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Good Riddance to Democracy as We Know It: The Case for Aretocracy

When we reflect on the sordid state of affairs in US politics today, it’s difficult not to conclude that any idea is.

There’s an alarming trend that few seem to have noticed: According to World Values Survey data, a growing number of Americans believe that having a democratic system is a bad idea. Using the annual average rate of growth from 1995-2011, I’ve estimated that over 60 million Americans – that’s more than twice the size of Texas – are of this view today.

This may be the result of our profound dissatisfaction with how democracy is actually practiced here in the States. Consider both the low levels of confidence we have in our political institutions and our growing dissatisfaction with theelectoral choices available to us. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, 33 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency, 32 percent in the Supreme Court and a paltry 8 percent in the US Congress. Furthermore, the average favorability rating for the two parties that dominate US politics was at 39 percent last year – the lowest in Gallup history. This coheres with the finding from yet another Gallup survey that a majority of Americans in 2014 desired “a viable alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties.”

What accounts for these discouraging statistics? The irony of US representatives is that they’re not representative. Consider two very simple facts of which anyone with a basic knowledge of US politics is fully aware.

First, members of Congress are far wealthier than most Americans (as a matter of fact, Congress members’ median net worth is reportedly over 14 times greater than the median household income), as are those who fund their campaigns. Second, wealthy people have distinct policy preferences. It should come as no surprise, then, that public policy rarely reflects the interests of the average American. In a highly publicized study, political scientists conclude that the country’s economic elite wields substantial influence over government policy, whereas “average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

But it isn’t only policy preferences that distinguish the haves from the have-nots. Recent psychological research suggests that they also differ with respect to their ethical standards and level of compassion. In comparison to their lower-income counterparts, upper-income individuals were found to be “more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies … take valued goods from others … lie in a negotiation … cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize … and endorse unethical behavior at work … than were lower-income individuals.” In another study, researchers concluded that lower-income individuals exhibit “greater concern for the suffering or well-being of others.”

With these findings in mind, one might suspect that rich people are more likely to exhibit hallmark characteristics of a narcissist. Indeed, research has shown that narcissistic people do tend to be wealthier. Of more direct relevance to politics is the finding that narcissists are more likely to assume leadership roles (interestingly, though, while narcissists were viewed by others as “natural leaders,” they didn’t perform better than others at leading). A psychiatrist concludes his article “The Narcissistic Politician” by noting that “we could use a lot more [humility] in politics.”

In short, we may reasonably conclude that we’re represented by those who neither share nor care about our concerns, and are more likely to be involved in unethical conduct. Appearances to the contrary, I’m not suggesting that all rich people are bad. But if the research cited above is correct, then we should expect that the likelihood of apathy and unethical conduct will be greater among the wealthy, who disproportionately sway US politics.

But what if we had an electoral system where money and political parties are irrelevant, and where willing leaders are chosen – rather than choose – to run for political office, thereby making it less likely that that the candidate pool is dominated by power-seeking narcissists? What if they were nominated by those who know them personally, and who can thus more reliably speak to their virtue? What if their names weren’t simply selected from a list of candidates, but rated according to characteristics valued by society?

“Aretocracy” is the word I use to describe this arrangement (hat tip to my friend, Tita Deacon, for coining this term). It derives from the Greek words Aretí (or virtue) and kratia (which denotes a form of governance or rule). The process of electing a politician according to these principles might unfold in the following way.

First, citizens are asked every two years or so whether they’d be willing to serve their communities as political office-holders if nominated. Afterwards, voters flock to their polling stations and nominate one or more candidates from their community (who have previously expressed their willingness to serve), rating each according to a predetermined list of virtues, such as honesty, humility, political tolerance, intelligence and concern for the common good. The sum of ratings across all traits is then calculated for each candidate. A small number of nominees with the highest total scores then square off in a public debate, after which attendees cast their votes for the final winner.

A less radical alternative would be to reserve a place on general election ballots for the winner of this contest, alongside the Democratic and Republican nominees. In this case, the process outlined above could be viewed as an aretocratic primary.

I make myself very vulnerable to criticism (or perhaps just ridicule) by proposing this overhaul to our electoral system, asthere are many questions that I don’t address in this article concerning whether such a system is practical or even desirable. Nevertheless, I think that the potential advantages of aretocracy are many:

Politics may be less tainted by special interests and parties. Anyone, rich or poor, will be able to recommend others for political office in an aretocracy. They wouldn’t be consigned to choosing from a predetermined list of exceptionally wealthy candidates, as they are under the current system;

Politicians may be more honest, humble and compassionate. Today, those who attain power are those who actively seek it, and are exceptionally wealthy. I’ve outlined some of the reasons why this bodes poorly for ethical and compassionate leadership. Further, I’ve explained why less wealthy candidates, who are less prone to thenarcissistic and unscrupulous conduct that we’ve come to associate with today’s leaders, wouldn’t face such an inherent electoral disadvantage in an aretocracy due to their poverty. This is because, in an aretocracy, it is respect – not money – which puts one in political office; and this is earned merely by being a virtuous member of one’s community.

Knowing that one has the power to nominate political candidates may make him more attentive to, and more likely to build relationships with, others in his community;

Even if people act virtuously only in the hopes that others will nominate them, they may, through practice, internalize these virtues, as well as model virtuous behavior for others;

Lastly, when people turn out to nominate candidates, the very manner in which ballots are designed will remind them of the virtues they should look for in their leaders, and which they themselves should aspire to attain.

The trend noted at the outset of this article may persist if people come to associate democracy, as an ideal political system, with what passes for it in the US. But am I certain that my proposed alternative would succeed in the real world? Absolutely not (how could I be, given that it has never been attempted?). Nevertheless, I’ve explained why I believe thatit’s an idea worth exploring; indeed, when we reflect on the sordid state of affairs in US politics today, it’s difficult not to conclude that any idea is.

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