India’s Ambitious Democracy

In the spring of 1947, the eve of India’s independence from the U.K., the leaders of its independence movement made the fateful decision for their new country to be a secular, constitutional republic with suffrage for every adult citizen: more than 170 million in total. Overnight, India became the world’s largest democracy, a distinction it retains to this day, with an incredible 900 million eligible voters (nearly three times the total U.S. population).

The logistics of Indian democracy were daunting: at the time, some 85% of its electorate were illiterate, requiring political parties to get clever with the use of pictographs and symbols to communicate their platform. Tens of thousands of civil servants worked for two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951; the voter lists would be 200 meters (656 feet) thick. Today the list is five times that amount. Continue reading

Maine Votes on an Alternative to the Two-Party System

Outside of Stephen King novels, Maine does not figure prominently in the American psyche. (No offense Mainers, your state is beautiful and relatively well governed, so maybe the lack of any attention speaks to its quiet success.) But the New England state of 1.3 million has an intriguing initiative on the ballot that might offer a well needed shake up of the flawed and increasingly maligned two-party system that currently prevails. At a time when cynicism towards the U.S. political process has perhaps never been better, this idea is worth looking into. Continue reading

Propaganda is at the Heart of Democracy

Democracy might be the least bad form of government there is, but that only means that it is no less vulnerable to certain weaknesses than the alternatives. Take for example propaganda, typically viewed as the staple of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though it is utilized across all political cultures, it is perhaps most pernicious in democratic forms of governance, ironically enough because of the principles of freedom enshrined in such societies.

As Quartz explains:

Democracy is susceptible to propaganda … because liberty protects free speech and so propagandistic statements can’t be banned. But, as [Jason] Stanley writes in his book How Propaganda Works, humans have “characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation”, and so are vulnerable to spin. This is not a recent discovery: As Stanley notes, Aristotle recognized that demagogic propaganda posed the biggest threat to democracy.

Stanley argues that there are two kinds of propaganda. The most obvious kind, typically present in times of emergency such as war, uses fear mongering and nationalism to garner support through appeals to emotion.

But there’s also a more subtle form of propaganda, which Stanley defines as when an affront to a certain ideal is presented as though it’s an embodiment of that very ideal. For example:

“How do you defend bigotry against gays? You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We hate gays’, so you evoke religious liberty. Package anything in liberty and you’ve got yourself a deal”, he tells Quartz. As this uses the ideal of liberty to curtail another’s liberty, it meets Stanley’s description of this kind of propaganda.

I plan on reading Stanley’s book at one point, as it seems to offer a new and perhaps controversial way to look at propaganda. Many Americans tend to imagine propaganda to be a lot more overt and old fashioned than it really is — vitriolic radio broadcasts, colorful posters, organized rallies adorned with party paraphernalia. But more often than not, especially in a 21st century inundated with stimuli and signaling at all directions, propaganda can seep into our consciousness in the most subtle and seemingly mundane ways. One need only frame an idea a certain way, and communicate with a degree of pizazz, for it to seem substantive and true.

What are your thoughts?

Guns and Freedoms

By my observation, a good number Americans justify gun ownership on the basis of defending themselves, individually or collectively, against government tyranny (however it may manifest). Setting aside the feasibility of armed civilian resistance (which is a different discussion altogether), I find it interesting that the US seems to be the only stable, long-lived democracy for whom a significant proportion of citizens feel the need to keep the state in check through arms.

By my knowledge, every other free and democratic society doesn’t rely on armed civilians to ensure that their rights aren’t violated — or at least they don’t feel the need to. Indeed, many of the countries that perform better than the US in metrics of civil liberty, economics, and government transparency have no such political rhetoric attached to gun ownership. Among wealthy, industrialized democracies, America is an interesting outlier.

But why is this the case? What are other successful — often more successful — democracies doing  in order to preclude the need for armed citizenry?  And what are the implications of this curiously adversarial power dynamic? What does it say about the nature of our government, society, and culture? I have my own ideas, but I’d rather leave the floor to you all.

Our Unpopular Congress & What it Says About Politics

I’ll start this off by letting the following graph speak for itself:

Popularity of Congress


The unfortunate data may not be very surprising to most readers, as the sheer disgust and apathy towards our legislative body has pretty much become a canard in public discourse. Though Americans, like electorates everywhere, have always been cynical towards their public officials, it seems our collective sense of disconnection and discontent is at an unprecedented high (at least compared to recent history). Exhibit  B:

It’s not just the current Congress’s theatrics, pettiness, and partisanship that have turned us away from our ostensible representatives. After all, none of that is new – politics has always been a dirty business everywhere, even among our lionized Founding Fathers. The fact is, the 112th Congress – many of whose members will continue to serve in the newly established 113th – was the worst-performing in over 30 years, and by a considerable margin.

The last graph is courtesy of Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who wrote an article listing 14 reasons why this is the worst Congress ever. Needless to say, it’s a pretty grim read.

But does all this public loathing of Congress come down to its mere ineffectualness? It may seem like a strange question to ask – of course we hate our public officials for being incompetent or pernicious. But Steven Mazie of BigThink, in a partial response to Klein’s article, raised an interesting observation – the preceding 111th Congress was more productive as far as lawmaking, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference in terms of public affection:

 Approval ratings during 2009 and 2010 (the span of 111th Congress) were only marginally higher than in 2011 and 2012 (the 112th), and lag way behind 2004 levels, when at one point nearly half of Americans were satisfied with the job Congress was doing. So there must be something else at work, some deeper cause of our dissatisfaction.

Of course, comparing one Congress with its direct predecessor doesn’t give as big of a picture as I would like. What about previous Congresses? Did they show a similar lack of correlation between support and effectiveness? Either way, this raises a good point, one that may go to the heart of our political culture.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau might say that Congress has become more and more unpopular as Americans have begun to appreciate its basic illegitimacy as a law-making institution. For Rousseau, true political freedom is only found when each citizen is an active participant in the law-making process of a society. If people are to live harmoniously and autonomously, they must all have a direct role in public affairs. Voting for “representatives” to do the job for us is no substitute. In fact, it is a recipe for slavery.

Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void— is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.

Maybe we’re getting what we deserve after all these years of selling ourselves to our representatives in Congress. It’s difficult to imagine a viable alternative — other than in small, local experiments, direct democracy seems out of the question for the 311 million members of the American polity. One ironic possibility, which I develop at the Economist today, is to empower House members with longer terms in office. There is strong evidence that frequent elections only exacerbate the travesty of Washington’s legislative slug-fest.

In any case, Rousseau’s complaints about representative government have never rung so true. We elect Congress, and yet we hold cockroaches in higher esteem.

Had I the time, I’d weigh in on this rather prescient observation. I definitely think there’s truth to it: the average American is woefully disconnected from the political process. Few of us even bother to know who our direct representatives are, let alone how the political process we’re a part of actually functions. It’s easy to hate something you have no stake in, especially as it breeds an elitist class of detached public officials that seem evermore indifferent to you, if not predatory.

But would participation really make the difference? Would we not, for example, be cynical towards those among us who come to power through the participation of those who disagree with us? Is cynicism the inevitable by-product of politics in an information age where we know a lot more about what’s going on, including (if not especially) the bad. Though it’s a counter-factual that can never be determined, I wonder if politics would’ve been any less pessimistic had the body politic of the past been as (relatively) informed as we have?

Most importantly, I wonder if all this discontent and seething will actually amount to anything – and if so, whether the outlet will be productive and beneficial rather than destructive.


Why Elites Fail and Meritocracy Crumbles

Much to the pride of many Americans, the United States has always had a reputation for being a country where success is based on merit, hard work, and individual initiative (personal responsibility, creativity, etc).

Indeed, aside from (re)introducing democracy (of a sorts), the United States’ other claim to fame was the development of an alternative to the then-prevailing system of aristocracy: meritocracy, by which our elites – businessmen, politicians, even religious leaders – earned their prestige and influence not through birthright, noble titles, or wealth, but through their own personal merits.

It seemed like the perfect combination: a society in which people had a voice in government while having access to the means of improving their condition. It was political, economic, and personal freedom all at once, which would in turn lead to the sort of synergy that made America exceptionally well-suited to innovation, creativity, and growth (witness our considerable cultural, technological, commercial, and scientific output, still among the highest in the world, albeit by a lesser margin).

Unfortunately, this proven formula for success is being threatened, and may very well already be waning (in fact, some would argue that it’s been in decline for decades now).

To most American’s general agreement, this country is at a point where nothing seems to be going right: every system – education, healthcare, and infrastructure, to name a few – seems to be failing. Our economy is in a seemingly permanent state of malaise, while our political system seems woefully inadequate in addressing any of these issues, (or doing anything right at all for that matter). Meanwhile, big businesses are racing to the bottom in terms of wages and benefits, and corrupting the public sphere with seeming impunity.

Even if you find these perceptions to be a bit hyperbolic or shortsighted, I think you’re still asking what most Americans are: where is the leadership? The wisdom? The vision? Why have are elites failed us, in spite of their purported skill and intelligence? They’re elites for a reason, after all: isn’t it because they earned their place at the top, and thus have the skills and knowledge needed to run things?

Christopher Hayes from The Nation has written an excellent piece that discusses the origins of this woeful lack of top-level leadership in this country. Unfortunately, though perhaps to no one’s surprise, his assessment is that the deficiency stems from systemic problems – and perhaps even from the very nature of meritocracy itself.

Hayes begins by describing the erosion of meritocracy in his own previously meritocratic alma mater, Hunter College, and wondering why his university – like so many across the country – is becoming increasingly elitist and inaccessible.

How and why does this happen? I think the best answer comes from the work of a social theorist named Robert Michels, who was occupied with a somewhat parallel problem in the early years of the last century. Born to a wealthy German family, Michels came to adopt the radical socialist politics then sweeping through much of Europe. At first, he joined the Social Democratic Party, but he ultimately came to view it as too bureaucratic to achieve its stated aims. “Our workers’ organization has become an end in itself,” Michels declared, “a machine which is perfected for its own sake and not for the tasks which it could have performed.”

Michels then drifted toward the syndicalists, who eschewed parliamentary elections in favor of mass labor solidarity, general strikes and resistance to the dictatorship of the kaiser. But even among the more militant factions of the German left, Michels encountered the same bureaucratic pathologies that had soured him on the SDP. In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right.

Sound familiar? The same has certainly be said about the Democrats, and from what I hear, leftist parties in many other countries suffer from similar problems. How do these presumed advocates for the little people morph into the very elites they claim to fight?

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

This doesn’t bode well for the future. If oligarchy and neo-aristocracy are the inevitable, long-term consequence of the very systems intended to combat them, where do we go from there? Are the anarchists on to something when they suggest eliminating any sort of hierarchy altogether, in favor of a voluntary, consensual, and horizontal power structure?

Some may argue, rather distressingly, that elitism of some kind or another is intrinsic to human nature. Could it be that we’ll always gravitate towards bureaucracy and hierarchy? Is it something about our psychology and evolution that makes us incapable of dispassionate meritocracy?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to reflect on this any more than I already have in the past – thus I’ll leave you to decide. Hayes doesn’t offer much of a solution either, and I’ve yet to read of any viable way to fix creeping elitism other than to rally the masses to remake the system and change up its entrench favoritism – a solution that itself is difficult to implement.

Hayes article is long but well worth the read, so I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. The following are just a few of the excerpts that stood out most in my mind.

  • At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process. While minorities make up 10 to 15 percent of a typical student body, affluent whites dominate other preferred groups: recruited athletes (10 to 25 percent of students); alumni children, also known as “legacies” (10 to 25 percent); development cases (2 to 5 percent); children of celebrities and politicians (1 to 2 percent); and children of faculty members (1 to 3 percent).

    This doesn’t even count the advantages that wealthy children have in terms of private tutors, test prep, and access to expensive private high schools and college counselors. All together, this layered system of preferences for the children of the privileged amounts to, in Golden’s words, “affirmative action for rich white people.” It is not so much the meritocracy as idealized and celebrated but rather the ancient practice of “elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.”

  • One of the most distinctive aspects of the rise in American inequality over the past three decades is just how concentrated the gains are at the very top. The farther up the income scale you go, the better people are doing: the top 10 percent have done well, but they’ve been outpaced by the top 1 percent, who in turn have seen slower gains than the top 0.1 percent, all of whom have been beaten by the top 0.01 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the top 0.1 percent saw their average annual income rise from just over $1 million in 1974 to $7.1 million in 2007. And things were even better for the top 0.01 percent, who saw their average annual income explode from less than $4 million to $35 million, nearly a ninefold increase.

    It is not simply that the rich are getting richer, though that’s certainly true. It is that a smaller and smaller group of über-rich are able to capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of the economy. America now features more inequality than any other industrialized democracy. In its peer group are countries like Argentina and other Latin American nations that once stood as iconic examples of the ways in which the absence of a large middle class presented a roadblock to development and good governance.

  • This is evidence that the Iron Law of Meritocracy is, in fact, exerting itself on our social order. And we might ask what a society that has been corrupted entirely by the Iron Law of Meritocracy would look like. It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
  • This kind of corruption is everywhere you look. Consider a doctor who receives gifts and honorariums from a prescription drug company. The doctor insists plausibly that this has no effect on his medical decisions, which remain independent and guided by his training, instincts and the best available data. And he is not lying or being disingenuous when he says this: he absolutely believes it to be the case. But we know from a series of studies that there is a strong correlation between gifts from pharmaceutical companies and doctors’ willingness to prescribe their drugs.

    This basic dynamic infects some of our most important institutions. Key to facilitating both the monumental housing bubble and its collapse was the ratings agencies’ habit of giving even extremely leveraged, toxic securities a triple-A rating. The institutional purpose of the rating agencies (and their market purpose as well) is to add value for investors by using their expertise to make judgments about the creditworthiness of securities. Originally, the agencies made their money from the investors themselves, who paid subscription fees in exchange for access to their ratings. But over time the largest agencies shifted to a model in which the banks and financial entities issuing the securities would pay the agencies for a rating. Obviously, these new clients wanted the highest rating possible and often would bring pressure to bear on the agencies to make sure they secured the needed triple A. And so the ratings agencies developed an improper dependence on their clients, one that pulled them away from fulfilling their original institutional purpose of serving investors. They became corrupt, and the result was trillions of dollars in supposedly triple-A securities that became worthless once the housing bubble burst.

  • In her book Shadow Elite, about the new global ruling class, Janine Wedel recalls visiting Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and finding the elites she met there—those at the center of building the new capitalist societies—toting an array of business cards that represented their various roles: one for their job as a member of parliament, another for the start-up business they were running (which was making its money off government contracts), and yet another for the NGO on the board of which they sat. Wedel writes that those “who adapted to the new environment with the most agility and creativity, who tried out novel ways of operating and got away with them, and sometimes were the most ethically challenged, were most rewarded with influence.”

    This has an eerie resonance with our predicament. We can never be sure just which other business cards are in the pocket of the pundit, politician or professor. We can’t be sure, in short, just who our elites are working for.

    But we suspect it is not us.

So the question again is, where do we go from here? I know informing more people about this and other issues is the start. But then what? Please, weigh in with your own thoughts and propositions.

Big Money in US Politics

Concerns about the influence of money on politics are nothing new. Even Ancient Athens, considered the birthplace of democracy, had to contend with similar gripes about the disproportionate sway of well-monied interests on the state. There’s not a single democracy or republic today that doesn’t struggle against that same issue to some degree or another.

Lately, however, the US has been contending with the seemingly growing power and privilege of its wealthy interests and large companies. Arguably, the problem is worse now than ever before, and many speak of a new gilded age, when tycoons and public officials were virtual aristocrats, and socioeconomic and political inequalities were stark.

The two areas where this imbalance is most keenly on display are taxation and policymaking. Big corporations exploit legal loopholes – often the fruits of their own political influence – that allow them to circumvent the payment of some or all their taxes. At the same time, business interests spend millions on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to effect laws and policies in their favor.

In each instance, a very small minority, those who have more wealth and political connections, drown out the voices of the majority, who of course lack such resources and networks. This leads to a perverse erosion of the democratic process, which in the long-term becomes increasingly systemic, as government gets filled with officials and laws that further the inequality.

Look no further than the most recent of several reports confirming just how prevalent these practices are.

Thirty large American corporations spent more money on lobbying than they paid in federal taxes from 2008 to 2010, according to a report from the nonpartisan reform group Public Campaign.

All of the companies were profitable at the time. In spite of this, and the massive federal budget deficit, 29 out of the 30 companies featured in the study managed through various legal tax-dodging measures to pay no federal income taxes at all from 2008 through 2010. The lone exception, FedEx (FDX), paid a three-year tax rate of 1%, nowhere near the 35% called for by the federal tax code.

In fact, the report explains, the 29 companies that paid no tax actually received tax rebates over those three years, “ranging from $4 million for Corning (GLW) to nearly $5 billion for General Electric (GE).” The total value of the rebates received was nearly $11 billion; combined profits during the same period were $164 billion.

The amounts spent on lobbying ranged from $710,000 by Intergrys Energy Group to $84 million by General Electric. Others that spent heavily on lobbyists were PG&E (PCG), Verizon (VZ), Boeing (BA) and FedEx. It all added up to a total of almost half a billion dollars — $476 million — over three years. Or, as the report notes, “in other words, roughly $400,000 each day, including weekends.” The same firms spent an additional $22 million on donations to federal campaigns. Logically enough, the two biggest contributors were defense contractors: Honeywell International (more than $5 million) and Boeing ($3.85 million). General Electric wasn’t far behind ($3.64 million).

For a complete list of the companies surveyed, as well as information on executive compensation, read the full report.

Whatever your position on taxes, it’s patently unfair that in a period of painful austerity and fiscal malaise, thriving companies are skirting the law and avoiding to pay their fair share, depriving the nation of billions of dollars in revenue. What’s worse, these profitable businesses were receiving billions more in rebates and subsidies, on top of all the money they saved through loopholes.

While this wouldn’t pay off the debt or deficit – each of which must certainly be addressed by spending cuts – it’s still a matter of principle, especially as funding for education, public health, and unemployment are drying up, and much of the country is struggling to get by (while paying a higher percentage of their income in tax than multi-billion dollar companies).

I wonder what effect all that lobbying money has had on our laws and policies. How many bills have been shot down or altered partly with the help of corporate money? How many regulations or ethics investigations – for pollution, safety violations, or the like – have been watered-down or shelved thanks to old-boy networks or political patronage? I don’t know the details, nor am I aware of any studies on the subject, but it’s a concerning thought nonetheless.

I can derive only two consolations from these reports: first, that there seems to be more public consciousness about this issue, manifested most prominently by the OWS movement, as well as by discussions on- and offline; and second, that reasonable elements from both ends of the political spectrum have come to converge in agreement on this and similar issues, which is no small thing in an era of increasing polarization.

Arguably, it may take a lot more than public awareness and unity on this issue to address the oligarchic influences on the political process,  especially with the odds stacked against us. I still have hope in the system, and I don’t believe it’s as perverse or co-opted as popularly believe. But these are difficult times, and it’s hard enough to address our vast social and economic problems without political and fiscal decisions being mucked up by the interests of a few.

Lack of Representation

By some measures, the approval rating of Congress is at its lowest in American history. Commonly cited reasons for this sad fact include a lack of integrity among today’s politicians, perverse influence by well-connected special interests, and an increasingly polarized and virtriolic political culture.

But there is something else to consider: the average legislator is a white male in their 50s or 60s that is primarily trained as a lawyer. In other words, our representatives hardly reflect the growing diversity of their own constituents, nor to most of them bring anything else into policy-making besides legal expertise (which while crucial, is hardly the only kind of knowledge we need in government).

While you don’t necessarily need to relate with someone to represent them, it’s clear that in these trying times – with the many challenges we face now and for the future – we need more careers, ages, ethnic groups, and belief systems to be part of our political process. A democratic society, much less ones with serious challenges to address, needs as many ideas and perspectives on the table as possible. A multitude of views and concepts can better shape policy and solutions.

To be clear, diversity is no panacea. Indeed, without the virtue of compromise and rational deliberation, it could even be problematic. But given the obvious failings of the status quo, we need more of our voices to be heard. People need to be a part of the political process, even if it is flawed and appears stacked against us. The alternative is to allow the same narrow interests to continue to influence how we’re governed, while we face the consequences, complain, but remain inactive so as to perpetuate the problem.

Education and Democracy

It would seem intuitive that the more intelligent someone is, the more likely they’re going to be involved in “high-minded” pursuits of political participation: grassroots activism, citizen journalism, internships in public service, or at least frequent voting. It would make sense that people who are most knowledgeable about the world or the way the political system operates, would therefore have a greater sense of civic duty coupled with the information they need to act on it. Thus, it follows that nations with better education systems and a more educated populace tend to be more developed and democratic.

I must admit that I’ve long held to this truism as well. My main motivation for creating this blog, and similar info-junkie groups elsewhere, is to promote social change and progress through discourse, critical thinking, and knowledge. I’ve always felt that the more people know, the more likely they’ll exercise critical thinking and use that knowledge as a basis for action. You can’t fight poverty or corruption if you don’t know anything about their prevalence; you can’t vote if you don’t know who believes what and which policies are most effective. In retrospect, this thinking is too simplistic, I admit, but I thought it was broadly accurate.

In any case, this connection between levels of intelligence (or at least of formal education) and democracy forms part of the the basis of “modernization theory,” which broadly holds that certain social variables can influence the progress and development of a country. The ostensible contribution that a highly educated populace makes towards democratic functions was strongly advocated by Seymour Lipset, who argued that:

…Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.

As a disclaimer, I understand the difference between being smart and being educated. Though the two are often connected, they’re hardly correlated: plenty of formally educated people are relatively unintelligent, and plenty of intelligent people are without any formal schooling. There’s usually a connection between the two, but not always.

Nevertheless, most of the developed nations of the world – those with high-standards of living, strong economic growth, and freer governments and societies –  also tend to have relatively more robust universities and public school systems. Even the most flawed of educational institutions by rich world standards are comparatively better than in most poor or authoritarian nations. This would further suggest that improving access to schools and the quality of education in un-free areas could sow the seeds of political reform: think of China, which is rapidly improving its education system while trying to maintain a totalitarian regime (it still has a long way to go as far as both quality and access however).

However, a recent article by The Economist challenges this linkage. It argues that correlation doesn’t equal causation: the marks of progress and modernity in a society, such as those I listed above, could easily come from a whole other variable unrelated to each other. There is also a possible casual dilemma: who says an educated society makes for a democratic one? Maybe it’s just that democratic societies promote public schooling and better universities. In fact, education could promote the very opposite of a participatory mentality. As the article linked above noted:

Those who posit that more schooling leads to greater democracy often have specific ideas about how people’s attitudes change as a result of their becoming more educated, arguing that it creates people who are more willing to challenge authority. It is possible, however, that education reinforces authority and the power of ruling elites; indeed, it may often be designed to do precisely this. The study tried to find out which of these competing ideas of the effects of education is more accurate.

The study that is referenced is a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Education as Liberation?” Unfortunately, full access to it restricted by a pay-wall, but the Economist seem to do a good enough job of giving the gist of it. It also provides a very interesting info-graphic that presumably shows the statistical correlation between the two variables. I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for interesting

I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for an interesting analysis. It would seem that being better educated or more knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make you more appreciative or participatory in democracy. Perhaps it’s other factors that do, such as income or socioeconomic status. Or maybe, as the Economist suggested, an education actually has a detrimental effect on democratic attitudes, hollowing out people’s reverence towards democracy or the local political process. The article provides an interesting anecdote in this regard:

…Girls [from Kenya] who benefited from [scholarships] and got more schooling were more independent and less accepting of the traditional sources of authority within the family. But although education seemed in some sense to have “liberated” them in terms of their personal aspirations, it did not seem to have had the broader effects that proponents of the modernisation hypothesis would have expected. In particular, those with more education did not become more favourably inclined towards democracy. In fact, education deepened their sense of identification with their ethnic group and increased their tolerance for political violence. There was little evidence that having more education made them more engaged in civic life or political organisations.

This is not entirely surprising. Education may make people more interested in improving their own lives but they may not necessarily see democracy as the way to do it. Even in established democracies, more education does not always mean either more active political participation or greater faith in democracy. In India, for example, poorer and less educated people vote in larger numbers than their more educated compatriots. Indeed, the latter often express disdain for, and impatience with, the messiness of democracy. Many yearn instead for the kind of government that would execute the corrupt and build highways, railway lines and bridges at the dizzying pace of authoritarian China.

Of course, there are several caveats here. For one thing, the study concerning the young students in Kenya was, obviously, undertaken in a very specific context. Perhaps if it were done in a nation less riven by pervasive ethnic and sectarian rivalries, the results would’ve been different. Maybe in Kenya and some other countries, such identities just happen to be too deep-seated and transcendent to be properly counter-acted against. I would certainly love to see this experiment expanded into other parts of the world, including wealthier countries.

The case of India is pretty interesting. I’m not sure if it holds any weight in our society: are poorer Americans also more likely to vote than richer ones? From what I’ve read, it’s the opposite: more educated and wealthy Americans tend to have higher turn outs in elections, though this may be due more to low-income people having less time, access, and political information to participate than due to any sort of disillusionment (again, these things are hard to measure reliably). It could also be that India’s poor, being far more impoverished compared to our own, are far more desperate to enact social change to better their lives; the wealthier segments of society perhaps see their fortunes detached from whatever goes on in politics.

So I think it might vary by culture, history, region, and numerous other factors. It may even depend on the specific country, as no two societies and political systems are exactly alike, even if they may be quite similar. Pedagogic factors – i.e. the process of teaching – varies too, and certainly plays a big role. In some areas, there is more hierarchy, rigidity, and rote learning, all of which may stifle freethinking, creativity, or the questioning of authority. In other places, students may be given more free reign to challenge their professors, ask questions, or engage in creative writing exercises – perhaps this environment would be conducive to fomenting political and social involvement.

Or perhaps not. Again, it’s hard to say, and unless I’ve missed something, I haven’t seen too much data on the subject. Then again, as I noted before, such things are by their very nature difficult to measure, and we’ll probably never have a clear picture (not that we shouldn’t try anyway – most social sciences deal with the intangible nature of what they study, and that hardly means they should be marginalized or ignored). With that said, I’d love for anyone to share any study, research paper, or data related to this topic.

As for my own reflections about all this, I must confess that despite my aforementioned belief in the power of knowledge, I have nonetheless seen first hand how a lot of smart or educated individuals are disinterested in the process of government. In fact, it seems that the more one knows about politics, philosophy, and social issues, the least likely they’re going to bother getting involved. As conventional wisdom holds, the smarter you are, the more cynical or depressed you are; so the more you see the flaws and problems that bedevil society or politics, the least likely you’ll have hope in being able to change it. Why bother when you see the system for what it is, and realize the odds are against you?

Furthermore, many intelligent people, frankly, perceive most others in society to be far less intelligent than them, and since these same masses are the ones that influence public policy and social norms, it could stand to reason that there’d be no point to trying to promote change if you’re in the beleaguered minority.

This could explain why democracy is supposedly under-appreciated among bright people: they see no merits in a system that rewards the largely misinformed or gullible masses, and leads to misguided policies. If anything, they may think such a system is detrimental to society, because – in theory – it leaves important decisions regarding the well-being of the world in the hands of people who wouldn’t know any better (as a side note, this could be why most intellectuals tend to be relatively more supportive of government and social policies).

Honestly, even I could sympathize with these concerns, and I admit to feeling this way every so often. I don’t think it’s that I or others are opposed to democracy in principle, but rather that we have reservations about the way it functions here in the US: oligarchic influences, partisanship, lack of informed policy-making, and so on. Sometimes, it feels all too hopeless to change the world when you know so much about the overwhelming odds going against you. I readily attest to this sense of confusion and disillusionment, and it explains why I have a difficult time comfortably settling for any particular political ideological position.

Perhaps in some way, that’s a good thing: the challenges of finding a suitable political system worthy of our involvement may force us to think more deeply about what we need to do to improve the system.