Do we understand the politics of
representational democracy? Many routinely decry our current political systems
as fatally flawed, or our politicians as irredeemably corrupt, or the voting
public as hopelessly naïve – but representational democracy places at the very
least the potential of power and influence into the hands of the
collective. Surely there is a way to play this game and win?
This is a thought experiment using Temperament Theory. It is not science, nor strictly philosophy, but rather something of a cartoon of modern politics.
Firstly, let us not consider democratic politics in terms of people, but in terms of the countries as a whole. Rather than individual voters, the country expresses different proportions of support for different political factions – in effect, each political party is a particular signal competing with other signals for relevance.
Furthermore, the signals in each case are
quite variable – if you examine the signal from a certain political party, it
does not remain constant over decades, but rather changes gradually. There may
be certain themes that remain present over the short term, but over the long
term the signal for each party is highly variable. (Consider, for instance, the
reformation of the Labour party in the 1990s in the
In some countries (such as the
When we look at the political factions in this way, we can ignore to a certain extent the alleged corruption of politicians. Yes, those in power will always wield their influence in part for their own benefit – but it is in their best interests to do whatever the dominant signal demands, as this is how power is maintained. Besides, in our cartoon we are ignoring the individuals – political corruption thus becomes something like the edge that a casino maintains over its gamblers; a side cost of operating under these political rules. It is not, and could not be, the dominant force without resorting to ballot stuffing or similar extreme measures.
Now let us add to this grossly simplified
picture of the political system, some equally simplistic sketches of
Temperament Theory. From this perspective, there are four signals of
significantly different strengths:
- Guardian makes up 50% of the signal (that is, is dominant in approximately 50% of the population), and in political terms is principally concerned with maintaining traditional ways of life.
- Artisan makes up 25% of the signal, and in political terms is principally concerned with its own self interest.
- Idealist makes up 10-15% of the signal, and in political terms is concerned with utopian goals, and whatever is deemed to be in the best interests of everyone.
- Rational makes up 10-15% of the signal, and in political terms is concerned with logical action, and also with securing maximum autonom for individuals.
Remember, this is by nature a cartoon, and
not a scientific model, but in our thought experiment we have four signals
which exist in the ratio 1:1:2:4. Remember also that we are ignoring people as
individuals – any given individual may express any of these four signals in
voting, but we are only concerned with the overall signal this generates, not
the actions of individuals.
Notice immediately that the Guardian signal, which seeks to maintain the traditional forms, is 50% of the signal and therefore typically dominates. In order for the Guardian signal to be overruled, it is necessary for the Artisan, Idealist and Rational signals to be in perfect agreement, or for there to be some drift in the unity of the Guardian signal.
In practical terms, the Guardian signal
does not support a single political faction, but rather tends to be split
between the traditional factions. Thus, in a two party system we can imagine
25% support for one faction and 25% for the rival faction. Each faction
therefore seeks an additional 25% of the signal share (the vote, in a
representative democracy) in order to gain control.
The easiest way to gain this 25% is to court the support of the Artisan signal – which (in our cartoon) is only concerned with its own self-interest. Thus, at any time that there is a political issue which requires sacrifice to be made (such as environmental restrictions on fuel consumption et al) it is political suicide for a faction to push forward this issue without unilateral support from the other factions, as any faction opposing such an issue can gain the upper hand.
If the Artisan signal becomes split evenly
– which we may expect if opposing factions each have different issues that
represent self interest (a practical inevitability) – then the outcome of the
political battle comes down to the Rational signal versus the Idealist signal.
But the concerns of these signals do not overlap – the Rational signal’s desire
for autonomy will tend to be orthogonal to the Idealist signal’s desire for
mutual co-operation. Thus the political system reaches its position of being
delicately balanced, such that the slightest difference in the relative signal
strengths can be decisive.
One of the consequences of this situation
is that minority political factions whose issues appeal solely to the minority
Temperament signals have essentially no possibility of gaining power. So, for
instance, the Libertarian party in the
Similarly, the Green party in most
countries appeals primarily to the Idealist signal, and again, does not acquire
the whole of this signal, and certainly has no hope of gaining power unless it
somehow manages to become traditional, and thus acquires the support of the
Guardian signal. These revolutionary shifts in factional support can happen –
but they require extreme circumstances to wrest support from the old factions.
And yet, it is not the case that the Green party has had no effect on the political organism. By championing an issue that previously did not exist, the Green party allowed environmental issues to be added to the political agenda. In the European elections of the late 1980s, the Green party was able to secure a surprisingly large share of the vote (in part because voters simply didn’t care who represented them in the European Parliament, and therefore felt a certain freedom to support minority causes). At that point, environmental issues – which had previously been ignored – shot to the forefront of the political agenda, and no political faction could afford to be silent on this issue.
In this regard, the Green party had served a vital purpose. It is uncertain whether or not its continuing existence provides additional benefit, or simply removes a portion of the Idealist signal (at least in our cartoon model) from circulation.
Thus, minority political factions can have
significant effects in the political organism, by bringing new issues into
play, or by representing local signal rather than national or international
signal. For instance, various
I am doubtful that the Libertarian party in
the US has the capacity to push forward an issue into wider view (as with the
Green party) and it certainly has no hope of gaining local support (since it
tends to have no local issues) – but political organisms can be full of
surprises. It is certainly possible that circumstances might arise that would
lend this faction relevance, as happened with the Green party in
The ultimate lesson of this cartoon is
simple: in order to wield political influence, it is necessary to form
alliances. From the perspective of Temperament Theory (or at least our cartoon
of it), the minority signals – Rational and Idealist – must find common ground
with each other, or else with the Artisan signal, in order to push against the
Guardian signal, which maintains the ‘old ways’ in some form or another. Alternatively,
the minority signals can ally with the Guardian signal and attempt to influence
the expression of traditional signals (such as religion and nationalism), which
they may do in everyday life, through open and friendly discussion, without
resorting to the political mechanisms.
There is limited value to the Rational signal squandering its strengths by, for instance, focussing on how to completely remake the political systems in place. With the Rational temperament’s focus on systems, it is easy for it to be caught up with fanciful ideas to change the way the political machine functions – and some of these ideas may even be useful – but they can never be put into play without support from the other signals, so the case for their implementation must have undeniable wide appeal. Solutions focussed solely on the autonomy of the individual will always be a minority concern.
Similarly, there is limited value in the
Idealist signal squandering its strengths by, for instance, focussing on overly
utopian goals that cannot be achieved without massive self-sacrifice by all –
the Artisan signal will always resist this, and its greater signal strength
will always tend to overpower the Idealist signal’s lofty purposes.
If the minority signals wish to fulfil their potential, they must seek to form alliances by finding common ground with other signals, or they must work to influence the traditional signals towards new approaches that offer evident mutual benefits. The political game of representative democracy is not a hopeless cause – perhaps it is just that we have yet to work out how to play it successfully.
The opening image is Political Abstract #1 by Walead Beshty, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.