A Species of General Disapproval

A Species of General Disapproval

“It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system…”
Alexander Hamilton[1], The Federalist Papers No. 15

Sure, I know that it’s always possible to find a founding father with whom you agree and whittle an intentionally broad or abstract statement into a narrow political view. And so I think the above quotation is broad enough and certainly abstract enough to appeal to a great majority of us—given that congressional disapproval numbers are consistently above 75%. And since I do not intend to talk about political views, I can safely say that we agree: something is wrong. However, what’s wrong is not high unemployment, not declining high school graduation rates, not increasing gas prices, not high poverty rates, not inadequate healthcare, not even that the rent is too damn high. Those are all results of “material defects” like the kind Hamilton refers to, and I argue that we do not have an efficient mechanism to determine what the defects are nor how to fix them.[2] We are a new species—of disapproval—borne from a relentless misrepresentation of facts, too egregious to be ignored.

 Uninformed Electorate

If the unfavorable situations listed above are results of material defects in our national system, high public political disapproval numbers reflect material defects in our nation’s voters.

Much research has focused on our lack of knowledge. In a 2006 research paper on theories of voter behavior, Ilya Somin[3] writes, “More than 40 years after the pioneering work of Philip Converse (1964), political ignorance remains as widespread as ever.” Despite the near-universal acceptance that a great majority of voters possess inadequate or incorrect information, obviously elections do take place. On this phenomenon, Elemendorf and Schleicher note:

Though there is no disciplinary consensus about whether elections “work,” given what voters know, political science has revealed certain mechanisms through which a low-information electorate may behave as if reasonably well informed. To the extent that the electorate performs well, the credit is largely due to political parties, and to the statistical properties of aggregation (which can neutralize uninformed votes). At their best, political parties provide voters with simple, reliable, and easily learned cues about candidates’ ideology and policy preferences.

In other words, in the best case, voters may have a vague idea about what to expect if that candidate were elected should that candidate be a simple representation of a broad ideology and then act perfectly in line with the national party. In practice, we see that candidates are complex and continually break outright promises much less live up to ideological expectations—an empirically weak indicator of future behavior. Furthermore, given that recent experimental evidence suggests that informed voters do make better decisions, we can infer that relative to an informed electorate, an ignorant electorate has a lower probability of also being a happy electorate.

Regulating Ourselves

Between the two types of actors in this republic, the citizen voting population and everyone inside the system of checks and balances, the latter group has dedicated a significant amount of their legislative time thinking of ways to prevent themselves from taking advantage of the former group. The timeline of campaign finance reform shows an almost 150 year history of representatives changing the rules of their influence. Among the voting population, there have been diverse efforts made to study the ways citizens learn political information, influence the information they learn, increase the number of people who vote, and rally behind specific causes. If we are indeed this species of general disapproval, this implies that both groups have been unsuccessful.

Last summer, Scott Adams[4], wrote a series of thought exercises for his blog that developed the abstract for a “user interface” of political information easily accessible by all citizens. His idea gained enough attention that he was asked to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal that November. Two days later he posted about how poorly it was received: “Check out the comments if you want to lose all faith in humanity.” Despite the negative reaction to the article, it introduces several intriguing ideas that I will explore on this blog:

Perhaps what we need is a fourth branch of government[5], smallish and economical, operating independently, with a mission to build and maintain a friendly user interface for citizens to manage their government….

Imagine being able to go to one website to see the best arguments for and against every issue, with links to support or refute every factual claim. And imagine that professional arbitrators would score each argument. A good judge can believe a defendant is guilty and still rule that the prosecutor didn’t make his case. Arguments can be graded for context, accuracy and logic….

A cleverly designed user interface could compare the positions of your elected representatives to the opinions of smart citizens who have done their homework, and to experts as well….

In theory, the Internet could make the cost of running a campaign almost trivial by modern standards. The new user-interface branch of the government would be in charge of making it easy for voters to see video clips, interviews, debates and useful comparisons of the candidates’ positions.

I think we are in general agreement that such an interface seems like a wonderful idea despite its abstractness. I also understand that there are numerous problems involved in implementing the interface: creating an educationally efficient design, ensuring the ethics of the people overseeing it, maintaining trustworthy contributors, investigating any accusations of malfeasance, and then getting people to actually use it. And I hope that each post in this series will make an incremental step toward finding a general solution.

Now for the grandiose conclusion: In the proximal years following Hamilton’s essays, the citizens of the United States voted on significant changes to the structure and power of this country’s legislature. I hope that through identification and discussion of our current material defects we will be able to make the significant and major changes we find necessary.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Under the pseudonym Publius. The Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay shortly after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. The “national system” to which Hamilton refers is the one under the Articles of Confederation. The federalist papers were written in support of a document, then freshly circulating the states, that would later be ratified as The Constitution of the United States
  2. I intend to go over the Scott Adams piece in detail and eventually propose a legitimate framework that solves for the many obstacles preventing us from getting there
  3. Who I’d like to thank for his correspondence
  4. of Dilbert fame. I credit him in full for inspiring my research into this subject and being the origin of many of these ideas.
  5. The “fourth branch of government” phrase scared a lot of people away from the other merits of the article. I am currently agnostic to a position about who should implement the system, but I will explore that in the future

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  • steve

    excellent article. i’m also a fan of scott adams. His ideas may not all be practical, but are good starting places for discourse.

  • Great read Zach! I appreciate the concept of a peer review model for the legislative arena. However, I think the government is going to need a bit of a shove in the right direction from the private sector. It would be great if the government would help to provide such a tool of their own accord, but there is real fear of subverting themselves. Plus, I do not think many politicians are really savvy enough know how to go about implementing it.

  • Interesting read. Excellent job of evaluating the ideas without wading into the left-right fray.
    I also love the idea that we are unhappy with our candidates because we don’t know enough about representatives before voting them into office.
    I also have to say that this touches on a subject near and dear to my heart: the “fourth estate,” otherwise known as journalism. We’re largely a failure pandering to bases at this point.
    While I enjoy the idea, very few people are going to be in favor of an expansion of government. That is to say that the government telling us about the government has an inherent conflict of interest. We already have a retention rate in congress higher than that of Communist Russia’s governing bodies.
    While the press has its own inherent flaws, I think it’s preferable to have an outside, unconnected body playing that role.
    The huge problem to me right now is that we need to demand more out of our press. That has taken the form of demanding news (I won’t call it journalism) that panders to our world view rather than challenging ideas and the status quo. After all, with every news outlet owned by a corporation, there’s an inherent bias towards bringing in more readers and revenue.
    In the end, the model I prefer is a non-profit model for journalism. Rather than folding journalism into government, take the profit model out of journalism. If you want truly unbiased coverage, be bored to tears by PBS.
    I want to clarify that I’m not saying make CNN tax-free. I’m saying tell news outlets that they don’t have to pay taxes if they are willing to forego profits as well. At this point, given the sad state of the news industry, it’s also the same.

    • ZHD

      Right, Adams immediately turned off a lot of his audience with the “fourth branch of government” phrase. I think you can switch that with: “civic-minded non-profit” and the idea is the same.

      I agree that people aren’t using public mediums like boring old PBS—even though NPR does get a significant number of listeners.

      I’m not sure about the tax implications you mentioned. “foregoing profits” would essentially make it a non-profit. I think the mandate of a corporation is to maximize profit, so there’s an inherent conflict.

      As I progress in posts I think we will start to see what sort of organization needs to implement an idea like this.

      As a journalist yourself, maybe you could go Will McAvoy style and start your mission to civilize.

  • Great idea! But if you could implement this in a way that doesn’t take the form of an additional branch of government, how would you do it?

    • ZHD

      Thanks! There are a lot of unanswered questions right now. I have a general idea of where I want to write to, and hopefully discussions along the way will make things more clear. There’s a nonzero probability I hit a wall and can’t come up with a good way to implement it, but there is quite a bit of interesting stuff to write about before then.

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