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Is Voting Weakening America?

Voting is a foundational right in America, but a new study says it may not be as great as civics class would have you believe.

Beloved British statesman and wordsmith Winston Churchill once quipped that "the greatest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." At the time, and in the years since Churchill made his bon mot, people have written off the saying as nothing more than a funny quote from a man who himself was democratically elected. But what if Churchill was right?

New research from David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell, and his NYU colleague, Justin Kruger, says that nations actually flounder when they rely on voters to elect leaders. That's because when people are incompetent, they are unable to accurately judge the competency of others, or the quality of those people's ideas. In other words, an electorate ignorant to reality and facts is going to be unable to choose the best candidates to solve its problems. "[V]ery smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt," Dunning told the website Life's Little Mysteries, "because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is."

Worse still, most people are self-delusional and thus totally blind to their ignorance, the researchers concluded. Dunning and Kruger found that regardless of the tests they gave research subjects—whether assessing correct grammar or the subjects' own performance in a game of chess—people generally rated their own performance as being "above average." Even the people who performed the worst on the tests thought they were better than most. It's this ignorance to one's own ignorance, the researchers say, that leads to weak democratic nations.

In 2010, when Republicans won 60 House seats and six Senate seats in the midterm elections, they did so with the help of a wildly confused nation. In the days leading up to the voting, polling showed that not only did just a fraction of Americans know that President Obama had actually cut their taxes, two-thirds of likely voters believed taxes had gone up, the economy had shrunk, and that the billions lent to banks through the Troubled Asset Relief Program wouldn't be recovered. None of that was true, of course, but that didn't stop people from going to the polls thinking it was.

Though many Americans fail to exercise them, voting rights are considered a cornerstone of the nation's mystique. As Alexander Hamilton once wrote, "a share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject." But if voting can exalt a nation, it can cripple it as well. Seventy years after Hamilton died, James Garfield wrote in The Atlantic, "Now more than ever the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption."

Right now, Congress and other elected leaders around the country are more radical, incompetent, sluggish, and beholden to corporate interests than they've ever been before. There are concerted efforts to strip deeply important reproductive rights from women, a hearty energy policy is nonexistent, and Rick Santorum, a leading GOP candidate for president, was recently quoted as saying that birth control is "a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." It's not the case that voting is the sole reason for America's current dysfunction. But voting is the mechanism by which ignorant people put other ignorant people with bad ideas into powerful positions in the U.S. government.

Piggybacking off Dunning and Kruger's research, a German sociologist named Mato Nagel put together a computer simulation of a democratic election. He wanted to see what sort of leader is likely to be picked if a nation relies on voting. Nagel's model assumed that some leaders were excellent and others were terrible, but that most were just so-so. It also assumed that, as Dunning and Kruger argue, each voter was unable to recognize the competence and leadership of others as being superior to his own. When Nagel ran his model, the result was always the same: Only candidates whose skills were slightly better than the average person's won. The best and worst leaders lost every time, leading Nagel to conclude that the only truly good thing to come out of democratic elections is that it keeps the worst of the worst people out of office.

Consider, for instance, a world in which, instead of voting on politicians who accept huge donations from oil companies, America installed well-established climate scientists to figure out environmental policy. And what if, instead of holding pointless all-male congressional hearings on contraception, serious and respected physicians were given the power to enact laws concerning birth control and reproductive rights? What a world that would be. One in which decision-making power about important scientific matters was taken out of the hands of the average Joe and given to, you know, scientists and scholars.

The only problem with a world like that is one Dunning and Kruger can't solve: How would we go about picking the smart people to run everything? Maybe we could leave it up to a vote.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user hjl

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