Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Democracy in Action

In an article called”Voters Make Quick, Shallow Decisions, Study Suggests”, LiveScience tells of a new Princeton study indicating that “consent of the governed” may be somewhat exaggerated as a moral goal:

Todorov and his colleague Charles C. Ballew II based their study on gubernatorial election results. "States are significant political and economic entities, with some being larger and economically more powerful than many foreign countries," they wrote in the study.

To find the extent to which a candidate's face predicted a winner, researchers exposed subjects to a pair of faces—one recently elected governor and the runner-up—for one-fourth of a second or less. They were then asked to pick the most competent candidate of the two people shown. If someone recognized a candidate, their results were excluded from the study.

"People had no trouble telling us who they thought was more competent by rapidly viewing the faces," Todorov told LiveScience.

Subjects picked the elected governor over the runner-up as the most competent one about 64 percent of the time, a result that significantly exceeded random chance of 50 percent. When the two candidates shown were of the same ethnicity and sex, the results were even more predictive of a winner.

They go on to note that mere facial appearance explains 9 percent “of the voting choices” while incumbency “explains about 20 to 30 percent of gubernatorial votes.” (It is unclear from the article what the exact statistical meaning of this is.)

The most immediate thing to note is that democracy has somewhat limited moral credentials. The primary premise of democracy is that people deserve to be ruled by a candidate with majority support (although in many electoral systems this does not happen). And those with majority support are most likely to govern wisely, according to a lot of theories that depict democracy as political competition that should function like competition in the market. But if choices are made on such insubstantial criteria, it is hard to get too excited about the moral force of elections.

Still, as Churchill noted, democracy’s the worst system except for all the others. But this indicates more strongly than ever that how the government is chosen is not nearly as important as what it is empowered to do. The more important such extraneous factors are in voting decisions, the more important it becomes to restrain democracy through separation of powers.

Finally, it is presumably true that this effect is most pronounced in those for whom other considerations – party identification, ideology, etc. – are not so important. But these are the independents and the bipartisans that political reporters and scholars get so dewy-eyed over when they emphasize how important it is to avoid gridlock and work together for the common good. But this study suggests that these voters are the least likely to make good choices in the voting booth, suggesting that partisanship is perhaps seriously underrated as a force for social good.

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