Monday, November 05, 2012

Technology and Democracy—Too Much Information?

Here in the U. S. we are in the last three days of the 2012 election season.  At stake is the Presidency, hundreds of seats in the U. S. Congress, and thousands of state and local races.  Our question for today is this:  have advances in technology made democracy as it is practiced in the U. S. better or worse?

That question immediately leads to another:  by what standard are we to judge improvements in democracy?  Unlike technical concepts such as ideal 100% efficiency, it’s hard to imagine what an ideal democracy would look like.  Just imagining ideal people running it doesn’t do any good.  It was James Madison who pointed out, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  So to my mind, at least, an ideal democracy would allow real fallible people to govern themselves to the best of their abilities.

That being said, we must distinguish between direct democracy and representative democracy.  An old-fashioned New England town meeting where the citizens simply represent themselves is a direct democracy, but obviously such a method gets impractical as the size of the political entity becomes larger than a few thousand people.  So what we are discussing is an ideal representative democracy:  one in which people elect representatives periodically to embody their interests and judgments in the operation of government.

In such a situation, we can assess how accurately the elected representatives really mirror the inclinations of their constituents, and how effective this representation is in running the government.  By this standard, technological advances have helped matters in some ways, but have led to big distortions and injustices in other ways.

The good news is that, for example, ballot-counting is a lot faster, and probably more accurate overall, with electronic voting machines and computer networks to handle the math and presentation of election returns.  Electronic news media allows interested parties to learn a great deal of more diverse information than was provided in the old days when there were at most two or three TV networks, as many radio networks, and a couple of daily newspapers in most major media outlets, but no Internet or social media.

What about the negatives?  One serious problem I have seen is the way that computer-intensive calculations have been employed in demographic analyses to gerrymander U. S. House of Representatives districts.  “Gerrymandering” is a term that comes from an odd-shaped Massachusetts congressional district drawn by Governor Elbridge Gerry to benefit his political party in 1812.  The odd shape basically divided his opponents’ constituents and united his own, but one resulting district looked like a salamander and was satirized in a political cartoon that labeled it a “gerrymander.”  The term caught on as a way of criticizing the drawing of voting districts so as to favor one party or another.

Unfortunately, gerrymandering has become a way of life, and it is a routine thing for the party in power in a state to take advantage of every U. S. Census to push the gerrymandering art to new highs.  With computer-intensive analysis of election returns, this process has become one that often guarantees the outcome of an election in a given district.  One adverse consequence is a complete reversal of the original intent of the Founders as to the different purposes of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Senators, with their revolving six-year terms, were intended to be a steady, long-term, stabilizing influence on government, while representatives, all of whom are elected every two years, were meant to reflect rapidly changing constituent opinion.  The gerrymandering of House districts has turned this intention on its head.  With computer-aided gerrymandering, many representatives enjoy fifteen, twenty, and even thirty-year tenures in their House seats.  But because Senators by law are elected from an entire state (and so far, no one has seriously contemplated gerrymandering state borders yet), they are the ones who can be turned out after a single term, and often are.

I haven’t even mentioned such things as targeted campaign ads aimed at specific demographic groups, the overwhelming power of electronic media and its crippling expense that leads to the exclusion of all but the best-funded candidates (which means that no one without rich friends or wealthy corporations on their side can do much of anything nationally), and the handing over of Congressional authority to unelected bureaucrats, which while not directly aided by technological advances, seems to have become more popular as technology has advanced.  And there are now instant polls conducted daily if not more frequently, with dozens of places online to see the poll results almost minute by minute—or instantly in the case of those public-opinion meters displayed on some TV channels during the Presidential debates.  Just about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the formal mechanism of voting and what it means.

The optimist in me says not to worry too much—perhaps the modern voter really takes advantage of the superabundance of information and delivers a more informed decision than those in the past whose media sources were so much more limited.  But the pessimist in me thinks that technologized democracy tends to pander to the worst and the simplest arguments and procedures:  mass-media scare tactics, reducing voters to a single demographic characteristic (e. g. poor, black, Hispanic, working class, etc.) and manipulating voters based on that characteristic, and other techniques that tend to remove power as a practical matter from the average non-politician citizen, and concentrate it into the hands of the few elite who operate the handles of the analysis and publicity machines.

I recently read a book that pointed out many of these flaws and recommended some radical changes that might move the situation back closer to where it was a few decades ago.  Arnold Kling’s Unchecked and Unbalanced is primarily an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, but along the way he shows how un-representative our U. S. government has become.  One main takeaway from the book is the fact that while the current system of constituting the House and Senate was set up back when the population was only a few million, it has not undergone any basic change since that time, and now our population is more than 300 million.  In order to get back to the point that a single congressperson represents about the same number of people that he or she did in 1800, say, we would have to have perhaps 5,350 of them rather than the 535 that we do now.  As things are, there is simply too much power and money concentrated in the hands of too few people, and the great mass of voters go largely unrepresented.

Largely, but not completely.  It still means something to vote, and I hope all of my U. S. readers with that privilege will go out and exercise it on Tuesday.  And we will all have to abide by the outcome, so you better vote wisely.

Sources:  Arnold Kling’s book Unchecked and unbalanced : how the discrepancy between knowledge and power caused the financial crisis and threatens democracy was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2010.  I found the James Madison quote from one of his Federalist Papers at, and used the Wikipedia articles describing “U. S. population”, “democracy”, “gerrymander,” and “republic.”

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