05 October 2014

Are we too dumb for democracy?

Hey, the above is not my line. I plagiarized it from a CBC article about a new thesis from the University of B.C. that suggests our brains aren't up to the rational, autonomous thinking required for democracy. Ph.D. political science candidate David Moscrop says voters across the political spectrum tend to vote with instinct rather than reason, i.e. with their "lizard brains," that ancient part of the brain responsible for instinct and emotion, i.e. gut feelings.

I'm not so sure I would write off the voters' capacity for rational, autonomous thinking too readily, although the force that drives us politically, that make us progressive or conservative, is certainly not reason. In any case, one point where I agree completely with the young Mr. Moscrop is with his strong support for “deliberative” democracy, i.e. providing opportunities for citizens of all political views to gather, discuss and debate issues, and using the results to influence politicians and educate other citizens.

When citizens act as a community, rather than as isolated individuals, they are much more likely to support rational policies and indeed more democratic ones. That is why I have long advocated for citizen assemblies. Randomly selected groups of citizens can represent a town, province or nation in microcosm, bringing together a full range of views. Released from the grip of party loyalty and its tribal instincts, and from manipulative media, they are free to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, more willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. Provided with comprehensive packages of information and access to experts, such assemblies can produce policies underlain by passion but ultimately determined by reason and compromise.

We are smart enough to do democracy, but we need better structures than we have now, structures that allow for well-informed citizens deliberating equally as members of a community.


  1. I agree with you that the concept of 'Deliberative Democracy' has its merits. However, any structure as utopian as this one can be fraught with perils. Any system that elevates one citizen above another, is ripe for corruption. What of the 40% that don't even show up to vote? Will they be represented in these 'groups'? Policy deliberation is a proactive pursuit. How can we force engagement, when many are not interested in engaging? Who am I to dictate what mental analysis all citizens should execute prior to voting? Just some thoughts...Thanks. BG

  2. Democracy doesn't stand a chance if we don't change course and soon. We have to break free of our corporate media cartel that trades in messaging rather than information and prevents the public from making informed decisions. We likewise must break the choke hold neoliberalism has on our politics. This shameless political compression, especially the abandonment of the Left through a "Blairified" NDP leaves large segments of the population alienated, disaffected. And we need a new form of economics reflecting the rapidly changing nature of our world. We need to build economies suitable to the finite nature of our environment. As you know, we've killed off half of the planet's wild life over just the past 40-years. Imagine what awaits the remainder if we cling to our exponential GDP growth based models.

    It's the rapid and powerful confluence of these and other factors that make me doubt we have much chance of achieving peaceful, rational change. There will be change but it could well be other than we might have hoped and rather unpleasant.

  3. Dear Blue Grit,

    Actually, citizen assemblies aren't all that utopian. They have been practiced all the way back to ancient Athens. Indeed, the Athenians didn't trust representative democracy. One might even say they are a natural democracy, as this was the way early peoples made decisions.

    Citizens wouldn't be elevated one above the other. Selection would be random with every citizen having the same opportunity of being selected for a particular assembly, rather like jury duty.

    And like jury duty, attendance would be mandatory, thus no engagement problem.

  4. Thank you for the response Bill.

    You do raise a good point with "jury duty".
    I did see the correlation to early democracy. However, my reference to the utopian structure was more about functionality, where all facets would have to work perfectly to get the desired outcome.

    My main concern with the system would be its applicability and effectiveness in a nation as large and as varied ours. I do believe we would have to take many baby steps to arrive at something resembling a deliberative democracy.

    We do need to be open to new ideas on this front, as the present execution of our parliamentary system is exposing its flaws.