The Majority Should Incorporate Minority Ideas
Given the election results, John Suthers (63), former Attorney General for the state of Colorado, beat Mary Lou Makepeace (73), a former councilwoman and mayor, by a wide margin: 68% to 32%. What do these numbers tell us?
As the business community knows all too well, marketing hype is one thing, actual results may tell a different story. Doubling your sales sounds impressive only when you forget to disclose that you sold only two cars last month.
So, let’s dig one level deeper into the election numbers. To begin with, there are about 439,886 residents in Colorado Springs (official site, 2013). Not all residents are eligible to vote: those under the age of 18 account (about 25% of them), so that leaves about 329,914. We must deduct the number of felons and foreigners (legal or illegal), so we can assume about 300,000 in round numbers.
How many of these are both eligible and registered to vote? Without an official answer, we can estimate about 75%, which would give us 247,435. What we do know is that about 39% of those actually voted, 95,502.
This also means that only 21.7% of the total population voted. Of that group, 68% chose Suthers (64,941 voters). If you consider all the residents of Colorado Springs whose mayor he’ll be, then about 15% actually endorsed him.
In case you think that this situation is unique to our city, the same percentages in round numbers are true of presidential elections when only about 146 million Americans are registered out of a population that exceeds 300 million.
The point, of course, is not that the new mayor or any other elected official hasn’t been properly elected; only that the rhetorical claims for public support and mandate are greatly exaggerated given our current democratic system of election.
But there is another point about the “wisdom of the crowds,” so named and popularized by James Surowiecki in 2004. According to this theory, the wisdom of the many (the majority) is greater than that of the few (however expert they may be).
This view was illustrated in a TED talk by Lior Zoref in 2012 when he asked the audience to estimate the weight of an ox. Of 500 entries, the lowest guess was 308 pounds, the highest 8,000, and the average was 1,792. The actual weight was 1,795. Pretty impressive!
This live experiment has been used to argue that if we polled lots of people, no matter the issue, their collective wisdom would exceed or be more accurate than that of a few CEOs or politicians.
Would that be true of political decisions, say, about the future of the City of Champions or the oversight of city-owned utilities? The public will always want to pay as little in taxes as possible while maintaining a high level of city services. Public officials will be the bearers of bad news: the less tax revenue, the less service.
Not only is there an inherent conflict between residents’ aversion to paying higher taxes and city officials who wish to ensure services are delivered, but there is another problem to consider. What if following the so-called wisdom of the crowd, the majority, leads us to adopt the lowest common denominator?
Instead of making difficult choices that may upset some in order to ensure long-term viability, we follow short-term sentiments and face future disasters. Scientists and innovators, entrepreneurs and thinkers, worry less about what everyone thinks in order to forge ahead into uncharted territories.
It was the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill who cautioned us in the 19th century against the tyranny of the majority. For him, it was important to listen to and account for minority voices, those whose insights may shed light on issues the majority may overlook.
A similar sentiment was expressed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, also in the 19th century, about “herd mentality” and the ways in which crowds can be swayed in one direction or another, especially when a charismatic leader pushes an ideology.
Coming back to mayor Suthers, yes, he has a mandate, but it’s a thin one. Yes, his proposals were endorsed by more than twice as many people who endorsed Makepeace’s. But as we know from voting patterns in our city, retired voters (military and others) vote in greater proportion to young ones. What do young residents want?
Would legalizing recreation marijuana sales within city limits have the same effect as in Denver? It’s not about “pot-heads,” but about an image of open-mindedness that invites newcomers, as Denver has successfully done. If we want to balance the city military-dependency with startups, listening to minority (voting) voices might help.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com