It’s long been a commonplace that in the television era who gets to be president is going to be determined in good part by the physical appearance of the candidates. Given how close most American elections are, you only need a small fraction of the people to vote for one candidate because he looks more attractive to ensure that he’ll win.
That fact strikes me as enough to show that democracy, in the United States at least, is pretty much meaningless. But the situation turns out to be even worse than I thought.
To quote: “Anthony C. Little, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and colleagues decided to use computerized ‘morphing’ techniques to examine the question.
“In research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, they used the faces of candidates from eight real elections in the U.S., New Zealand, and Great Britain, including candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry from the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
“Then they used a computer-imaging technique to combine each face with a nondescript male face that had been created by averaging the faces of 10 university students.
“The result was a pair of faces that was not recognizable as either candidate, but nevertheless bore a sort of family resemblance to the originals – young, unblemished, they could have been the candidates’ college-age nephews. The altered Bush has narrow-set eyes and a slightly heavy brow, the altered Kerry wide-set eyes and a long face.
“Then the researchers asked people to look at the faces and say who they would vote for.
“In all eight races, the votes based on composite faces gave the same results as the actual elections.
“That bears emphasizing. Sitting at a computer screen, with nothing to go on but a face, a majority of the hundred or so volunteers consistently chose the same candidates as did the millions of voters who had been exposed to newspaper articles, television reports, and intense campaigning.
“‘We actually beat quite a lot of polls in accuracy,’ Little says.
“Although the percentages weren’t exactly the same for each race, the volunteers always chose the same candidate who ended up winning the popular vote in the actual election” (see here for more of the story).
There used to be debates about whether you would get the best leaders by a vote from the people or whether there was an identifiable class of experts who could make better, more informed choices. And shouldn’t we want the best leaders for the country? Well, it seems by now we have precious little reason to think that giving the people a vote is a good way of identifying the best leaders. Presidential elections seem to amount to beauty pageants for (so far) men, with a tiny candidate pool. There is virtue in the tinyness of the pool, of course. While it explains why we haven’t had any presidents yet that were that attractive, it also explains why we haven’t had any that knew absolutely nothing about politics (though some might think that we’ve come depressingly close to absolute incompetence).
So here’s my suggestion (the making of which is utterly vain, of course). If people are still stuck on democracy after all these years, the least we could do is to ensure some sort of connection between the people voting and the people being voted for. Here’s how. Let people vote for a representative from their neighbourhood. Then let those representatives vote for a regional representative from their midst, … and so on up until the top level of representatives votes for a president. That is, never have one level vote for anybody more than one level above them. This would ensure that people would choose from candidates that they actually knew something about, which, one hopes, would in turn ensure that they would vote on something slightly more rationally significant than the appearance of a face on TV.