So the last theme was complicated enough that I stopped halfway through. Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, a fascinating book really. It makes a sham of our democracy, for one, because it asks the fundamental question of democracy: what are we voting for when we pull the lever?
In our system, we’re wrapping a lot of different preferences into a single choice. We vote simultaneously for a person, a party apparatus, and an ideal or set of ideals. Some people vote based purely on what they think is the personality of the leader in question; so and so is a “good honest guy”, while the other is “shifty and sleazy”, which are calculations the average voter is in no place to make.
Another voter will vote based on the competence and the positions that the candidate takes, the platform and ideals, or the ideals and the notions of the party that he takes. But usually the character issues trump these things, which leads to all kinds of non democratic outcomes. A person may believe politically in the Republican Party’s ideals, but if they were a voter in one of the many districts in 2006 where the Republican was tarnished due to scandal and corruption, they had little choice but to vote Democrat anyway. And it happens in the other direction too, though not much of late; you have to have power to have corruption, and until recently the Dems had neither.
So what does it mean for someone who is a bona fide conservative to vote for a Democrat because their local Republican stole money from casinos or came onto a Congressional page? It surely doesn’t mean they’re voting for a liberal social policy, or for an end to the war in Iraq. It means their choices on ideology, on logos, were circumvented on ethos and pathos. Aristotle comes back to bite us. So sometimes we end up with policies we don’t like, because the bastard who did speak for our ideas was too awful to vote for.
One of the benefits of parliamentary systems is they avoid a lot of this. Each individual party member is less of a figure on their own right and more of a direct representative of the party. You vote for the party, not for the person, and not even sometimes for the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the party. That means if they Labour Party in Britain decides that Tony Blair is personally a liability, they can dump him, as dump him they did. Wouldn’t the Republicans love to dump Bush right now and replace him with someone more appealing? But they can’t, because in our system we vote for the person, while in Britain they vote for the party.
The sad part is, our system was set up that way on purpose. Washington in particular was wary of parties and political associations, and thought they were inimical to good democracy; they actually thought it was better, or even possible, to vote for the character of the person and leave ideological questions aside. Of course, the electorate then was a small, wealthy connected group of men, while today it’s a huge diverse mass of different citizens. But, Washington was wrong even in his own time; parties formed and solidified maybe 10 years into the lifetime of the Constitution, and never would wither away.
So we’re left with a system that awards mandates to all kinds of undesirable things, because that’s how it works. Is that democracy? In a direct sense, of course it is; the people’s will does get expressed. But on key questions, decisions are routinely undemocratic, where the vast majority of people’s preferences do not get expressed, because there is no option to express them in the system, or because the issues at hand are outweighed by other issues. If the American people were voting on solely health policy, they would have voted for Kerry in 2004; but they voted first on Iraq and security. Why, then, does Bush’s preferences on health care policy get to win out? That’s the problem with our system, and with our democracy.
So how do imperfectly expressed preferences have anything to do with what I said yesterday? That’ll be tomorrow’s post.