Democracy as a beauty contest

A long time ago, I wrote a fictional news article of an election in the East-european state of Syldavia and how they dealt with the continuing problem of having two similar political blocs fighting over a small decisive vote to win political power for the next term – as is seen in so many of the Western democracies these days.

Now I’ve finally found the relevant theory to explain why this model with two blocs of like alternatives has come about. The term is “deliberate democracy” and it was coined by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1943 monography “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”. In it he writes:

The democratic principle merely means that the reins of authority are handed to those who win greater political support than their political opponents. […] The voters’ primary function is to pick a government to rule.

That is to say: Democracy is not about representing different classes or interests, it is all about making a choice, picking a leader, the better candidate in political beauty contest. To hand power to one group rather than the other to ensure that the business is well run. Not unlike when the shareholders and the board of directors convene to pick a new CEO.

In Schumpeter’s view, Western democracy would sooner or later converge on the pattern seen in the US and the UK with two big parties with each their own leader candidate vying for dominant political power. And that is what we are seeing today where voters no longer see themselves as part of a class or a special demographic with political values aligned to specific political parties.

Instead they are free to shop for values or personal qualities that they appreciate. Parties and leaders no longer seek to legitimize themselves through their representative function, but rather through their ability to lead.

This leads to the kind of election run-ins we see today where parties no longer market themselves on ideology or programs, but rather on general values personified in their leaders and on their general competence as leaders. In essence the message of these political campaigns are: “Our man is better than theirs.”

This focus on leadership values is reflected in the way that these political parties end up governing. Schumpeter aptly describes how the democratically elected leader’s troubles:

You can suitably compare the prime minister in a democracy with a jockey who is so busy staying in the saddle that he cannot plan his route – or a general who is so preoccupied making sure that his army follows his commands that he is forced to let the overall strategy take care of itself.

As pessimistic as this sounds, I’m afraid that this is quite close to the truth. Most political leaders seem to be so taken with appearing strong and proactive in their daily leadership that they fail to build a vision and ambition for the longer-term. This is partly due to incessant polling that takes place on every single political issue and visibly forces the government’s hand on issues where the public has strong opinions.

As Neil Postman points out in his book Technopoly, polling may be accurate, but that does not mean that it is useful. The public’s “opinion” will almost always be a function of the question asked. It all depends on how you phrase and interpret the questions on which the poll is based, as well as how much of the context surrounding the question that you choose to ignore:

[…] let us imagine what we would think of opinion polls if the questions came in pairs, indicating what people “believe” and what they “know” about the subject. If I may make up some figures, let us suppose we read the following: “The latest poll indicates that 72 percent of the American public believes we should withdraw economic aid from Nicaragua. Of those who expressed this opinion, 28 percent thought Nicaragua was in central Asia, 18 percent thought it was an island near New Zealand, and 27.4 percent believed that ‘Africans should help themselves,’ obviously confusing Nicaragua with Nigeria. Moreover, of those polled, 61.8 percent did not know that we give economic aid to Nicaragua, and 23 percent did not know what ‘economic aid’ means.” Were pollsters to inclined to provide such information, the prestige and power of polling would be considerably reduced. Perhaps even congressmen, confronted by massive ignorance would invest their own understandings with greater trust.

Thus, if politicians were less concerned about constantly looking good in random polls, they might actually get something done. In Schumpeter’s view they wouldn’t have to worry too much about whether they would get reelected or not, since their political opponents would be implementing much the same political agenda in any case. That would of course mean that to some extent it would cease to be a democracy. Though Schumpeter would argue that that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.


Jørgen Møller: “Helt efter bogen” – Weekendavisen, 2.-8. december 2005

Neil Postman: “Technopoly” – Vintage Books, New York 1993.

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