[EM] Sociological issues of elections
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. 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
[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
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:
THOSE WHO CONTROL THE OPTIONS, CONTROL THE OUTCOME.
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.
 Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane J. Mansbridge, The University of
Chicago Press, 1980.
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