At first glance, it seems absurd. Why does the modern world choose its leaders through popular elections? Why does the United States think that tens of millions of citizens who do not even know the name of their representatives in Congress can intelligently select the most powerful person on the planet? Or, to take a different country, why do we expect hundreds of millions of Indians beset by poverty to make an informed choice for the leader of the world's second most populous nation?
The devotion to elections is historically very recent and still not universal. For most of our millennia on earth, rulers--from cavemen to commanders--gained power through physical strength and organized armed might. Their control was legitimized in various ways: the word of God spoken to ancient Israelites, the "Divine Right" of medieval European monarchs, the "Mandate of Heaven" of Chinese emperors. What was originally won by force became accepted through tradition, or what sociologist Max Weber called "the authority of the eternal yesterday."
But authority in today's world requires election to office. The United States and the United Nations do not legitimately accept any government until it has registered its claim to power through a popular vote. That source of legitimacy is acknowledged even by the most autocratic regimes and brutal dictatorships, whether in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, or in contemporary Russia, Egypt, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, or Cuba.
Why? Political theorists have long attempted to reconcile a normative preference for electoral democracy with the empirical reality that voters are often misinformed, typically disinterested in politics, and largely focused on their private lives. They have been challenged for 2,500 years to rebut Plato's snide description of the "ship of state" in a democracy--a ship on which "the sailors are quarreling over the control of the helm; each thinks he ought to be steering the vessel, though he has never learnt navigation and cannot point to any teacher under whom he has served his apprenticeship; what is more they assert that navigation is a thing that cannot be taught at all, and are ready to tear to pieces anyone who says it can."
Defenders of elections have a different view. Rejecting Plato's philosophic idealism, they assume the empiricist stance of John Locke and the skepticism of David Hume. Relying on experience, they are wary of claims to power, particularly claims by those who are already powerful and seek protection from anticipated abuses of power. Instead of postulating inherent differences among humans, they envisage developmental possibilities for all people. Democratic theory is ultimately pragmatic, as Winston Churchill concluded: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Supporters of electoral choice directly challenge Plato's praise of the elite, presumably qualified helmsmen, and his condemnation of the masses, presumably unqualified sailors. Elites too often sail the ship of state into danger: it was the Bush administration's experts, not the electorates, who engineered US disaster in Iraq. Popular preferences are often right. Even the cynical Machiavelli believed: "It is not without good reason that it is said, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God."' He argued that mass judgments may be better than elite ones: "In the election of their magistrates they make far better choices than princes; and no people will ever be persuaded to elect a man of inferior character and corrupt habits to any post of dignity, to which a prince is easily influenced in a thousand different ways."
Contemporary empirical political science does in fact support some of Machiavelli's optimistic judgment. Richard Lau and David Redlawsk have shown the rationality of the voters, who consistently vote "correctly"--i. …