Part 1 is here.
Mass politics is the situation in which political decisions are made by a symmetrical aggregation of the actions of a large number of individuals.
The modern electoral system is an example of a mass political system. In this case, the actions of the individuals are (1) whether to run for office, (2) advocacy, and (3) voting. The political decision made is the selection of the officials.
Another example is the “direct democracy” situation – both in its modern “popular initiative” setup or in the ancient “Athenian Assembly” setup. In this case, the individuals can (1) propose legislation, (2) advocate, and (3) vote, and the decision made is the passing of pieces of public policy.
When the agenda is set externally (by the Ephors in Sparta and to some extent by the Boule in Athens, or by the elected legislature in Oregon System referenda), then the individual actions are limited to advocacy and voting. In some cases (e.g., the Spartan assembly) advocacy by individuals is also explicitly excluded from the process.
Due to the symmetry of its decision making process, mass politics has superficial similarity to democracy – a political system in which political power is distributed equally among the members – since both terms describe situations of equality. The difference is that mass politics is defined in terms of formal equality while democracy is defined in terms of equality of actual political power.
Popular support for mass political systems stems from the intuitive notion that political inequality is due primarily to inequality in the formal status of group members. If this were true, then elimination of formal inequalities – attributes like nobility status – would result in a democratic system. However, it turns out that political inequalities in large groups are not a secondary phenomenon, dependent on formal inequalities, but are rather a spontaneously occurring, self-reinforcing phenomenon. Paradoxically, formal symmetry in decision-making makes it highly unlikely that equality in political power will be achieved.
A large group in a state of formal political symmetry faces two obstacles to de-facto political equality:
- high effort/impact ratio for the average group member, and
- high information output/input capacity ratio.
The two phenomena are somewhat related, both being largely due to cognitive constraints, but a useful distinction can be drawn between them, I believe.
The high effort/impact phenomenon is what is seen as leading to “rational ignorance”. It can be conceived as affecting each assembly member in isolation, when each person’s actions do not affect others (except through the policy decisions being made). For each decision to be made, a person can spend resources (time, effort, materials) to study and understand the matter at hand. There is presumably a monotonic relationship between the resources spent and the level of understanding that the member reaches. A perfectly rational decision is reached when the amount of resources spent is infinite, but spending too much resources would not be justified by the impact of the decision made. This is true even when a single person is the sole decision maker on a particular issue, but the amount of resources reasonably spent on a particular decision diminishes as the effects of each person’s actions become diluted by the actions of many other people affecting the policy outcome. In such a situation, for the average group member, who expects their actions to make no more than average impact, it often makes no sense to study an issue in any depth. Decisions are then made based on superficialities and the members are “rationally ignorant”.
Beyond the immediate problem – that public policy is determined based on very limited consideration of the relevant information – this situation creates the potential for concentration of power. Since the superficial considerations are, due their low-cognitive-effort construction process, largely irrational, they are susceptible to manipulation. Those who are in a position to influence those considerations wield considerable influence over the political decisions made.
The second phenomenon can be conceived as a constraint on meaningful communication within the group. As the number of group members grows, it becomes impossible for each member of the group to understand what all other members think. Understanding what other people think is important when forming a decision whether to vote in favor or against on a particular proposal, because other people’s views inform one’s view. But the crucial function of communication in the context of decision making is in proposal formation and promotion. If the adoption of a particular policy choice requires the coordinated actions of many people, communication is a prerequisite for adoption.
Since it is impossible for all members of a large group to communicate with all others, some sort of a filtering mechanism always arises. The cognitive constraint is on the receiving end so all people must listen to no more than a few sources of information and ideas. However, no such constraint exists on the transmitting end: a single person or source of information and opinions can be heard by large part of the group.
Therefore, theoretically, there are two possible outcomes. The first is where the symmetry is maintained, and large audiences do not exist at all. In this case, it is difficult to formally accept any policy, since all policy proposals must travel through intermediaries before they can be considered by a large number of people. Different intermediaries will choose to transmit different proposals and some variations are bound to arise during transmission. It would therefore be difficult to align many supporters behind any particular proposal.
The more realistic outcome is one where the symmetry is broken. In this case, a few people have large audiences – encompassing a large proportion of the group – while most people have small audiences. The set of people who obtain the large audience differs depending on various attributes of the society and the political system. Changes in the political system can result in changes in the makeup of the group attaining the privileged situation of having a large audience. Clearly, however, regardless of the makeup of the group, that privileged group exerts a disproportional influence over policy making, since it is essentially no policy proposal has a real chance of being adopted unless it has a promoter within the group.
Due to the effects of cognitive scarcity, mass-political systems tend to foster the creation of power centers that have no formal recognition as being privileged but do in fact determine a large part of public policy. The state of formal political symmetry, where the rules of decision-making follow a ‘principle of indistinction’, results in the symmetry being broken along the lines of some exogenous distinctions within the population. Political power is accumulated by those distinguished by their wealth, organizational skills, intelligence, fame, beauty, charisma, or some other attributes external to the formal political rules.
In view of the above, reform of the existing electoral system should not be sought in introducing various electoral reforms, or in “direct democracy” or assembly politics, which share with elections the inherent drawbacks of mass politics. Those who seek to envision or promote democratic government should reject such institutions and focus on alternative devices – primarily on a different, less well publicized, Athenian device: sortition.