The American hypothesis

I have a hypothesis on politics – a somewhat unfortunate hypothesis given its implications. Roughly speaking, it’s this: the workability of democracy diminishes with large populations. I’m not talking about the logistics of holding elections, but about the ability of society to engage in meaningful debate.

My reasoning goes like this. Insofar as I can tell, in any given (relatively democratic) country, the media tends to focus predominantly on the national politics of that country. At the same time, there are of course a variety of political parties and interest groups seeking to alter public perception for their own ends. We can think of this in two parts:

  1. the effort expended on politically-charged adverts, campaigns, editorials, etc.; and
  2. the resulting effects on the public mindset.

Due to mass media (TV, radio and the Internet), a fixed amount of “effort” will probably yield the same result, independent of the population size. That is, the effectiveness of a single TV ad will not diminish simply because more people are viewing it.

However, countries with larger populations will naturally have a higher talent pool from which to draw people to promote particular causes. Thus, more effort will be expended on political advertising, campaigns, editorials, etc., and so the effect on the public mindset will be greater. (I also assume that the proportion of people employed to promote particular causes is independent of population size.)

Now, we might naïvely assume that all this political advertising “balances out”, since there’s always an array of competing interests. I say this is naïve, because all efforts to promote political causes have one thing in common – one thing that can’t easily be balanced out: deception. I’m not only talking about outright lies (though it does come to that with tedious regularity), but also errors of omission, logical fallacies, appeals to emotion and any other psychological tricks used to blunt your critical thinking. They’re not even necessarily deliberate.

Without wanting to generalise, there are certainly a subset of PR people, political strategists and so on who do seem to hold an “ends justifies the means” view. These are the people who really feed the political machine, who take things out of context, invent strawmen, engage in character assassination, and generally pollute the political debate with outrageous propaganda. The larger the population, the more of these people there will be, and so the louder, better organised, more pervasive and more inventive the disinformation.

The effect of disinformation is to disconnect public perception from reality. At at sufficient level this would cripple democracy, because democracy relies on the people having at least some understanding of government policy and its consequences.

I can’t comment too much on India – the world’s largest democracy – because I honestly know very little about it.

I don’t claim much expertise on American politics either, but I suspect the US is suffering this affliction. To me, American politics now seems to languish in a state of heated anachronism. The political machine instantly suffocates any sign of meaningful debate with ignorant fear and rage. You’re still perfectly able to exercise your rights to free speech and free expression, but it’s not going to achieve anything. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to climb above the fray, the media sometimes treats political debate more like a sporting match than a tool of democracy. I’m sure there is an element of this in every democratic country, but in the US it seems to be boiling over.

It might pay to consider this if we intend to move towards a World Federation, as science fiction often proposes, and which appeals to me intuitively. Of course, a “One World Government” is the nightmare-fantasy shared by so many conspiracy theorists. However, the danger is not that the government will have too much control, but that even with our rights fully protected, democracy will nevertheless be pummelled to oblivion by global armies of political strategists and PR hacks.

Just a thought.