[EM] Sociological issues of elections

Fred Gohlke fredgohlke at verizon.net
Wed Sep 11 13:00:59 PDT 2013

You mentioned a town meeting arrangement, and I'd like examine that for 
background on the inclusiveness of a political system.  Although a town 
meeting structure is often thought of as the purest form of democracy, 
it has flaws.

Town meetings tend to favor assertive individuals, and the decisions 
made in the meetings tend to be made by cliques, usually under the 
guidance of the same assertive individuals.  Understanding how and why 
this happens is important if we are to construct an inclusive system.

Jane Mansbridge examined such an arrangement in a town she gave the 
fictional name of Selby, Vermont, and described her findings in Beyond 
Adversary Democracy[1].  Her descriptions matched my personal experience 
in a village in a farming community in Western New York State in the 
1930s and 1940s so accurately that I'll use excerpts from her book to 
describe the weaknesses in 'town meeting' democracy (showing the page 
references in brackets).

Over the two hundred twenty six years of the United States' existence, 
our political system has gradually broken down.  We are now experiencing 
a political situation foretold by Jean Jacques Rousseau in a passage 
quoted by Mansfield:

   "Finally, when the State, on the eve of ruin, maintains
    only a vain, illusory, and formal existence, when in
    every heart the social bond is broken, and the meanest
    interest brazenly lays hold of the sacred name of 'public
    good', the general will becomes mute, all men, guided by
    secret motives, no more give their views as citizens
    than if the State had never been, and iniquitous decrees
    directed solely to private interest get passed under the
    name of laws." [page 19]

Rousseau's description accurately fits the present state of politics in 
the United States.  The need to envision an alternative to the present 
system is compelling, but, before we can do so, we must consider the 
human traits that deter us from achieving a truly democratic form of 
government, so we can devise a process that lessens their impact.

Although called democratic, the participation in town meetings is 
limited.  As Mansbridge said about Selby, the Town Hall could not even 
accommodate the entire electorate:

    [Page 47] "... the little building could never seat more
    than half the town's potential voters."

    [Page 48] "On this particular day, ninety of Selby's 350
    or so potential voters were present for at least part of
    the meeting."

    [Page 76] "... some groups in Selby are more likely than
    others to attend the town meeting.  The mechanism of one
    citizen/one vote, majority rule in an open assembly
    therefore consistently over-represents certain interests.

Here, we see that although the process is nominally open to everyone in 
the community, and thus is deemed democratic, the reality is that only 
about one quarter of the people actually participate in any part of the 
process.  To give us a little insight into why this is so, I will cite 
the comments of two citizens:

    [Page 61] Elizabeth Hurley, who "has not attended a
    town meeting in the last ten years", said:

    "I don't care to -- well, to tell my part, you know,
     right agin a whole mess of people ... I don't know,
     I don't like to get up in town meeting and say, well,
     this and that ... well, everybody's looking, or doing
     something, and they'll say [whisper], "She's a fool!"
     There's one man in particular [Bedell], that's up on
     this road here, boy oh boy, he's into hot water all
     the time.  [JM: He talks up in town meetings?]  Oh!
     Gracious to Betsy, I guess he did.  [JM: Do people
     pay attention to him?]  Hah, hah, no they don't, boy,
     we just, ah ..."

    [Page 61] Florence Johnson, who "has never gone to a
    town meeting.  Asked why she thinks so few people go,
    she answers" ...

    "I don't know.  If you go there, and you speak up, they
     make fun of you for speaking up and so on, and I guess
     people just don't want to go and be made fun of.  Why
     I don't say anything so they don't just laugh it off

    "I mean we have some friends [Bedell] that went last year,
     and the guy stood up, and he said some things about a few
     issues ... and they just laughed at him.  So what good
     did it do him to open his mouth?  I mean, he'd have been
     better off if he had stayed home."

It is commonplace to condemn the electorate for not participating in the 
political process, but we must not ignore the very real, very natural, 
reactions of humans to the atmosphere prevalent in meetings of large 
groups of people.  The material in this section of the book describes 
the feelings of personal discomfort participants experience in large 
meetings.  Yet, those who experienced this discomfort were able to 
discuss political issues in a one-on-one setting (with Mansbridge). 
This suggests, if we want the entire electorate to participate in the 
political process, it is important to avoid large assemblies.

Another flaw in the town meeting concept is the tendency of the process 
to resolve public issues in private, outside the process.

    [Page 62] "To counter the anxiety of speaking in public,
    groups will sometimes caucus before they anticipate a
    major conflict, delegate some of their number to speak,
    and rev up the motors of self-confidence by assuring one
    another that they are right."

    Thus, as James Pedley said:

    [Page 69] "Sometimes a few people get together and sort
    of cut and dry things.  Someone will get up and make a
    nomination, someone second it, and someone else get up
    and move the nominations close.  It's very cut and dried."

    [Page 75] "The divergent views of young and old, high and
    low taxpayers, and villagers and non-villagers on the issue
    of school expenses and transportation never surfaced, for
    example.  Not bringing conflicts into the open like this
    usually gives more power to the members of whatever inside
    group settles things before or after the meeting."

    [Page 75] "As a result, when interests do conflict, the
    town's officers are not representative of the citizenry
    and may have both interests and preferences at odds with
    those of the majority. This elite is also likely. consciously
    or unconsciously, to prevent some decisions from reaching
    the policy arena at all."

This material tells us that, if we are to increase the inclusiveness of 
the political process, if we are to empower every member of the 
electorate by letting them participate in the practice of politics to 
the full extent of each individual's desire and ability, we must devise 
a process that does not expose the people to ridicule for expressing 
their views.

One may argue that voting does not expose anyone to ridicule, but the 
efficacy of the vote is open to question.  The right to vote would be an 
essential element of democracy if the people were able to select the 
people and the issues for which they vote.  However, in the United 
States, the people's right to select the candidates and decide the 
issues on which the people vote has been usurped by the political 
parties.  They have arrogated to themselves the right to name the 
candidates for public office.

Voting, as carried on in elections for public office, has been 
transformed from an intellectual exercise to an emotional one, and we 
suffer badly because of it.  In America, the right to vote is not 
evidence of democracy, it expresses our status as subjects of the 
political parties that gave us our options.  If we are to improve our 
political infrastructure, we must recognize that:


You made the critical point that, with an electorate in the 
multi-millions of people,

   "... we need somebody to act for us, but few enough that
    that they can still govern by deliberation.  Hence,
    representative, elected democracy."

In the United States, the number of representatives in the two Houses of 
Congress seem (to me) reasonable.  That leaves the question of how the 
representatives are to be selected.  You mentioned that delegable proxy 
lets the deliberation happen "on the outside", presumably before the 
representative is chosen.  However, I'm not sure if that approach 
requires or allows political campaigning, which is a corrosive activity 
that demands huge expenditures to manipulate the voting public.

re: "But on the other extreme, consider you have an emperor (or
      an elected king).  If you suspect corruption from power is
      a real problem, then you have to set up some form of
      oversight.  The oversight doesn't automatically arise from
      the system itself, but rather has to be separately

Personally, I don't consider either a viable option, but you make the 
excellent point that neither automatically accommodates oversight.  In a 
democracy, oversight should be exercised 'before' a candidate is elected 
to public office.  The electors need a way to assure themselves that the 
candidate's internal gyroscope is aligned with their objective(s) 
'before' they make their choice.  Therefore, the electoral method must 
ensure that candidates are carefully examined by people with a direct 
interest in uncovering any aspect of a candidate's intentions that is at 
odds with the public interest.

re: "(In a multiparty democracy, the different parties are
      supposed to check one another, and in a coalition system,
      the opposition is supposed to check the position, where
      the respective coalitions may change from time to time,
      again lessening the chance that corruption can set in.)

Does it actually work this way in practice?  I have no experience with 
multiparty democracy, and cannot make an informed comment on the 
practice.  However, systems based on the organized pursuit of power seem 
(to me) susceptible to corruption.

re: "Perhaps a bicameral approach could work. Use a general
      election for one of the houses and the hybrid method for
      the other. Or for that matter, use your triad method
      (with declared "parties" as we've discussed) for one
      and the hybrid for the other."

This may be a superior suggestion, but it's not my place to make that 
decision because the method I outlined has never been subjected to the 
kind of analytical scrutiny necessary to validate it.  Suffice it to say 
the method must allow the dynamic formation of parties so we can be sure 
fresh perspectives on the conduct of society are considered.  At the 
same time, the method must guarantee that the parties cannot commandeer 
the process.  That's best done by ensuring that non-partisans have a voice.

re: "I'm imagining the election method for the hybrid to be
      proportional, also, so that if 10 of the 500 think that
      advocates for position X should be on the legislature,
      then 3 (same proportion) will, assuming they vote according
      to that opinion."

I'm not clear on this point.  By proportional, do you mean the number of 
random choices will be proportional to party size?  That is, if party 
'A' is 23% of the electorate, 23% of the total candidates selected will 
be chosen, at random, from party 'A'?  If so, may I suggest that 
non-partisans be treated in the same way?  If 57% of the electorate is 
non-partisan, 57% of the candidates are chosen, at random, from the 
non-partisans?  (I will avoid consideration of the treatment of 
advocates of a particular position until I have a clearer understanding 
of your idea.)

re: "A system can be pushed more towards "not alienating those
      further away" by increasing the threshold for action (e.g.
      supermajority rule), and that's what I noticed."

At the risk of diverting attention from the critical issues we are 
discussing, I'd like to suggest that, instead of using a supermajority 
rule, we consider the sunsetting of legislation, that is, varying a 
law's life depending on the percentage of legislators supporting the 
law, with all laws subject to repeal at any time by a simple majority. 
Perhaps, something like:

     Approval Rate      Term of Legislation
     -------------      -------------------
     Less than 52%      law expires in one year
     52% to 60%         law expires in two years
     60% to 75%         law expires in five years
     75% to 90%         law expires in ten years
     over 90%           no automatic expiration

These terms are, of course, only for illustration.  The actual terms 
should be determined by study.  Given the harm done by bad legislation, 
this might be a topic worthy of thought and discussion.

Fred Gohlke

[1] Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane J. Mansbridge, The University of 
Chicago Press, 1980.

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