The polis or gathering place for governing, the root of our modern politics, was nothing but a physical space that designated and enabled the conversational space required for true self-governing. The capacity for talking together constituted the foundation for democracy, far more fundamental than voting. As one ancient Greek philosopher noted, “When voting started, democracy ended.”

~ Peter M. Senge


Who is really in charge?

In democracies, policies are correlated with public opinion, but why? The obvious explanation is that people choose representatives, and those representatives give them what they want. But maybe the causal arrow points in the other direction—maybe elites choose policies, and the public gradually figures that since that’s how things are, it must be right.

~ “Dynomight” from,

The death penalty is usually a third-rail—touching it means instant, well, death to reasonable discussion. In this case, the death penalty happens to be a rare topic for which good data exists, and is one upon which nearly everyone has a strong opinion. That combination enables the discussion in that article. It’s not about the death penalty being right, wrong, good, nor bad. Rather, the discussion is asking: Who indeed is really in charge in a democracy.


Democracy and civic duty

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of not voting because they feel like they would then be forfeiting the only power they have over who governs. But your vote contains no power. It is a virtually inert token of your participation, which does carry some sentimental value to some people. But it has no election-swinging ability. There are plenty of actions that can make a difference but casting your vote isn’t one of them.

In the media, your vote is billed as a precious choice with resounding consequences, which means you should watch a lot of election coverage so that you don’t screw it up. Now think for a moment: who might have an interest in having you vastly overestimate the importance of your vote? The candidates, and the news organizations that talk about them 24 hours a day.

You’ve been had. They don’t want your choice to be logical, they want it to remain emotional.

~ David Cain from,

Next election, when you see me not wearing an “I Voted!” sticker, go ahead and ask me if I voted.

I’ve stopped looking at everyone’s lapels to see if they voted, and I’ve stopped asking people if they are going to vote. If and when politics comes up, I talk about topics that matter to me. My civic duty—and I believe it is a duty which I fulfill partly in exchange for reaping the benefits of living in a civil society—is to participate in the demoncratic process. That process includes a tiny, irrelevant show of theatre where some people see me at the local polling place. That democratic process also includes a much larger amount of other stuff; my working to understand the issues that interest me so I have an informed opinion. …and then using my brain to participate in the democratic process by browsing, negotiating, buying and selling in the Marketplace of Ideas. I hope to see you there here.

Thanks for browsing my wares!


Maintaining trust in our democratic process

We’re not just worried about altering the vote. Sometimes causing widespread failures, or even just sowing mistrust in the system, is enough. And an election whose results are not trusted or believed is a failed election.

~ Bruce Schneier from,

Bruce Schneier has been a voice of reason for a long time. I’ve been reading what he’s written since I joined his email list in — I think it was — 1998. Generally, your life will go better if you pay attention to those things which he says are of security concern.

Click over on this one and weep at how laughably insecure our voting systems are currently. Yes, doing security well is difficult, but the manufacturers of our current voting systems aren’t even putting in a token effort.


Is anarchy the answer?

Might not be the “anarchy” you think of at first: Ross criticizes this model from both sides: First, the options offered to the people are too limited and too easily manipulated by those with money and power. My favorite expression of this situation comes from the Cake song “Comfort Eagle“

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.

~ Doug Muder from,


Democracy by coincidence

Forget for a moment the specific arguments for or against gun control: Does that resemble any process you studied in civics class? Do you think that’s what Lincoln had in mind when he talked about “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”?

There are plenty of other examples where the public has a definite opinion, but has been unable to get the result it wants: getting the NSA to stop tracking our phone calls, sending some bankers to jail after the known crimes of the housing bubble, or even things I disagree with, like prayer in public schools. One current issue is raising the minimum wage: It’s popular, but so far that hasn’t made much difference.

~ Doug Muder from,