“You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate/As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize.” So yells Coriolanus, in Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, cursing the plebeians who have banished him from the city. His hatred for the common folk is palpable — but by no means is it without historical precedent. The patrician’s contempt for the people has existed in every form of government since Roman times, and our most recent democratic rendition is no exception. Therefore, I was not entirely surprised reading a recent column in the News (“Participation isn’t perfection,” Feb. 4) lamenting unqualified voter participation, and calling for a form of lazy democracy where uneducated voters stay at home while the real, smart guys decide elections. This attitude is wrong for several reasons.
Underlying such arguments is what I term the Patrician’s Fallacy: The notion that those who are most qualified, educated or privileged in any other respect will make the best decisions in elections. Conversely, this fallacy presumes that normal, uneducated people are imbeciles incapable of rational self-interest at the best of times, while bloody nuisances to the democratic process at the worst.
Experts are more flawed, and common people more intelligent, than you think. Take Ben Carson for example. The Yale-educated (alas!) neurosurgeon farcically opposes evolution. If that doesn’t convince you, think only of the legions of creationist scientists who abuse the scientific method for their own motives. Ideology constrains the reason of those we generally consider intelligent. Alternatively, an underpaid street cleaner probably has a better sense of the injustice of low wages than any economist. And he can express that view through the ballot box.
In fact many political scientists cite the “Wisdom of the Crowd” theory as a justification for a wide, unrestricted electorate. The aggregated wisdom of diverse opinions tends mathematically to produce better results than a more homogenized pool of voters. It would seem that even your slightly racist distant uncle has a part to play in the larger scheme of popular democracy.
The lazy democracy theory ignores that voting is a tool to project individual concerns. In this sense, the civic duty of voting is not merely an appeal to a higher social bond, but also an imperative for citizens to assert their own interests, lest other democratic actors overpower them. One reason the democratic process constantly screws over the poor is their lack of voting power. They are ignored, while voting-empowered citizens direct the path of government. This occurs biannually during House elections when low voter turnout of mainly white conservatives propels Republicans into office, who subsequently slash welfare programs and hurt the poor. That’s why democracy might be able to roll on merrily for some but is actually rotten for many. Voting for everyone is the only way to ensure that the conflicts that result from competing societal interests are mitigated, and not exacerbated.
I will freely admit that some participation in the electoral process is harmful (looking at you, Trump supporters). It does not follow, however, that we should wish these people never participated. Championing the civic duty of all to vote motivates people to protect their legitimate stake in society, which might otherwise be overlooked. If some malcontents are brought to the polls, so be it. The status quo avoids drawing arbitrary and wrong distinctions between equally important voters, distinctions that would perpetuate class divisions and misalign common interests. Democracy is valuable precisely because patricians like Coriolanus no longer dominate the political landscape. It wouldn’t be democracy otherwise.
Adam Krok is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .