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Boaty McBoatface? What????
British democracy has survived all sorts of things: the unraveling of the British Empire, independence movements in Ireland and Scotland, Prime Minister’s Questions. But never before has it confronted Boaty McBoatface.
The boat, which is really a ship, acquired new significance this week, when a British official suggested he wouldn’t respect the results of an online government poll in which more than 124,000 people voted to christen the country’s new $300-million research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.” The name received three times more votes than the runner-up entry. The people of the Internet had spoken emphatically, and they’d spoken like a five-year-old.
Alas, Science Minister Jo Johnson was not amused. “The new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including global warming, the melting of polar ice, and rising sea levels,” he reminded Boaty McBoatfacites. “That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social-media news cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing.” (As my colleague David Graham has noted, it’s a bit rich to hear such sober talk from a government that has in the past named ships Buttercup and Cockchafer.)
But the government’s position also seems like a cruel bait-and-switch—a case of elites eagerly leaning in to hear what the people have to say, and then leaping back in horror. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Johnson was asking, in announcing the contest, “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs travelling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?” Did he not mean it when he said that “this campaign will give everyone across the UK the opportunity to feel part of this exciting project and the untold discoveries it will unearth”?
What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?
Do Elections/Democratic processes produce responsive government?
In their new book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels gather an array of recent social-science research to challenge what they call the “folk theory” of democracy—the popular conception that “what the majority wants becomes government policy.” Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” may be rousing, they write, but it’s not realistic. Most voters have neither the time nor inclination to pay close attention to politics. They support parties and candidates based not on specific policy issues or coherent ideological reasoning, but rather on their social identities, partisan loyalties, and immediate circumstances—things like their race or religious affiliations, the political party they’ve backed since childhood, and the state of the economy at the time of the election.
Since voters aren’t fixated on policy, elected representatives and other top government officials—the rare members of society who are seriously and consistently liberal, conservative, or otherwise ideological—are left “mostly free to pursue their own notions of the public good or to respond to party and interest group pressures” in formulating policies.
To be ruled is both necessary and inherently discomfiting (as well as dangerous). For our rulers to be accountable to us softens its intrinsic humiliations, probably sets some hazy limits to the harms that they will voluntarily choose to do to us collectively, and thus diminishes some of the dangers to which their rule may expose us. To suggest that we can ever hope to have the power to make them act just as we would wish them to suggests that it is really we, not they, who are ruling. This is an illusion, and probably a somewhat malign illusion: either a self-deception, or an instance of being deceived by others, or very probably both.In other words: By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.