Dumbing down democracy - the rise of the low-information polity

August 12, 2016

By Paul Malvern |

Some years back I attended a two-day conference on Sufi spirituality held at the University of Toronto. The keynote speaker was the late Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who was at the time the leader of the Sufis in the Western Hemisphere. A warm and wise man, he began his speech by citing Jesus’ statement, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”, adding as an aside that, before that happens, it will first make you very unhappy.

This is a particularly apt warning for those of us committed to the democratic traditions that have made the U.S. and Canada prosperous and stable nations in which freedom and justice are the birthright of every citizen. For there is a growing sense among many that our current democratic systems of government are not all they should be. Nor does political discourse seem as vibrant and intellectually challenging as it once was – a prime example being this year’s U.S. Presidential election cycle which offers more than a few examples of this unhappy truth.

Sadly, such incidents are just the tip of the iceberg – with democratic dumbing down now taking place in virtually all Western nations. In this ‘low information’ Brave New World, election campaigns have become tasteless extravaganzas in which parties and policies are marketed very much as your might sell a box of laundry soap. Candidates are chosen and sold to the public on the basis of their appearance and demographics rather than their grasp of issues or potential for governing well and wisely. Political debate has become increasingly rancorous with charges and counter-charges hurled with little concern for the truth. And the breadth and depth of political discourse shrinks daily as politicians and the media avoid discussing issues that might offend the sensibilities of some special interest group. As a result, honest, open and intelligent discussion of issues is replaced by a stifling conformism that makes dealing with the real problems facing us virtually impossible.

Low Information Citizens

To date, much of the discussion of the ‘dumbing down’ of our political and governmental systems has focused on ‘low-information’ voters – a term which encompasses both those who do not vote and those who do vote but have inadequate information upon which to make a well-informed choice. While originally simply descriptive, this term has over time taken on a nasty, insulting and judgmental quality – being little more than a euphemism for ‘stupid’. In its new role as the ultimate political insult, use of the term seeks to shut down debate and allow those wielding it to feel morally and intellectually superior to others. Those benighted souls who embrace Christianity as a living faith or who hold socially conservative views are all too familiar with how this particular game is played – being frequently characterized as poorly educated rubes, bigots, and anti-sex, anti-science, ‘bitter clingers’ who are unable to understand the complexity of the world they live in.

Even so, there are some gentler spirits out there who are not prepared to consign the great unwashed masses to outer darkness. These enlightened souls view the low information citizen as someone to be embraced and redeemed, not scorned and rejected. For them the low information syndrome cries out for better voter education so those afflicted by it can join the rest of us in happily exercising their democratic rights and responsibilities. One such group of idealists are the officials at Elections Canada, the government body charged with ensuring the integrity of the election process, which also sees a role for itself in encouraging greater citizen participation in national elections. Apparently, this second goal is proving to be a daunting one, given the increasingly jaundiced view many have of politicians, government institutions and the value of voting generally. In an attempt to better understand why so many Canadians do not vote the organization commissioned a major study of non-voters and why citizens are choosing to opt out of the electoral process. Judging from the results, it could not have provided them with very pleasant reading since the clear message from those polled was that they have had it with politicians in particular and government in general. And they feel that elections have become meaningless exercises that have nothing to do with them. The study reported that, “There is a widespread perception that politicians are untrustworthy, selfish, unaccountable, lack credibility, are not true to their word, etc. Similarly, the government, sometimes with a capital "G" and sometimes without, betrays the people's trust, and accomplishes little.” 1

Clearly, not the sort of thing you can build on to restore trust in the country’s political and governmental systems!

Of course, leaving aside the details as of why each approach is problematic, there is a more general problem to consider – namely, that both approaches focus on the supposed failings of citizens and more or less totally ignore how our political and governmental systems may contribute to the situation. And they fail to consider the possibility that many of those who disengage from the political process may have good reasons for doing so.

Profiling the Low Information Voter

So who are these ‘no shows’? And why do they show so little interest in voting or staying abreast of current events?

Studies conducted in the U.S. and Canada show heavy concentrations of disenfranchised citizens among youth and the poor – many of whom see elections as irrelevant to their lives. Sadly, they do have a point. For governments and political parties in Canada and the U.S. often put more emphasis on issues of interest to older and affluent voters who have better access to information and political contacts, a stronger sense of entitlement, and higher voter participation rates. And the points of view of powerful and well-financed lobby groups and those special interests represented in the governing coalition are much more likely to be taken seriously than the concerns of individual citizens, no matter how well they might present them.

In such an environment, those who are the strongest and wealthiest and have the best political clout and connections almost always get the most attention – while those who are poor, powerless and lack patrons to argue their case get further marginalized. Given the seeming hopelessness of their situation, many of them concentrate on those tasks that can make a difference in their lives – such as finding a decent job, paying the bills, and getting a good education and place to live for their kids.

Fostering the Low Information Environment

So if “low-information” behaviour is not the result of some arcane form of original sin on the part of citizens, where does the blame lie? To answer this question, we need to look higher up in the food chain to identify those people who may have a vested interest in fostering the growth of a low-information polity.

As we do that, we need to constantly remind ourselves that there is a huge difference in politics and government between the truth and what is touted as the truth. This means rejecting the sunny picture of politics and government portrayed in high school civics classes in favor of a model that more accurately mirrors reality. For the harsh fact of life is that for many in government and politics, the goal is less about public service than it is about career success, getting power and keeping it. And one of the best ways to achieve these goals involves managing the flow of information to citizens, trumpeting your successes and hiding or spinning your failures. None of which bodes well for the future of our democratic system of government!

Then too, while most governments and politicians may claim to want open, transparent government and extensive public input, the reality is often quite different. For nothing is as terrifying to those in power as a well-informed, fully-engaged citizenry that knows where the bodies are buried, politically-speaking, and is mad as hell. To counter such a threat many politicians and government officials do their best to make sure the public receives as little real information as possible, especially information that might be negative or embarrassing.

Political parties may also attempt – occasionally in concert with their competitors - to keep citizens ill-informed or misinformed. Sometimes this takes the form of partisan attacks and counter-attacks that suppress some facts and distort the importance or meaning of others. At other times, this may involve tacit agreement among parties not to discuss certain issues, as happens with the abortion issue in Canada. And the growing centralization of parties hinders free-wheeling, open discussion by fostering a system in which party insiders develop policies and positions behind closed doors, using party discipline to force rank and file compliance. Teamed with this is the growing tendency to treat elections as marketing exercises rather than opportunities to meaningfully discuss issues and policy options. In this world of political gamesmanship and image polishing, building your brand is all that matters. And the frank discussion of ideas and facts is replaced by crass appeals to emotion. As a result, candidates are chosen and sold on the basis of their likeability, physical appearance and demographics. And mud-slinging and negative advertising is used extensively to damage rivals’ brands.

Many lobby and special interest groups may also seek to limit the information available to citizens. And they may attempt to prevent full-scale debate on issues impacting their area of interest – particularly when those issues involve such controversial matters as abortion, which is portrayed as the exercise of personal choice by a woman rather than the ending of the life of her unborn infant.

In recent years, some journalists have also joined the ranks of the “low-information”, either out of some strong ideological conviction, a lack of commitment or intellectual prowess, or a desire to avoid rocking the boat. Part of this may flow from the media’s increasing use of an entertainment model rather than pursue serious journalism which is invariably difficult, intellectually demanding and time-consuming. Under this new paradigm, many news and public affairs programs now entertain, tranquilize and enrage rather than inform and encourage serious consideration of issues. And some on-air personalities are little more than ‘teeth and hair’, as long-time journalists are wont to describe them. Equally deadly is the flight from objectivity in favor of advocacy journalism where truth becomes whatever your favorite political party or special interest group says it is. Coupled with this is the practice of some journalistic zealots to cherry-pick or distort facts and smear the other side in order to advance their agenda – a practice which mirrors the growing ideological and cultural divide seen in both Canada and the United States.

But while many governments, parties and journalists foster the growth of a low-information polity, they are also unwitting victims of it themselves at times. For example, many career politicians have never had a real job outside of politics, which severely limits their knowledge of ‘real life’ and their grasp of issues. Many senior bureaucrats also have limited knowledge of how the world works outside of Ottawa or Washington. And many journalists are inhabitants of the same bubble in which senior bureaucrats and politicians operate. Those inhabiting this bubble often live in the same neighborhoods, have the same friends and share a similar culture. And they frequently share a similar worldview, which causes them to view alternate opinions as ill-conceived, illegitimate and occasionally even evil. The result is an information deficit and group-think that cripples the policy making process and discourages journalists from exposing bad governmental policies, poorly thought-out political platforms and those incompetents and rogues in government who are less than a credit to their office.

Not a happy picture – to be sure! But at least now we know.

Summing Up

So coming back to our original point - is Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan correct in saying that knowing the truth will make you unhappy? Judging from the realities of our political and governmental systems, he does have a point. But Jesus is also right. For it is only by knowing the truth – not some media-generated fairy tale - that we can ever hope to fix what is broken and restore democracy and citizen participation to their former place of honor. And that’s a hope all of us should cherish and build on.

[1] Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc. Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters. [Ottawa]: Elections Canada, 2003. Retrieved from: http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/tud&document=reasons&lang=e

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.