Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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, 323-370

(**) 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. 


  1. Dear Mister Bardi,

    I think the problem is that when it comes to voting most people vote for "Lets not change our existing order, my life should go on like this" and so most people vote for the most unchangeing party.
    Another fix is that it should be possible to yote a person out of parliament if enough people sign up for an outvoting of a certain person.
    Another fix is to cancel the majority vote system that gives an additional advantage to the party with most votes (what is mandatory for all states in the EU) and a disadvantage to the party with the fewest votes


  2. I think it's simpler than negative advertising - that plays a role, but the core of the problem is that there is very strong positive selection for crooks, liars and other slimy characters in politics.

    Let's say we have two politicians, A and B. A is honest and sincerely wants to work for the betterment of society, B is a crook. One one level of selection, A will spend a lot of his time actually working on real issues, but B operates under no such constraint and devote all of his time towards competing with A. All else equal, B will win. On a second level of selection, by being honest and sincere, A can actually hurt himself electorally, because being honest and sincere means he may have to tell people things they don't want to hear. The central topic of this blog is the most glaring example of that kind of thing.

    Over time that process plays out many many times and all the honest people are filtered out of the system.

  3. It seems to me that most people don't even bother to follow political news and just vote for the most charismatic leader. That is why we had such high hopes with Obama, he has so much charisma. Even when the most charismatic person also seems to be a complete idiot who puts his foot in it all the time (I am thinking Tony Abbott here) people vote for him.

  4. The amount of work it takes to properly assess candidates and issues in a sea of bullshit is beyond the resources and ability of most voters. If only a minority of voters were unprepared and ill informed there would not be a problem with democracy at all but that is not how the world is spinning. Like a band of Sioux warriors herding a herd of bison over a cliff are we, and we are not the warriors. We are the bison and from a relative point of view every bit as stupid and naive are we.

    Positive propaganda and negative propaganda is but the tip of a huge iceberg of deception. Significant are false flags which on a recent Freedom Day was deployed to whip the emotions of millions in a desired direction. Our leaders desire war. Millions drank from a deep cup of emotion never dreaming how easily they were played. Millions moved to eager hate without any good reason.

    And if any learned of an event before it happened, say on a January 20th; months before a dastardly event what can they do but keep quiet. The world is too big to take on alone.

    Things do not bode well for the human experiment.

    1. Indeed. False flag operations are the extreme tip of the negative PR approach. Little is known on how they are organized, by whom, and how often. The only certain thing is that they are a relatively modern phenomenon, perhaps generated by the the case of the sinking of the "Maine" which was used to push the US into a war against Spain. But the "Maine" case was not a real false flag operation, rather an opportunistic exploitation of the accidental sinking of a ship. The same can be said for the Tonkin gulf incident - opportunistic rather than created on purpose.

      So, it is hard to say anything certain about these dark operations. There is a page on Wikipedia, listing a few which appear to be reasonably certain. A site lists 48 cases At least some of them are probably for real.

      It is likely that at least some of the dramatic events we have seen in the world during the past few decades are actually false flag attacks, but it is very hard to be sure of which ones. The only sure thing is, as I say in the article, is about the Devil's best trick

    2. BTW, I was thinking: if false flags exist (and they most likely do), then there must exist false - false flag attacks, that is accusing someone of false flag attacks in a silly and exaggerated manner, with the purpose of discrediting those who accuse someone of false flag attacks (and I think they exist, too. See this, for instance: Higher order false flag attacks are possible. And Pilate said "what is truth?" Will we ever know?

    3. False false flags? No end to how deep the rabbit hole could go and I don't want to get this dogs head stuck in it. There are American forces hard at work trying to cause trouble in the Ukraine and I am very sure, let me emphasize that, very very sure that the US State Department could answer you question about who is responsible. Lose lips sink ships and men in black suits trying to intimidate up close and personal sometimes tell dogs things they should not have. Such a suit might even say that "it is not a big deal, only about four people will be killed".

      And I say the queen of science should not be used to compare tragedy in that way.

    4. Should have read "the US State Department could answer you'r' question about who is responsible." in my text above.

      To further clarify I also did not have my days right. Instead of 'Freedom Day' it should have been 'Patriot Day' as in April 15, 2013. My bad.

      BTW false false flags? Joseph Conrad covered that in 'The Secret Agent' in 1907. The best thing would be to induce someone with an agenda to do a false flag for you. Do it in such a way that the actors responsible for an event don't even know that they were manipulated into doing whatever it is that is 'needed' to be done.

      Under that scenario is Tsarnaev guilty? Yeah; guilty of being loyal to his brother who in turn was guilty of being loyal to his handlers. The American media is playing up the guilty verdict for all it is worth right now and that certainly gives us proof that the devil exists indeed.

      You can imagine my January 20th 2013 hypothetical went like this:

      Man in black suit: What's the matter with you K-Dog (insert real name here) are you naive or what. Pay attention to the Boston Marathon, something is going to happen there. But it won't be as bad as the twin towers. Only about four people might be killed; it's really no big deal. Now what you need to do is get a job, pay your taxes, mind your business, and enjoy the show.

      And now across America men in black suits and white shirts enjoy a drink and maybe a lap dance at a strip club for a job well done. All the while across the land almost everyone else is going Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh like the sheep they choose to be.

      It makes you think that some of us came into the world without mothers. If Justitia (lady justice) wasn't already wearing a blindfold she would go blind.

  5. Ever since I started voting over 40 years ago I have had an aversion to candidates who try to vilify their opponents with "cheap shots" , trite name-calling and other obnoxious tactics. My sentiments apparently are not so common.

    I blame the effectiveness of negative political advertising on the large scale herd mentality of most citizens, who decide which way to turn in response to where they perceive the majority is going. It's the old "jump on the bandwagon" mentality. The confused, timid citizen is very afraid of being identified with a scapegoat, being allied with a "loser" , because this means being isolated and vulnerable to them. Hence repeated vilification of a candidate by clever means creates in the mind of the gullible and impressionable citizen the idea that the vilified candidate is not someone that you want to root for, not someone who you can trust.

    "The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist."


    "the scoundrels best trick is to convince you that he's an honest, well-meaning man of the people."

    1. In life, I've learned to mistrust everyone who explicitly defines him/herself as "honest". It seems to work wonderfully every time.

    2. Maybe the problem is that, unlike the other animals, we DO have the language, which means the capability of build and manipulate symbols. The language is flexible and powerful and as a such is possible to use it very easily to lie, deceive, gain a competitive advantage. Everyone of us uses this flexibility all the time; we can say that the symbolization is the cornerstone of social human life and the possibility of deceit is an integral part of our behavioral kit.

  6. It is impressve to look at the political posters before an election. Basically each poster shows a face, the candidate name, the party logo and a slogan that tells you nothing, like "For the future", or "A good man for a better nation". No information on the actual ideas, programs, behind that name/face.

    We evolved in a tribal environment, where it is in principle possible to judge a man from his/her facial expression, the number of professional liers (or actors) is limited. And we presume to have the same capability even now, where professional liers are selected from a population of hundreds of thousands.

    1. I believe an appropriate response to your comment is 'Spot On'! Imagine if people took offense to being manipulated by campaign posters that don't tell them anything and that they were repulsed by having their time wasted by emptiness.

      The thought of it makes me want to channel John Lennon:

      "You may say I'm a dreamer,
      but I'm not the only one
      I hope some day you'll join us
      And the world will be as one"

  7. On the subject of false flags and so on. it has been established that that the Spanish security forces impersonated 'violent protestors' in the Madrid demonstrations of a year or two back, and in other regional capitals too. As the press had cameras and microphones trained on the main squares this was recorded to the embarrassment of the authorities.

    Result? A new 'Citizen Security' law, which makes it illegal to record and disseminate any such images of the police and security forces.

    That would have included, for instance, the film of police beating a child on the ground being defended by a relation.

    Spain, Europe, EU, 2015.

    We are going to very dark places indeed. I am beginning to think the only sane resort is prayer, maybe in Cassandra's Temple.

  8. There's an interesting piece of research I read recently that found anger among users is significantly higher than that of joy, which indicates that angry emotion could spread more quickly and broadly in the network. Researchers used data from 500 million Weibo users (China's version of Twitter).

    Clay Shirky, a leading 'social network scientist' at Harvard has conducted similar research and concluded that (in general) people forward stories they like and comment on stories they hate. This seems to be very much part of the human condition.

    @cassandra A mechanism that could fix democracy in one stroke is 'the right to reject'. A checkbox on the ballot paper we can use to reject every candidate from every party. This tells the government and the parties they need to go away and find better candidates and until they do this, there will be no election.

    Research details are:
    Anger is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo
    Rui Fan, Jichang Zhao, Yan Chen and Ke Xu

  9. The problem about democray in the UK is that UK is not a democracy; is a parlamentary system with no separation of powers, and so.



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)