Democracy – Comment on a Proposal

Thor May
Brisabane 2014



This short post adds to a recent discussion in The World Post:

Berggruen, Nicholas and Nathan Gardels (8 April 2014) “Post-Party Democracy Can Restore the Rule of the Many Over Money”. The World Post, online @


Kudos to the writers for even thinking about the democracy problem. The American version of shielded plutocracy concealed in a populist sleeve is definitely no longer a model that imaginations like mine (and a few billion others) outside of the United States aspire to. The wedding cake proposal in this article is already familiar in parts. Think of the progression from town governments to national representation and you have some inkling of the space for incompetence and manipulation.

The actual management of social, economic and political choices which are of citizen interest is at the heart of the governance problem, whether it is some kind of democratic governance or a more arbitrary alternative. Votes offer an option of yes or no. Life is harder than that. There is an inherent problem with binary choices in a complex society. Most important questions are nuanced. We could take almost any votable question and find within it a host of other questions. Most respondents will not have the imagination to see the impinging issues on the lead query. That is their responses will be shallow, and in any real political campaign easily swayed by partisan argument.

For any new political system to make a fresh contribution, it needs to deal with getting sophisticated responses from a largely uninformed populace. That is, it needs to find a way to encourage large numbers of people to make considered responses to cascades of entailed problems, and then arrive at a workable outcome. Even in terms of Internet technology that is rather difficult. At a human level it is exceptionally difficult to hold the attention of enough of the people for enough of the time to extract something valuable. And who is to actually make these democratic choices? Average reading age is less than 14 years. In supposedly advanced states like America and Australia, functional illiteracy (as in not being able to read labels on bottles) hovers around 50% of the population. I suspect that functional innumeracy approaches about 70%. I read somewhere that about 7% of Americans had even the most elementary grasp of basic scientific principles (3% in China). None of these people are going away anytime soon. Of the 50% who can read a jam jar, most would not be able to comprehend this post. In other words, meaningful democracy in complex societies is a very hard problem.

Perhaps the best beginning for improving national governance would be to find some kind of technical compromise between meaningless yes/no votes and presenting the rather nuanced issues behind important questions. That is, only a small minority of people are going to follow a posting like this for the simple reason that only a minority of people (even amongst those with a college education) are comfortable with extended prose argumentation. A sample compromise might be a competent editor extracting the salient argument points in (for example) competing analyses of political choices, and linking them into a visual network, a mind map. Clever technology might overlay that mind map with similar visual networks from other articles to show up dominant themes. Data mining technologies, in a crude way, are going in this direction already. For anyone interested, I have informally explored some of the territory in the governance problem in a couple of recent essays: “The Democracy Problem” at and “What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century” at .




Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


academic repository: at
discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at


Democracy – Comment on a Proposal (c) Thor May 2014




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