If We Value Democracy, We Should Vote on Cultural Norms

The core thesis of democracy is that values should be decided democratically. Democracy is good, if and only if, people choosing values democratically will result in good values.

If the “democracy” thesis is true, if people voting on values really does produce better outcomes than a group of appointed experts, why shouldn’t NPR – “national” public radio – be run by democratically elected officials?

If all people should have a say in which laws get passed, why shouldn’t the people also have a say in what kinds of things it is OK to say? Who should decide what kind of language is beyond the pale? Who should decide what is in the overton window?

How can “we” be an “us” unless we agree on who “we” are and what makes “us” good?

In a democracy, who should decide values if not voters?

Who decided that LatinX should be a thing? Cleary not hispanic or latino people. If democracy is good for deciding things like, “what should the tradeoff be, between safety and freedom,” shouldn’t democracy also be useful for deciding “what kind of things ought a person not say,” even if the “only” enforcement is cultural isolation?

Who currently gets to decide that colorblindness is a form of white supremacy, or that capitalism is a form of systemic racism? Who should decide, if not voters themselves? If democracy works for deciding on laws, why can’t it also work for deciding on cultural norms?

I do agree that some speech is hateful, and deserves cultural condemnation. Some people should get fired for the things they say. I’m all for canceling people who cross certain lines. I think anyone honest with themselves agrees that cultural condemnation and ostracism are appropriate responses for certain really hateful speech. But which speech is hateful enough to be considered worthy of ostracism? Which beliefs are unpopular but still acceptable? Which beliefs are actually popular but have adherents too afraid to say them? And, probably more importantly, who should decide that? The New York Times?

Why not voters themselves?

The Internet Makes Direct Democracy Feasible

This kind of direct democracy may have been technologically infeasible even 30 years ago. But we have the internet now. It should be doable for us to have national digital votes on cultural norms. These votes don’t have to have any legal enforcement, but they could serve to make it clear which values america officially embraces, and which ones we don’t.

What if a majority of americans actually agree on a bunch of policy approaches, but opinion polls are non-binding and politicians can pretend they don’t exist? Why should advertising businesses get to set the rules of the presidential debates, instead of the voters?

I can see the argument that direct passage of laws is a bad idea because of the complexity involved. But what stops us from having national elections on a weekly basis, where voters can share their beliefs about what is important to them?

If you agree with me that culture wars are destroying America, I think there’s a real simple solution: let’s vote on cultural norms. There has never been a civilization in history that didn’t have some kind of official norms. What are ours, as a country? Who should decide, if not the voters?

What if all the squabbling we’ve been doing over the past few decades can end up making us stronger by making us the first civilization in modern history to democratically decide norms?

What does this even look like?

What does it mean to vote on norms, instead of laws? Let’s give a toy example here: “flub.” Suppose some people love flub, some people hate it, and some people are indifferent. Some people have gotten fired for their jobs for supporting flub. Some people say, “look, this flub thing, it’s overrated, nobody really cares that much about it.” Other people would say “flub is obviously an important issue in America, and the anti-flubbers are just in denial about it.” Still other might say, “look, only people whose last names have an odd number of letters care about flub, we all know how those people are.”

The absence of any agreed upon, inarguable truth is a recipe for conflict.

We might spend hours debating and arguing about flub instead of something the government can actually change. This is something I think national normative elections could change. It’s one thing if some private polling company produces numbers saying 70% of Americans are pro flub. People can, and do, dismiss polls they don’t like. Polls aren’t official. But if there’s a national election, and the ‘flub is good’ side wins, there’s one super important consequence:

Everyone knows that everyone else knows that “flub is good” won the election.

In other words, normative elections can create new shared knowledge, which then has real effects. If ‘flub is good’ wins the election, it becomes very difficult for any company to justify firing people based upon their support for flub. It becomes easier for people who support flub, but were afraid of saying so, to announce their support for flub. It also becomes harder for a group that opposes flub to say, “nobody really cares about this, it’s not important.”

What happens if you still think flub is a bad idea? That’s fine, that’s great – continue to oppose flub if you want, of course. It does become much harder for a person to imagine that only a small vocal minority supports flub, if flub wins the election overwhelming. If flub loses by a heavy margin, flub supporters might want to ask whether or not this battle is really worth fighting on.

Who chooses which issues we vote on?

The neat thing about computers is that we can say something like, anyone can put any issue on the ballot. Vote on whatever you want, why not? The only real consequence of normative elections would be shared public knowledge of who won the normative election. If you think an issue is irrelevant, you can just ignore it. Voting on any issue at all is an implicit way of saying, “this topic is important.”

This system could reset itself on a weekly basis. At the end of the week, whichever topic got the most votes would therefore be considered ‘the most important issue of the week’ – and we’d have a clear measure of how voters felt about that specific issue.

Normative elections can act like a democratic replacement for ‘the news cycle’, which is a product of some weird interactions between extremely online people, media production corporations, advertising corporations, machine learning, and foreign intelligence agencies.

If I were to build this, I would add in all kinds of optional self-identification fields. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out that, for example support for flub was actually most common among an identity group that was generally ‘thought of’ as being anti flub? If self-identification fields and pseudonimity are present, we could even have shared public knowledge of things like, “which traits are shared among the people who’ve consistently been anti-flub the last 10 years, and then became pro flub?”

Longitudinal datasets are incredibly valuable, and hard to produce. Normative elections make it feasible for one key product of the state to be a massive longitudinal dataset of voluntarily shared information, which might end up as the most accurate way of measuring socially constructed aspects of reality. I think there are a lot of people who feel like nobody cares about them, and this feeling ultimately dangerous anywhere, but especially in a democracy.

Although I would much rather this be done by governments, I suspect a private company is more likely to do this. At this point, I’ll take anything that lets us Americans stop fighting each other over stupid nonsense. Ukraine has real leadership, and we don’t. I think we have the leaders we deserve because we fight endlessly over cultural stuff that we could just decide with elections and then move on. Democratic governance acts like an alternative to endless power struggles. Maybe the path out of the culture wars is to lean into our shared belief that elections are better than violence, linguistic or otherwise?

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