Iowa and New Hampshire: Democracy and group genius

What happened in Iowa and New Hampshire?  Yes, we know it’s called “voting,” it’s the democratic process in action, blah blah blah.  But is this the best way to choose a president?

I should say right up front that my answer is “yes.”  I believe in the power of the people—that’s why I wrote my book Group Genius.  But is my belief in people power supported by scientific studies of groups?  For much of history, leading political scholars believed that “the people” generally made bad decisions.  Historically, most people were uneducated and illiterate, and they could easily be swayed by appeals to the basest emotions, grandstanding, and poor logic.  When scholars first began to study group dynamics, they focused on mobs, riots, and panics, making it obvious that these scholars weren’t big fans of groups.  In fact, even the founding fathers of the United States shared these concerns; that’s why they created a “representative” democracy, where the people didn’t actually make the decisions; they elected representatives, who presumably would be properly educated and cool-headed, and could be trusted to make good decisions. 

But in the last few years, research by my colleagues and I has begun to show that groups are often smarter and more innovative than the individual members of the group.  Think of a jazz ensemble—where none of the players is in charge, where no single musician knows exactly where its going.  That’s what I mean by “group genius,” and every one of us has been in a creative conversation, a successful energizing meeting, or a sports team where everything gelled together.

Is primary voting, for example in Iowa and New Hampshire, more like a jazz group—super creative—or more like a crazy mob?

As I’ve found in my research, for a group’s genius to be fully realized, several things have to happen.  First, the members of the group have to share a common body of knowledge—and on top of that, they each have to know some uniquely different information.  Second, they have to trust in each other.  But trust doesn’t mean everyone always agrees; it allows them to challenge other’s ideas, and to propose crazy ideas of their own.  Third, they need to interact with each other, in a special kind of open, improvisational conversation—where something unexpected can emerge.  The best genius groups are like improvisational jazz ensembles.  The outcome is unpredictable, and it depends on a complex sequence of small actions and interactions.  A lynch mob isn’t like any of these—in a mob, everyone is the same, everyone agrees, and the outcome is pretty much predictable ahead of time.

This research gives us some hints about why democracy is sometimes hard to export to other countries.  In a country where the citizens don’t share a culture of democratic values, where tribal and historical rivalries make it near impossible to trust each other, it’s hard to get the conversation going.  And without a truly creative conversation, the group—“the people”—can’t do its creative work.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, thankfully the process has been more like group genius than like a mob.  We’ve seen frequent conversations and debates, with voters and candidates alike.  In such small states, even the media often plays a constructive role, spreading communications among voters.  That’s why it’s a good idea to have the first primaries in smaller states, like Iowa and New Hampshire—because there’s a very real possibility that actual conversations between voters could influence the outcome.  And these interactions have, of course, resulted in unpredictable, emergent outcomes—even four days after Iowa, it was hard to say exactly what would happen in New Hampshire.  And still, we don’t know who the nominees will be.

Both parties have been tinkering with the primary calendar.  But true democracy should be a bottom-up process, one where the choices start in conversations among the people, and then gradually bubble up.  We don’t want a process that allows the party elite to choose their candidate and then ask the people to rubber stamp that choice.  The power of democracy is the power of group genius; and that’s what we’ve seen in these primaries.  If only we could think of a way to get every state involved early on, so that all voters across the nation could participate equally, and yet still allow this emergent creative process to unfold, unpredictably and from the bottom up.

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