How many bizarre electoral outcomes does it take to shake our faith in democracy? Apparently, one is enough. Even before the presidential election last November, New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan was fretting about so-called “hyperdemocracies,” in which people have an unquenchable thirst for equality and refuse to accept limits on the popular will. This summer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Kirchik concluded from the Brexit vote and the recent snap election in the United Kingdom that “our duly elected representatives” should have the courage to ignore “the uninformed opinion of the masses.”
Social scientists as well as political philosophers have been ready to second that opinion: Ever since Philip Converse’s pioneering studies in the 1950s, American political scientists have amassed a wealth of evidence confirming just how little voters know—and just how incoherent or plain illogical their political choices can be. This empirical work has run in tandem with that of political theorists less worried about voters’ ignorance than about their intolerance. John Rawls, still the most influential liberal philosopher in the United States today, argued that for a liberal polity to be stable, “unreasonable” citizens would have to be “contained” just like “war and disease.”
One might think that the obvious answer to voter ignorance is education, and the answer to the more specific quandary of voter unreasonableness is perhaps some sort of civic reeducation. But the political philosopher Jason Brennan is having none of this argument. In his book Against Democracy, Brennan points to evidence that the generally rising education levels in the United States have not made citizens more knowledgeable about politics. Like many social scientists, he thinks there’s a simple explanation for why Americans remain so clueless: Ignorance is a rational choice. Since one’s individual vote has an infinitesimally small chance of actually deciding the outcome of an election, it simply isn’t worth the time and effort to bone up on policy basics—or even read the Constitution. As Brennan argues in another of his writings on the subject, democracy’s “essential flaw” is that it spreads power out widely, thereby removing any incentive for individual voters to use their own, more diffuse power wisely.
Of course, some voters seem happy to participate in the process nevertheless; they still display a passionate interest in political, and even constitutional, matters. But most of them, according to Brennan, treat politics like a spectator sport or, even worse, a brutal contact sport. The completely ignorant are what he calls “hobbits”; by contrast, those who root for one team and hate the other are “hooligans.” For hooligans, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: They understand enough to be deeply convinced that their team is on the side of the angels and that the other side are devils (witness how 40 percent of Trump supporters in Florida thought that Hillary Clinton had literally emerged from hell). But they are incapable of rationally weighing policy options or even comprehending their own basic interests. For the hooligans, it’s all about identity.
In Brennan’s peculiar typology, there is a third species of voter, which he calls “vulcans.” Vulcans coolly examine the evidence and then form their political judgments accordingly. Needless to say, they’re a minuscule minority, and, less obviously, they cannot be upheld as anything resembling role models: After all, most people simply don’t have the leisure to become vulcans—as Oscar Wilde once said of socialism, it takes too many evenings. More worryingly still, hobbits are so ignorant and ill-informed that they can’t recognize the superior reasoning of the vulcans and take their cues from them. For these low-information voters, Brennan asserts, certified experts are more or less on the same level as the far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones when it comes to professional reputation and credibility.
Brennan’s answer to this “essential flaw” of democracy is as drastic as it is seemingly logical: Restrict the franchise on the grounds of some basic test of knowledge. Following the philosopher David Estlund, Brennan dubs this “epistocracy”—rule by the knowledgeable—which has a long and disturbingly distinguished history in Western political thought: Plato advocated it, as did, in much attenuated form, a 19th-century liberal like John Stuart Mill, who wanted university graduates to have additional votes. (He got his wish: In the UK, “university constituencies”—which allowed Oxbridge alumni to cast two ballots—were only abolished in 1950, by a Labour government.)
Although Republicans remain busy in the United States restricting the franchise on the basis of essentially fraudulent claims about “voter fraud,” neither the Republican nor the Democratic party openly advocates for the exclusion of voters on the grounds of incompetence—a notion that is still taboo in contemporary democracies. Even so, excluding children and the mentally incapacitated from casting a ballot is a largely uncontroversial practice across these same democracies; and in many American states, felons are disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.
Of course, Brennan is well aware that restricting the franchise on the basis of tests was long deployed in the United States for the purpose of racial discrimination. But he wants us to ignore its past uses and marshals a range of abstract arguments as to why epistocracy deserves serious consideration. For one thing, he claims, democratic citizenship is not like fandom for a sports club. Even if one’s personal vote is unlikely to make a difference, letting lots of ignorant people cast a ballot for their favorite “team” has dramatic consequences: their choices empower lawmakers to pass legislation which ultimately authorizes police officers to coerce anyone who is not willing to comply with the “team’s” ideals. Here “fandom” is sure to result in violence. Brennan also insists that the varying degrees of ignorance and prejudice displayed by different citizens don’t somehow end up neutralizing each other. Ignoramuses, he says, don’t vote randomly; instead, they will empower those who support irrational economic policies or seek to trample our civil liberties. And if all that weren’t bad enough, mass-democratic politics turns people into “civic enemies” of one another, in Brennan’s view. Rejecting the pious notion that political participation tends to “educate, enlighten, and ennoble,” Brennan argues that more political involvement is likely to turn hobbits into hooligans. One need only think about the polarization in the United States today to see his point that “politics gives us genuine grounds to hate each other.” Or so it might seem.
An obvious rejoinder to Brennan’s call for disenfranchisement is that any meaningful concept of democracy is predicated not just on an ideal of freedom, but on a notion of political equality. Epistocrats have to reckon with the fact that they are advocating for a basic inequality in our fundamental rights. Brennan thinks this isn’t really a problem: What are sometimes called the “expressive” functions of democracy, he argues, are massively overrated. If people want to express themselves, they should write a poem instead of heading to the ballot box; and if the state wants to communicate to its citizens that it cares about them, it should ensure decent policy outcomes—as opposed to formal political equality combined with enormous social injustice, as is the case in most democracies today. Epistocracy, in other words, would be paternalistic—but, so Brennan claims, even the worst-off today would benefit from seeing it instituted.
As other critics have pointed out, Brennan is long on identifying the flaws of the actually existing democracies today and short on the institutional details of even an ideal epistocracy. Who would create the test to establish who gets to vote and who doesn’t? Who would be truly competent to judge other people’s competency—and, for that matter, what are the measures of competence? How would the transition to epistocracy be engineered and justified? Should people actually have to vote to disenfranchise themselves? And if the resulting policies were still judged insufficiently rational, would the franchise have to be ever more restricted? After all, even if the ignorant weren’t able to vote anymore, they could still use their rights of free speech and free assembly to advocate for what the 44th president of the United States famously called “stupid shit.” Would the end point then be what social scientists have referred to as “bureaucratic authoritarianism”—which is to say, rule by the few, purportedly in the name of the collective well-being? Reading Brennan in Beijing, one would think, must provide a boost to the leaders of the self-declared People’s Republic.
Apart from practical questions, there is also the issue of whether one of the most basic conditions of democracy—the universal franchise—is quite so easily waved away. Can disenfranchisement really be done in a “clean” way that doesn’t jeopardize equal treatment and status in other spheres? In effect, epistocracy would amount to a kind of political quarantine: We, the knowledge-bearers, need to protect the country from “them.” It is hard to see how the people in the latter category would not be effectively stigmatized, even if the disenfranchisement were somehow accomplished benignly. Symbolic politics is never merely symbolic; perceptions have consequences. To treat disenfranchisement as if it were primarily a question of “self-esteem,” or hurting citizens’ feelings, is frivolous at best.