It is a natural thought that political competence is important to democracy. We are troubled by the idea that voters are not competent, and it is normal to stress the importance of political education. However, I have found that it is surprisingly difficult to state in a satisfying way when individuals are competent voters. This is the issue I’ll aim to shed light on.
Most adults are of course legally competent—that is, we think they possess the minimal mental capacities necessary to be responsible for their own legal choices. But it’s a separate issue whether people are competent at voting. I take this issue to be the following: (when) do individuals possess a certain kind of skill in tackling a certain kind of task, namely, the task of voting?
Here’s a troubling possibility I will explore: political competence is highly demanding, and very few people are capable in making competent political choices. In the voting booth, you might make choices, but it is unlikely that you make a well-informed, competent choice.
Political scientists have long stressed that people are uninformed about politics. They find that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population are “know-nothings”. But once we realise the true epistemic demands of governance, it might turn out that even more people are not able to competently vote. (I would not think myself competent in such a way, if the argument is true.)
This sets a clear agenda. After looking at some existing accounts of competence (part 2), I’ll argue that political competence might be very rare (part 3). This is a surprising result, but perhaps not too surprising (part 4). In response, you might try to weaken the demands of competence (part 5). But I think more plausibly, we might try to develop democratic theory that entirely works its way around the notion of individual competence (part 6).