Modern democracies, varied as they may be, share among them a common principle: the idea of deriving political legitimacy from the general will. While there have been many interpretations of what constitutes the general will, it is generally understood to equate public opinion regarding political issues. The idea that political authority is only valid insofar as it represents the general will has been the basis of liberal political thought since the Enlightenment. The modern body politic was created by the people, and accordingly they exist to serve the interests of the people. However, while rule according to the general will has existed since the Enlightenment, consensus on how best to accomplish this has not. 

Even today, debates regarding the state of modern democracies continue to rage, often including poignant critiques as to how the current systems do not give enough of a voice to the people. Proponents of this perspective often criticize electoral systems that do not rely on the popular vote. For example, when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election despite losing the popular vote, there was a significant outcry in the United States that the electoral college system aggregated public opinion unfairly.  Likewise, when the Canadian Liberal Party won the most seats in the 2019 federal election and was subsequently able to form a government despite losing the popular vote to the Conservative party, individuals protested that the first-past-the-post electoral system was similarly unfair. These criticisms reflect the view that upholding the general will is the primary objective of a modern democracy. In advocating that political decision-making reflects its electorate more directly, supporters of this perspective contribute to protecting democratic ideals. 

Despite the validity of this perspective, it is worth considering whether increasing the general population’s contribution to political-decision making will necessarily result in better policies. The justification for this increase in participation is reliant on a belief that citizens, and consequently, the general will, are inherently rational. According to these proponents, citizens determine through thoughtful reflection the optimal vote choice that will best further the common interests of the state. While this assumption is upheld by democratic theory, the notion of the “rational” decision-making individual remains contested within other fields.

Findings in the fields of social psychology, as well as neuropolitics, have demonstrated compelling evidence that individuals differ significantly from the portrait of the rational actor prevalent in both economic and political theoretical discourse. For example, there is a wealth of literature demonstrating that the individual is subject to a number of cognitive biases that distort one’s perceptions of the world, of others, and of oneself. The way we process information is inherently egocentric, and as a result, we often use ourselves as a reference point when judging others and events. People are frequently liable to make errors in the attribution of causality, oftentimes attributing the actions of others to overwhelmingly be a result of their personal characteristics and not as a result of situational context. An example of this in the political realm is the frequent attribution of economic success or failure to the political incumbent, despite the fact that recessions occur at fairly regular intervals and their causes may not be directly related to the policies of the incumbent political leadership. 

People are also widely subject to confirmation bias as a result of a phenomenon known as cognitive conservatism. This theory asserts that people’s beliefs regarding the world are incredibly resistant to change. This resistance may be partially attributable to a specific thinking pattern that interprets information inconsistently. Individuals tend to selectively attend to and believe information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and doubt the information that goes against them. Recent studies have demonstrated that American supporters of either Republican or Democratic politicians tend to perceive false statements made by their preferred candidate as truer than false statements made by non-preferred candidates.

While evidence of these cognitive biases alone does not disprove the argument that increasing participation produces better political results, it is worth considering that individuals may not have the capacity to make decisions that can be deemed fully rational. Rationality requires time and effort — resources that the average voter may not be able to devote to complex political decisions.

These findings are not presented with the intention to discredit democracy, but instead to illustrate how blind trust in the general will as being an omniscient guiding force may not conform to patterns of human psychology. Rather than viewing democratic participation as something that is inherently beneficial, electoral systems and other governing bodies should seek to retain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the ability of citizens to discern the best way forward.

Edited by Jane Warren.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image obtained via Wikimedia Commons under a Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.