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LA Review of Books: “Against Democracy” and “Against Elections”: Where Do We Go From Here?

AS THE UNITED STATES APPROACHES a most divisive presidential election, it is hardly surprising to see an upsurge in literature proposing to diagnose and cure the ailments of modern politics.

Against Democracy and Against Elections both fall into this category. Despite their provocative titles, they each present detailed plans regarding what they are for rather than focusing solely on what they are against. This willingness to explore alternative politics is a clear strength of both books and what sets them apart in a market clogged with tomes that tend to be heavier on rants than original thinking.

Beginning with Against Democracy, the author, Jason Brennan, a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, makes no bones about what he wants: to end the universal franchise and explicitly deprive the unknowledgeable and “misinformed” of their right to vote in elections, a concept he refers to as “epistocracy” or “rule by the knowledgeable.” In a time of the rise of Trump, it is an argument that may appeal to center-left voters in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. However, the author’s arguments lay bare why his proposal to determine voting rights based on knowledge tests is still a bad idea. Early on Brennan lets us know:

Political knowledge is positively correlated with being or leaning Republican, but negatively correlated with being a Democrat or leaning independent. […] It is negatively correlated with being black and strongly negatively correlated with being female.

Like Anchorman Ron Burgundy, Brennan just puts that statement out there devoid of context. He does not mention, for example, that a study from 2012 reported that women had, on average, slightly higher IQs than men, a point that could be even more relevant for decision-making than “political knowledge.” Moreover, the studies he cites in support of his contention are between 18 and 30 years old (one 13-year-old book is also cited, but whether it contains newer research is unclear). That’s significant, because there are still many people alive and kicking who attended segregated schools, were prevented from continuing their careers after marriage, and were discouraged from active political interest. Even up-to-date data needs to take account of the fact that historical oppression lives on into the present, so relying on older studies, undertaken at a time when a much larger proportion of women and black people were systematically deprived of agency and quality education, seems gratuitously irresponsible.

Brennan unconvincingly seeks to deal with the fact that his proposed exclusion will largely mirror historical oppression by emphasizing that he does not want to “exclude people, or reduce their power, in order to express wrongful contempt or disrespect for any individuals, groups or races. Instead our goal is to produce better more substantively just policy outcomes.”

It is the central weakness of the book that at no point are criteria for what counts as a “more substantively just outcome” elucidated. It is, however, all too obvious that it has somehow escaped Brennan that people in the past thought that their reasons for excluding others from the franchise were pretty good, too. Why the purity of Brennan’s intentions to create something as vague as more “just outcomes” should outweigh the expected de facto discriminatory distribution of voting rights remains an open question.

As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious why the female, black, and socially minded among us are disproportionately afflicted by a lack of political knowledge. “Misinformed” is a loaded term, and Brennan’s idea of what qualifies as important political information is, shall we say, distinctive.

As proof of American ignorance on economic matters, Brennan points to his fellow citizens’ lack of commitment to one book — Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations. Whatever the merits of the over 200-year-old Wealth of Nations may be, the only apparent reason for it — and not thousands of other economics titles — being used as Brennan’s knowledge yardstick is his personal admiration for its tenets, something that comes through repeatedly in his own work. He does not even mention the numerous best sellers cranked out by Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, or Thomas Piketty, which would seem to at least place his contention that Americans are ignorant of economics in question.

At other points, Brennan’s ideas on what constitutes worthy political knowledge descend into trivia. He belabors the fact that in 2008 “[l]ess than a third of non-voters knew […] that Mitt Romney is pro-life. Only 41 percent knew that Romney opposed gay marriage.” Mitt Romney did run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, but he did not secure the nomination and, in fact, dropped out of that race 10 months before the election. So the relevance of the fact that some non-voters were unaware of two social views of a man who ultimatelydid not run for office is very questionable indeed, and not an iron-tight case against the dangers of ignorance.

These are only two examples: the pattern of blaming people for not knowing things that are interesting to Brennan, but not necessarily to the people he is seeking to deprive of their vote, is carried throughout the book. For a person who argues for dispassionate reason, Brennan displays a strong bias toward his own ideology as the yardstick for those who will remain entitled to vote in epistocracy.

In the aftermath of the recent New York bombings, in which — to public disapprobation — Uber prices surged as people tried to get out of the vicinity, Brennan tweeted: “Anyone who opposes surge pricing should be disenfranchised. That’s how we should decide who decides in epistocracy.” In the interests of fair journalism, I decided to double-check on this and tweeted “Serious?” at him. He quickly responded, “it’s a good test, though for institutional reasons I’d pick something less contentious.”

Far from providing clarity, this only muddied the waters for me, but then I found that there was something muddy about Brennan’s philosophy all the way around. He often seemed to dart back and forth in his writing, putting an idea across, only to distance himself from it again.

However, as near as can be ascertained, the central axis of Against Democracy lies in the author’s focus on the individual. He demands an extreme degree of individual freedom and measures all goods as they pertain to the individual and the individual alone. At the same time, however, the author insists that there is one “right” way to run society, continually returning to how well democracy “performs” vis-à-vis the hypothetical epistocracy. Thus, jarringly, his focus on the individual leads to political conformity rather than diversity.

It seems clear that Brennan does not see politics as a collection of competing interests, or even of personal perceptions. This leads him to overvalue abstract knowledge, such as the national economic growth rate in 2013, to the detriment of concrete knowledge, such as whether the purchasing power of a voter’s wages has decreased, whether their housing costs are difficult to meet, and whether their children have paid much more for university than they did. These are not things that the vast majority of people have any difficulty in assessing — but because Brennan discounts such knowledge in favor of the purely abstract, he drastically overestimates his compatriots’ level of ignorance.

His apparent underlying theory — that some individuals are so important that they must suffer no restrictions on their actions, while accepting that decisions are correct or incorrect across the board — inevitably leads Brennan to embrace a politics that is, at its root a low-key, unusually snobbish brand of totalitarianism: a few worthy individuals decide for everyone; all others become non-individuals, perhaps even non-persons.

Certainly, in an epistocracy, those deemed ignorant would be decisively deprived of legitimate political avenues to protect themselves against any wrongs that may be committed by the worthier “deciders.” At one point, Brennan floats the idea that black people may be better off if 80 percent of whites are deprived of their right to vote, but considering he intends to deprive black people in presumably greater numbers — after all, their skin color is negatively correlated with political knowledge — this leaves us hanging as to what happens if he turns out to be wrong.

There are other weaknesses and inconsistencies in the book — particularly the self-contradictory data around Brennan’s diatribe on the evils of public deliberation, and his odd contention that women did not benefit as individuals from gaining the electoral franchise — but they pale in comparison to what many would consider an inverted understanding of the relationship between the individual and collective will.

Brennan is right about many things in his critique of modern electoral-representative “democracy” — the value of each individual vote is practically meaningless in a society of millions; American politics is excessively tribal, with voters placing themselves on “team Democrat or team Republican” from a gut feeling of belonging rather than reasoning; the current system of election does not reward rational, dispassionate behavior; and, while much of what he says about deliberation is self-contradictory, he is right that people won’t transform into saints just because they talk to one another a bit more. I would even concede that Brennan is correct in laying out that electoral-representative politics unduly privileges the apathetic and uninformed — the core voters of many large parties.

However, the key premise of the book is an unconvincing attempt to pour old wine into new bottles, and return to privileging the few at the expense of the many for no really good reasons whatsoever. Against Democracy reminds me strongly of Plato’s The Republic. Much like Brennan, Plato and his mentor Socrates complained that democracy dispenses equality “to the equal and unequal alike” and envisioned a society where the chosen few would act in the national interest. Some people took it upon themselves to give that a whirl — we know them today as the Thirty Tyrants. I could go into detail on their brief rule, but the name that history bequeathed on them pretty much says it all.

I’d like to say that this lack of originality makes Against Democracyinsignificant, but unfortunately, it is probably highly significant. Brennan’s ideas may well be unpopular with the general public, but I suspect we would not be reading about them if they were not wildly popular in some circles. That, in itself, is certainly food for thought.

Against Elections is a translation of a book written in 2013 by David van Reybrouck, a Belgian author. It is as slanted to the left as Brennan’s book is to the right. Against Elections, unsurprisingly, tends to focus more on Europe, and particularly on Belgium. However, it is an easy read and shouldn’t present any difficulties even to those unfamiliar with European politics.

Van Reybrouck’s main concern, and his reason for writing this book, is the eroding legitimacy of electoral-representative politics, the system we know as “democracy.” Van Reybrouck claims that while interest in politics is up, satisfaction is down, creating a potentially explosive situation. His concern stems in large part from the rise of far-right, anti-immigration parties such as UKIP in Britain, the National Front in France, and the AFD in Germany. On a continent where genocide reigned in living memory, many Europeans regard these developments with great trepidation, seeing in them a revival of pre–World War II politics.

Van Reybrouck proposes to deal with these perilous times, in which the chances of a far-right party coming to power seem very real, by reviving the ancient Athenian practice of selecting officials by lottery rather than by election; or perhaps by selecting some officials or legislators by lottery to complement existing elected politicians. The exact configuration — beyond the basic premise of reviving the lottery — is left relatively open, although the author explores multiple variations.

It sounds like a radical proposal and van Reybrouck makes it clear that he is attempting to get to the core of the problems with modern democracy. However, the book suffers from the fact that although the author certainly hits the nail on the head with regard to elections, he does not seem to be particularly knowledgeable about either ancient Athens or modern politics. This shows up in the fact that while Brennan sometimes uses contradictory data, van Reybrouck often uses none at all, merely making sweeping statements without diving into detail.

One way this manifests itself is in a certain naïveté regarding the present political situation, which the author sees in terms of low voter turnout, declining party membership, and increasingly capricious voters. Not much is said about what one could term the deeper issues, like multinational companies drafting laws while providing campaign finance and post-tenure employment for politicians. The author suggests that media and politicians would be hostile to a new form of politics run by lottery-selected citizens because such a system would not provide enough drama for media and because politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable and liberal than their constituents. While those statements seem vaguely valid, many would place them at the tip of the iceberg of reasons for potential establishment resistance to the kind of changes van Reybrouck is proposing.

The other way the lack of research comes across is in the author’s handling of Athens. In particular, van Reybrouck insists on splitting off one part of the ancient Athenian political system for modern use: the lottery. This would, to the author’s mind, involve using small groups of randomly selected citizens to make key political decisions, possibly working in overlapping, mutually controlling circles, an idea he borrows from former Vermont representative Terry Bouricius.

However, the ancient Athenians only made key decisions of any kind in numbers that may seem small to us, but which were very large to them. Laws, in particular, were always passed through the Assembly, a venue that any Athenian male citizen could attend and vote at, and a place where between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total eligible population could generally be found. Lottery-selected Athenian officials who worked in smaller panels had almost no decision-making power, much less the competence to make “key” decisions, and were constantly under the Assembly’s scrutiny. Participation in ancient Athens was not just random, it was conducted en masse, and it is important to consider why that should be. The Athenians could have engineered lower levels of participation while still determining it randomly — indeed, that would have been a lot easier — so why didn’t they? Part of the reason was that smaller numbers of citizens would be easier to bribe and influence than, say, 15 percent of the population. For the Athenians, mass participation was the equivalent of shooting a sparrow with a canon — where bribery was nigh-on impossible, personal trustworthiness was less relevant.

So in a book based at least partially on Athenian principles, why random participation, but not mass participation? Van Reybrouck, after all, offers up several examples of sortition being used in non-democratic contexts in Medieval Europe, so it should be obvious that a lottery alone is not a silver bullet. In fact, in several places, he candidly admits that it is not.

The answer lies in van Reybrouck’s views of the average person, which are not so different from Brennan’s. He repeatedly suggests that most people are ignorant and that only in small deliberation groups advised by “experts” can “enlightened” opinion be had. This is all the more interesting because while Brennan does not push it very hard in his own book, he at one point makes a suggestion similar to van Reybrouck’s main premise of helping a small number of lottery-selected people reach enlightenment (predictably, and somewhat amusingly, their opinions on what constitutes enlightenment differ wildly).

Van Reybrouck fails to nail down why randomly selected groups will reach more enlightened conclusions, especially when working in such small and therefore corruptible numbers. Are people in small groups really more enlightened or do they merely engage in groupthink? What about biased experts? Would the population as a whole really accept that a different decision made by a small group of people is legitimate because it is the decision they would have made if they were not so ignorant? On the surface, this suggestion seems to do the impossible: hit the patronizing button even harder than Brennan did.

This is no surprise, because much like Brennan, van Reybrouck picks and chooses what he approves of according to the end, rather than the process. For example, he lauds the partially lottery-selected Irish Constitutional Convention for its groundwork on a referendum that led to legalizing gay marriage in 2015 — an outcome he agrees with — but criticizes others, including referenda against the European Constitution, against changing the voting system in parts of Canada, and — in a Guardian Long Read he wrote to promote this book — against Britain remaining in the European Union (the so-called Brexit referendum held earlier this year). Van Reybrouck centers on media control, education, or even varying life experiences as motivating factors in decision-making either superficially or not at all. Instead, Brexit, for example, was a “wrong” decision (“reckless” in van Reybrouck’s words). For everyone. “It’s very simple,” he says toward the end of his book, “either politics throws open the doors or it won’t be long before they’ll be kicked in by angry citizens shouting slogans like ‘No taxation without participation!’ as they smash every last stick of furniture and walk out with the chandelier of power.”

It’s a neat turn of phrase — something van Reybrouck excels at, and which makes the book such a smooth read — but it points out that he aims more for stability than emancipation.

Thus, while Against Elections can serve as an introductory primer on some of the problems with and alternatives to elections, it doesn’t go far or deep enough in its analysis. It does not, in the end, get to the root of the problems with elections, but merely attempts to shore things up with fairly cosmetic changes.

In summary, where Brennan is an old-school elitist, van Reybrouck is a new-school one. As a result, while their books are worth reading for the sake of facilitating discussion and while they each deserve some credit for thinking beyond the pale, they are both ultimately hobbled by the authors’ own prejudices and quests to retain what they view as their faction’s rightful control of the political landscape. Forms of politics are processes, not ends, and failure to see this causes the intellectual incoherence of both works.

This article was first published at LA Review of Books


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