Sunday, November 20, 2016

American Democracy is a Great Experiment, and We're Doing it Wrong

To find something out, we often do an experiment. If we want to discover something about human beings we do an experiment, perhaps a controlled study, on human beings. It's hard to deny that the idea of democracy, and in particular the process of voting, is designed to be the best way of finding out what the citizens themselves want from a government.

We are doing the experiment wrong. If we wanted to find out what a subject really believed about a topic, say the aesthetic value of eyebrow plucking, we might show them pictures of people with and without plucked eyebrows, and ask them which one they liked better. If we ran the experiment right, and without inserting personal bias, it seems we would be justified in concluding something about eyebrow plucking.  But one thing we would not do is tell the subjects the expected results of the experiment before we do the experiment.  

This, however, is what happens in our democracy. We have polls indicating how many people support each candidate, and we are continually reminded what those polls say. And, like Christmas decorations, the predictions are put up earlier and earlier. Stats guru Nate Silver had predictions going way before primary voting even started, and people followed his website religiously. And while the media do not make predictions on election day until the polls closed, so as not to affect people's decisions, they are happy to present poll data at any time.

The result of this is that we have messed up the experiment. We do not really know what people want from a government. When people see polls, they are prejudiced toward the perceived winners. If you argue that seeing polls can also have the offsetting effect of emboldening some people to vote for the underdog, you are relying on the questionable assumption that social desirability is less important than an underdog complex. More importantly, though, you have to answer this question: If seeing polls encourages and discourages votes equally -- in other words, has no impact on actual voting behavior --  then why in the hell are you doing them? What's the use of gathering poll data? I want to know the weather forecast because I want to dress appropriately. It's not relevant information in itself.

One answer is that polls are designed as a safeguard against election fraud. Large discrepancies between polls and actual results indicate something went wrong. But exit polls can also serve that purpose, and without the possibility of unintentionally screwing up the results of the democratic experiment.

The other answer is that polls are intentionally screwing up the experiment. They are for psychological manipulation of voters. They might tilt a little toward the Democrat or the Republican candidate, but they always tilt tremendously toward the Democratic-Republican establishment. All other political parties are beaten down by polls indicating that these candidates do not have a chance from the start. Do we know if Americans like these parties? We think we do, because we put them on the ballots and see if people vote for them. But the problem is apparent: The other parties do not warrant coverage, say the media, because they do not poll high enough, and they do not poll high enough, say the other parties, because they do not get coverage.

Polls serve to manipulate public opinion the way that the electric wand in these old neuroscience experiment manipulate the facial expressions. I don't think any of the subjects were hurt in these experiments; some just appear terrified because of the electricity. But people who support the Democrats or Republicans actively discourage independents from voting for other parties by insisting that their votes do not matter, or worse, they give the contradictory message that independents are spoiling the Democrats' or Republicans' preferred outcome.

This is enough to make you roll your eyes --> at the whole thing. But I do have a way out, and I call it Veil of Ignorance Voting. The original veil-of-ignorance idea comes from philosopher John Rawls, who asks us to imagine starting a government from scratch up in a heaven, and each person had to decide the best government without knowing what position they would occupy in the world below. Since they do not know if they are rich or poor, male or female, etc., they would rationally choose a government of fairness to all, so as not to risk being on the bad end of policies. My idea is not that we ignore our own position of privilege in deciding on a candidate. My idea is that we assume the veil of ignorance but extend it to include the expected outcome, based on polls. Vote your original-position conscience. If you believe the Republicans or Democrats are best for everyone, vote that way, but if you think that the Green Party or the Libertarian Party are best for everyone, vote that way. Let the election be like a passive electrode on the temple of the American public, rather than a shocking study in vote-shaming that only gives Americans a sense of learned helplessness.

--Tadd Ruetenik