Democracy and Old School Technology
Democratic procedures and modern electronic screen technology are not a good mix, for at least two reasons. First, after the 2016 election it is reasonable to conclude that the hard copy/paper method of voter record keeping is better than electronic record keeping, for two good reasons: privacy and vote count accuracy. Electronic records get hacked all the time, and no matter how good the anti-hacking software becomes, the hackers continue to find ways to break in to voter databases. When the secret ballot is no longer secret, democracy fails. Privacy is eroding everywhere, mainly due to two interrelated factors: the Internet and surveillance technology.
The invasion into privacy leads to a question: what is the most important private act in a democracy? The secret ballot! And the only fairly foolproof way to keep each voter’s ballot secret is to keep the ballot and all voter records on paper, not in electronic databases.
Americans do not have very good voting percentages, compared to voters in other democracies, and our poor turnout could get even worse. Polls show that young Americans are increasingly disenchanted with democracy, and increasingly cynical about politics and politicians. Many young Americans do not believe that there are any benefits of living in a democracy! Evidence of hacking into voter databases and the possible fraudulent electronic manipulation of votes will only increase disillusionment with democracy.
Second, eliminate televised debates and visual political advertising. Research on voting shows that many people vote on the basis of physical characteristics; for example, they vote for the more facially attractive candidate, or the taller candidate. Political debates and ads should be broadcast by radio only, forcing people to pay attention to what each candidate has to say. Of course candidates will still make personal campaigns stops, so visual cues cannot be eliminated completely. Nonetheless, taking television out of politics will increase the dignity and seriousness of the political process.
Marrying democratic politics and television (and now social media) has degraded politics to the level of spectator sports entertainment. Now people identify with politicians and political parties the way they identify with sports teams: My party is good (simply because it is my party), and your party is evil (simply because it is not my party)! The Founding Fathers would be appalled. They wanted voters to take voting seriously- a sentiment supported by sacrifice since they has just fought a revolution for representative government. Somehow we need to remind ourselves that voting is a privilege that can be taken away. Separating politics from entertainment and sports would be a good start.
An even more radical step supportive of the old-school technology changes would be mandatory voting. All citizens should share in voting, the basic act of maintaining democracy, and mandatory voting is a means of assuring this maintenance. Mandatory voting (enforced by very minor sanctions) has not harmed the democratic process in other democracies, and it typically results in very high voter turnout. Presumably, citizens knowing that they have to vote would increase the rational comparisons required to make educated choices.
Anything that erodes and denigrates the procedures and seriousness of voting is a threat to democracy. Screen technology can lead to totalitarianism. We were warned by two prominent mid-20th Century writers: George Orwell in 1984, and Francois Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451. In 1984 all citizens were required to keep their televisions on 24 hours a day. This had two effects. The televisions were both content providers and surveillance devices. Consequently the dictatorial government knew what all citizens were doing at home- there was no privacy. Of course citizens knew they were being observed so any potential dissent never began. Additionally, the content delivered was a restricted, government controlled combination of low-brow entertainment and pro-government propaganda that constantly rewrote history, since the media was simply a branch of the dictatorship.
It hasn’t gotten this bad in the United States yet, but it is very possible to see how we could get there from where we are now.
Anthony Stahelski can be reached at [email protected]