Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

How does democracy really work?

How do people decide who they are going to vote for in a national or local election? It's a big question and the focus of much thought by political hacks and pollsters but I suspect it boils down to several "simple" questions:

* Does the incumbent have my trust?
* Does the popular consensus on the candidate's ideology match my own political instincts?
* Which way are my important social connections leaning?
* Has any of the candidates done something or evoked some proposal I find deplorable?
* Has any of the candidates improved my sense of well-being?

The rest of the political debate is mumbo-jumbo as far as I can tell. Very few people have the time or inclination to obtain expertise in any of the areas of policies that wonksters find endlessly engaging to debate. And more importantly: Expertise in most of the business of government (economics, laws, foreign policy, military, social policy) does not itself lead to a rational choice.

I'm not discounting the intelligence or wisdom of experts per se. Yet it's a fallacy to trust their judgement because a) measuring the effectiveness of political policy is not empirical, b) political efficacy is not measured on a single axis and c) politicians lie. The major problem is often the reductionist approach taken to analysing strategic choices in a complex system where our individual powers of influence are limited. Often the only levers government has to pull are blunt and overarching (e.g. taxation, military invasion, social welfare).

So discounting expertise as an input for electoral choice seems to be the rational decision given the limited scope for any real expert driven decision making.

In lieu of expert advice, we only have punditry as a source of analysis and wisdom. Punditry can be as overtly partisan as a newspaper op-ed, church sermon or documentary film or it can be subtle in the way a debate is framed across a media spectrum. For example, focusing several weeks of dialogue on the role of the candidates in a war that took place more than 30 years ago is a sublime piece of punditry.

As pundit consumers, we generally shop around 'till we find some voice that affirms our own innate beliefs and alignment. We also become selective about the medium we trust. Whether it's online news, blogs, sermons in Church / Mosque / Synagogue, TV news, radio talk shows, MTV, late night comedy or whatever. What most of these mediums have in common is that they generally operate as one-way conduits of opinion which make them uncomfortable to consume for any length of time. We cannot argue how wrong they are with them or contradict the facts or logic that drove them to those conclusions.

Yet consuming punditry is a means by which we arm ourselves for the debates with real people (whether face-to-face or online). The blog medium is a technocratic mechanism that does this very well. Each post says, "Hey look at this. This is why I believe X. I couldn't have articulated it myself / Here is how I built my views." Each blog is a propaganda channel designed to frame the debate in a way that gives credence to the publishers' ideology. The response mechanism is still limited and is rooted in a power struggle between publisher and reader. Cross-linking doesn't alter this as evolutionary selection generally leads to a network of clusters of opinion which are aligned.

Meta-sites, discussion boards and real life debates offer an opportunity to break through the partisan divide but the same impulse that turns off punditry, not in tune with our own beliefs usually means the population at such points of engagement gravitates towards a common political alignment. Exceptions do exist: The Independent's forums (which I can no longer find) used to have heated and often repetitive discussions between Israeli sympathisers and the (mostly) Muslim anti-Zionists (of which no doubt some were anti-Semitic).

So given expertise, punditry and debate are tools to reinforce or entrench an already established political position most of the time the original questions above seem to be a valid narrowing of how electoral choices are made.

OK need to examine each of these questions in detail. How is trust gained or lost? How are political alignments established within a social clique? How do societies reach a consensus on a political position (if they ever do)? Big questions but asking them is a good first step (I guess).