A lot of people seem to be un-friending Trump supporters on Facebook and keep complaining about Trump. Who are they exactly complaining to? This is a symptom of the troubling state of our democracy. The most urgent issue at stake is our political system itself. It’s too outdated to address our modern problems. It needs an upgrade. Who we vote for is secondary to this problem.
Our fight has become so positional that we are unable to have a constructive discussion. If we see two men punching each other on the street, what would we do? We do not join the fight and start punching even if we believe that one side is clearly at fault. Before we can work out right and wrong, we need to get to a state where we can talk constructively. Pointing out who is right and wrong while they are still punching each other does not help.
How did we come to a place where we have to un-friend our political opponents? I believe it has to do with how our empathy works. Because empathy is essentially a reflex, an automatic response, “emotional intelligence” can function only when we are dealing with people in front of us. For this reason, disaster victims in our own town would trigger a much stronger empathetic response than the victims in China, for instance, would.
Today, because of the Internet, we are able to communicate with anyone in the world, but most people are emotionally blind when it comes to dealing with people they don’t see in front of them. Their empathetic system doesn’t work. In essence, they are emotionally blind. They say things that are utterly senseless. Democrats, for instance, love making fun of how stupid Republican voters are, when they should be more self-critical of why they have alienated the lower class who are voting for the party of the top 1%. Intelligence is not relevant to democracy. If intelligence was a critical factor, our founding fathers would not have designed our system in the way they did.
The other day, I was watching a segment from The Daily Show where the interviewer made these Trump supporters look like complete idiots. Now, think about it. Would these people watch themselves in the video at home, and think, “Oh wow. I’m really stupid. I should start listening to these smarter people.” In fact, how stupid would you have to be to believe that this could work? Obviously, nobody is that stupid. So the only rational conclusion we can draw from it is that these Democrats don’t really want to resolve anything. All they are interested in is proving their own superiority. Facebook is filled with emotionally idiotic comments like this. If you piss off your opponent to a point where you cannot even talk to them civilly and constructively, how do you expect to resolve the issues that concern you?
Yes, Trump is a loose cannon, but how did we get to a point where half of the people in this country are staunchly supporting someone who is barely qualified to be a politician? Is it just their fault?
This is the real threat. If we keep turning every disagreement into a positional fight to prove our superiority, and if we keep escalating the emotional intensity, democracy is not going to work. We won’t be able to tap into the wisdom of crowds. We will be heading into a civil war.
Another factor that is contributing to our uncivilized fights is our assumption that logic or reason can resolve our political differences. Very few people make up their minds about their political candidates based on reason. Democrats tend to be more intellectual, but that is only on the facade. They too make up their minds first, and then try to rationalize their choices through reason afterward. After all, if reason could tell us what we should do, why would we need democracy? Voting would be unnecessary because we would know the right answers. Debating about religion is equally pointless for the same reason.
If you truly believed that your choice of a political candidate should be made through reason, you should not trust your own feelings or instincts. You should dig into the public records of all the candidates without any bias, and tally them up in a spreadsheet, come up with an objective method of measuring their track records, and arrive at your choice based solely on the analysis of the data, just in case your instincts, feelings or perceptions are wrong. But who does this? Nobody I know. Everyone chooses their candidates first, then apply reason to rationalize their choices afterward. So, what good would it do to try to convince your opponent through reason, if your choice had nothing to do with reason either?
If you want to convince your political opponent to change his mind, you cannot approach it with reason/logic. What we need is empathy, not intelligence. The first step, I think, is understanding where they are coming from. To do this, Facebook is quite useful. You look at everything your opponent posts on his Facebook page, and try to imagine what it’s like to be him. You could then come closer to understanding why someone would want to vote for, say, Trump. Here are some reasons I can think of:
Relatively speaking, Trump supporters are poor, live in rural areas, and less educated. Ever since the market crash of 2008, they have been financially struggling; many are in desperate situations. Although the economy in general has improved during Obama’s tenure, their lives have not.
From their perspective, Hillary Clinton represents the political elites in Washington, and these highly educated politicians have not succeeded in fixing their desperate problems. If IQ and Ivy League diplomas can solve their problems, these politicians would already have done so by now. Given that Clinton has been around for so long, they cannot expect things to change even if she is elected. Obama was supposed to “Change” a lot of things but he hasn’t either.
So, they want someone completely different who is not a politician. They want this person to go to Washington and turn everything upside down. They want Trump to kick the vending machine to see if it would do anything. At this point, they are so desperate that reason has nothing to do with it. It makes no sense to kick a vending machine, or give an electric shock treatment to someone, but sometimes it actually works. They don’t care why it would work; they can analyze the reason after the fact if necessary. For now, they just want to try something radically different. You could pile a thousand reasons why Hillary is a better candidate, but it would not do anything to change their minds; because those reasons haven’t worked in the past. Why try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? (That is Einstein’s definition of insanity.)
The half of the country wants a non-politician to be in the most powerful political position. What does this mean? It means people have no confidence in our political system. It’s a revolt. In fact, this was the same reason why many Democrats supported Bernie Sanders despite the fact that he kept on chanting “revolution” without explaining how it could be achieved. Elections are no longer about the issues, but about the system itself. It cannot get any clearer than that.
Star Wars episodes I through III is a convenient reference point for our discussion here. In those films, everyone was so focused on the threat of the “separatist” movement that they were willing to set aside their democratic principles in order to counter the threat. This is how they ended up granting “emergency powers” to Sith Lord. What they did not realize (except for Senator Amidala) was that the real threat was, in fact, the erosion of their democratic system. They were so consumed with fighting one another (even the Jedi) that nobody was trying to address the systemic problem. If we have to suspend our democratic principles to counter a threat, the first thing we need to look at is the system itself, because it is a sign that it is not working.
At a very basic level, here is what I mean by “system.” In the apartment building my wife used to live, there was a fight among the tenants over slamming of the front door of the building. The notes taped on the door became increasingly angry at one another. This is common in New York City. Yes, it is disrespectful to slam the door, but often we don’t mean to. It just happens sometimes, but for those who live on the ground floor, each person slamming occasionally can add up to be quite annoying. In a situation like this, our natural tendency is to find someone to blame because we need an outlet for our frustration or anger. But this is actually a systemic problem. All we have to do to fix this problem is to install an automatic, spring-loaded door closer. We could then control how gently the door closes by itself. Nobody would be able to slam it even if they wanted to.
Likewise, our political system is broken, and all we are doing is blaming one another. In any debate, once it becomes positional, we cannot resolve it productively or constructively, because protecting our egos becomes our first priority.
Democracy is an amazing system but the particular forms of it that exist today are all broken or outdated, which, I believe, is wrecking havoc everywhere.
Given the technologies we have today, there is no reason why we should elect people to represent us. Now, some of you will probably argue that direct democracy would be disastrous, and point to Brexit as an example, but any new political system will always be chaotic at first until people gain a better understanding of the system and iterate the design of it through trials and errors. (This is also why we should not force democracy on countries where the people are not yet ready for it. Democracy is not a magic pill. It needs to be adopted appropriately.)
Through the use of technologies we have today (like blockchain used in Bitcoin), we could design a system where politicians would no longer be necessary, and we can get there slowly and gradually. The system we have today is unreasonably crude. Here is an analogy:
Let’s say you find a small malignant tumor in your brain. Given today’s medical technologies, you could target that tumor precisely without affecting the rest of your brain. What we are doing with today’s political system is equivalent to your doctor saying, “OK, we need to remove the right side of your brain entirely.”
Representative government was a system of compromise because there was no practical way for us to surgically vote on issues. When we vote for a candidate, you might agree with 60% of what s/he stands for, but not the other 40%. But that 40% might include something horrendous from your point of view. Sadly, you have no way to address that. It makes no sense today to make this kind of compromise.
How exactly we implement this system would be outside of the scope of this essay, and nobody would have a definitive answer yet, but for instance, through the use of various technologies, we can qualify people who vote on any issues. They do not have to be smart but they need to know at least some basic facts on the issue before they can cast their votes. We can also make our voting records publicly available. With today’s system, there is no accountability for how we vote. When stakes are low, people make rash decisions. With a technology-driven system, we would be able to quickly look up everyone’s past votes and see how right or wrong they were in retrospect. There might be some unintended consequences of these ideas but what is important is to get the conversation started.
Today’s politics is ruled by the cult of personality. It has little to do with the real issues at stake. Politics should actually be boring for most people, not entertaining like it is today. This is a big part of the problem of representative government. The politicians too have become wise enough to game the system to win at any cost; for them too, it’s not about the issues, it’s about winning. They will say whatever they need to say to win.
In The Daily Show segment I mentioned above, the Trump supporters had their own arguments to defend Trump’s various positions. I’m pretty sure that if Trump suddenly flipped his positions 180 degrees, his supporters will then find some ways to argue why his new positions make sense. It’s not about the issues.
Imagine a world where cab drivers are famous like Hollywood actors. You couldn’t be a successful cab driver if you were boring because people expect you to be entertaining. In this world, cabs are so much about personality that people forgot it was originally about transporting you from point A to point B. One day, a new technology was introduced which allowed car companies to create self-driving cars, but people didn’t notice because cabs without entertainers didn’t make any sense to them. This is the situation we have now in politics.
The decisions made through a democratic process have the wisdom of crowds. Here is a classic example of the wisdom of crowds from Wikipedia:
“At a 1906 country fair in Plymouth, 800 people participated in a contest to estimate the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox. Statistician Francis Galton observed that the median guess, 1207 pounds, was accurate within 1% of the true weight of 1198 pounds.”
Unfortunately, this wisdom can easily get lost under certain conditions. Hitler’s rise to power is a good example. It was a democratic process that put him in power, so how can the “crowd” or the masses be trusted to make right decisions? This was the concern that lead Leo Strauss, the godfather of neoconservatives, to advocate the idea of “natural right” and the belief that the masses should not be trusted.
The wisdom of crowds can be distorted by factors like high emotion and peer pressure. It requires a diversity of opinions, but when people start uniting through peer pressure (groupthink, mass hysteria, herd mentality), it stops functioning. Each person needs to arrive at his or her opinion independently. This can explain how Hitler came to power through a democratic process.
We have a similar situation now in the US. High emotion and peer pressure on both sides of the political spectrum are causing mass hysteria and herd mentality. The two big factors that initially created this situation are probably the economy and terrorism. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Democrats tried to counter this mass hysteria with their own mass hysteria, an eye for an eye, which caused the Republicans to apply even more peer pressure to unite. Yesterday, Ted Cruz was forced to endorse Trump after calling him “a pathological liar” and “serial philanderer.” This vicious cycle is making our political system increasingly dysfunctional.
To trust in the wisdom of crowds means you need to be open to the idea that you could be wrong even if your IQ is 50 points higher than the average. Regardless of how wrong others may sound, we shouldn’t disrespect their opinions. We should not inflame each other’s emotions. If you are not open to this idea, democracy is not for you. After all, if you are absolutely sure that you are right, we should all listen to you. Why bother voting? You should simply enforce what you think is right. Totalitarianism would be more up your alley.
Ultimately we all have to do what we feel is right. Nobody has definite answers. As long as we can respect each other’s opinions, we do not need to agree. We have to have faith that we humans collectively are fundamentally good and wise. Only under this condition, could democracy work effectively.
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