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Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the Allure of Popular Suffrage

In the European singing contest/show in which Susan Boyle competed, she lost the top spot to a teenage rap group. The method of selection made all the difference. Rather than having a three-judge panel of experts on singing determine the winner, the general public could “text” via cell phone or other device to vote. That one of the judges explicitly advocated for Boyle after her final performance (just before the voting) was no never mind to the general public that submitted a majority of the votes. To be sure, there were certainly non-music reasons to vote against her. Most notably, the suggestive comments she made on stage just before her first performance, including, “I’m 48, and that’s not my other half” (as she was swinging her hips as if she were sexy), were downright emetic, if not utterly bizarre. So it is possible that the voters put her personality defect above her excellent singing. It is also possible that the “texters” responsible for a majority of the votes simply preferred rap music. I do not like rap “songs” that include shouting and swearing; I do not even regard such “songs” as music. Otherwise, I could sing a song simply by yelling at you. From what I saw, the rap group in the competition was not swearing, but the “singing” did sound at times like shouting to me. Moreover, the group members seemed more oriented to dancing than singing. It is possible that the votes for that group went for any of the fads being represented rather than to singing per se.

A tension, or even an outright contradiction, can exist between meritocracy and direct democracy, or popular sovereignty. Plato and Aristotle both claim that there is a dark side to each system. Meritocracy can slide into aristocracy and democracy into mob rule: government by a selfish and uninformed mob swayed by the passions of the moment over even the people’s own best interests. What struck me about the results of the singing contest was that the rap singing wasn’t good singing whereas Susan Boyle sang very well, yet even so, the group won. It can be safely assumed that most of the voters probably were not experts on good singing. They were not trained to separate their own tastes from a critical perspective focusing on the singers’ voices. The judges presumably could have done this, but they were relegated to proffering their views before the voting—views that the voters could ignore without any imprecation. Indeed, the selection method itself—popular sovereignty—tacitly "disvalues" expertise. In one person, one vote, no one is assumed to be any better qualified to render a decision than anyone else. Differences in effort and talent among the electors are irrelevant unless particular voters care to take them into account.

Lest it be assumed that people in Western democracies necessarily privilege popular sovereignty or the will of the people refracted through elected representatives, it should be noted that power-elites are tacitly permitted to run our political, commercial and non-profit sectors. When Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, proposed a referendum in which the Greek people would decide whether to accept the latest debt-deal negotiated at a meeting of the European Council (consisting of heads of the E.U.’s state governments), leaders of France and Germany as well as E.U. appointed officials bore down on the prime minister, perhaps even undercutting his influence with members of his own party in the Greek legislature. Although defending the euro currency from a collapse assumed likely without the implementation of the latest debt deal, the E.U. leaders (including Merkel and Sarkozy) sent the message that direct democracy, ironically in Greece, could not be tolerated given the severity of the economic challenges involved. Experts at the E.U. level, such as the head of the European Central Bank, were included as the E.U. leaders met with Papandreou to pressure him to drop his proposal or change the question to being on the euro zone (rather than on whether to accept the latest E.U. debt deal). Disrespect for direct democracy, or popular sovereignty, was very much implied in the stance being taken at the impromptu E.U. meeting before the G-20 meeting. Yet strangely, the “gang” got away with it. Europeans did not stand up for the voice of the Greek people to be heard directly. Not even the Greek parliament resisted the E.U. “gang” by sufficiently backing the prime minister’s proposal. Instead, leaders of some of the E.U.’s big states and maybe even some E.U. appointed officials may even have pressured members of Papandreou’s own party to bring him down lest he not relent and do what was being deemed necessary to save the euro and the E.U. itself.  Indeed, even Papandreou, when he was caving on the referendum, betrayed his earlier appeal to popular sovereignty by stating that the referendum had value only as long as the opposition was opposing the debt-deal.

I contend that in the E.U., as well as in the U.S., all too often lip-service is given to popular sovereignty and representative democracy, when in fact people still look up to expertise. The Oscars, whose awards are decided by members of the film academy who have expertise in the various fields of filmmaking, is more esteemed than are the People’s Choice Awards. The Oscars are more likely to recognize Maryl Streep’s acting ability than is the People’s Choice.  I would argue that the results of the Oscars are more credible because expertise is not chucked for a flavor of the month. For instance, in the 2010 Oscars, Hurt Locker beat Avatar for Best Director and Best Picture. Hurt Locker was largely an Indie (i.e., on the fringes) film, whereas Avatar broke box office records and was no doubt much more popular with the general public. The Academy members were able to weight improved 3D effects, story and direction without allowing the technical dazzle to overshadow. Indeed, Avatar did receive the Oscar for its development and use of new 3-D technology, even as the members of the academy recognized that the most technologically-advanced film is not necessarily the best.

Of course, Oscar voting is not perfect. The 5000 plus membership may be sufficiently small that cronyism or, its opposite, grudges, may play a role. Avatar’s David Cameron, for example, was apparently not the best-liked man in Hollywood at the time, and his ex-wife just happened to be the director of Hurt Locker. I saw a television clip a few months before the 2010 Oscars showing Cameron being very rude to a fan who simply wanted an autograph at LAX, so I was rooting for his ex-wife and her movie even though Avatar was one of my favorite movies at the time. The lesson is perhaps that no selection process, or person for that matter, is perfect.

My point is that the case of Susan Boyle and the Oscars both point to there being drawbacks to popular suffrage. The E.U. suggests that efforts to bracket direct and even representative democracy are tolerated by the general populous even in democracies. Maybe we are not as much the democrats as we think we are. Maybe there is good reason to leave some things to experts. Even so, at least with respect to political judgment, there may be good reason not to cut off the will of the people. Hence, the U.S. has its Electoral College and the European Council appoints its president, while the U.S. House of Representatives and the E.U. Parliament have elected representatives of the people. In binding the Electoral College to popular vote, the U.S. has moved to the democratic pole, even while tolerating the influence of “big money” in politics. In looking the other way while E.U. leaders undercut state government vetoes and referendums, the E.U. have moved subtly away from the rule of law as well as democracy, even while the salience of state-level elected officials at the EU level (via the European Council) emphasizes “first order” representative democracy (over “second order” selected by the first order). Ideally, neither expertise nor the will of the people are eclipsed, with the rule of law protecting both. The E.U. and U.S. could both take a lesson.


 Richard Corliss, “Oscar Wrap-Up: Why Avatar Lost,” Time, March 8, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1970502-1,00.html

Marcus Walker and Alkman Granitsas, “Greece Blinks on Euro Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203804204577016213985874218.html