“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
Churchill’s theory begs the question: Who is the average voter? In a world dominated by pop culture and irrelevant “news,” where voter perception thrives on false mythology, it is a cheap shot to characterize the average voter as stupid.
Most voters are not stupid. However, they are overwhelmed by their own lives, often uneducated on public issues and misinformed by an increasingly biased and malevolent media. Hence, the substance that formed Churchill’s opinion.
The result is that elections are often determined at an emotional level, not factual discourse and reasoned analysis. Campaign professionals understand this dynamic and easily manipulate the electorate. Current law, such as Citizens United, has exacerbated the problem, as “the Big Lie” has become standard fodder in a society that values the unregulated free-flow of ideas, even false ones, over the public right to receive honest and credible information.
In short, the real problem lies in the inability of the electorate to distinguish between true and false messaging, and fact and opinion.
The FCC is readily able to regulate commercial speech. If Listerine claims to help prevent the common cold, as it once did, the FCC can fine the company for dishonesty and force Listerine to issue a retraction. If the same standards applied to political campaigns, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove and others would not be able to fund or produce swift boat ads, birther ads, or other dishonest anti-Obama ads with impunity. The same standard would apply to Democrats, who are either more ethical than their Republican counterparts or, more likely, not as creative in making up stuff.
Given the current inability of partisans to be reasonable, utilizing government as the arbiter of truth, fiction, fact and opinion is not a good idea.
Years ago, the nonpartisan Santa Clara County Campaign Ethics Commission established a process that had a real effect on campaigns. Stakeholders, including both the Democratic and Republican parties, signed an agreement to withdraw their endorsement from any candidate who was found to be lying in campaign materials.
It was a complaint-driven system that was used only once. But the idea was a good one, it had a positive effect and it should be pursued. If the public had a credible arbiter who, regardless of political philosophy, had a system to alert voters of untrue information, it would be of great public service.
Much has been made of the money in political campaigns, but the real tragedy is in the misinformation distributed by campaign dollars. If the public knew the Koch brothers were lying to them, then informed voters could reject many of their claims. As we all know, money alone is not enough—if it were Meg Whitman would be Governor of California.
But until voters in our democracy can tell truth from fiction, and fact from opinion, our political system will continue to be mired by results that are neither fairly informed nor in the best interests of those who vote.
While flawed, another Winston Churchill quote summed up the current situation: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the forms of government that have been tried from time to time.”