Data vs Democracy

For the bulk of the 20th century, bipartisan majorities in Congress were churning out landmark domestic reforms left and right: income tax, the Federal Reserve, women’s suffrage, Social Security, minimum wage, the interstate highway system, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare, and so on. In contrast, the past five decades have seen Congress polarized to the point of uselessness. The ACA is probably the “biggest” piece of legislation within my lifetime; it was passed along party lines, and doesn’t hold a candle to the triumphs listed above. What happened to the high-functioning democracy my parents and grandparents grew up with?

Television happened – then cable, then the 24-hour news cycle, then content aggregators, then social media. Our data consumption has grown exponentially in the past half-century, and it’s brought us way too close to the sausage-making process.

By today’s standards, mid-century Americans had little access to their representatives. The internet didn’t exist. Television channels only went up to 13. Long-distance phone calls were expensive. This gave parties and politicians a lot of freedom. Presidential candidates were chosen by party insiders, not primary voters. Senators could meet in smoke-filled rooms to find common ground, and leverage pork-barrel spending to move things along. Poor supervision left the government susceptible to corruption and nepotism, but it also gave elected officials elbow room to do their jobs.

Now, information access is fast. The internet allows us to keep track of every promise made on the campaign trail. Obsessive news networks let us judge our elected officials not just on the bills they pass, but also on how they do their jobs day-to-day. Secrecy is lambasted by the press, so representatives have little opportunity to negotiate behind closed doors. The public wants to see everything right away; premature opinions take root; politicians are pressured to take uncompromising stances. In fact, those who appear too willing to compromise may find themselves out of a job.

We saw this sentiment in the 2010 Republican primaries, where Tea Party candidates displaced establishment Republicans in eight states. The Tea Party faction promised to take a hard line against President Obama’s agenda – regardless of what that agenda might be. We saw the same sentiment again in the 2016 primaries when Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz were runners-up for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. Both men are known for taking principled stands – that is, refusing to compromise.

There’s a trope of blaming bad outcomes on low-information voters. Recent decades have shown that high-information voters cause problems as well, by micromanaging their representatives, and even pressuring them to act in bad faith. The desire to “win” at democracy leads to stunts like shutting down the government, refusing to consider executive appointments, and voting repeatedly to repeal the signature accomplishment of the sitting president.

In a sense, the representative nature of our democracy is breaking down, giving way to a direct democracy. The problem is, direct democracy doesn’t work. Despite having strong opinions, the public doesn’t have the time, interest, coordination, or expertise to run the country.

For example, consider a pair of 2016 San Francisco ballot measures, Prop J and Prop K. Prop J, which passed easily, proposed to set aside $150M per year for homelessness; Prop K, a sales tax to raise the necessary funds, was soundly defeated. Similarly, a majority of Americans want to keep the ACA’s preexisting conditions clause, but not the individual mandate that makes it work. As the saying goes, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s easy to rally support for simple, good-sounding policies. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of enacting policy, it’s a lot easier to poison a proposal than it is to convince a non-expert of its value.

Public over-involvement in politics peaks during presidential elections. Scandals and gaffes – regardless of their newsworthiness or even validity – expand to fill the 24-hour news cycle. All other considerations are eclipsed by a candidate’s ability to appear “genuine” on camera. As Doug Muder wrote during the Democratic primaries:

The way you undo a smear is that you tell a more convincing story about yourself than the one your enemies are telling. You look straight into the camera, straight into America’s living rooms, and say, “You know me. You know what I’m really like.”

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton put forward dozens of detailed policy proposals, while Donald Trump’s plan remained unclear. Media outlets across the political spectrum endorsed Clinton over Trump. Her public statements were more truthful than his by far. But she couldn’t compete with the force of Trump’s personality – and in the end, that’s all that mattered. He refused to back down from bombastic statements. He picked fights on Twitter. He dominated front-page news coverage. And he won.

If we’re surprised that the charismatic candidate beat the policy-focused candidate, we shouldn’t be; it’s been the case throughout the modern era. Obama’s campaigns were built on his powerful oratory skills. GWB ran as the candidate you’d like to have a beer with. (Bill) Clinton and Carter ran on southern charm. Reagan is remembered for his gravitas. In the past four decades, 1988 is the only presidential election in which the winner (GHWB) could reasonably be described as “smart but boring” – and even then his opponent was even more so.

Advances in information technology are not the whole story, of course. America has an unprecedented diversity of voting blocs1, but our first-past-the-post voting system suppresses third-party candidates. Our massive population2 makes presidential campaigns billion-dollar ordeals, forcing political parties into the pockets of wealthy donors. But I think it’s valuable to focus on our democracy’s data-driven dysfunction because we can’t blame the problem on someone else.

Billionaires aren’t forcing us to tune in to 24-hour political coverage. Immigrants aren’t to blame for grassroots political insurgencies. It’s not the media’s fault that half of Facebook users log on multiple times every day. Democrat and Republican, rich and poor, urban and rural, we are all part of the problem. And I don’t know what the solution looks like, but we’ll all need to be a part of that as well.

  1. Most high-scoring democracies are over 90% racially homogeneous. The US, in comparison, is only 63% non-Hispanic white. 

  2. The US population is 4x the size of Germany, 9x the size of Canada, and over 60x the size of Norway. 

© Charles Fyfe 2020 under CC-BY