Last week on Wednesday, April 2, the Supreme Court made a ruling on the McCutcheon v. FEC case, which resulted in the striking down of limits on overall federal campaign donations set since the 70s. It was a 5-to-4 decision to drop the limit on the total money a single person is allowed to contribute to a spectrum of candidates. Whereas before the decision, you were allowed to contribute only a few thousand dollars in total per year, now you’re permitted to contribute as much as you’d like so long as no single political recipient receives more than a few thousand.
There has been some rather tremendous wailing and gnashing of teeth about this decision, which was a bit puzzling to me at first. Prior to the ruling, if you were crazy-rich and you wanted to buy an election, all you had to do was fund a super-PAC. Now, you’re still limited in what you can contribute to any single campaign directly, you just aren’t limited in how many campaigns to which you can contribute at any given time.
So why all the angst? Because it’s a well-accepted axiom of politics that he or she who wields the most money statistically over time will win more elections. Why? Because of three problems with humans.
The Three Problems
Unfortunately, most people just believe the first thing they hear. They believe what sounds right to them without examining the evidence. Then all future data gets filtered by the premature decision. This is a normal human trait, not limited in scope. It unfortunately affects nearly all of us. In pre-history, it served early humans well because most of the time if something quacked like a duck and walked like a duck, it was probably a duck. Assuming there’s a duck behind the bushes without concrete evidence saved early man a lot of time, and rarely were the negative consequences of being wrong a big deal.
The second problem, also a normal human trait with which nearly all of us are afflicted, is tribalism. This was also something that served pre-history humans well. It’s at the root of where racism comes from. “That guy looks like me, talks like me, lives near me, and believes much the same things I do, therefore he’s part of my tribe.” Being part of a tribe means you’re not alone; you’ve got a support group. When you go hunting, you do so in a hunting party, which means you’re far more likely to eat.
Humans have a tendency to be far more motivated by what they fear than what they desire. Imagine the caveman on a hunt for food. He sees a deer and prepares to attack, but out of the corner of his eye he thinks he might spot a bear behind a bush. He’s not sure the bear’s there. He didn’t get a good look. Despite being hungry, it’s better to hold off on going after the deer that he can clearly see if there’s a chance a bear might be nearby. Fear trumps desire.
But much like the believing the first thing you hear problem, tribalism has its downsides. If the tribe believes something, you’re going to believe it too, and you’ll be willing to fight to defend the tribe. We can see this today in religion, politics, and even science. We spawn tribes out of the most ridiculous things because when we’re in a tribe, we’re comforted. When strangers meet for the first time, listen to what they talk about: their jobs, their hobbies, and their tastes. Then notice what happens to any 2 or more who determine a shared subject. They become a tribe. This is what fads are all about: people wanting to be part of the new tribe.
The third problem is that despite how much we want to believe the noble Jeffersonian ideal that everyone can become educated and intelligent, the truth is that there’s a sizable percentage of the population who is really stupid. It’s not nice to say so, and it’s politically incorrect to point it out, but it’s unfortunately true.
As an example of this, the National Science Foundation in February released a study that showed that 1 in 4 Americans think the sun goes around the Earth. I wish I were joking. I’m not.
A quarter of Americans surveyed could not correctly answer that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, according to a report out Friday from the National Science Foundation. … To the question “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth,” 26 percent of those surveyed answered incorrectly.
Remember back in school taking multiple choice tests? If you got to a question with four possible answers for which you didn’t know the correct answer and you guessed, you’d have a 25% chance of guessing correctly (assuming you picked your answer purely at random). If there were only 2 possible answers, then you’d have a 50% chance. So let’s say you have a multiple choice test with only a single question with only 2 possible answers. If no one knew the correct answer and guessed, then you’d expect to see about 50% of folks pick the correct answer.
So when the National Science Foundation reports that about 26% of folks surveyed answered incorrectly on a multiple choice question with only 2 possible answers, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that 52% of Americans don’t actually know the answer. Think about that: over half the country doesn’t understand a basic science fact known for centuries.
The Flaw in Democracy
If over half the country doesn’t understand a basic science fact known for centuries, how well do you think this half of the population is going to understand topics like economics, climate science, engineering, or governance? How well will this half of the population understand how businesses work or how the government works?
This does make for entertaining television, though. It means comedians like Jimmy Kimmel can make a video of people who think “Obamacare” is bad but “The Affordable Care Act” is good.
The problem is: These nice and well-meaning folks vote. This represents a fundamental flaw to democracy. The democracy of Athens quickly descended into a mob, but at least they sat around in an arena to listen to oral arguments. Today, we pick up tidbits of hearsay and form firmly held political beliefs. We cluster into tribes and fight against anything our tribe doesn’t like.
Technology Makes It Worse
Remember those Athenians? They congregated in an arena to listen to oral arguments. Why? Well, because they didn’t have television or Facebook. There was a necessity to physically collect together and listen to speeches because there were few practical alternatives. As a result, the Athenians at least were “informed” of the issues prior to casting votes.
There were still lots of other flaws in their system. I’m not trying to sugar-coat. I’m just pointing out that with advances in technology, we have an increasing ability to be detached from self-education. Propaganda can be more easily distributed and more quickly consumed. Given that we’ll believe the first thing we see or hear, and then filter everything that comes later, a fact-check web site or other follow-up analysis of any issue post-propaganda will not be completely effective. And if there’s a particular tribe especially invested in one side of the equation, you can expect even more resistance to facts.
Limiting Funding Won’t Fix This
Just as a thought exercise, let’s say we prohibit all campaign funding from all sources. Let’s say out of the treasury we give each political campaign a set amount of money to spend for an election and not a penny more. It would then be in each campaign’s best interests then to try to scare as many people as possible with the most emotionally evocative lies possible, as fast as possible, as early as possible. Fear trumps desire. Voters will more often vote against what they fear than vote for what they want. Given that the first thing we hear tends to stick in our minds, it doesn’t matter if the fact-checkers dump 5x corrective information; we’ll hang on to our fears.
A Bitter Pill
So how do we solve this problem? There’s of course the question of if we even should. Maybe any solution is worse than the problem, and we just need to accept the flaws as unavoidable.
Maybe. But as a thought exercise, let’s say we revoked voting rights from everyone. Let’s say we “disenfranchised” the whole country. Change voting from a right derived from being born (for most) to a privilege earned. Anyone who wants to earn the privilege needs to read some, maybe attend a class, maybe get tutoring, whatever; but ultimately, needs to pass a test. We require a written and practical test to earn a license to drive a car. Why not require a test to earn the privilege of voting?
What’s on the test? Who administers the test? Who grades it? Who ensures everyone interested in taking the test has access to it? How do we ensure everyone who wants to study has the opportunity to do so? Yes, there are a lot of details to work out, and we’d still have tribalism, we’d still be ruled by our fears over our desires, and we’d still fall into the trap of believing the first thing we hear.
Don’t Worry; This Will Never Happen
Relax. This entire blog post is just a thought exercise, really. None of this will ever, ever happen; at least, not in the United States in the next 100 years. There are far too many entrenched powers who would have a great deal to lose. They would spend vast sums of money to spread fear about this proposed change. Despite the fact that most Americans don’t care about government and politics and would rather just ignore it all, the powers that be would spread irrational fear about the sort of world that would result if some folks couldn’t vote instead of the current world in which they don’t vote.