By Alex P. Vidal
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”—Winston Churchill
THE prospect of ex-boxer Manny Pacquiao becoming president of the Philippines and showbiz “bad boy” Robin Padilla joining the ranks of other misfits in the senate is part of the realities those who adhere to democratic principles or simply “democracy” must face and accept.
Plato had warned us about democracy thousands of years ago, or about 500 years before Jesus was born (this has always been the timeline I suggested to refer to the period of the Greek philosopher’s existence) in “The Republic.”
Widely acknowledged as the cornerstone of Western philosophy and the first great examination of political life, Plato’s “Republic” was written around 375 B.C.
It still holds insights into ethics and political life that can teach the modern world, especially Filipinos who will elect their leaders on May 9, 2022, many a lesson.
A student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, Plato witnessed democracy begrudgingly in his city of Athens.
Ancient Athenian democracy differs from the democracy that we are familiar with in the present day.
Athens was a city-state, while today we are familiar with the primary unit of governance operating nationwide.
Consequently, governance of a smaller population enabled more “direct” forms of democracy rather than the “representative” forms accorded by contemporary constitutions, according to Arc Ninian in Why Plato Hated Democracy.
It “isn’t their fault” actually if the likes of Pacquiao, Padilla, Lito Lapid, Bong Revilla, etcetera, are elected into public office, especially those running for president as long the constitution allows it.
Under Article VII, Section 3 of the 1987 Constitution, a Filipino can be elected president if he or she is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least 40 years of age on the day of the election, and a resident of the Philippines for at least 10 years immediately preceding such election.
Unless the constitution is changed, every “qualified” Filipino will have the opportunity to win the presidency and occupy elected seats in the lower and upper chambers of congress.
Philippine democracy is also susceptible to suffer from voter ignorance, which is seen as one of the major reasons for the decline in the quality of elected leaders.
The cause of voter ignorance may not be due to a lack of intelligence. Rather voters are simply rationally ignorant and rationally irrational. Rational ignorance means that voters are logical and/or reasonable for staying uninformed about politics, according to Criticism Against Democracy.
This is because to become an informed voter, according to Austrian philosopher Geoffrey Brennan’s standards, it would be extremely cost-prohibitive to the individual.
“It would take an enormous amount of time to become informed to such a level and stay informed about current political events. When doing a cost-benefit analysis, most people would find that becoming informed is not worth their time. Therefore, people are considered rational for choosing not to be informed,” it added.
Rational irrationality refers to the fact that it is logical for people to have cognitive biases resulting in irrational beliefs.
Similar to why it is rational for voters to be ignorant, the cost-benefit analysis to correct cognitive biases is not in favor of the informed voter. Brennan claims that “just as it is instrumentally rational for most people to remain ignorant about politics, it is instrumentally rational for most of them to indulge their biases”.
According to this theory, as pointed out in Criticism Against Democracy, “the costs outweigh the benefits because it would take an excessive amount of work to find neutral/fair information and correct one’s own biases.”
It added: “In both cases, voters remain ignorant and irrational because the costs to become an impartial, informed voter do not outweigh the benefits. The impact of a competent vote is futile. In the grand scheme of things, a single vote amounts for very little. The chances that one’s vote would be the deciding factor in the election is minuscule; therefore, why would one take the time to inform themselves with very little reward? One could spend an abundance of time becoming informed and rational only to result in the same outcome.”
Politicians and special interests like poll surveys have also attempted to manipulate public opinion for as long as recorded history—this has put into question the feasibility of democratic government.
Critics claim that mass media actually shapes public opinion, and can therefore be used to “control” democracy. Opinion polls before the election are under special criticism.
It has been said that misinformation—such as fake news—has become central to elections around the world.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)