Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why democracy doesn't work (and how to fix it)

(image source)

This post is not supposed to be a proposal for reforming democracy. Any real reform seems to be impossible in a world where the main (and perhaps the only) rule seems to be "don't even think of changing anything important" (DETOCAI). This said, I noticed a recent article by Dean Burnett on "the Guardian" that attempted to answer the question of why people keep electing idiots. That set my mind in motion and I came up with some considerations based on the effect of "public relations" (PR) on the democratic process. I don't claim to be an expert in PR, but, if you deal with climate change, as I often do, it is impossible to miss the role of PR in a debate that has been based on lies and exaggerations aimed at demonizing science and scientists. So, this post is mainly a reflection of mine on the importance of PR in our world.

There seems to be no category more badly vilified and despised than that of politicians. Yet, theoretically voters can vote for whoever they want; why do they keep electing people they despise? (It sounds like the old joke: 'a masochist is someone who likes the things he hates'). Are most voters masochists; or what?

I think there is an explanation for this apparently bizarre behavior of voters. It has to do with the PR methods used in election campaigns and, in particular with negative advertising that has generated a general self-inflicted vilification on all politicians. Let me explain.

In public relations, there are two basic approaches to promote one's ideas or products: a negative one and a positive one. The negative approach (demonizing your opponent) is usually much more powerful and more effective than the positive approach (idolizing your friend). There have to be deep psychological reasons for this, but it is the way things are (*).

The problem with negative advertising is the same you have with chemical weapons: it works wonders, but it can backfire. This is something that the armies of the first world war armies learned when the wind blew back on them the gas they had directed against their enemies.

Indeed, negative ads are so powerful - and so dangerous - that they are almost never used in commercial advertising (**). Think of what would happen if, say, Pepsi were to mount a campaign based on the accusation that Coke gives you cancer. And imagine that Coca Cola were to retaliate by saying that Pepsi causes heart attacks. Not a good idea, obviously: would anyone ever try a soft drink again? It is a well known principle: if you throw it at the fan, it will spread all around.

But in politics? The same constraints do not apply. In politics, the market size is fixed: it is a seat in parliament (or in the city council, or whatever). It doesn't matter how many people show up at the voting booths, someone will always get that seat. For a politician, negative PR carries no risk of shrinking the market, hence, it is a fundamental tool. It is well known: vilifying your opponent works wonders (***). But, of course, if everyone uses it the result is the generalized demonization of all politicians. Again, you see the effect of throwing it at the fan; it does spread all around.

So, it is likely that the widespread mistrust of politicians is the result of a long series of demonization campaigns that have led the public to conclude that all politicians are thieves, liars, psychopaths, sex maniacs, bumbling idiots, and the like. Maybe some of them deserve to be defined in this way, but the problem is that these vilification campaigns keep away honest people from running. And this is the problem with democracy, in a nutshell.

Can we do something to improve? In principle, yes. After all, most governments have enacted laws designed to protect customers from misleading  advertising. Often, ads disparaging a competitor's product are forbidden and even comparative advertising is strictly regulated. But no such rules apply to politics, where everything goes and arriving to similar regulations seems to be just unthinkable.

Could we use a different tactic? Could we make negative campaigning a bad idea for those who use the method? We could, for instance, make the political "market" more similar to the commercial market in the sense that the total number of seats in parliament is like the market size for a product. That is, the number of seats in parliament could be proportional to the number of people who actually vote. So, if only half of the voters show up, then only half of the seats are assigned. The remaining ones go vacant, or maybe are assigned by a national lottery. In this way, politicians would be wary of using tactics which risk to reduce the market size (i.e. the number of seats assigned).

So, we could think of ways to fix democracy. But the problem is not that there is anything wrong with democracy. The problem is with PR - and negative PR in particular. We are not going anywhere in any field until we understand the awesome power of negative PR on our perception of the world. It is truly a weapon of mind destruction, witness how effective PR has been in attacking climate science and climate scientists and in convincing a large number of people that climate change is a hoax.

There is only one good weapon against this kind of PR: it is remembering that, as Baudelaire said, "The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist."


(*) about the higher power of the negative, see for instance "Bad is stronger than good".

Baumeister, Roy F.; Bratslavsky, Ellen; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D.
Review of General Psychology, Vol 5(4), Dec 2001, 323-370http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayRecord&uid=2001-11965-001

(**) A well known case of negative commercial advertising may be the "where's the beef?" campaign used by Wendy's in 1984 to disparage the sandwiches marketed by their competitors, McDonald's and Burger King. Note, however, that it was not really a negative ad; it was, rather, a comparative ad ('our hamburgers are bigger than theirs'). Nevertheless, it was it was aggressive enough that it was picked up by Walter Mondale who successfully used the same slogan against his adversary in the primaries of that year.

(***) About negative campaigns in politics, there is plenty of documentation on the Web. You can start, for instance, from this article in Wikipedia. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)