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Alternatives to our “Zombie Democracy”

A Review of
How Democracy Ends (Author: David Runciman)

David Runciman is a bit scornful and pessimistic about contemporary democracy, though not without good reason.  And he is Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, so his new book How Democracy Ends is no mere journalist’s screed.    Thankfully, he does not believe that US democracy is about to be overthrown by coup or fascism (a thesis that has helped other recent authors sell a lot of books.)  Rather, he foresees democracy as ineffectively bumbling on, in a kind of “half-life” democracy that could continue existing for a long time.

Runciman does admit to risks of what he refers to as “executive aggrandizement,” where public passivity enables an elected strongman to chip away at democracy by bullying democratic institutions, while still paying lip service to democracy.  (Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan is an example that comes to mind.)  Of our current passivity, Runciman writes:

Contemporary political science has devised a range of terms to describe this state of affairs: ‘audience democracy’, ‘spectator democracy’, ‘plebiscitary democracy’. These terms might be too mild: ‘zombie democracy’ might be better. The basic idea is that the people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold their applause at the appropriate moments. Democratic politics has become an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention.

The media plays an important role here.  In the US, stories and commentary are—for business reasons—often aimed at feeding outrage, which, in an “attention economy,” crowds out more informative reporting.   Some people of course are repetitively stimulated into outrage, but many are simply turned off by the whole thing and tune it out.   A few wonder about the substance (e.g. “is outrage really warranted in this instance?”)

Runciman observes that our democracy has been proven incapable of responding to the issue of inequality, and cites research that no society in human history has managed to address this issue without large-scale violence.   But that is unlikely here:

In democracy we now have a political system that can suppress the causes of violence without being able to address the problems that outbreaks of violence served to resolve in the past. Minor progress is possible. Big progress is elusive, and always liable to be derailed by the backlash small progress provokes. We may be stuck.

…The violent overthrow of a democracy establishes the conditions under which democracy can be defended: it clarifies the situation. Without that prospect, democracy simply persists and the frustrations that people increasingly feel with it get channeled into forms of mutual mistrust. Ours are not the first democracies in history to get stuck in a rut of conspiracy theories and fake news. But ours are the first with no obvious way out.

Later in the book he explores three potential alternatives to democracy: China-style “pragmatic authoritarianism”; technological anarchism; and epistocracy.   Given our culture of individualism, the first would be impossible in the US.  The second, honestly, was a bit too bizarre for me to process.  The third, epistocracy, is the most interesting, even though Runciman ultimately rejects it.

Epistocracy, which basically means giving additional votes to citizens who have the most pertinent knowledge, is theorized to lead to better political decision-making and better outcomes.   Runciman rejects it as too reckless.

Fixing power to knowledge risks creating a monster that can’t be deflected from its course, even when it goes wrong – which it will, since no one and nothing is infallible. Not knowing the right answer is a great defence against people who believe that their knowledge makes them superior.

Runciman describes a twist on epistocracy that has been imagined by Mounir Shita, in an artificial intelligence system called Nigel that someday could help voters know how they should vote in an election, based on what it is told of their personal preferences.   Shita believes it is an enhancement of democracy because it takes the voter’s desires seriously, while making up for their lack of knowledge about issues and policies.  Runciman rejects this idea as well because it depends too much on the biases of the engineers who have built the system.

Given my own expertise about AI, I am confident that Shita’s claims are complete baloney, for a long list of reasons.  Engineers’ assumptions about what people mean when they use value-laden terms will frequently be wrong; and people’s judgments are easily changed when policy details are discussed with them.   Votes are often strategic or personality-based (e.g. “prevent Hillary.”)  I could go on.  Perhaps a more helpful version of Nigel would be one that explicitly unpacks, in a user-friendly way, the chains of reasoning underlying its recommendations.  “You say you prefer X?  Well, many analysts believe policy P would tend to lead to your stated desire for X, under the following assumptions and through the following mechanisms…”  This at least would help voters reflect upon what they believe before pulling the lever.

But returning to Runciman’s central argument…  I do not think epistocracy is a realistic option in this world, and I of course concede that no smart person is infallible.   And, yet further, that men in non-democracies have implemented colossally bad ideas, communism being the most notable.  I nevertheless am disappointed in Runciman’s presumption that a “mad-scientist electorate” could result from epistocracy.  Really?  Having more-discerning, better-informed voters would lead to implementation of what kinds of cockamamie ideas?  Campaign finance reform?  Coherent economic policy?  Repudiation of ideological extremism?

Runciman’s dismissive argument is a problem because it devalues knowledge and consequently hides potential remedies to our “zombie democracy” that follow the logic of epistocracy while avoiding a sacrilege against equality.    For example, instead of excluding the votes of the less-informed, why couldn’t we find new ways to radically shrink the size of the ill-informed segment?   New e-learning methods have recently appeared that, if properly exploited, could attract citizens into learning about pertinent issues and policies.  Slight, subsequent improvements to the quality of public dialogue could go a long way.

In his Epilogue, Runciman spins  a short fictional story of the election of 2052.   I love it!  (As you can see elsewhere on this website, I present my own online novella depicting a political future – check it out.)  Aligned with Runciman’s earlier analysis, he paints a rather depressing picture of an apathetic, jaded citizenry electing a Chinese-American who runs at the head of his own political movement against the established political parties.  A fractured political landscape assures that nothing meaningful gets done.  But the stable, every-four-years ritual continues on.

I do not buy Runciman’s view that US democracy must inevitably stay stuck in its “frozen crouch.”   Happily, he does offer one small nugget of hope from an earlier historical period in the US:

Are there lessons from this period for today about how to break the spell of populist mistrust of democratic institutions? Early twentieth-century democracy ultimately got an enormous injection of energy from the populist challenge. Elected politicians were forced to confront public anger and find ways to assimilate it back into the mainstream. The age of conspiracy theories was followed by a great age of reform.

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