Small wonder that the issue of an informed democracy and educated voters has raised its head. In the United States most voters don’t know which party controls Congress, what Congress does or what is happening to the economy. Few voters anywhere – and not too many politicians – know how governments fund social security. Practically nobody in the world understands the basis of modern economics. And yet we all vote to decide who shall take the political, social, economic and strategic decisions that determine our security, prosperity and future. Is it time we put educating voters at the top of our priority list? Should we modify democracy – possibly quite substantially?
Many people don’t want educated voters. They prefer to stir up emotions, rabble-rouse and incite rather than reason. For them control comes through feelings, not facts. Mr Trump appears to be such a person. Like the lion-tamer at the circus he wants to crack a whip to display his power. No sensible, decent persuasion for him. But what if…
Let’s assume for a moment that Trump becomes a really sensible, careful President, abandoning the more outrageous of his campaign claims. Let us further suppose that luck is on his side and the world economy picks up steadily, that the geopolitical bear traps that surround him don’t clobber him and that we have a relatively peaceful four years for his first term. I don’t believe any of this but let us suppose. We will then have a major problem to deal with – lies. Because, were all that to happen, we would be faced with a situation in which a majority of the US electorate were duped by what turned out to be lies.
My early career was spent in the hey-day of advertising. Advertisers made claims they cannot make today like “Guinness is good for you”. I even remember a little ditty that went “Old soldiers never die; they all smoke Army Club, that’s why”. Unbelievable. Rules subsequently made it necessary to prove claims – one of the reasons why conventional media advertising is so pallid today. Political claims are not subject to any such rules, presumably because it is thought that people have enough sense to distinguish hyperbole from fact. The recent presidential election in the United States suggests otherwise.
To state a policy and start to reverse it once elected, even before taking office, is to insult the voters. It sends an appalling message to the young. It raises expectations that can never be fulfilled – and the failure to do so will result in injury and death. It convinces heads of foreign states that the candidate is weak and ripe to be taken advantage of. It risks nuclear attack.
Since politicians are unlikely to vote themselves a muzzle, voters must be educated to handle and qualify promises and threats made in the heat of election campaigns. What then are they to base their judgments of candidates on? A man’s word surely has to be his bond at important times.
Whether that will ever be true again or not we need voters educated to make rational and not just emotional judgments. Failing that we need educated voters to have a greater say in our democracy. Above all we need commitment to the welfare of our country to qualify the people best able to steer it. Elitist? Certainly, but I see no harm in the elite having a greater say provided the chances of becoming an elite are reasonably equal.
We make education address our economic needs. It is high time we made it address our social and political needs too.