Democracy…..can the masses be trusted with it?

It was my plan to start to take a real close look at our democratic ledger, here in Europe.

I don’t mean whether we have open, free and fair elections and whether the parties that win, stick to their electoral promises. These things are important, but I really mean the complete make up of our “democratic” system or at least, the democratic system as the average person-in-the-street understands it to be.

But before I could really even get started, I got a bit of a shock.

One of my readers, Pim from The Netherlands, commented that maybe democracy was not necessarily the answer to everything. And his reasoning why this might be the case was because of the ignorance of the voters.

At first, I thought that he was having me on. Then I came across the following article on the “MailOnline”, the on-line website of the Daily Mail in the UK.

If the article is accurate about voter’s intelligence and the part that it plays in the democratic process, then our democratic systems are in serious trouble. It is the easiest thing in the world to keep people ignorant (or give them wrong information so that they cannot become properly informed). And if this is a tactic being used to subvert democracy, then we are even worse off than we think.

Is this the reason democracy can’t work? Study find humans are too dumb to pick the right person to lead us

by Leon Watson (

It’s a study that would have been music to the ears of Hitler, Stalin and the rest of the 20th century’s brutal dictators.

But it may make uncomfortable reading for the rest of us.

Scientists have suggested the theory of democracy has an unfortunate flaw – that most of the public are just too stupid to pick the right candidate.

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are battling it out to win the right to take on Barack Obama in a democratic vote. But will the American public decide on the best candidate?

According to the theory, the democratic process relies on the assumption that a majority of citizens recognise the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.

But a growing body of research has implied that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

Research led by Professor David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas.

For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them.

Prof Dunning said: ‘Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognise how good an idea is.’

Research has suggested democratic elections give people choice, but may not produce the best result in terms of the quality of candidate elected

He and colleague Professor Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now of New York University, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills.

Whether the researchers are testing people’s ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess, the duo has found that people always assess their own performance as ‘above average’ — even people who, when tested, actually perform at the very bottom of the pile.

‘We’re just as undiscerning about the skills of others as about ourselves. To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people,’ Prof Dunning said.

Not a democrat: Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler believed power and authority should be concentrated at the centre of government and in the hands of a superior leader, namely himself, not among the people

The reason for this disconnect is simple: ‘If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others,’ Prof Dunning said.

Strangely though, in these experiments, people tend to readily and accurately agree on who the worst performers are, while failing to recognise the best performers.

Truly ignorant people may be the worst judges of candidates and ideas, Prof Dunning said, but we all suffer from a degree of blindness stemming from our own personal lack of expertise.

Dr Mato Nagel, a sociologist in Germany, recently implemented Prof Dunning and Prof Kruger’s theories by computer-simulating a democratic election.

In his mathematical model of the election, he assumed that voters’ own leadership skills were distributed on a bell curve — some were really good leaders, some, really bad, but most were mediocre — and that each voter was incapable of recognising the leadership skills of a political candidate as being better than his or her own.

When such an election was simulated, candidates whose leadership skills were only slightly better than average always won.

Dr Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders.

Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they ‘effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.'”


About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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3 Responses to Democracy…..can the masses be trusted with it?

  1. Pingback: Why Yanis V is wrong about his democratic renaissance in Europe | Thoughts on European Politics & Economics

  2. Pingback: Democratise Europe!….can it be done? | Thoughts on European Politics & Economics

  3. Pim says:

    Hello Peter,

    Thanks for the research. It looks rather convincing to me. May I draw your attention to the little book of Laurence J. Peter called the Peter Principle.

    In a certain section of his book (I recall from memory) he argues that the feudal management system actually worked better that our present day democratic management system.

    His study is about competence. In our democratized management system everybody is entitled to rise through his organization until he reached his level of incompetence.

    In the feudal system your place in society was determent by birth, which meant that certain top positions weren’t available for commoners, but remained reserved to the aristocracy.

    This meant that a lot of clever people never could reach their full potential as we like to describe it to-day, but remained very capable in their jobs and did there very useful work.

    To-day there is a lot of talk about the glass ceiling for female workers and the necessity to smash that.

    I’ m in doubt. I see a lot of competent female workers doing useful work. Smashing the ceiling could easily result in more female workers joining the old boys network and (being unable to destroy that) reach their level of incompetence.

    Since I’m at it, I believe that our friend Yanis is a very competent academic, but he reached his level of incompetence the moment he accepted the job of finance minister. 🙂


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