Maybe a Lottery Would be Better?

Richard Dawkins likes to outrage people. He’s not the only person in the world who likes to do that, in fact it’s just barely possible that there are one or two people connected with Butterflies and Wheels who don’t mind irritating. However that may be, Dawkins has done it again.

Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn’t help: they will be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top…And we democracies might look to our own vaunted institutions. Are they well designed to ensure that we don’t make disastrous mistakes when we choose our own leaders? Isn’t it, indeed, just such a mistake that has led us to this terrible pass?

Leaving aside what he says about the war in Iraq (because my colleague doesn’t agree with him on this point, while I think a thousand and one contradictory things), I do think he’s absolutely right about the US method of electing a president. We do keep electing shockingly embarrassingly unqualified people. I’ve often thought we ought to think about the UK system, where the parties choose the candidates and the voters choose between them. Here we choose the candidates ourselves and boy do we do a crap job of it. But then again maybe it wouldn’t help. Over there it seems to be accepted that a candidate with brains and skill and competence will be more electable than a bumbling inarticulate folksy mediocrity with ‘family values’, but here that is not the case. In the last election I heard with my own ears people rejoice at the fact that George Bush II was an ordinary guy just like the rest of us. Not, as Richard Dawkins points out, the way a CEO is chosen, so why this job? Who knows.

It’s not new though. We started off this way. There was much irrelevant nonsense in the very first election, Jefferson being slagged off as a Frenchified intellectual who had children by a slave concubine (which turned out to be true, confoundingly enough). Richard Hofstadter tells of the anti-intellectualism of the Jackson-Adams elections. We elected one military ‘hero’ after another, most of them with no civilian talent at all.

And yet this, as our folksy head of state keeps reminding the world, is the world’s only superpower. So the single most powerful human on the planet is chosen by a process that mingles elements of a high school popularity contest, an ad campaign for the newest most macho SUV, and good old-fashioned backroom bribery. It is a bit of a mismatch.

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