though, my book argues that our characteristic mode of cognition in political matters is irrational. I define “political irrationality” as the tendency to arrive at biased political judgments while self-deceptively attributing such judgments to logic or reason.
Most of our so-called political “opinions,” I argue, are really just emotional reflexes. Political reflexes are partially hard-wired into us, and partially reinforced by cultural programming. The end result is that for most people politics does not involve the conscious making of choices or the rational development of opinions. Rather, most people are drafted into a political tribe at a very early age and remain loyal members for the rest of their lives. Most people choose the party favored by their parents, while the other people, the “rebels,” choose the party favored by their friends in adolescence and young adulthood. After that, the thinking is done. This “choice” of political party is thus most often determined by some combination of genetic inheritance and social acculturation. Most people who become interested in politics spend their lives endlessly rationalizing about why their early political “choice” was not only correct for them, but would also be correct for everyone else as well.
Many writers have pointed out that political partisans actually save a lot of time and energy through their partisanship. By simply adopting whatever political beliefs are most popular with their peer group at any particular moment, they economize on the effort of having to analyze everything. Since such behavior saves time and energy and promotes social harmony (goes the argument), it is, in a sense, rational. The reason I disagree and continue to refer to such behavior as “irrational” is that it involves the self-deceptive assertion that those political opinions were arrived at as the result of logical analysis and reflection, which is rarely the case. I am not arguing that political irrationality makes people unhappy, because the contrary seems to be more likely. However, I do not think that political opinions are commonly arrived at through processes of careful and balanced analysis. In consequence we suffer from a huge rationality deficit in politics.
Political irrationality is exhibited most commonly as follows:
· Partisan bias: In any political debate or dispute, we assume that our political “side” is the “correct” one;
· Political gullibility: People tend to adopt the political beliefs of their peer group, regardless of the existence or strength of the supporting evidence;
· Over-confidence: We are very sure we are right (again, regardless of the evidence);
· Hostility: We don’t like our political adversaries and disdain them as morally or intellectually inferior;
· Self-deception: We fool ourselves by denying and ignoring the existence of the above tendencies within ourselves (though we are able to detect them in others).
· Social mythology: The above tendencies combine with patriotism to generate a number of national political myths (e.g., patriotic citizens tend to believe that their nation’s system of government is superior to all others).
III. Political Irrationality in the News: Hatred, Panic, Ignorance and War
To demonstrate the real dangers of political irrationality, let us explore a few of its consequences in further detail:
1. Bitter partisan polarization – Although President Barack Obama entered office partially on the promise of creating a “post-partisan” political environment, modern research suggests that achieving a post-partisan environment would be culturally and biologically impossible. Human beings naturally and innately fall along a left-to-right political spectrum and there is nothing President Obama or anyone else can do about that. Moreover, our biological programming is reinforced by lifetimes of cultural indoctrination. Cultural indoctrination alone is sufficient to create an irrational and long-lasting allegiance to one party or the other. Since social brainwashing is most commonly superimposed on underlying genetic predispositions, the end result is a highly-biased, polarized, hostile, closed-minded and stubborn electorate. Since these phenomena are found in all countries, political irrationality is not just an American issue, it is a global problem.
As if that weren’t enough, economic crises make things worse. Historical research of Congressional voting records by Nolan McCarty has established that partisan polarization increases markedly in times of economic stress. Based on McCarty’s research, I predict that our currently-intense level of partisan polarization will not only persist into the near future, but will increase over the next three years, due to lingering repercussions from the recession.
Despite the above, I still strongly support President Obama’s post-partisan initiatives. Partisanship and political irrationality are strongly-linked. Obama is absolutely right to point out that partisanship is frequently unproductive and hostile. We should do everything in our power to minimize its negative consequences. However, it is regrettable that Obama’s occasionally-utopian campaign rhetoric fostered naïve expectations in some quarters that partisan irrationality could be eradicated. That would be hoping for too much, and is clearly unrealistic. Partisan irrationality can and should be mitigated, but in the long run we must accept that partisanship is too deeply-rooted, culturally and biologically, ever to be “overcome.” In fact, a partisan political spectrum is a biological and cultural inevitability, so we must learn to accept it, and deal with it.
2. Massive voter ignorance and error – Despite the recent intensity of political coverage by the mass media, repeated surveys continue to confirm the age-old finding that voters are almost unbelievably ignorant of political issues. Moreover, voters frequently get things exactly backwards. They attribute policies to the wrong political parties and wrong candidates. To cap it off, citizens are generally quite confident in the accuracy of their mistaken opinions.
Thus, for example, when President Obama tried to explain his administration’s reaction to the extremely complex financial crisis of 2008-2009, he was forced to contend with an electorate which contained a significant percentage (approx. 10-12%) of voters who still believed he was a Muslim (the percentage rose as high as 23% in Texas). Remarkably, this mistaken perception was equally common among Democrats and Republicans. How do you begin to explain sub-prime securitization when one out of four Texans is still not able to comprehend that you are not a Muslim?
In this relatively fact-free atmosphere, a number of popular fantasies have taken root and spread like weeds of irrationality. One of the most widespread of these fantasies, which I refer to as the “Fantasy of Permanent Victory,” has been exhibited recently in the Democratic triumphalism after President Obama’s 2008 electoral victory. Within a week of the President’s inauguration, the liberal press began to report on the imminent demise of the Republican Party. This was just one more case of over-optimism to the point of irrationality, one of the most common and characteristic manifestations of political irrationality.
Since 1856, the birth-date of the modern Republican Party, there have only been three periods in which one of the major parties won more than three presidential elections in a row, and all of those periods coincided with times of war or depression. The rest of the time, presidential power has swung like a pendulum, moving regularly back and forth between the two parties. History suggests not only that the Republicans are in no danger of going extinct, but that they will probably recapture presidential power within 8 to 12 years, if not sooner.
3. Over-confidence in wars and military conflicts – After campaigning largely as an anti-war candidate, President Barack Obama almost immediately embarked upon a huge escalation of military operations in Afghanistan. It was widely-reported that Americans supported this expansion, but since surveys repeatedly show that Americans know extremely little about American politics, it is hard to believe that they have suddenly become great experts on Afghanistan.
Daniel Kahneman and Dominic Johnson have argued persuasively that political leaders are strongly subject to over-confidence and other self-serving biases in times of war. Philip Tetlock has further established that so-called “political experts” are extremely bad at predicting the likely outcomes of political scenarios. The end result, repeated throughout history, is that we start too many wars, and the wars tend to turn out surprisingly badly for everyone concerned. Somehow, we never learn.
Evolutionary psychology suggests that human beings are innately and irrationally predisposed to aggression and ethnocentricity. Regrettably, our innate bellicosity has become dangerous in an age of high-technology, mass warfare. Politicians may succumb to innate bias, or to trivially-political incentives, even when the risks involved include huge wars and conflicts that have long-lasting social costs. A single politician’s trivially-personal political incentives (Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are good examples) can instigate and perpetuate conflicts with repercussions for the entire world.
It may happen that the military expansion currently underway in Afghanistan will prove in the long run to be extremely successful for the U.S. However, neither recent history nor modern cognitive psychology gives us much reason for hoping so. Fortunately for our politicians, American voters do not understand what the objectives are in Afghanistan; as a result, they can never be sure that we have failed.
4. Endemic political corruption – Voter ignorance and apathy leads to exploitation of voters by politicians. Politicians have strong incentives to make self-serving political decisions even if this leads to harming or neglecting the public interest, provided they can do so while evading detection.
Thus, our political history provides an unending litany of scandal. I therefore argue that in America today the Rod Blagojevich affair is the political rule rather than the exception. Had Governor Blagojevich merely hinted at what he wanted for his political favors, as most other politicians do every day of their careers, he would have committed no illegality and might still be on his way to achieving one of his own colorful fantasies (Ambassador to Antarctica, perhaps?).
5. Corrupt marketplaces, financial scandals and the exploitation of consumers – Cognitive psychology teaches us that people are strongly subject to self-serving bias – we believe whatever we need to believe. This creates a structural problem in modern republics, since politicians have a strong incentive to betray their constituents. Since all marketplaces must be regulated, and since our political regulators have self-interested reasons to pursue policies that may prove irrational for the public on the whole, we end up with sub-optimal laws and regulations. Successful lobbyists are too-often free to defraud the public and abuse their own employees. They are assisted in doing so by politicians they have effectively purchased.
This principle was observed at play in the financial crisis of 2008-2009. For several Presidential administrations, Secretary of the Treasury had become a position routinely filled by former Wall Street CEO’s like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson. This is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. We shouldn’t be surprised, afterwards, when feathers fly.
IV. The case for political irrationality
My research included reviewing academic and scholarly articles and books from over a dozen different academic and scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines. In particular, I examined recent publications from the fields of cognitive psychology, social psychology, behavioral genetics, neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, primatology, cognitive linguistics, rational choice political science, bio-politics, cultural anthropology, sociology, political philosophy and political history. RGBG argues that findings and insights from all these fields tend to confirm the following thesis: human beings are especially susceptible to irrationality in the political realm.
I define political irrationality as follows: "The tendency to arrive at biased political judgments emotionally and instinctively while attributing such judgments to logic and evidence." Political opinions come from the heart, so to speak, but the head gets the credit. Political irrationality generally involves emotional partisanship or patriotism which is self-deceptively defended as rational. People are enormous rationalizers when it comes to political talk, but modern psychology now suggests we are usually all just bullshitting (“bullshitting” is perhaps not the preferred technical term, but it is probably the most expressive and accurate; academics might speak of “motivated reasoning,” but then, academics are notorious bullshitters). When it comes to politics, most people are bullshitting, most of the time.
The scientific and academic evidence for the existence of political irrationality comes from the following fields, amongst others:
1. Cognitive psychology -- The "heuristics and biases" school developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has established that humans are highly susceptible to biased perceptions under certain conditions. "Red Genes, Blue Genes" demonstrates that the political arena is structured so as to inevitably encourage bias, and therefore erroneous perceptions.
2. Social psychology – Research on implicit bias by Anthony Greenwald and Mazarin Banaji has demonstrated that humans are highly-predisposed to many forms of partisanship and bias and that we tend to hold such biases sub-consciously. We take sides at the drop of a hat, then we fight over the hat.
3. Behavioral genetics -- Researchers such as John Hibbing, John Alford, Carolyn Funk, James Fowler, Christopher Dawes and others have used statistical analysis of political-survey responses from databases of twins to establish that there is a strong genetic component to our political ideology. In other words, we are each born with a slight conservative or liberal orientation. When this biological programming is reinforced by cultural indoctrination, the result is adults who are irrationally closed-minded (i.e., most people). Fowler has further established that the predisposition to vote is genetically-linked.
4. Neuroscience -- Researchers such as Drew Westen have corroborated the existence of a powerful "confirmation bias" in politics through fMRI (brain scan) studies which demonstrated that partisans are almost impervious to ideas presented by opposing political figures. John Hibbing has also demonstrated that innate fear and stress-based reflexes are strongly linked to political attitudes – for example, people who have innately-sensitive startle mechanisms (eyes blink faster, etc.) are more likely to espouse conservative politics.
5. Evolutionary psychology -- Researchers such as David Buss have established cross-cultural evidence that differences in male and female behavior can be accurately predicted through application of evolutionary theory. Researchers such as Paul Rubin have made the case that evolutionary theory is consistent with the development of the most prevalent human political behaviors and systems, even those that are arguably highly-irrational.
6. Primatology -- Observation of "political" hierarchies amongst non-human primates tends to corroborate an evolutionary psychology perspective of human political behavior. As primatologist Frans De Waal has observed, human political behavior is extremely similar to chimpanzee political behavior, except that the chimps are not as hypocritical.
7. Behavioral Economics -- Behavioral economists like Richard Thaler have argued that innate human tendencies toward sub-optimal economic and social decisions can be corrected by a "nudge" of libertarian paternalism. This viewpoint accepts political irrationality as a given.
8. Rational choice political science and economics -- The rational choice and public choice schools of thought, which have applied economic concepts to political and social analysis, have been the scene of a vigorous debate on the rationality of the average voter or citizen. The corroborating evidence from the other disciplines listed above suggests that the irrationalists have carried the argument. While it is true, as writers like Richard Posner repeatedly point out, that "irrationally" uninformed or emotional decisions can be defended as rational from some other perspective (Posner defends lazy thinking as rational because it avoids the unpleasant effort of rational thought), our core political problem is not an excess of rationality, but a deficit. As economist Bryan Caplan expresses it, we have too much "rational irrationality" (just because it makes sense, from one perspective, to be extremely lazy about learning about politics, does not suggest that our “rationally lazy” opinions ought to be accepted or taken seriously).
9. The "Voter's Paradox" -- A multi-disciplinary examination of the "Voter's Paradox" suggests that the vast majority of citizens in all countries hold irrational conceptions about voting which are little short of fantasy (e.g., most people think their individual vote has a chance of tipping the election, whereas in reality the odds are negligible). One of the unfortunate consequences of this fantasy is that voters irrationally fail to support alternative parties like the Libertarians and the Greens even when their own ideology is closely congruent with those parties, out of the mistaken impression that they would be “wasting” their vote. When voters understand that all individual votes, in a sense, are “wasted” in the sense they have no chance of determining the outcome, they will be more willing to express themselves symbolically by voting for alternative parties.
10. Cultural anthropology -- Cross-cultural studies of cultural "dimensions," such as the massive multinational surveys conducted by social psychologist Geert Hofstede, reveal that societies around the world stratify along a left-right continuum in precisely the same way that American states fall along a red-state to blue-state spectrum. Experience from cross-cultural psychology suggests that political partisan bias is virtually identical to cultural ethnocentricity, the most universally-observed of all human behaviors. Studies of cross-cultural conflict reveal an inherent penchant for mutual irrationality. Cultural conflict, which has now been well-described and analyzed, provides us with a blueprint for analysis of red vs. blue political conflict.
11. Revisionist political history -- One hypothesis suggested by the widespread prevalence of self-serving bias, as established by Kahneman-Tversky, is that societies on the whole will be predisposed to adopt erroneous and/or irrational beliefs. The existence of a tendency toward mass or national delusions had already been well-recounted by 1855 in Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. More recently, political scientist Dupuis-Deri conducted a historical review of the American popular view of the word “democracy.” He found that, surprisingly, democracy was generally reviled in America prior to 1828. The current custom of referring to America as a "democracy" is really the result of a political campaign maneuver of the late 1820's that worked better than anyone expected. However, although America has called itself a democracy for some time, it really should have stuck to the original terminology – the United States is a republic. Republics can never be truly democratic; the notion of a democratic republic is one of America’s core fantasies. In fact, America is not as democratic as Americans perceive it to be, and this erroneous perception is primarily the result of self-serving bias. We believe that we are a democracy because it makes us feel good about ourselves and because it makes life much easier for our self-serving politicians.
12. Democratic theory and political philosophy – Modern democratic theory has provided us with an antidote for political irrationality, by showing us what is missing from our current, irrational system: citizen deliberation. Deliberative and direct democracy theorists such as Juergen Habermas, Benjamin Barber, Robert Gastil, John Matsusaka, Kevin O’Leary and James Fishkin have described what is missing from our current government (the possibility for ordinary citizens to become informed, to deliberate with each other, and determine their own laws and policies) and how to achieve it (via a more participatory democracy which incorporates citizen input via citizen panels or juries and citizen auditors).
V. What Can Be Done? “Let's Try Democracy”: A New Political Party
A growing awareness of political irrationality has created a large, disaffected political class in our country. While most voters still routinely succumb to red vs. blue indoctrination, there is a sneaking suspicion that both political parties are fundamentally corrupt, and that there needs to be a better way. Increasingly large percentages of Americans report readiness to support a new third party. The country is open to democratic innovation.
James Fishkin has developed a democratic mechanism that is a likely harbinger of the rational improvements we will someday make to our government, hopefully sooner rather than later. Fishkin’s most celebrated innovation, the “Deliberative Poll,” is a way of exposing a small group of citizens to a crash-course in policy and deliberative democracy. Participants are polled on the way in, and then again on the way out, after having learned about a political topic and having discussed it with their fellow citizens. When one compares the “before” poll with the “after” poll, one sees what might be called the “arrow of reason” begin to emerge from the background. In general, the process works: the community moves toward the correct decision. Fishkin has also proposed that presidential elections be preceded by national holidays, “deliberation days,” in which groups of citizens around the nation would participate in deliberative meetings and events.
The long-standing American tradition of “direct democracy” – as found in the initiative and referendum mechanisms -- has many persuasive proponents, notably John Matsusaka. I argue not only that direct democracy should be gradually expanded, but that we should rescue it from its lexicographical wasteland by restoring its true name: democracy. Only direct democracy is true democracy, as the Founding Fathers clearly understood and explained at great length. However, recent research nonetheless should caution us that direct democracy should be expanded incrementally, so as to shield it from the human penchant for political irrationality. Voters who participate in initiatives and referenda are not required to deliberate, as are participants in one of Fishkin’s Deliberative Polls, and they are therefore subject to irrational partisan appeals. We need more democracy, but we need to structure it in such a way as to enhance political good sense and reason.
I propose a party-based solution to the predicament of political irrationality. We need a third party that is ideologically-neutral, a pragmatic party that looks for solutions and is open to suggestions from all sides. The solution is to create a structure in which the constituents decide the policy. As soon as we purport to elect candidates on the basis of the candidates’ proposed platforms, we locate their platform on the left-to-right spectrum and we become subject to partisan irrationality.
I propose that this new political party be devoted to the mutual ideals of rationality and democracy, and that is why I have dubbed it the “Let’s Try Democracy Party” (“LTD Party”). The proposed new party will be the first political party to be based entirely on the promise to submit all legislative votes to a panel of constituents. The LTD legislator agrees in effect to be remote-controlled by the constituency. The party’s name is meant to express a frank recognition that the system we have in place today is NOT a democracy, but that real democracy would be a very good thing to try.
Let us consider the hypothetical case of first LTD candidate elected to the U.S. Congress. After being elected, the LTD legislator immediately creates a citizen panel of 100 citizens, each of whom will be invited to serve a term of one year. When the time arises for a vote on a particular issue, the citizen panel will deliberate and decide (most of their deliberations will be accomplished on-line, through a secure web-site), and the LTD legislator will follow the orders of the panel regardless of his or her own preferences. The people will be in charge.
For years, surveys have shown that Americans are unhappy with harshly-negative, polarizing political campaigns, and are therefore fed up with the two main political parties. However, there is no place for these disgusted moderate voters to go. If they retreat into apathy, they are harassed and chided by self-righteous college kids. If they choose one of the two main parties, they perpetuate the polarizing culture war. If they choose an alternative party, such as the Greens or Libertarians, they are roundly derided for “wasting their vote.” The LTD Party finally provides a home for these disgruntled rationalists.
Unlike other alternative political parties, the LTD Party will not compete on the ideological spectrum. There is only one issue on its platform: direct democracy, especially through through citizen panels. This is neither a left-wing nor a right-wing point of view. Citizen panels can produce conservative recommendations as well as liberal ones. Moreover, surveys show that conservatives support greater democracy as much as liberals. The LTD Party will provide a refuge for those citizens who don’t want to be polarized. In fact, for such people, the LTD is the only rational option. All other parties place you somewhere on the ideological spectrum, open to red vs. blue sniping.
In an LTD Party campaign the main strategy would be to sell the virtues of the citizen panel concept, not the virtues of the candidate or of a particular platform. The candidate’s personal beliefs and preferences would be quite unimportant, since they would not necessarily be carried out. If one wanted to know what the candidate would do in office, one would have to consult the citizens — they would be the ones doing the deciding.. Instead of phony campaign events, the LTD Party campaign could be organized around a series of Deliberative Polls
Let us imagine that ten percent of legislative seats around the country were held by the Trust Party. What impact could we expect on society? First of all, thousands of ordinary citizens would be drafted every year into an intensive civics-training program. After service on a legislative panel, citizens would return to their communities with deep, practical knowledge of how our government works, and of the key challenges facing our society. As opposed to regular citizen panelists, who deliberate on a single issue, members of and LTD Party panel would become true policy experts after their year of service. During their deliberations, the citizen panelists could be expected to discuss issues with family and co-workers, bringing knowledge of legislative issues to a broader public.
A somewhat similar democratic innovation which I support comes from political scientist Kevin O'Leary. O’Leary proposes an interesting democratic innovation he calls the Virtual National Assembly (VNA). Under his system, each of America's 435 Congressional districts would draft 100 ordinary citizens into a group that would function much like a citizen panel or deliberative poll. The citizens would be provided with information and a digital forum in which to air and express their views. They would then vote on the same legislation that was proposed to Congress.
Who would listen to their votes? At first, the deliberations and votes of the VNA would carry no formal weight, and politicians would certainly be free to ignore them. That's why I refer to the VNA as "Field of Dreams Democracy": as in the baseball film, we first build the ballpark, on faith to some extent, then hope that players will come. I believe O'Leary is right that the politicians would come to play. They would be forced to. Opinions emanating from 43,000 well-informed ordinary citizens would have thunderous clout. The VNA would become an extremely powerful organ of public opinion. Eventually, the VNA could be formally entrusted with important decision-making powers, which would represent an epochal leap forward in American democracy.
VI. Help from All Quarters: Open Letter to the Rich and Famous
When fighting political irrationality, one is forced to fight fire with fire. We must somehow make use of human irrationality, since it is impossible to overcome or eliminate. If the traditional political parties use celebrities to peddle their candidates, then let political reformers fight back by using celebrities to peddle true democracy. If the politicians sell out to wealthy lobbyists and corporate interests, then let us “sell out” to crusading billionaires who are vain enough to want to battle plutocracy (no disrespect, Mr. Soros).
One of the enduring paradoxes of social progress is that the masses have often relied heavily on solitary individuals to win their battles for them. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, each won enduring gains for millions through their individual efforts. Can we hope for a Mandela of global direct democracy, a saintly, visionary, venerable figure to lead us forward? Who can bring us to a brave new democratic world with features like the VNA and citizen panel-based parties like the LTD Party?
I don't think we require a figure of Mandela's stature. Any big celebrity would do. Celebrity will get people to the polls, and a big enough celebrity -- even a pop celebrity -- could get people to support a new party or democratic process. Oprah could easily do it, becoming the Queen of Democracy, but considering her exalted current position, that might be a step down. Stephen Colbert would be perfect, at least in his own mind. Fake journalists would probably make good fake politicians, considering that real politicians do such a bad job. While celebrity alone could to the trick, money would work as well. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could create democracy with pocket change.
There is a great, un-used social power waiting to be tapped here: the power and vanity of rich and famous people. We live in an era when celebrities have acquired vast influence, and when the wealthy have amassed enormous fortunes. Unlike politicians, celebrities and wealthy individuals do not have a vested interest in the political status quo. Many artists and entrepreneurs are natural rebels and have already found success by upsetting established regimes. Let us therefore make them this offer, which we hope will be tempting: give us your help in launching a new political movement, and we will make you even more famous -- and what's more, we'll make you honored and respected -- as one of the founders of true democracy.
For the rest of us -- ordinary citizens who want to do their little bit in helping push and prod our irrational society toward a more peaceful, productive and rational democracy -- I recommend learning the basics of modern political science, especially as set forth in my book, “Red Genes, Blue Genes: Exposing Political Irrationality.” You can’t battle the world’s political irrationality until you face up to your own.
Next, for those who are interested in supporting the expansion of true democracy, I suggest they subscribe to the Facebook Group for the “Let’s Try Democracy Party.”
Anyone wanting to learn more about political irrationality, or to discuss and debate the above issues further, is invited to blog the author at: redgenesbluegenes.com
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[*] Guillermo C. Jimenez, B.A. – Biology, Harvard, J.D. – University of California-Berkeley, Professor of International Trade, SUNY (State University of New York), Iona College, International School of Management.