What we get wrong about democracy

In a previous post, I've discussed the fact that elite-thinking and monolithic, mainstream narratives no longer hold as much sway as they once did in determining the general views and ethos of our culture. I shared my opinion that this is, by and large, a positive development in human history, but one that invests us, the people, with more responsibility than ever before. In this context, and in view of the latest UK election, a proper understanding and use of the system of democracy—the power (kratia) of the people (dÄ“mos)—becomes a matter of survival for organized human activity.

The legitimization of demagogy

We have become extremely desensitized for what, in my view, are naked abuses and distortions of the democratic system. We hear politicians, parties and pundits alike talking very matter-of-factly about the need to 'listen to their bases,' to 'take the pulse of their constituencies,' to 'understand what the voter wants,' etc. We have focus groups, polling organizations, marketing consultants and whatnot, all trying to grasp what most voters want, so the candidate's program and rhetoric can reflect those wishes and win elections. In this latest election cycle in the UK, such approach was so extreme that a party's very position on the defining issue of the election was left ambiguous for fear of alienating part of its base.

As you read this, you may be saying to yourself "of course, that's the point of a democracy, isn't it? We want politicians to listen to what the people want." It sounds so self-evident, doesn't it? Yet it isn't; in my view, it is in fact a fatal error. We misunderstand democracy so drastically that we don't even know anymore when we contradict it. I don't want a government formed by people without convictions or views of their own, who won an election merely because they were best at doing focus groups so as to mirror my own tentative and uninformed views back to me. This is manipulation, not campaigning; marketing, not politics. This is telling the people what they want to hear anyway, for the sake of winning. We have a word for this: demagogy. Google's dictionary defines demagogy as
political activity or practices that seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.
The point of a democracy is not to choose those who are best at persuasively telling back to us what we want to hear. Such a system merely elects the best liars, manipulators, actors, tacticians, demagogues. Yet we seem to have legitimized demagoguery through the normalization of the notion that politicians should be 'attuned to their base,' or 'know what the people want,' or 'listen to the voters' wishes.' We've replaced convictions, reasoned views and integrity with focus groups, polling and naked manipulation. We've conflated democracy with demagogy. This is a disaster. Not only are we deceived, we now think it is good and proper to be deceived.

In a democracy, I want to vote for people who actually think generally like I do, who share my values and understand my difficulties, for that's the compass that will actually steer them in their job. This is very, very different from wanting politicians to tell me what I want to hear, without any conviction or rationale behind it. An election is not a competition to win a prize or a job (well, at any rate it shouldn't be that), but an opportunity for the population to identify which politicians hold sincere, heart-felt views and positions that happen to resonate with the people. For an election to work properly, it must reveal what views these politicians actually hold, and why they hold them, as opposed to evaluating how well they can attune their program to the results of a focus group.

What else, then?

Okay, so if politicians shouldn't campaign by promising the people what they think they want, what then? How should a democracy work? Who should I vote for, if not those who are telling me what I want to hear?

The core of the democratic system is deputization: to invest a politician with the power to act in our name. To deputize someone entails trusting that he or she will make decisions in our own best interest. Normally, this means that we choose deputies that have our wellbeing at heart, are competent to carry out their responsibilities, and adhere to core values and views that overlap generally with our own. None of this, however, means that the ideal deputy will simply do exactly as we think we would, for in such case he or she wouldn't be a deputy at all: we might as well do the whole job ourselves, instead of entrusting someone to do it in our name.

Why do we deputize attorneys, accountants, financial planners, insurance brokers, doctors, etc., to act in our behalf, instead of dealing with all associated issues ourselves? Because we think they are in a better position—due to education, expertise, experience, availability of time, information, infrastructure, etc.—to deal with the issues, in our best interest, than we ourselves are. I don't have the time, expertise, information or infrastructure to deal with all my tax, insurance, financial planning and health issues myself. I don't have the time or expertise to follow the latest developments in the law, regulations, economy, jurisprudence, medical research, etc., so as to best act in my own self interest. I think my attorney, tax advisor, financial planner, accountant and doctor can best do it for me, so I entrust them to do it; and I think I will be better off for it, instead of trusting my own tentative and uninformed opinions on these matters. Moreover, if it turns out they fail me, next time round I will simply choose someone else, instead of adopting the unreasonable and rather naive position that I could, say, defend myself better in a court of law than a defense attorney, or treat my own medical condition better than a doctor.

In doing so, the very last thing I expect from my attorney, accountant, doctor, etc., is that they will simply do exactly what I tell them to do! That would defeat the point of the whole exercise. Why pay them to help me out if ultimately they won't leverage their own expertise? I don't want to hire monkeys, but thinking human beings instead, who have more knowledge and time to deal with the issues in question. After all, I am busy with a number of other things—my actual life—besides the details of my taxes, mortgage plan, insurance package, the guy suing me, or my medical condition.

That's the essence of a democracy: to deputize someone we trust, who has more expertise, sound judgment and time to deal with society-level issues than we would as individual citizens. In choosing my candidate, I would expect him or her to leverage this time and expertise to look more carefully at the data and arguments in question than I ever could as an individual citizen, and then come to his or her own informed conclusions and decisions in my name, as opposed to merely echoing my own partial judgments and tentative opinions.

The fallacy of direct democracy

The alternative is to do away with deputies and organize ourselves according to some extreme form of direct democracy: every issue would have to be decided by a direct referendum.

Imagine for a moment that this could be logistically practical, which of course it isn't: it would still require that each and every one of us be sufficiently informed about all the relevant data and arguments associated with each issue, in order to make an informed choice. It would require that the entire population—as opposed to a parliament or a cabinet—be properly apprised of everything of significance for the decision. It would require that you took the personal time needed to acquaint yourself with, and ponder, everything of relevance. It would also presuppose that every citizen has the education and cognitive capacity to carry out all these extensive and rather overwhelming evaluations.

This is just impossible. And that's why democracy is based on deputization: it is possible to ensure that a parliament or a cabinet is sufficiently apprised of all data and arguments relevant to the issues, in order to make informed choices. It just isn't possible to ensure that an entire population can play such a role. So we have to entrust deputies, who we believe share our values and general views and are competent to do the job, to act in our name in government.

The consequence, of course, is that these deputies may make choices that differ from the ones we would make, based on our tentative and partial knowledge and understanding of the issues. This is their very job; that's what happens when people have more time and expertise to study an issue: they choose differently than those who don't. Entailed in the trust we grant to our elected officials is the trust that, when they choose differently from what we would, they probably have good reasons to do so; reasons we would understand better if we were as privy to the relevant data and arguments as they are.

The point I am trying to make is not that we should give carte blanche to our elected officials; no. The point is to judge them based on the results they achieve for us, as opposed to whether each particular decision they make matches with the decision we would make ourselves. I don't judge my doctor or my tax advisor based on the specific technical choices they make about my treatment plan or tax filing, but on the results of this treatment plan and tax filing. If, based on these results, their choices prove to consistently go against my best interests, I will pick a new doctor and tax advisor next time round. But if I get good results, I will stick with them even if I don't quite understand or initially agree with the choices they make. That's the point: I trust they have more expertise and time to study the issues and make better choices for me.

Final thoughts

As I discussed in an earlier post, it is a good thing that delusions held by previous generations are being shattered: elites don't always know best; we must make up our own minds about the issues we care most about in our lives, such as e.g. our metaphysical positions. However, we can't possibly expect ourselves to be sufficiently informed and cognizant of everything. Running a city, a state or a country is a very complex task that requires deputization; it is a demanding, difficult, full-time job, not something we can do on the side, next to everything else in our normal lives. It is frankly quite naive and presumptuous to think otherwise, in a world that is facing so many extremely complex problems.

The power we hold in a democracy is not to decide on every issue ourselves—or to expect that a politician always does exactly as we would, despite his or her having more time and access to information to ponder the issues—but to deputize someone we trust and resonate with to look after our interests. Our power resides also in our ability to choose differently next time round, if the results achieved disappoint us.

The problem is that, now more than ever before, many of the relevant results are long-term ones that can't be judged properly at the end of a term. Often, reckless economic choices may in fact improve the economy on the short term, just to wreck it on the long run. Global issues, such as climate change, are also long-term ones: they can be comfortably ignored until, suddenly, catastrophe is upon us. This increasingly significant reality doesn't fit naturally with relatively short political cycles and may become a key problem for our democratic system: it creates more space for demagoguery and threatens the very survival of organized human activity.

Democracy has many other problems as well. Arguably, it levels society out at its lowest cognitive degree, since only arguments that can be understood and embraced by a majority can win elections. Unfortunately, however, truth doesn't always correlate with simplicity and appeal. And the room democracy creates for demagoguery, as discussed above, isn't a new problem either: while the long-term character of our issues today may have worsened the problem, democracy is structurally vulnerable to those who prey on people's prejudices and simplistic views. After all, it's much quicker and simpler to check whether politicians promise to do what we think we would do in their place, than whether they can achieve the (long-term) results that will actually improve our wellbeing. It is so simple to high-five, just before falling into a precipice, the guy who took us exactly in the direction we wanted to go, although he knew (or should have known) of the precipice, whereas we didn't.

So let us not be naive here: democracy is a deeply and structurally flawed system. What it has going for it is that everything else we can think of is even more structurally flawed, which is a rather decisive differentiation. So yes, we may have the least problematic governing system available, but that doesn't mean we have a good system. We shouldn't inadvertently translate our pride in our democracy—a form of government achieved at great cost over generations—into naive and dangerous complacency with its gargantuan flaws. On the contrary, I believe we should be very critical and alert, for democracy can take us straight to hell if we don't continuously pay attention to its inherent flaws in an almost paranoid manner. We are not driving a reliable vehicle here, so we should always take precautions, such as having a tool box and parts for repairs on the road, first-aid kit at hand, extra fuel in jerrycans, and perhaps even a satellite phone to call for help as a last resort. Our situation is rather precarious.


  1. Really, ever since the prevailing paradigm of materialism took firm hold of the collective ethos, has it ever been other than the blind leading the blind? It's only relatively recently that we're coming to realize that whoever may be deputized, while operating within this problematic mindset, can only be, at best, like some pied piper who can play the 'instrument' and the 'tune' well enough so as to compel us to faithfully follow. Alas, lately, with the cliff edge nigh, many have that sinking feeling in their very core, without really knowing why, that the tune and its players they've trusted to be true, is not what it appeared to be, and that the price paid is deeply troublesome, as they wonder in confusion how and if it can be changed soon enough.

  2. The issue of the limits of democracy is brought into high relief when the 'deputies of the people' disagree. What to do then? Do we ... no, can we resolve things with a simple device called an election or must we appeal to something else, something larger with a longer view?

    The Six Nations Confederacy of the northeastern US are the indigenous people who gave to Benjamin Franklin many of the ideas (for example, federalism) that became firmed into the political form called the American Constitution and later spread out into the world. These indigenous people also faced the question of what to do when the chiefs disagreed. They decided that that's when the question should be turned over to the Clan Mothers who would be asked, "What is best for the Seventh Generation to come?" -- which is another idea born among indigenous people, now spreading across and struggling to survive in our difficult world.

    No voice has ever inspired me more than the voice of Chief Oren Lyons who is the Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation. It took only hearing a single speech of his to cause me to become a lifelong defender of the forest. Once, in my old traveling and lecturing days about 25 years ago, I sat with Oren on the lawn of the University of Oregon campus and told him of how I had been inspired by his speech. In typical American Indian fashion, he laughed and said, "If you listen to me, you will get into a lot of trouble." Gratefully, I did.

    Many of the issues addressed metaphysically and politically by Bernardo have been pondered spiritually and practically by indigenous people whose deep wisdom has been largely ignored in the mainstream world of materialism. I urge -- I beg -- folks to listen to this extraordinary interview with Chief Oren Lyons, which I guarantee as being absolutely on-point. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_qj5_PUhlo

  3. Perhaps others after us will decide whether democracies will hold sway, or be replaced by other systems, even hybrid and transitory ones?

    As human migration has taken place regularly throughout time, not to mention aggressive invasions from other nations or peoples, future generations typically provide an influx of other ideas and cultural norms that may be influential in shaping and changing a nation’s destiny, including its politics. Today we are always encountering the Other, no?

    With social influxes and turnovers, not only might cultural clashes develop and ensue, it may also be useful to reflect on what kinds of cultural sources might contribute to demagoguery on one hand, or excessive liberalism on the other, for example. But in the end, enlightenment happens in its own time — according to the circumstances of individuals, and not societies collectively. As much as some of us seem to insist on “unity,” that is nothing but a kind of psychic glue (recalling Nietzsche’s horror of the herd mentality). In the end, it appears that God much prefers harmony to unity.

    Additionally, re influx and change — while imperfect, John Glubb’s essay “The Fate of Empires” features his own personal view of historical patterns, but is still worthy to consider today, as a template that can be modified or further elaborated. Of course, Spengler had already sensed historical patterns (in his “Decline of the West”), but much earlier on, ancient Indian texts, on the yugas for example, had also laid out some indicative scenarios that are surprisingly in sync today — including such details as songs with obscene lyrics being performed in public places in a declining civilization!

    Some in the “enlightened” Western world might say that since “victors tend to write up history” in tribute to their own vanity, we can dismiss efforts like Glubb’s or Spengler’s. However, I think Glubb's provocative text seems designed to challenge expedient views. For those interested, here is a link:


  4. Democracy remains the best option simply because no other credible alternative has been invented.

    All political systems evolve and that means what Democracy might have been 50 years ago it is not today because society has changed.

    A major problem with democracy today is that many politicians are inexperienced, and yes, too young, and have had little experience of the world, but instead have been churned out of a party machine instead of having been moulded by the experiences of life.

    Yes, someone can be older, experienced and not at all wise but the fact remains that NOTHING but nothing beats experience for providing the possibility of wisdom, perspective, common sense and strategic decision-making.

    Holding our politicians and parties to account is critical if we are to play a part in the evolution of the democratic system, as indeed we must.

    1. Rosalyn,

      You say, "Democracy remains the best option simply because no other credible alternative has been invented."

      I wonder if you have watched the Oren Lyons video?

  5. I think that you are selling Direct Democracy short:


  6. Taking a broader view, perhaps it's really about the species Homo sapiens not knowing how to act collectively as a planetary citizen. If so, no politics will solve it and surely not mass populism, centrist incrementalism or elitist expertise. Lao Tzu wisely observed that there never was a big problem that could not have been solved when it was small but that time has passed. It's already bigger than politics. This is not despairing or defeatist. It's a call toward reducing the casualties, healing and regeneration as the most important and readily-available work for all in their uniquely individual ways. But first we must turn away from expecting leaders to do it for us.

  7. It seems that part of the solution could be to minimize the role of the government. I think education and health care for example, could be better administered by the private sector. Understandably not everyone has faith in the ‘free markets’ ability to do a better job then the government.

    The flaws of democracy could be lessened by lessening government's oversight. Libertarianism isn’t a panacea, merely a restriction on politicians ability to control lives and need to demagogue.

  8. Various dilemmas, trade-offs and paradoxes face us in politics. Technocratic oligopolies do not make the same sort of mistakes that direct democracies do, but both make mistakes. Trying to balance out these various factors is an odd sort of epistemological challenge - how do we discover and implement the best policies? Best according to whom, using what sort of standard? The federalist aspects of the US constitution attempted to make space for some experimentation, but it seems to have failed to deliver much.

  9. Bernardo, in Sam Harris's latest podcast titled The Reality Illusion, you weren't mentioned by name but could (should) easily have been.

    In it Harris is interviewing Donald Hoffman, the UC Irvine professor you reference in your SA article titled The Universe As Cosmic Dashboard.

    The podcast is a bit over 3 hours long and unfortunately the last two hours, in which you were present at least in spirit, are behind a paywall.

    Just wanted to bring this to your attention if it hasn't already been.

    Tidbit: at the very end Hoffman admits to never having used any psychedelics but is pretty clearly open to the idea as Harris (and his wife Annaka) encourage him to try it out.

  10. Absolutely brilliant, Bernardo. I could not agree with you more completely - you have described perfectly what a democratic system of government should be.

  11. Gracious Bernardo I feel so lucky to be able to tag along on your personal development. I have always been a "Doubting Thomas" and that is why I am comfortable with you because you are obviously the same even when looking at your own thoughts and their motivations and from where they originate. One thing we fail to have in modern society is ultimate personal responsibility. That is an extremely nebulous and broad concept but one that is inescapably accurate. If we as individuals in a society continue to make poor personal choices whether it be not brushing our teeth or picking con men to tell us what we want to hear as our leaders we will certainly ultimately be held accountable. I'm 100% OK with that. It is extremely easy for a person to point out a bad airplane landing but to the uninformed it is extremely difficult to accurately analyze and determine why it was bad and what do you do to fix it next time. I personally believe as I think you do it has got to start with a huge change in our world view. My question is how do we go about that? However if "nature takes it's course" we will be changing in a reactive way instead of a proactive way and humans react to problems much more effectively than we proactively react to them. In my case I am looking for a place to "jump in" to the game when the dynamics are right and presently I don't think things have become dire enough to cause the society as a whole to change.

  12. Bernardo, this piece does an excellent job of outlining what Democracy should be. Unfortunately, it seemingly falls short of taking very important factors into account that are impediments to that ideal reality. The most glaring issue is the fact that many of those in power are corrupted by power, or money, or are just outright morally bankrupt humans. How many politicians are beholden to special interests these days and that drives their voting decisions? How many politicians espouse their hatred of gay's, but then get caught having gay sex in bathrooms? Or prevent women's access to abortions, while getting abortions for their mistresses in secret? It doesn't matter if you find a competent accountant, if he or she is spending their time ripping you off, or stealing money from you.

    Beyond that, most people in the US aren't equipped to make the decision about whether or not a politician is actually qualified for their job. How do you determine if Joe Smith is going to be a good Congress person, or Senator? Or member of Parliament? Just because Joe went to a good university? Or because Joe was a successful business man? Most people don't have enough time, resources, or access, to be able to make a determination of the efficacy of someone they elect to political office. They are also beholden to the dozens or even hundreds of other members of their cohort, who are also making decisions. And even then, as you state in your final thoughts, it's extremely difficult to evaluate their efficacy once in office. Humans are notoriously terrible at evaluating someones viability to perform a certain task, which is why we have meaningless specifications for certain jobs, and countless examples of people in positions who are either wholly unqualified, or who make a profound mess of the situation once in that position. Why does having 5 years at a particular position make you more qualified than someone with 3 years? Or 2? Why does having a PhD, or a Masters, make you more qualified than someone with an Undergrad in most cases? Just because someone has a PhD from an esteemed institution, doesn't mean they are going to make good decisions once in elected office. It just means they spent a lot of time doing one particular thing well, and satisfying arbitrary conditions set out by other people.

    I think the end of your piece is the most salient takeaway - we need to continue to reflect on alternatives to Democracy. I am at the point - especially as an American who has suffered under Donald Trump for 4 years - where I don't trust the public to make the right decisions in exercising their Democratic rights. I don't want to get into the pitfalls that people fall into in making electoral decisions, the facts speak for themselves.

  13. (continued as I reached character limit)

    To me, there are two courses of action that would improve outcomes for societies that hold Democratic ideals.

    1. There needs to be a systemic and concerted effort to educate future generations on ethics, philosophy, and critical thought. Regardless of what job they get one day, their ability to make sound, rational, and moralistic decisions is paramount to anything else. The majority of people are not equipped with these skills, and thus, they cannot make strong, reasoned decisions about civic outcomes.

    2. In the mean time, I think it would make sense to move away from a Democracy, and instead, to implement a system of cohorts of experts to run the country. To be honest, I think this would potentially be the best possible outcome of a future government. I've never understood why we need a Representative who is going to come and "listen" to their constituents on what they need done. Perhaps on a local level, there is a need for someone to listen to the constituents that a bridge needs to be built, or that a park would be beneficial, but I don't understand why it's beneficial on a national level. Take a state like California - how is a Senator from California able to listen to what their constituents are saying? How are they going to listen to 10,000 voices, let alone 40 MILLION? It's impossible.

    To me, we should identify areas that government should focus on - Health, economics, environment, defense, infrastructure, etc. We should then form an unbiased, elected group of officials who will select experts to serve on a panel in each of those areas, and make policy decisions around those identified areas. That policy will funnel down to other governmental agencies, and the groups will be in charge of evaluating and measuring outcomes, and planning for the future. So the group that places experts in those groups can be elected by the people, and held accountable based on the outcomes of the country. If people are unhappy with the oversight group, they can vote them out and install new people who will select other experts. If they are happy with their decisions, they can continue to do so into the future - ironing out specifics of tenure and whatnot in the future.

    This way, each area of need for a country is tended to by people who are qualified, thoughtful, invested, and possess expertise on the subject at hand. We don't have lawyers with no background in tech policy, crafting tech policy informed by lobbyists for special interests, we don't have people electing people for a popularity contest, and we have a more efficient, and better guided country for the future.