Paper ballots are counted after the end of voting in the Italian general elections Ivan Romano/Getty Images

The People vs. Democracy?

Are voters really so irrational and ill-informed that they make terrible choices, as the election result in Italy, the UK's Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US seem to suggest? If they are, as many liberals have come to believe, the obvious next step is to take even more decision-making power away from them.

PRINCETON – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on themselves. “Ordinary citizens,” according to this view, are so irrational and ill-informed that they make terrible choices. Some go a step further and attribute to them coherent preferences for anti-democratic leaders. Indeed, a new book asserts that the problem is one of The People vs. Democracy.

Such diagnoses are deeply mistaken. By focusing on individual citizens’ beliefs, they miss the structural reasons for today’s threats to democracy. As a result, they are also bound to yield the wrong practical lessons. If one really believes voters are incompetent or illiberal, the obvious next step is to take even more decision-making power away from them. But, rather than retreating to technocracy, we should tackle the specific structural problems that have aided the triumph of populist politicians.

There is plenty of evidence that citizens are not as well informed as democratic theory would like them to be. Especially in the US, political scientists have repeatedly shown that a realistic view of the people diverges drastically from civics textbook wisdom. But elections are neither citizenship tests nor exams in master’s programs in public administration. Voters do not need detailed knowledge and preferences on every policy question; broad orientations and the capacity to take cues from trusted authorities – politicians, journalists, or, God forbid, experts – can be enough.

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