In the age of information, staying educated and up to date on political issues is pivotal in effectively carrying out one of our most sacred rights: the right to vote. Unfortunately, despite the vast amount of information at our fingertips, a lack of incentives to learn about our system and political polarization inhibit individuals from gaining ample information for elections.
The first problem is that voters severely lack foundational civics knowledge. A national survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation revealed that only 1 in 3 Americans can even pass a multiple-choice test derived from the U.S. Citizenship Test (although the Citizenship Test is notoriously complex and specific). A 2019 survey found that a mere 39% of people can name the three branches of the federal government. These same voters who lack the basic knowledge of our system are impacting which individuals are put into positions of power.
However, even voters that do understand how our system works, fail to grasp the full picture of political issues as a result of the media and their own confirmation bias. Each news outlet now curates content to please their partisan viewer base, leading to media echo chambers. No matter what events occur in our political sphere, if you turn to CNN you get entirely different coverage for an event than what is found on Fox News for that same event. There is nothing wrong with the idea of news being tied with commentary that may be partisan. However, when voters only listen to the media to confirm their own beliefs rather than challenge them, political polarization only worsens.
In our system that is so heavily dependent on making the right decisions for elections, the individuals making the decisions either lack the basic knowledge completely or fail to grasp the full picture. This begs the question of how to go about our lives knowing that there is an ever-widening schism separating us along party lines. Winston Churchill once infamously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. However, looking at other forms of government is effective in finding ways to improve our democracy. One form of government that has been theorized as a new adaptation to a traditional democracy is called epistocracy. Through understanding an epistocracy, we can learn how to address the issues that are entrenched in our system.
What is an Epistocracy?
To start off, this article is not an epistocratic manifesto advocating for a complete political revolution to overthrow American democracy. Rather, I will be exploring an epistocracy in order to view democracy through a new lens and see issues that are often overlooked. Epistocracy, or noocracy as conceived by Plato, has been studied and critiqued since Pythagoras.
Political scientists have theorized many different ways an epistocracy, or the rule of the politically wise, can highlight issues with democracies and inform reforms. The form of epistocracy most fitting to compare to America’s representative democracy is an enfranchisement lottery. In this system, a percentage of all adult citizens would be selected to vote by a random lottery. These voters would then undergo two separate week-long sessions of intensive training. During the first educational session, voters would receive a basic civic education so that all voters in the lottery will have a sufficient understanding of the American government. After each party’s nominee is formalized, voters would return for a second educational session where they would be briefed on the specifics of the two platforms. This education would in no way attempt to sway the views of voters, but instead would present them with concrete facts and knowledge to help them make better-informed decisions. Of course, the United States would not move to an enfranchisement lottery system, but what can we learn from this system?
The pivotal difference between a democracy and an epistocracy is the diversity of information that reaches the voters. Unlike a democracy, voters in an epistocracy hear more than simple talking points. Both parties are forced to dive into the details of their policies so that voters can examine policies with a great deal of scrutiny and then come to their own conclusions. In a democracy, the policies of candidates are often ignored when they have catchy slogans and sound bites. An enfranchisement lottery aims to address the two issues raised in the introduction, lack of knowledge about the way our government functions and asymmetric information.
Benefits of Epistocracy
There are two main benefits to an epistocracy that are relevant to understanding how this system applies to our democracy. Due to the sheer amount of useful political knowledge that reaches the voter in an epistocracy, there is increased accountability for candidates to have coherent platforms. In our current system, politicians are able to gain sweeping support with simple soundbites and slogans, often leading voters to brush other aspects of the politician’s platform under the rug. However, in an epistocracy, all aspects of a politician’s platform are put up for display and politicians are no longer able to hide behind simple blanket statements. Thus, epistocracies increase transparency between voters and politicians while also incentivizing politicians to have much more fleshed-out platforms that are not simple slogans.
Apart from increasing transparency, epistocracies have the potential to have a profound effect on the very aspect of participation in our political system. Through an epistocracy, gaining knowledge about candidates becomes a lot more efficient, leading to a substantial burden being removed from the voter. Furthermore, there are fewer total voters so each vote has a significant impact on the election. When voters know their vote can have a significant impact on the election, they are more inclined to vote. Thus, one of the most fundamental flaws of modern democracy can be addressed through an epistocracy: civic engagement.
While epistocracies likely will not be implemented in the future because of our love for democracy, there are key aspects of an epistocracy that can be applied to our democracy to further improve our political system. The most important part of an epistocracy is how political knowledge is disseminated. While there are many voter education policies that have been proposed, all of these policies require individual action. Our brains seek confirmation so even the most comprehensive voter education reforms will fail if individuals are unwilling to consider differing perspectives. Thus, the way we fix our democracy begins at an individual level. This starts with individuals making an effort to listen to what is being said on the other side of the aisle. Rather than listening to partisan media, to reaffirm one’s own beliefs, one should also see how their beliefs measure up to views from the other parts of the political spectrum. While an epistocracy may only remain a mere fairytale that political scientists dream about, the benefits that can be gained from this model are at our fingertips.