Thursday, December 22, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part III: The politics of failure

As we meander our way through the democratic failure of the 2016 presidential election, we come to a question that I have gotten in several conversations recently, and during a public talk yesterday.  What is a failure of democracy?

We can distinguish between two types of failures.  First, there is a failure of democratic institutions, by which I mean a failure of our formal mechanisms to conduct the election according to the law and count the votes appropriately.  By that standard, the 2000 election was a democratic failure.  The study I always cite is this one, showing that if every vote had been counted as intended, Gore would have won Florida, and hence the presidency, but that the "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County threw enough votes from Gore to Pat Buchanan that Bush won the state, and hence the presidency.  That is a failure of democratic institutions.

Batshit crazy conspiracy theories from "computer scientists" aside, that didn't happen in 2016.  Trump won according to the rules of the game.  When I write about democratic failures, I am writing about a failure of the basic, philosophical underpinnings of democracy.  As I asked in Part II, are ordinary citizens competent to make decisions?  The framers were skeptical...  We'll get to the notion of competence in a more thorough way, but let's be round-about, because I'm enjoying my coffee this morning.

Some cons are elaborate, and an intelligent person could be taken in by them.  There will soon be a TV series based on Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  Good book.  In it, the character, "Wednesday," describes his favorite out-of-date con to our protagonist, Shadow, as follows.  A guy dressed as a priest tries to buy an expensive piece of jewelry with some crisp, new $100 bills, with some ink smudges.  The jeweler takes the bills to the bank to get them checked out.  The bank says they're real, and they are.  The smudges are added for effect.  The transaction takes place.  Shortly thereafter, a cop hauls the fake priest into the jeweler's store to inquire what happened.  The cop insists that the bills are fake and that the priest is the best counterfeiter in the land.  The cop is a co-conspirator who confiscates the bills and the jewelry as evidence, and leaves with the "arrested" priest.  They go off together with the jewelry and the money, which was theirs to begin with.  Cool con, right?  And you can see how it could work, in an earlier, cash-based era, on even a not-too-stupid person.  Today, someone really should know that the feds deal with counterfeiters, but, hey, in a different era?  Maybe someone not-too-stupid could fall for it.

Then, there's the Nigerian prince email scam.  You've seen this one.  Why does this keep going around?  Here's the thing about it.  The scam is so obvious that the point of the obviousness is to filter out anyone who has even the vaguest hint of sentience.  Anyone who responds to the email is a fucking moron.  But, the scam is so obviously a scam anyway that if the email were less obvious, people would figure it out at the next stage anyway.  So, just filter out everyone who isn't a total nincompoop at the first step and the scammers save themselves the time of having to respond to emails from people who aren't going to be stupid enough to give out their bank account numbers!

My point is that there is variation in the obviousness of a scam.  To be taken in by Wednesday's favorite scam from American Gods doesn't make you the absolute dumbest creature ever to crawl the earth.  To be taken in by the Nigerian prince email scam does.

Democracy, at a philosophical level, requires people not to be taken in by scams.  And the framers were nervous about voters' capacities.  House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court.  Of those four (and voters don't even know that two of them are part of the same branch!), how many were intended to be directly elected?  One.  Why?  Because the framers basically thought that voters were fickle and thoughtless.  The House of Representatives, the framers thought, would be overly responsive to the whims of the public, but the Senate, with longer terms of office, and having been selected, not by the voters, but by state legislatures, would serve as the "saucer" to cool the coffee (hey, see what I did there?) of the legislatively overactive House.  Yeah, not so overactive these days, but you get the point.  The point is that the framers simply didn't trust the voters not to make stupid mistakes.

And they weren't even thinking of scam artists.  Join us for Part IV when we discuss the mathematics of scams!  Yes, really!  Wait, come back.  Math!

No comments:

Post a Comment