Why do politicians lie? These days such a question is like asking why poets versify or why birds sing. Yet, in the end, the answer is simple: democracy.
The remedy is equally straightforward: aristocracy. By that I do not mean a government of dukes and barons, but an aristocracy of intelligent and interested voters.
What if the country were ruled by this elite; the country's leaders elected only by those educated in policy issues? The result would be an enlightened and politically heterogeneous aristocracy. That word has negative overtones. However, aristocracy literally means "the rule of the best," an ideal that democracy cannot hope to approach.
"Democracy," essayist John Simon writes, "encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is blissfully ignorant." Nowhere is that more true than in America. How many of that exalted species, the American voter, can coherently explain the difference between the federal deficit and the national debt? How many can formulate a cogent account of why living standards are stagnating?
It is no wonder, then, that politicians, stuck with an audience whose ignorance has left it insensible to reason, resorts to deceit. If all that the average voter retains from political discourse is a vague conception of the evils of "tax-and-spend Democrats" and "trickle-down economics" why would any politician offer anything more substative than cliches like these?
The issues the electorate must face are often far beyond its powers of comprehension. The complexity of our government and our policies has far outstripped the general level of education in society. Only a small fraction of the electorate has the schooling and preparation to wade through the almost impenetrable fog of issues and thick rhetoric of American politics.
The well-informed and well-educated elite can only watch and weep as an Attorney General candidate who did nothing illegal is sacrificed to a telephone-wielding mob of radio talk-show listeners, and sound long-term proposals are torpedoed by myopic self-interest. Such idiocy will not stop until government answers only to those capable of calling it to account. Only the well-informed have the ability to do so, yet in a democracy, their influence is hopelessly diluted.
The remedy is a public interest aristocracy. Everyone should be given the opportunity to take a free class in policy issues, the political system, and the interpretation of rhetoric. Potential voters would then take an exam; only those who pass would vote. The specifics are not so important--the crucial idea is that with such a system, government would truly be of the competent, by the competent, and for everybody.
As the res Americana now stands, no one can make a truly informed electoral choice, since our august candidates' utterances have little correspondence with their future actions. The proponents of democracy argue that by voting, citizens exercise control over their future. But who has any control when no one has any idea what a vote for any candidate means?
Today's complete divorce of campaign word and elected deed is far more inimical to good government than the sensible and fair limitation of suffrage. With a limited electorate trained in the analysis of political rhetoric and well versed in the issues, politicians would gain precious little through even the most artful equivocation and seductive demagoguery.
In our democracy, people often vote in their immediate self-interests. In theory, election results capture the Popular Will--an aesthetic feature of democracy. However, the individual jealousies, fears, and prejudices of the uneducated many hardly form a valuable aggregate. Most often, politicians do not follow any Popular Will, but simply pander to various interests on specific issues, and wind up with a slew of contradictory policies that add up to less than zero.
With a public interest aristocracy calling the shots, the smaller population of educated electors would necessarily have a thorough understanding of the day's pressing issues. Qualified voters would consider the long term effects of proposed policies, and would be much more likely than today's nearsighted electorate to choose policies that might be painful in the short term in order to promote the long term good of the nation.
The fervent defenders of democracy object that it would rob the citizenry of its sovereignty. If average Americans value their votes so much, why is voter turnout perennially so low? A frightening percentage of the elegible voting population treats voting as an irritating chore. Why fight to keep something that half the population won't spend five minutes doing?
Those who object to aristocracy might claim that the new group would not be representative of the population at large. It's true that in order to make the aristocracy fair, the government would have to ensure scrupulously equal opportunity of education and fair testing. In fact, such a social goal would gain paramount importance in an aristocratic system. No one can deny, though, that equality of education has always proven an elusive goal.
In any case, today's electorate is hardly representative. Senior citizens account for a disproportionate share of voters. Minorities are so underrepresented that in order to achieve a semblance of fair representation the courts gerrymander districts to insure that the right color candidate can win.
Too many policies are determined by the effectiveness of scare tactics designed to turn out one-issue voters. Operation Rescue can grab headlines before an election and turn out droves of voters who have no interest or knowledge about other issues. Election results end up skewed by people who would not have voted were it not for special-interest antics.
The voters in an aristocracy would only be people who have a strong interest in civic affairs. Voters turnout would be a moot question, unaffected by whether or not pop stars promote civic responsibility on MTV. Should entertainers really be determining the future of our country?
In a land of ignorance, the mendacious will flourish. Democracy's natural selection has left the realm of American politics a suitable habitat only for prevaricators, causists, and scoundrels. Now more than ever democracy is, as H.L. Mencken put it, "the art of running the zoo from the monkey cage."
Democracy does not entail freedom. Democracy does not ensure prosperity. Until governments are no longer elected by the incompetent, we will have incompetent government. And incompetent government guarantees that we will have neither freedom nor prosperity.