Against “Against Democracy” – the twisted logic of elitist reasoning

The elitist theory of democracy has been staging a comeback recently and it is easy to see why. More Americans than expected voted for Trump, Britons surprisingly chose Brexit, and populists all over the world score electoral successes. Even absurd political causes find like-minded supporters in online echo chambers, and ardent partisans seem ready to believe even blatant lies if one of their own utters them. Reason, civility, and forbearance appear helpless against this furor. So, if the misguided and ill-informed lead democracy astray, it seems only logical to confine decision-making power to more rational, open-minded, and politically highly interested sections of society. The latest version of the argument is Jason Brennan’s (2017) book “Against Democracy.” Here is my take on what is wrong with it.

The basic logic of Brennan’s argument is that most people do not care very much about politics and are thus not bothered to inform themselves about what parties do, which policies work best, and how the political system works. Brennan calls this politically ignorant group “hobbits.” They might not be the ideal citizens of a democracy but they are tolerable. Much worse are “hooligans” who Europeans recognize as a particularly fanatic and violent group, often associated with soccer fans, who would literally be prepared to spill blood for their team.  In politics, hooligans are highly partisan citizens who have strong beliefs about political questions – which they will not alter even if reason would suggest so. For hooligans, deviant opinions are “fake news.” Finally, vulcans are Brennan’s ideal citizens – impassionate, impartial, and always looking for the best evidence, on which they will base their preferences. The problem is that there are very few vulcans and many hobbits or hooligans. Even worse, democracy induces citizens to become either hobbits or hooligans.

Brennan’s reasoning comes straight from the rational choice textbook. Since a single vote does not count, it is irrational to make an effort to gather information. Costs will always exceed benefits except for those who derive pleasure from observing politics closely or those who look for ammunition for their pre-defined ideologies. Individuals can afford to behave irresponsibly because they do not have to fear immediate, personalized sanctions. Individually, they are not even responsible for the election outcome since a single vote does not make a difference. In sum, however, hooligans and hobbits cause great damage. They do not just err randomly – which would put the vulcans in a key position – but systematically because they fail to understand basic facts and causal relationships. In Brennan’s words, most citizens in fact know “less than nothing” (Brennan 2017: 86) about politics. Since democracy ultimately depends on citizens’ preferences, it matters a great deal that “the typical citizens drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he (sic!) enters the political field” (Schumpeter 1975 [1942]: 262). Indeed, the stakes are high:

“If we, the electorate, are bad at politics, if we indulge fantasies and delusions, or ignore evidence, then people die. We fight unnecessary wars. We implement bad policies that perpetuate poverty. We overregulate drugs or underregulate carbon pollution” (Brennan 2017: 24).

For Brennan, the obvious answer to remedy this problem is less political equality. For him, there is little hope that citizens will ever rise to the level of political sophistication that democracy requires. Political participation does not educate citizens to be more vulcan-like but actually turns hobbits into hooligans. Accordingly, there is much to be gained from less democracy. Let those who know more decide. In a pure “epistocracy” only those citizens would be allowed to vote who pass a knowledge test to filter out the persistently ignorant. Although Brennan argues throughout the book that it would improve decision-making if the uninformed were excluded, he ultimately shies away from a radical proposal and instead discusses various ways how to complement existing procedures. Some are easily compatible with democracy, others are more contentious. However, Brennan spells out none in much detail. In fact, he does not seem convinced by any of them. After having criticized democracy’s putative shortcomings at length, the institutional configuration of epistocracy remains vague.

Rather than discussing various possible designs, I will focus on the key argument that the quality of political decisions would improve if the least knowledgeable members of society were excluded. The argument rests on two assumptions. First, politics is not about rival interests or legitimately diverging preferences, but about finding the best solution to given problems. There are correct answers to most political problems, which more knowledgeable and better informed citizens will be able to detect whereas the mass of the people will not be able to do so. Second, ordinary citizens have a strong and negative impact on political decisions. Since most citizens have a poor level of political knowledge, they will support policies that are shortsighted at best and malign at worst. Even worse, they will vote into office representatives of poor quality who will duly implement those ill-informed preferences of their voters. As a result, parliaments adopt suboptimal or harmful policies that lower the overall welfare of a society. Low-quality citizens make for low-quality democracy.

This view of democracy is seriously misleading, though. At each step, citizens with low levels of knowledge are already (self-)excluded. Socio-economic resources correlate strongly with almost any kind of political participation (Schlozman et al. 2014; Verba et al. 2018). For example, voters are more interested in politics and better informed than nonvoters are. Those who join a party, who become active party members, and who run for office have higher levels of education than those who do not do any of this. Members of parliament are much more highly educated than the public. In fact, all US senators and more than 90 percent of House members are university graduates. Similar trends exist in European democracies (Bovens & Wille 2017). Cabinet members, prime ministers, or presidents oftentimes hold degrees from the most prestigious universities in their respective country. A long time ago, Putnam (1976: 33) called this the “law of increasing disproportion.” If representative democracies produce poor decisions, it is not because the uneducated rule.

Yet, the elite might be highly educated but still closely follow the will of the uninformed citizens. If representation followed the “mandate model” (Pitkin 1967: 146), this could indeed happen – but it does not. In fact, decision-makers do have considerable leeway to depart from citizens’ demands and they use their independence in a highly biased manner. Recent work on unequal responsiveness shows that representatives are far more responsive to the wishes of the well-off than to those of the poor (Gilens 2005; Bartels 2008; Flavin 2012; Gilens 2012). While these authors are highly critical of the way democracy works in the US, Brennan uses them as witnesses for his own case. Democracies function somewhat better than expected, he argues, exactly because they are undemocratic. Biased decision-making means that policies reflect the preferences of citizens with higher levels of education. Political inequality is therefore a highly welcomed feature of real-existing democracies.

However, if democratic decisions are already biased in favor of the better-off, and if the better-off are more highly educated and better informed, as Brennan (wrongly) infers from Gilens’ work, but still lead to poor results, what would make us believe that more of the same produces better outcomes? If political inequality fares badly, let us institutionalize more inequality! Such is the twisted logic of elitist reasoning.

Institutionalizing political exclusion of less knowledgeable citizens – who will often be already from disadvantaged groups, as Brennan admits – might fail to produce better results for another reason: It would not safely exclude hooligans. One of the problems of US politics is the high level of polarization. Partisan of the Democrats or Republicans distrust each other to such a degree that a substantial share of survey respondents indicate that they would not want someone of their own family to marry a supporter of the other party (Hetherington & Rudolph 2015: 28). Partisanship has indeed negative consequences for the readiness to accept facts that conflict with one’s own worldview – ideology trumps knowledge (Joslyn & Haider-Markel 2014). However, citizens who are more educated or who have more political knowledge are more likely to be strong partisans than those with lower levels of education or knowledge. More engaged citizens have more strongly polarized opinions than for example nonvoters have (Abramowitz 2010: 38–41). Ideology, not the lack of knowledge or education makes citizens deaf to reason. Therefore, excluding “poor black women,” as Brennan’s epistocracy would, is just not an effective way to make politics more rational. After all, a white male college professor of history from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, contributed substantially to intensify partisan conflict between the parties (Mann & Ornstein 2016: 31–43). The majority of those who followed his example were highly educated (often, rich) white men. Political inequality fuels polarization because only strong partisan still bother to vote or to run for office. None of the ideas Brennan offers would ameliorate polarization. In fact, if one wanted to protect democracy from hooligans, one would have to exclude high information voters.

“Against democracy” is an entertaining read and a good introduction to some important political science controversies. However, it does not make a convincing case against democracy and for epistocracy. Ultimately, Brennan is barking up the wrong tree: The seeds of dysfunction of US democracy are an electoral system that wastes many votes as well as the inability of political institutions to deal with increasing polarization. While political philosophers do need to think about reform options, they should not waste their time on how to make politics more exclusionary than it already is.


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