Global Elections in 2024 and the Philosophy of Voting and Governing

Overall, Plato envisions the philosopher king as a wise and virtuous leader who governs with compassion and justice, guiding society towards the realization of its highest ideals.

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

There is an urgent need to-day for the citizens of a democracy to think well. It is not enough to have freedom of the Press and parliamentary institutions. Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires….Susan Stebbing 

A Record Year for Elections Worldwide

The year 2024 marks a significant juncture in worldwide political affairs as numerous nations prepare for crucial general elections. A remarkable tally of no fewer than 64 countries, alongside the European Union, are gearing up for their respective national electoral processes, collectively representing about half of the global population. The outcomes of these democratic undertakings are poised to resonate across the international arena, influencing trajectories and shaping geopolitical landscapes for the foreseeable future.

Supporters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement of Pakistan celebrate after the parliamentary elections in Karachi on Feb. 11, 2024. | Fareed Khan/AP

In the roster of notable elections slated for 2024, Bangladesh takes center stage, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured a fifth consecutive term amidst controversies surrounding opposition suppression and declining voter turnout. In Pakistan, despite challenges such as the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, electoral activities unfolded in February. Likewise, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s bid for reelection appeared par for the course, although the conduct  of segments of the public offered insights into his enduring public support.

Simultaneously, Ukraine braces itself for another electoral cycle as incumbent leader Volodymyr Zelensky persists in his reelection campaign amid the backdrop of martial law and ongoing internal tensions. In the United Kingdom, economic uncertainties set the stage for a potentially robust performance by the opposition Labor Party in the upcoming general elections. Nevertheless, global attention remains focused on the United States, where the presidential race scheduled for November holds profound implications for international affairs, particularly if former President Donald Trump secures a second term.

Furthermore, the electoral panorama in 2024 transcends national borders, with eight of the world’s ten most populous countries—including Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States—poised to undergo democratic processes. Across the breadth of Asia and the Pacific, a flurry of electoral activities is anticipated, encompassing nations such as India, Indonesia, Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and three Pacific Island nations.

Undoubtedly, 2024 emerges as a pivotal year in the annals of global democracy, heralding an epoch of significant electoral importance that is set to mold the contours of democratic governance and geopolitical dynamics on a global scale.

John Stuart Mill on Voting

In the annals of political theory stands John Stuart Mill, a luminary whose ideas illuminated the path of liberal political philosophy in the 1800s. His magnum opus, “Reflections on Representative Governance,” plumbs the depths of democracy, seeking to refine its mechanisms and ensure equity in political engagement. Foremost among his proposals is the notion of apportioning voting privileges according to societal strata, a concept that this discourse endeavors to explicate.

Mill’s advocacy for differential voting rights arises from his acknowledgment of societal disparities. He discerns that economic, educational, and social gaps can distort the dynamics of political power, potentially marginalizing certain demographics. To counteract this, Mill posits a system of plural voting or weighted suffrage, wherein individuals receive varying numbers of votes based on predetermined qualifications.

At the heart of Mill’s proposition lies the principle of proportional representation, which involves granting additional voting power to those possessing attributes conducive to informed and conscientious citizenship. Rejecting the one-person-one-vote paradigm, Mill argues for the recognition of traits such as education, intellectual acuity, and civic engagement as determinants of electoral influence. By prioritizing these qualities, Mill aims to elevate the caliber of political discourse and decision-making, thereby promoting societal welfare.

Mill delineates several benchmarks for determining voting allocations, encompassing both objective and subjective criteria. Educational attainment emerges as a cornerstone, with Mill advocating for increased suffrage for the highly educated. He contends that educated individuals are better equipped to comprehend complex issues, critically assess candidates’ platforms, and contribute meaningfully to public dialogue. Moreover, education nurtures civic responsibility and societal awareness, crucial attributes for effective democratic participation.

In addition to education, Mill underscores intellectual prowess as a criterion for augmented voting rights. While acknowledging the challenge of objectively quantifying intelligence, Mill suggests that individuals exhibiting intellectual acumen through professional achievements or public service should be granted extra suffrage. By valorizing intellectual excellence, Mill seeks to incentivize the pursuit of knowledge and expertise, enriching the democratic process with diverse perspectives and informed opinions.

Furthermore, Mill advocates for weighting suffrage based on individuals’ societal contributions. He argues that those actively involved in public service or philanthropy demonstrate a commitment to the common good, deserving of heightened political influence. By incentivizing civic engagement through expanded suffrage, Mill aims to cultivate a culture of collective responsibility and altruism, fostering a more cohesive society.

Critics of Mill’s proposition raise legitimate concerns regarding its potential to exacerbate existing disparities and perpetuate elitism. Privileging certain attributes, such as education and intellect, may be perceived as exclusionary, reinforcing hierarchies of privilege, and disenfranchising marginalized groups. Moreover, the practical implementation of voting quotas presents logistical hurdles, including defining and measuring qualifying criteria and guarding against manipulation or abuse.

Despite these criticisms, Mill’s advocacy for voting quotas offers valuable insights into the complexities of democratic governance and the pursuit of equitable representation. While imperfect, his proposal underscores the importance of exploring alternative electoral models to reconcile the tensions between equality and excellence in democracy. By grappling with these challenges and interrogating assumptions about citizenship and political engagement, society can strive toward a more inclusive and resilient democratic framework, in accordance with Mill’s vision of truly representative governance.

Trends in Governing

Notwithstanding the above, current trends are that across the world, each person gets a single vote irrespective of the voter’s literacy or illiteracy.  Although it would be natural to assume that John Stuart Mill’s formula, calculated to ensure that the academic literati, with more votes than the hoi polloi, would ensure majority governance by their peers, and that an equal vote all would dilute this equation, allowing inept legislators to enter the legislature, this has not come about, at least in the western world. 

 The overwhelming majority of U.S. representatives and senators possess a college education, a pattern that has persisted for many years. According to an examination by the Pew Research Center of biographical information from the U.S. House and Senate, 94% of representatives and nearly all senators in the 118th Congress have attained at least a bachelor’s degree, with only one senator lacking this level of education.

 In Canada, lawmakers exhibit higher levels of educational attainment in comparison to the general voting population. Approximately 77.8% of legislators have obtained postsecondary qualifications, while only 57.3% of adult Canadian citizens have done so. This disparity is particularly notable concerning individuals with a university degree, as 45.1% of legislators hold one, whereas only 23.1% of eligible voters possess such credentials.

In the United Kingdom 85% of parliamentary members have had the benefit of post-secondary education.  In France, the National Assembly comprises a blend of parliamentarians with and without university qualifications. Before the last election, 86% of Members of Parliament (MPs) had pursued higher education. Following the election, this figure has dipped slightly to 85%. Interestingly, 99 MPs (15%) elected in the 2019 election did not pursue university education. In the recently established parliament, the vast majority of legislators, constituting 87%, hold university degrees, which is a prominent indicator of social status in Germany.

In the Netherlands, at the national level, approximately 90% of members in the Dutch lower house of parliament have completed higher vocational or university education. This significant educational achievement among legislators has led some to characterize the Dutch parliamentary system as a “platonic meritocracy.”

Is Too Much Education in the Legislature Good?

In his essay Does it Matter that Most Representatives are Higher Educated? Armen Hakhverdian of the University of Amsterdam argues that according to academic research proportional representation fosters a closer alignment of ideological positions between political elites and the general public. In simpler terms, countries with more proportional electoral systems tend to have governments and voters who share similar left-right political views. This also extends to the similarity between the composition of the legislature and the preferences of the electorate. Electoral systems based on proportional representation are more likely to result in legislative bodies that mirror the ideological spectrum of the country’s population. Given that the Netherlands boasts one of the most proportional democratic systems globally, it should theoretically minimize or even prevent distortions in political representation, as highlighted earlier.

While many focus on the descriptive representation of socio-economic factors such as social class or income, it’s pertinent to consider the educational backgrounds of elected representatives. The aftermath of the financial crisis brought economic inequality to the forefront of political discourse in numerous European nations. However, prior to this resurgence, debates regarding the discrepancy between political elites and the public in Western Europe primarily centered around socio-cultural issues like European integration and immigration. Hakhverdian says that another commentator – Hanspeter Kriesi –  and his colleagues have notably argued that Western Europe has witnessed the emergence of a new societal divide, where individuals categorized as ‘winners and losers of globalization’—defined by their educational attainment rather than social class or income—are in opposition to each other.

Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at  Harvard University and erudite scholar of political thought, delves into the matter of most lawmakers holding university diplomas in his analysis of fairness and governance. Sandel frequently scrutinizes the supremacy of the highly educated elite within democratic structures, suggesting that it could create a gap between political leaders and the general populace. He proposes that the overabundance of university-educated individuals in political spheres might sideline the viewpoints and concerns of those lacking advanced education.

Sandel argues that the focus on academic qualifications in politics could lead to a limited array of viewpoints and life experiences being represented in legislative bodies. This could, consequently, erode the democratic principle of equal representation and result in a dearth of diversity in policy formulation.

Additionally, Sandel expresses apprehension regarding the potential emergence of elitism and technocracy in governance when most lawmakers hail from privileged academic backgrounds. He contends that a more inclusive and democratic political framework should aim to integrate a wide spectrum of voices and backgrounds, including those without university degrees.

In summary, Sandel’s examination of the prevalence of university-educated legislators highlights broader inquiries concerning the essence of democracy, representation, and equity in contemporary political frameworks.

My Take

Whichever way it goes – whether the hoi polloi elect the hoi polloi or whether the educated elite elect their peers, the trend of one vote per person has resulted in the proliferation of university degrees and diplomas in many western legislatures although it may not necessarily be the case the East..  One cannot assume that the ordinary, uneducated person elects the educated for their maturity and judgment inasmuch as one cannot assume that everyone gets an equal go at getting on the list of candidates in an election.  On many occasions, persons of privilege, through birth or inherited wealth, are prominently in the fray.  Regrettably, in addition to the well-meaning politicians with credentials, thieves and vagabonds get in, not to mention illiterates and  buffoons of unparalleled ineptitude.  In Many instances corruption, bribery and wheeler dealings are corollaries to this misfortune.

While university education is highly desirable for a leader to exhibit judgment and maturity, the qualifications of a good legislator should primarily be steeped in leadership and moral integrity. In his famous work “The Republic,” Plato discusses the qualities of a philosopher king, who embodies wisdom, intelligence, and moral excellence. Plato suggests that a philosopher king possesses a profound love for truth and knowledge, engages in rigorous intellectual inquiry, and demonstrates a deep understanding of the fundamental principles underlying reality.

Moreover, Plato argues that a philosopher king is inherently just and morally upright, governing with fairness and benevolence for the betterment of society as a whole. This ruler is guided by reason and strives to promote wisdom and virtue among both themselves and their subjects.

Additionally, Plato emphasizes the importance of education and philosophical training for those aspiring to become philosopher kings. These potential rulers undergo extensive education aimed at instilling them with the necessary knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and moral virtues required for wise and just governance.

Overall, Plato envisions the philosopher king as a wise and virtuous leader who governs with compassion and justice, guiding society towards the realization of its highest ideals.

These criteria would obviate what professor Sandel decries as the evil of meritocracy which rewards entitlement; blocks the underprivileged and left behind; and creates an unbridgeable divide in society. As John Allen Fraser said “If the institutions of parliamentary democracy are worth preserving, the duty to explain them to the people they are meant to serve becomes vitally important”.

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.