Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Improving Political Equality

Posted in response to this question on Quora:
U.S. Politics: How can American democracy become more egalitarian?
When speaking of equality, we must be careful to differentiate between political equality and economic equality.  Political equality means we all have the right to participate in the political process to the full extent of our desire and ability. Economic equality is a different matter.

When considering political equality, the most powerful force we can use to make democracy more egalitarian is our minds - but we may have to change them a bit:

* We think of 'the people' is a single entity.

* We are sure the people can't resist media manipulation.

* We are sure the people want to choose sides on political issues.

* We are sure voting means visiting polls and casting ballots.

* We are sure active political participation for all is impractical.

* We are sure politics is a dirty business.

There are many thoughtful comments on the question.  The insights described in these comments show the kind of reflective qualities we must bring to bear if we are to have equal political rights and opportunities for all people.

Unfortunately, Quora does not encourage the kind of comprehensive examination required to conduct such a deep analysis.  If anyone can suggest a site where such an in-depth discourse is possible and would like to engage in an exchange of views, please let me know.  In the meantime, I will start the process here.  Perhaps these comments will stimulate additional insights and answers.

* We speak of 'the people' as a single entity.  Plato, if not others before him, felt democracy could not work because 'ordinary people' are 'too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians'.  He failed to note that not all people are 'ordinary'.  We need look no further than the high-quality posts on Quora to see that.  Yet, Plato's faulty view of democracy survived and still dominates political thought.

We could look at 'the people' differently.  We could see them not as a single entity but as a multitude of individuals: some good, some bad; some skilled, some unskilled; some with integrity, some deceitful; some brilliant, some dull; some sociable, some unfriendly; some excellent advocates of the public interest, some egocentric manipulators.  From this, we might conclude there is no shortage of individuals with the integrity and ability we want in the people who represent us in our government, and decide we need an electoral process that lets us sift through the multitudes to find them.

* We are sure the people can't resist media manipulation.  Yet, when we look at ourselves, we see we can resist some (if not all) of it, particularly when it panders to a view we abhor.  Media manipulation works because it is one-way communication, designed by professional behavioral scientists to inspire an emotional reaction.  Emotional reactions are personal and unthinking.  Our resistance to manipulation increases when we think about the assertions and discuss them with our peers because we expose the deceptions and obfuscations that characterize such material.  This might lead us to integrate a way for the people to discuss political issues - before they vote - into our political infrastructure.

* We are sure the people want to choose sides on political issues.  We might consider an alternative, the idea that the people want to advance the common interest.  A few academics are starting to look at the possibility that the people actually prefer seeking consensus.  Esterling, Fung and Lee[1] found that when people discuss political issues in small groups, the discussion raises both the knowledge level of the participants and their satisfaction with the results of their deliberations.  Pogrebinschi[2] found that "... policies for minority groups deliberated in the national conferences tend to be crosscutting as to their content.  The policies tend to favor more than one group simultaneously ...".

* We are sure voting means visiting polls and casting ballots for options chosen by political parties.  When we look at voting from a different perspective, we see such a conception is enslaving because those who control the options control the outcome.  This may inspire us to devise a voting method in which the people discuss their political concerns among themselves and decide the issues on which they will vote.

* We are sure active political participation for all is impractical.  When we approach the matter from the perspective of finding the jewels among our peers, the problem is less intimidating.  Such an alternate view allows us to imagine a process that, knowing the jewels are among us, sifts through all the people to find the best advocates of the public interest.

* We are sure politics is a dirty business.  When we step back, we can understand why.  We can see that corruption pervades our political system because the parties control the selection of candidates for public office.  They choose candidates who have proven they will renounce principle and sacrifice honor for the benefit of their party.  When we add to this the corrosive effect of political campaigning on a candidates' character, we begin to see it's not politics that's dirty, it's the infrastructure that poisons those who seek public office.  That may encourage us to think about an electoral process based on careful selection by thoughtful people rather than the corruption inherent in a system based on campaigning for votes.


[1] Esterling, Kevin M., Fung, Archon and Lee, Taeku, Knowledge Inequality and Empowerment in Small Deliberative Groups: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment at the Oboe Townhalls (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1902664

[2] Pogrebinschi, Thamy, Participatory Democracy and the Representation of Minority Groups in Brazil (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1901000

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