What is Democracy? (66): A Sports-Based Selection Process For Politicians

I’ve already documented several ways in which democracy tends to malfunction. Democracy seems to be a system for

Here’s another one:

It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. (source)

Compared to some of the previously cited distortions of the democratic process, this one is particularly disturbing. You could still argue that the way politicians look or sound has at least some relevance to the political process, even though it shouldn’t determine elections. You could also argue, even if it means stretching your neurons to breaking point, that a long spell of bad weather has an adverse effect on the economy, that politicians should take countermeasures, and that they should be punished if they don’t. If you’re feeling very generous, you could even say that the order effect is a general human bias and that we shouldn’t single out democracy for condemnation when we see this effect appearing in elections.

However, there seems to be no possible excuse for voting in favor of incumbents simply because your local football team scores a win. OK, I can understand that the exhilaration makes you feel good about everything, including perhaps the performance of the incumbents and the status quo in general, but that means we should see the same distortions when people vote after having had sex or after having eaten a chocolate bar. And those latter distortions may have an even greater impact on elections, given the fact that eating chocolate and having sex is more common than watching football. Given the large number of possible distortions like these, I simply can’t convince myself that they really do occur.

Bonus malfunction:

In the summer of 1916 … a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (65): A Political Decision Procedure Distorted by the Order Effect

People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,

In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. (source)

Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:

The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate. (source)

In California,

being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)

And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.

Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.

More on the order effect here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (64): Plutocracy?

The role of money in democracy is hotly contested. It’s undeniable that democracies spend a lot of money on campaigns, advertising, lobbying etc. Some argue that wealthy individuals or corporations often use their financial means to distort the outcomes of elections or the framing of policy and legislation. There may also be a problem of vote buying: wealthy individuals or politicians paying voters or giving them some other advantages (such as jobs or cheap housing) in an effort to convince them to vote in a certain way. Worries about the effect of income inequality on democracy are partly based on this type of argument, as are efforts to regulate campaign financing.

And indeed, the huge amounts of money going around in democratic politics could potentially move us away of the democratic ideal of equal influence. So the charge of plutocracy isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, this is essentially an empirical matter and we should therefore look at evidence from political science. Here’s a short and somewhat depressing overview:

With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in U.S. Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.

One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory. (source)

So, maybe the “plutocrats” can’t just simply spend in order to have their preferred candidate elected and instead spend money on the candidate who is good and who will win anyway. However, the fact remains that their spending gives them privileged access to politicians and possibly also privileged influence on subsequent policy, and that isn’t something we want in a democracy. If “winning candidates generally have more money” – whether the money causes the win or not – one can reasonably assume that the candidates will in some way be indebted to or influenced by their donors. Also, even if there are doubts about the causal direction, it is worrying that the evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that campaign spending – especially spending by challengers – can determine who gets elected.

Regarding deterrence – successful fundraising by incumbents deterring challengers from entering a race – the empirical evidence is weak:

there is no consensus in the literature regarding deterrence, and once again there are major questions about causal relationships (i.e., do high-raising incumbents deter, or is it just high-quality incumbents who can raise a great deal of money and simultaneously deter quality challengers for reasons having nothing to do with funding?). (source)

Whatever the evidence on deterrence, it’s clear that money determines who can run. It’s naive to think that a candidate with few means would be able to run against another having a lot of means. The former would simply be invisible, even if he or she feels undeterred.

What about campaign advertising, one of the more visible ways in which money could play a part in politics?

[A]ds appear to be somewhat effective but have wide variance in their effectiveness (that is, some ads help a lot, most help very little or not at all, and a few are counterproductive). (source)

Voter mobilization – face-to-face canvassing, mailings, phone calls – is also very expensive, hence well-funded candidates can do more of it. Whether they in fact do more of it depends on its effectiveness:

mobilization efforts appear to be effective but costly (face-to-face canvassing appears most effective by far, while phone calls & direct mail have much less effect). (source)

The conclusion is that campaign spending is somewhat effective, and that those candidates with more money do somewhat better. This results in a financial arms race between candidates, increasing the risk of donor indebtedness and of unequal access and influence:

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better, and it’s more likely than not that at least part of this relationship is due to money paying for things like ads and canvassers that help candidates win over new voters and/or turn out their bases. (source)

Vote buying is the other channel through which money could potentially influence democratic politics. Here, some of the evidence is more encouraging:

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings. (source)

In conclusion: democracy is not simply a market transaction, but neither is it silly to worry about the role of money in elections and legislation.

More on money in politics here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (63): Rule of the People, and Not Just of a Part of the People

Voter turnout rates are a constant worry for proponents of democracy. Wherever voting is not compulsory – and that covers the majority of democracies – large numbers of voters choose not to exercise their right to vote, ever. (And it is a right, by the way). Even if it’s wrong to take this as a rejection of democracy – it’s quite possible for an individual to like living in a democracy and at the same time choose not to participate (he or she may count on others to make it work) – it’s not a sign of a strong and widespread endorsement either. It’s probably just indifference and lack of enthusiasm for democracy. But why should we worry about this? Why would we, ideally, want to see higher rates of participation? Is it not enough for the highly committed to vote? Can’t we leave the others alone and stop moralizing?

Many would answer those latter questions affirmatively, and say that there’s really nothing to worry about for one of these three reasons:

  1. There are those who argue that “the common people” should not vote anyway because they are ignorant. So it’s good if they don’t. As a matter of fact, turnout rates should even be lower than they are today given the general lack of knowledge.
  2. Others say that it’s not the people’s fault that they don’t vote; they don’t because they don’t have a choice and because they don’t have a choice they shouldn’t be pushed into voting. Politicians are all alike, at least in their actions, and no single politician accurately represents all the different opinions that single voters may hold.
  3. And then there are those who claim that voting doesn’t make a difference because there are simply too many votes and a single one almost never tips the scales. Rational people, they say, have better things to do with their time and should be free not to vote.

Here’s a short and hasty reply to these “stay at home” arguments, with some links to more elaborate replies:

  1. Is it really so difficult to understand that ignorance – to the extent that it is common – is the result of rather than a reason for non-participation, and that participation creates knowledge?
  2. Also, we could perhaps ask the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the millions of US citizens without health insurance whether voting for one guy rather than the other does indeed make no difference at all. And to the extent that there is sometimes a lack of difference, we should make the case to politicians that rather than chasing the median voter they should take their roles as “authors and not actors” more seriously.
  3. Finally, isn’t voting about more than bean counting? Even if your individual vote doesn’t tip the scales, can’t you have other reasons to vote? E.g. express yourself, make yourself heard, form associations, shape you identity? Etc. The “drop in the ocean” argument against voting can also be recast as an argument in favor of more power for local and small scale government: if a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference, then instead of telling people not to vote, we can just as well change the denominator: reduce the total population that decides a certain matter by making democracy more local.

Another problem with the “stay at home” arguments: if large numbers of people don’t vote, then they will have to abide by laws that they didn’t approve, that are tailored to the interests of others and that are likely damaging to their own interests. There are two ways of replying to this:

  • Either people will decide to vote if they see that their nonparticipation starts to hurt them – as long as they don’t participate they accept the consequences.
  • Or some people ruling over others is something that happens all the time in a system of majority vote and that is not limited to the situation in which groups don’t vote. However, majorities and minorities are always different – depending on the issue at stake – whereas non-voters tend to be an unchanging block. The latter always bear the brunt. For example, if poor people tend not to vote, do they really have a right to complain when non-poor voters approve the dismantling of the welfare state?

Even for those who do vote, there are some risks attached to the presence of large and possibly increasing numbers of non-voters. If a lot of people decide not to vote, then why should we have to retain democracy for those who do vote? Maybe non-voters are right in their rejection of democracy and then we should get rid of it altogether. That wouldn’t necessarily be in the interest of those who vote.

Those are some of the reasons to worry about voter turnout rates.

What is Democracy? (62): Impossible?

When you start to think about it, democracy looks more and more like an impossible form of government. And this happens not only when you conceptualize it in a maximalist manner – although its impossibility obviously becomes more and more apparent with each additional requirement we impose on it. This is disconcerting for those of us who believe democracy is worth having.

Let’s begin with democracy in its most basic form: a system of government that is supposedly best equipped to help people protect their interests. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

that the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed to stand up for them. (source)

Here we already run into problems. What are people’s interests and how exactly do they “stand up for them”? Take the example of alcohol: people have an interest in not suffering the bad consequences of alcohol abuse, either their own abuse or that of others. That sounds simple enough, but upon reflection it’s not so easy to define this interest correctly, let alone act efficiently on the basis of it. At some point in time, the potential or actual alcoholic may believe it is in his interest to have laws that make it impossible for him to buy alcohol. At other points in time, this may seem too harsh and he may believe that it’s better for him to try to restrain himself. After all, a real cure for (potential) alcoholism is inner conviction, not outside coercion. Coercion will simply drive the market underground. But then again, alcohol abuse destroys the inner conviction that is necessary to stop it. So, what to do? Is it in his interest to vote for prohibition and solve the problem of deficiency of conviction? Or is it in his interest to trust human agency?

Hence a first difficulty with the basic model of democracy is the determination of the interests that democracy should serve and of the policies that are best suited to protect these interests. Lot’s of possible choices, value judgments and empirical facts come into play, including facts about future consequences. Moreover, thinking about and examining the facts won’t suffice: testing, trial and error etc. are also necessary.

Hence a second problem: even if interests and the policies that best promote these interests can be clearly determined, it’s not necessarily true that the people are best placed to do this. Experts may be more likely to hit the mark. But how to select the experts? We can’t let the people select them, because if the people were able to select them then they would need to be experts themselves. We can’t just let the experts select themselves, because then everyone could claim to be an expert. Peer selection is also fraught with problems: who’s a peer? How to select the peers?

A third problem: most of us believe, correctly, that people should not simply pursue their self-interest – if that is something they are even able to do. People are expected to discover the common interest as well as those policies most likely to realize the common interest. The common interest can be defined in several ways, but in one interpretation it’s that which is best according to moral standards about justice, rights etc. We also don’t believe that this common interest and those moral standards result automatically from effective self-interested actions.

Here we have exactly the same difficulties as with self-interest: what is the common interest, and which policies serve it best? Arguably the problem here is even more difficult: one’s self-interest is probably less complex, and one is at least motivated to determine it. Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee success – as I argued above – but success in matters of morality and justice is even further away. If even the best philosophers can’t agree on these matters, how could ordinary citizens?

Fourth problem: even if all this is doable in theory, wouldn’t it require an enormous effort? Do people have the time to do all this, or would doing it require the sacrifice of other goals that may be just as important or even more important from a moral point of view? One could argue that the refusal to participate in democracy is a moral requirement given the cost and effort required by democracy. Even voting and participating in an uninformed manner seems to require too much of too many. 

Fifth problem: even if all of the problems above could somehow be overcome, there are huge practical problems involved in allowing large numbers of people to vote on issues. Hence, deliberation about interests, justice, laws and policies takes place not in preparation of a vote on the substance of the matter but in preparation of the election of politicians who in turn will vote on the substance. This results in an additional problem: once – or better if – the people have decided on matters of interest, justice, law and policy, they’ll have to select those politicians most likely to hold the same views. That, obviously, is a problem. Not only can politicians pretend to hold certain views and do something completely different once in office. It’s also unlikely that people find a politician that holds all the good views. Hence, people have to elect politicians who will, predictably, implement some wrong views. This leads to a conclusion in favor of votes on issues rather than votes on people. In other words, a conclusion in favor of direct democracy. However, this type of democracy imposes even more duties on citizens and raises a whole new set of difficulties.

So the conclusion seems to be that democracy is a poor system for generating laws and policies that effectively protect both people’s interests and the common interest. We can try to save democracy by arguing that the problems cited above aren’t caused by democracy and aren’t limited to democracy. They are what life is about: “what is my self-interest” is just another way of asking “what do I want in life”? And people seem to have a hard time ignoring the big questions about morality and justice. The problems don’t go away when democracy goes away. If it’s clear how difficult the problems are for democracy, it’s not at all clear how they are less difficult for other forms of government.

I admit, that is a weak defense of democracy, so more needs to be said. We could, for instance, argue that problems 1 to 3 above are knowledge problems. Now, I’ve argued before that democracy has certain things going for it in that respect. The massive participation in open and free public discussion typical of a democracy makes it possible to show, examine and argue for points of view, and this in turn can lead to a filtering out of weak points of view and a selection of the better ones. In other words, democracy may be able to solve the knowledge problems that seem to render it impossible. In addition, problems 4 and 5 above also don’t look fatal to me: they are of a practical nature and can perhaps be solved by technological developments and increased productivity.

If all that’s the case, then democracy may not be as bad after all.

Limiting Free Speech (48): Equal Influence, Money in Politics, and “Citizens United”

The US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United correctly emphasized the importance of free speech in a democracy. (There’s a thorough discussion of this point here). Free speech serves to expose government corruption and is the means to hold governments accountable to the people. The people also need free speech to deliberate on possible policies and on the respective merits of political parties, candidates and incumbents. The latter in turn need free speech to make their point and attract support and members. And, finally, political assembly, protest and organization require speech.

So it’s fair to say that no democracy can function without free speech. It’s also important, as noted by the Court, that this speech right should not be limited to individuals. Organizations, such as corporations, labor unions, pressure groups etc. should also enjoy this right. They are, after, all, collections of individuals who may want to exercise their free speech rights in common.

However, this is precisely the main problem in the Court’s decision: politics is already heavily dependent on corporate funding. Giving corporations an unlimited right to marshal their substantive resources for corporate political speech would only increase the influence of money on politics. Enormous amounts of money are already necessary in order to win elections in our present-day democracies, especially in the U.S. Candidates have no choice but to accept contributions from those members of society who have the money, and those are generally private corporations. There’s a persistent feeling that candidates can be “bought” and that, as a result of contributions, the interests of large donors receive disproportionate government attention. This may or may not be corruption, but it flies in the face of democratic ideals that tell us that it’s the people who rule, not large donors.

The Citizens United decision seems to make this situation worse by stating that corporations have an unlimited right to engage in political speech and that they can, for example, fund political commercials endorsing or attacking a candidate. As such, this right should not be controversial since it’s part of the right to free speech. However, many people fear, rightly in my opinion, that corporate speech, because it can use disproportionate financial resources, will drown out the voices of everyday citizens and give corporations a role that’s even more important than the one they have already managed to secure for themselves through campaign contributions. Hence some form of limit on corporate spending should be possible. And this applies to both campaign contributions and corporate political advocacy in favor or against certain candidates. Corporations would keep their speech rights, of course, but we would simply limit the amounts of money they could spend on their political speech. In fact, rather than a limitation of speech as such, this is merely a limitation of the amplification of speech.

Now, it’s in the nature of speech in general that some voices drown out others. Some people have more interesting things to say, some are not interested in saying anything, some are better at speaking or are better educated, and some have more resources or time to speak. However, we do generally try to equalize speech in some way, even in ordinary life. We have rules on etiquette and politeness. We think it’s better if people speak in turns, for instance. We don’t allow the best speakers to monopolize everyday discourse. Also, we subsidize education, and one of the reasons why we do that is to give people the ability to speak their minds.

We usually try to do something similar in politics. Democracy is the ideal of the rule of the people. That means that everyone’s influence on politics should be more or less equal. It’s useless to adopt a principle like “one man one vote” if afterwards we allow asymmetrical speech power to dramatically increase the political weight of one vote over another. We know that this ideal of equal influence is impossible to attain, and yet we try to make influence as equal as we can. Limits on campaign spending and financing are part of that effort: a candidate should not be allowed to dramatically outspend other candidates because that would give him or her a disproportionate influence over the voting public. For the same reason, donors should not be allowed to contribute excessive amounts to a single candidate, because then that candidate would be able to outspend other candidates. Now, why not limit corporate advocacy spending as well?

Of course, campaign contributions to candidates as well as spending on advocacy in favor of candidates are clearly acts of political speech, and therefore protected by default. By donating to a candidate or a party, or by funding or producing political advocacy, you state your political preferences. And the fact that this “you” is not, in our case, a private person but a corporation shouldn’t change anything. A corporation is a collection of private persons (owners, directors or shareholders) and they have a right to voice their opinions collectively, using their collective resources, just like other collectives.

However, all this doesn’t mean that we’re talking necessarily about an unlimited right. If corporations or other entities with a lot of resources (wealthy individuals, labor unions etc.) are allowed to donate without limits or to engage in unlimited advocacy, it’s likely that they thereby “buy” a disproportionate share of influence. And this, ultimately and after a certain threshold is passed, destroys democracy. The beneficiaries of their donations or advocacy will receive more attention during the election campaigns, and will in turn give more attention to the interests of their backers once they are elected. During the campaign, it will seem like the beneficiaries of excessive contribution or advocacy have the better arguments because those arguments receive more attention. Simply the fact that a story is “out there” and is repeated a sufficient number of times gives it some plausibility and popularity. There would be no commercial publicity or advertising if this weren’t true. Flooding the airwaves works for elections as well as sales.

However, are we not infantilizing the public with this kind of argument? Is a voter no more than an empty vessels waiting to be filled by those political messages that are best able to reach him? Or can they see through it all and make up their own minds irrespective of what they hear and see? If they see that a candidate receives large amounts of money from a particular company, isn’t that reason enough to vote for the other candidate? The truth is likely to be somewhere in between. People are neither empty vessels for donors, nor objective arbitrators of political truth. And the fact that they can be partly influenced should be reason enough to restrict the political speech rights of those with large resources – or better their right to amplify their political speech. It’s not as if they can’t make their point. It’s just that they shouldn’t be allowed to push their point. Just like we don’t allow a heckler to silence others, or a bully to just keep on talking because he never learned the rules of politeness.

What is Democracy? (58): A Voice Based Selection Process for Politicians

It’s both a damning verdict on democracy and a charming play on words: voters apparently use their vote to choose politicians with a certain type of voice (the word “vote” being related to “voice”). More precisely, voters prefer politicians with lower-pitched voices:

Participants in the study, published in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, were asked to listen to archival voice recordings of nine U.S. presidents. The researchers, from Canada’s McMaster University, created higher- and lower-pitched versions of each voice. Listeners were then asked to assess the attractiveness, honesty, leadership potential and intelligence — among other qualities — of the speakers.

For nearly every attribute they were asked to rate, participants were significantly more likely to prefer the deeper voice. The only category in which higher voices won? Most Likely to Be Involved in a Government Scandal. …

Previous studies have found that both men and women find men with deeper voices more attractive and more dominant. And in eight U.S. presidential elections between 1960 and 2000, the candidate with the deeper voice has won the popular vote. (source)

Politicians’ looks create a similar distortion of proper democratic processes. Hence I guess the answer to the questions I asked here and here should be “yes” after all.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Democracy (8): A Multidimensional Measurement

Any attempt to measure the degree of democracy in a country should take into account the fact that democracy is something multidimensional. It won’t suffice to measure elections, not even the different aspects of elections such as frequency, participation, fairness, transparency etc. It takes more than fair and inclusive elections to have a democracy. Of course, the theoretical ideal of democracy is a controversial notion, so we won’t be able to agree on all the necessary dimensions or elements of a true democracy. Still, you can’t escape this problem if you want to build a measurement system: measuring something means deciding which parts of it are worth measuring.

You would also do best to take a maximalist approach: leaving out too many characteristics would allow many or even all countries to qualify as fully democratic and would make it impossible to differentiate between the different levels or the different quality of democracy across countries. A measurement system is useful precisely because it offers distinctions and detailed rankings and because it makes it possible to determine the distance to an ideal, whatever the nature of the ideal. Obviously, a maximalist approach is by definition more controversial than a minimal one. Everyone agrees that you can’t have a democracy without elections (or, better, without voting more generally). Whether strong free speech rights and an independent judiciary are necessary is less clear. And the same is true for other potential attributes of democracy.

Once you’ve determined what you believe are necessary attributes you can start to measure the extent at which they are present in different countries. Hence, your measurement will look like a set of sliding scales. With all the markers on the right side in the case of a non-existing ideal democracy, and all the markers on the left side in the unfortunately very real case of total absence of democracy.

(The aggregation of these scales into a total country score is another matter that I’ve discussed elsewhere).

Some candidates of attributes are:

  • Does a country include more or less people in the right to have a democratic say? How high is the voting age? Are criminals excluded from the vote, even after they have served their sentence? Are immigrants without citizenship excluded? Are there conditions attached to the right to vote (such as property, education, gender etc.)?
  • Does a country include more or less topics in the right to a democratic say? Are voters not allowed to have a say about the affairs of the military, or about policies that have an impact on the rights of minorities? Does the judiciary have a right to judicial review of democratically approved laws?
  • Does a country include more or less positions in the right to a democratic say? Can voters elect the president, judges, prosecutors, mayors, etc., or only parliamentarians? Can they elect local office holders? Does a country have a federalist structure with important powers at the local or state level?
  • Does a country impose qualified majorities for certain topics or positions? Do voters have to approve certain measures with a two-thirds supermajority?
  • Does a country provide more or less ways to express a democratic say? Can voters only elect officials or can they also vote on issues in referenda?
  • Does a country impose more or less restrictions on the formation of a democratic say? Are free speech rights and assembly and association rights respected?
  • Does a country accept more or less imbalances of power in the formation of a democratic say? Are there campaign financing rules?
  • Does a country show more or less respect for the expression of a democratic say? How much corruption is there? Is the judiciary independent?

A “more” score on any of these attributes will push up the total “democracy score” for a country. At least it seems so, if not for the conclusion that all these complications in the measurement system are still not enough. We need to go further and add additional dimensions. For example, one can argue that we shouldn’t define democracy solely on the basis of the right to a democratic say, not even if we render this right as complex as we did above. A democracy should, ideally, also be a stable form of government, and allowing people to decide about the fundamental rights of minorities is an expression of the right to a democratic say but it is not in the long term interest of democracy. Those minorities will ultimately rebel against this tyranny of the majority and cause havoc for everyone.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Democracy (7): Some Technical Difficulties

Suppose you want to construct a democracy index measuring the level or lack of democracy in different countries in the world. The normal thing to do is to select some supposedly essential characteristics or attributes of democracy and try to measure the level or presence of those. So, for example, you may select free speech, elections, judicial independence and a number of other characteristics. Some of those are perhaps already measured and you can simply take those measurements. For others, you may have to set up your own measurement (e.g. a survey, analysis of newspapers or official documents etc.), or use a proxy.

In any case, you’ll end up with different datasets on different attributes of democracy, and you’ll have to bring those datasets together somehow in order to make your overall index, you single country-level democracy score. The problem is that the datasets contain different kinds of scales which cannot as such be aggregated into a global index. The scales and the values in the scales have to be normalized, i.e. translated into a common metric.

normalized value = raw value/maximum raw value

First, however, you have to rescale some existing scales so that they start at 0 – in other words, so that the lowest score is 0 (instead of starting at 1 for example, or at -10 such as the Polity IV scale). This way, all scales will have a normalized range from 0 to 1; 0 being the negation or total absence of the attribute; 1 being the complete and perfect protection or presence of the attribute.

What about weighting the different attributes? Some may be more important for a democracy than others. However, introducing weights in this way inevitably means introducing value judgments. While value judgments can’t be avoided (they’ll pop up at the moment of the selection of the attributes as well, for example), they can be minimized. If you choose not to use weighting, you consider all attributes to be equally important, which is a view that can be defended given the often interdependent nature of the attributes of democracy (an independent judiciary for example will likely not survive without a free press).

Once the different data sources are translated into normalized scales and, if necessary, weighted appropriately, they have to be aggregated in order to calculate the global index of quality of democracy. One possible aggregation rule would be this:

global index = source 1 * source 2 * ... * source n.

So a simple multiplication. But that would mean that a value of 0 for one attribute results in labeling the country as a whole as having 0 democratic quality. This is counter-intuitive, even with the assumption of equal importance of all attributes. Hence, a better aggregation rule is the geometric or arithmetic mean (or perhaps the median).

However, there’s also a problem with averages: low scores on one attribute can be compensated by high scores on another. So very different democracies can have the same score. Also, within one country, a high score on suffrage rights but 0 on actual participation would give a medium democracy score, whereas in reality we wouldn’t want to call this country democratic at all (the score should be 0 or close to 0). Perhaps we can’t avoid weights after all.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (57): A System For Signaling Disapproval of the Weather

I already mentioned the fact that a country’s economic performance determines to a large extent the outcome of democratic elections, irrespective of the causal link between this performance and the policies or behavior of elected officials. I also stated my disappointment: ideally, democracy is more than a system for signaling disapproval of the economy; it should be a process of judging the desirability and effectiveness of the policies (and proposed policies) of politicians (and candidates). This process is meant to improve the quality of policies (through trial and error) and to guarantee that policies correspond to the wishes of the people (wishes which have themselves been improved through deliberation). Just voting out the “damned bastards” because the economy is tanking, even if those “bastards” prevented worse, is not an approximation of the ideal.

However, things seem to be even worse than this. Although economic performance should not be the main criteria for judging politicians – the economy is determined by many different things, and policies only play a limited role – it does make sense to make it part of the evaluation: in some cases, there’s no doubt that politicians can harm or benefit the economy, and all politicians have some influence on it. The same isn’t true for the weather, and yet there’s evidence that voters use elections to signal disapproval of that as well:

We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. (source, source, source)

Obviously, politicians shouldn’t be punished for natural events, but they should for mishandling the aftermath (rescue, rebuilding, future prevention etc.). The latter should be part of democracy as a decent ideal. Politicians should be judged on the way they handle the aftermath of weather events, especially given the fact that some such events become a disaster only because of the political or governmental reaction to it (or absence of a reaction).

However, many natural disasters that used to be considered purely natural events are now believed to be at least partially man-made (for example, global warming may provoke hurricanes). Hence it’s not always irrational to blame politicians for the weather itself, rather than for their handling of the aftermath of weather events. What is irrational is the attempt, contrary to the scientific facts about natural and political causation, to blame politicians for natural events or their aftermaths when those events or aftermaths are not clearly manmade.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (56): The Effect of Unconscious Priming?

People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. The same seems to be true in democratic politics. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. This effect can last up to 8 months. Exposure to the Confederate activates negativity toward Blacks and results in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. In 2007, Israeli researchers showed that even subliminal exposure to a national flag influences voters (in their study, it encourages voters to support politically moderate views).

This is proof of a lack of voter rationality and of the limited effect or even the futility of deliberation. It’s all very depressing and, when taken together with some other disturbing facts about democracy, it makes you reconsider the supposedly good reasons for promoting democratic governance. Let’s hope nobody in the Middle East is listening.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

What is Democracy? (51): Representatives as Actors and Authors

Sorry for this very long post, but I think this is important. During the discussions about healthcare reform in the U.S., opponents frequently mentioned the unpopularity of the proposed Bill (although now, after the Bill has been accepted and turned into law, it seems that its popularity has gone up). I don’t wish to engage in a discussion about the accuracy of the opinion polls that measure the popularity of healthcare reform (it’s obvious that extremely negative political propaganda has played a role, as well as lack of knowledge about the actual proposals).

What I want to do here is look at the deeper discussion about the problems arising from a representative body voting laws that are unpopular (or seem to be). One of the more eloquent dismissals of unpopular legislation, especially the healthcare legislation, comes from Megan McArdle:

Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all. If you don’t find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! … Oh, wait–suddenly it doesn’t seem quite fair that Republicans could just ignore the will of their constituents that way, does it? … What I hope is that the Democrats take a beating at the ballot box and rethink their contempt for those mouth-breathing illiterates in the electorate. (source)

Apart from the fact that we usually mean something else by “tyranny of the majority” (i.e. majority approved and popular decisions violating the rights of minorities), she and others like her seem to have a valid point, but only at first glance. While I don’t believe that they advocate getting rid of the whole notion of elections and just leave decisions up to opinion polls, they certainly want to give opinion polls much greater weight and turn them into some sort of check on parliamentary majorities (however, it’s not clear how that is supposed to work).

I want to argue against this. It’s true that a democracy is all about electing leaders who are supposed to execute the will of the people by way of laws and policies (if we sidestep the important issue of direct participation). The people don’t vote laws and don’t decide and pursue policies themselves. They decide what can and cannot be viewed as the will of the people, but then they give someone else the power to execute this will in their name and to frame the laws and policies necessary for the execution of this will.

That’s because it’s practically very difficult to allow all people to participate in all decisions. In a representative system, the people can influence the laws and the policies of the government only indirectly. They elect those representatives who they think are likely to vote laws and implement policies in accordance with their wishes, and if, afterwards, the people find out that they elected the wrong representatives, they replace them. The desire to hold on to power, forces the representatives to act in accordance with the wishes of the people.

This means that representatives do not necessarily follow their own personal judgment or their own conscience. The people instruct them and tell them, in a general way perhaps, what kinds of laws or policies to implement, or at least they tell them which values should be promoted by laws and policies. In all their actions, the representatives must never forget whence they came, who elected them and for what reason. They are the servants of the people whom they represent and whose wishes they are supposed to realize with the help of laws and policies. If their own wishes and opinions collide with those of the people, then they should either set them aside or resign from their posts.

In other words, representatives are actors and not authors. The people are the authors and the representatives act out the words of the authors instead of their own words (although of course their own words may coincide with those of the people). This guarantees the congruence of power and society. The political actors speak and act the words owned by those whom they represent (the authors) and, if necessary, leave their own personality behind while doing their work. Their official personality must be the sum of the opinions of the electors who, for this reason, recognize themselves in the representatives. The representatives act with authority (a word related to the word “author”) and are likely to remain in office as long as this recognition lasts and as long as the representatives act in the way they were authorized to do. The difference between rulers and ruled is hereby eliminated, notwithstanding the fact that the representatives and the represented are not the same persons. They are not the same persons but they share the same personality (notice also the etymological origin of the word “person”, namely a mask worn by actors). Not only the election results, but also the laws and the government policies must be the reflection of the will of the people. Representatives do not only have authority on the basis of an election result, but also on the basis of their performance in office.

All that would vindicate the position of McArdle and other opponents of the healthcare bill. However, things are not as simple as this. Representation is more than just a convenient tool for self-government in large communities. It has certain other advantages.

[L]imitation to a small and chosen body of citizens … [is] to serve as the great purifier of both interest and opinion, to guard ‘against the confusion of a multitude'”. Hannah Arendt in On Revolution.

It’s not always easy for a representative to know what the people think, if they think something at all. It often happens that a representative guides, purifies or clarifies the thoughts of the people by presenting his own thoughts in a clear and concise way. At the next election, the people are of course free to express acceptance or rejection of these thoughts and to vote for or against the person defending them.

So it’s clear that the definition of the representative as an actor is a simplification. Representatives should be more than mere errand boys faithfully executing the will of their masters and speaking, not with their own voice, but with the voice of the voters. They are more than robots or parrots doing deeds and saying words that are not their own. Of course, a representative of the people “re-presents” someone, makes someone else present in parliament or in an executive function. He plays a part. He represents something that is pre-existent.

However, this is not always the case. What is represented often arises after and through the act of representation. By presenting his ideas in a clear and convincing way, the representative can convince the people to adopt his ideas. He can also try to add a certain clarity, direction, consistency and unity to the opinions of the voters. In the case of contradicting desires for example, he can establish a certain priority and favor one desire while putting another one temporarily aside. He decides an issue in the name of the undecided electorate torn between two conflicting desires (for example employment and limiting the arms trade) and defends this decision by giving clear arguments to the voters.

At the next election, the voters can always disavow the choices of the representatives, but then at least they are forced to decide what is their point of view, to make up their minds, to focus on one of their conflicting views and to end an internal conflict.

Politics should not always focus on every wish or follow every erratic movement in the opinions of the people. It should also try to guide these wishes by offering and forcing a clear choice. This means that it’s quite all right for a representative to follow his own judgment now and then instead of simply saying what his electors instructed him to say. This kind of independence is of course limited. It cannot be applied to fundamental opinions. For example, a representative chosen on a ticket of anti-racism cannot express racist ideas or execute racist policies while in office.

The simple model of democracy—the people making up their minds beforehand and choosing representatives who will faithfully implement their opinions—is sometimes a simplification of reality. The politician is often the midwife of the truth of society, in the words of Guéhenno, and shapes the will of the people. Politicians necessarily take over characteristics of the people and start to resemble the people, otherwise they cannot represent the people and the people will never support the politicians. However, the opposite is also true. The people often start to resemble the politicians because the politicians clarify the sometimes vague and contradictory opinions of the people.

If the representatives were only allowed to follow the instructions of the electorate, then the affairs of parliament would be no more than an exercise in arithmetic, a sum of opinions. Representatives in parliament could not and should not discuss, deliberate and convince each other. If a representative changes his opinions as a consequence of discussion and argumentation in parliament—and this happens very often, because otherwise discussion and argumentation would be useless—then his opinions are no longer those that won him the election and he no longer represents the people who elected him. If representatives must follow the instructions of the electorate in every case, then parliament cannot be a place where different opinions are juxtaposed and discussed and where people try to come to a common opinion based on argumentation rather than the coincidence of identical opinions.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. Edmund Burke

More posts in this blog series.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (28): Push Polls

Push polls are used in election campaigns, not to gather information about public opinion, but to modify public opinion in favor of a certain candidate, or – more commonly – against a certain candidate. They are called “push” polls because they intend to “push” the people polled towards a certain point of view.

Push polls are not cases of “lying with statistics” as we usually understand them, but it’s appropriate to talk about them since they are very similar to a “lying technique” that I discussed many times, namely leading questions (see here for example). The difference here is that leading questions aren’t used to manipulate poll results, but to manipulate people.

The push poll isn’t really a poll at all, since the purpose isn’t information gathering. Which is why many people don’t like the term and label it oxymoronic. A better term indeed would be advocacy telephone campaigns. A push poll  is more like a gossip campaign, a propaganda effort or telemarketing. They’re very similar to political attack ads, in the sense that they intend to smear candidates, often with little basis in facts. Compared to political ads, push polls have the “advantage” that they don’t seem to emanate from the campaign offices of one of the candidates. (Push polls are typically conducted by bogus polling agencies). Hence it’s more difficult for the recipients of the push poll to classify the “information” contained in the push poll as political propaganda. He or she is therefore more likely to believe the information. Which is of course the reason push polls are used. Also, the fact that they are presented as “polls” rather than campaign messages, makes it more likely that people listen, and as they listen more, they internalize the messages better than in the case of outright campaigning (which they often dismiss as propaganda).

Push polls usually, but not necessarily, contain lies or false rumors. They may also be limited to misleading or leading questions. For example, a push poll may ask people: “Do you think that the widespread and persistent rumors about Obama’s Muslim faith, based on his own statements, connections and acquaintances, are true?”. Some push polls may even contain some true but unpleasant facts about a candidate, and then hammer on these facts in order to change the opinions of the people being “polled”.

One infamous example of a push poll was the poll used by Bush against McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000 (insinuating that McCain had an illegitimate black child), or the poll used by McCain (fast learner!) against Obama in 2008 (alleging that Obama had ties with the PLO).

One way to distinguish legitimate polls from push polls is the sample size. The former are usually content with relatively small sample sizes (but not too small), whereas the latter typically want to “reach” as many people as possible. Push polls won’t include demographic questions about the people being polled (gender, age, etc.) since there is no intention to aggregate results, let alone aggregate by type of respondent. Another way to identify push polls is the selection of the target population: normal polls try to reach a random subset of the population; push polls are often targeted at certain types of voters, namely those likely to be swayed by negative campaigning about a certain candidate. Push polls also tend to be quite short compared to regular polls, since the purpose is to reach a maximum number of people.

The Democratic Destruction of Democracy

We’re all familiar with the phrase. Democracies allow so much freedom that anti-democratic forces can develop inside of them and ultimately destroy them from within, using the very tools that make democracy what it is (freedom of speech and association, elections etc.). The archetypal case is, of course, the Weimar Republic of pre-WWII Germany (although one can claim that Weimar wasn’t really a democracy and Hitler’s rise to power didn’t occur through purely democratic means). The democratic destruction of democracy is also, misleadingly, called the self-destruction of democracy, as if it is the democracy as a whole rather than an abusive part of it that causes the destruction.

However, I also have a problem with the phrase “democratic destruction of democracy”. There is, after all, nothing democratic about the abuse of democracy by anti-democratic forces trying to get elected with the sole purpose of ending all future elections. Their actions may be democratic in the strictly legal sense, but not in the moral or philosophical sense.

I believe the “democratic destruction of democracy” means something else. Most people, and even those who care about democracy and are willing to die in its defense, view one of its basic characteristics – the plurality of opinion – as a suboptimal state of affairs, and something to be overcome. We all believe strongly in certain opinions, and we may even consider those opinions to be more than mere opinions. In other words, we make truth claims about our opinions. That means that we believe that other people, who have adopted other opinions, are wrong, mistaken. We want to convince them, but that means that we want to eliminate the plurality of opposing opinions. It also means that we want to abolish democracy, because it’s impossible to imagine a democracy in a world of unanimity.

Paradoxically, the most typical democratic activity – persuasion – has the objective of ending democracy. I wouldn’t call it a “destruction”, because the end of democracy is a byproduct, not a conscious goal. Of course, this democratic (let’s call it) termination of democracy is possible only through persuasion, and by the looks of it, that’s not a very sharp tool. Hence the termination is still a rather abstract and long-term possibility. The undemocratic termination of democracy does not suffer from tool-limitation, and is therefore a much less theoretical possibility.

This undemocratic termination can occur inside or outside of democracy, with the tools offered by democracy or with other tools. Anti-democrats can decide to try to get elected, or they can stage a coup. Or whatever. Common to many anti-democrats is impatience with persuasion. Some are motivated simply by power or money, but many believe that the “democratic masses” just can’t see the light and are immune to even the best arguments. Instead of persuasion, the impatient anti-democrats are led to believe that imposition of a worldview is the only remedy for error and mistake. Re-education camps are quick to follow, and extermination camps for those for whom even persuasion in the form of re-education is impossible.

What is Democracy? (43): A System Characterized by Free Speech

The principle of the freedom of speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government. It is not a Law of Nature or of Reason in the abstract. It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage. A. Meiklejohn (source)

Democracy is a power struggle. The participants in this struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program. That’s one reason why democracy needs freedom of expression. The participants in the power struggle also have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice. So they need the freedom of association and the separation of state and society. And for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate. So they also need the freedom of assembly. If they want to organize, associate and assemble, it’s because they want to convince new people to join them. And they can’t do that without free speech.

Without the guaranteed right of all citizens to meet collectively, to have access to information, to seek to persuade others, as well as to vote, democracy is meaningless. Democratic rights, in other words, are those individual rights which are necessary to secure popular control over the process of collective decision-making on an ongoing basis. David Beetham (source)

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as well has long recognized that the facilitation of self-government is one of the main goals of free speech and the First Amendment. Take, for example, Mills v Alabama:

Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. (source)

Or Brown v Hartlage:

First Amendment [is] the guardian of our democracy. That Amendment embodies our trust in the free exchange of ideas as the means by which the people are to choose between good ideas and bad, and between candidates for political office. (source)

Or Roth v United States:

The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people. (source)

There’s also Justice Louis D. Brandeis famous (concurring) opinion in Whitney v California, in which he described the democratic function of freedom of speech. According to Brandeis, every citizen has the right to

endeavor to make his own opinion concerning laws existing or contemplated, prevail. (source)

Brandeis believed, correctly I think, that free speech is necessary for democracy in three ways:

  • to inform the people about the workings and policies of the government (a free press being an important part of freedom of speech)
  • to inform the government of the the will of the people (an election – or “vote” – being the voice of the people)
  • to allow the people to deliberate, to discuss government policy and the merits of representatives.

What is Democracy? (42): A Luxury That Some Countries Can’t Afford?

Are some countries better off with a dictatorship? With a strong man able to make tough and unpopular decisions without fear for the next election? Are some populations willing to accept this and trade some political freedoms for more security and physical safety?

However, in what way is democracy deficient in delivering security? And is dictatorship better equipped? Let’s look at these two questions in turn.

Democracy and human rights are said to promote discord, chaos and even violence, especially in ethnically or religously divided countries. Indeed, rights such as free speech can be used to incite communal hostility and violence, and democratic elections cannot function if there is no division and contest between groups. The adversarial aspect of democratic elections often results in communal tension and even violence, especially in what we could call immature or imperfect democracies.

The argument for stability and security seems stronger when it is used against democracy than when it is used against human rights. It is evident that most groups that use violence do so because they feel that their rights are somehow violated; respect for human rights will therefore diminish rather than increase violence.

Regarding democracy, it is obviously adversarial and it does divide society into different, antagonistic groups. However, it does not push divisions to such an extreme that living together peacefully becomes impossible or undesirable. The unwillingness to live together is not caused by democracy but by fundamental convictions concerning religion, morality, justice etc. Democracy does not even enhance this unwillingness. On the contrary, it offers ways to bridge fundamental differences between groups (e.g. it offers places of discussion and negotiation) and it creates mechanisms which guarantee peaceful coexistence when it is impossible to bridge differences (such as federalism, power sharing, tolerance, religious freedom etc.).

We can see a two-way causation at work here: although democracy undoubtedly needs national unity, it is also a prerequisite for this unity. A group will question the national unity, will revolt, will cause violent conflicts or will try to separate only if it is discriminated against, if its human rights are violated, if it does not enjoy tolerance and respect for its difference, if it is excluded from power or if it is not granted local autonomy. If, in other words, it does not live in a democracy. National unity, the conviction of belonging to the same group and of sharing the same destiny whatever the differences, can only arise as a result of debate. Freedom of expression and elections can indeed be dangerous in a divided society, but without it, it is hard to see how divisions can be overcome or accommodated, as opposed to merely suppressed.

And this suppression is precisely the so-called major advantage of authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies. An authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Democracy is necessary in a divided society because the alternative – oppression – only reinvigorates what is tries to eliminate.

What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

Or better, one person, one vote. It’s not until relatively recently that women and minorities have been given the vote, even in the most advanced democracies in the world.

In most modern democracies, most adults have a vote. Few large groups (felons, children and immigrants excepted) are excluded from voting, and no one has more votes than anyone else. (In the early days of many democracies, some people had a larger number of votes; this was called plural voting).

However, it’s not because all people have one vote, that all votes have the same weight and that all people have an equal weight in the aggregate outcome of the vote. They only have in democracies that use proportional representation. PR results in a political spectrum in parliament that roughly coincides with the spectrum of the voters. No part of the electorate is over- or under-represented.

Democracies which do not use PR often use district systems (e.g. the U.S. and the U.K.). This is also called the “first-past-the-post” system – whoever has most votes in a district (not necessarily the majority of votes) gets the seat in parliament reserved for this district and becomes the only representative for the district (“winner takes all”). In some cases, this electoral system gives power to a relative majority and therefore, not necessarily an absolute majority. A party that has a few more votes than all other parties in a majority of districts, will have a majority of seats in parliament, but perhaps a minority of the votes. As this example indicates, a district system can result in the rule of a minority. An important minority or maybe, even a majority may not be represented at all. Political equality and majority rule, the basic values of a democracy, are affected. There is no longer a perfect match between the views of the people and the views present in parliament.

In such a system, the one-man-one-vote principle can be further harmed If the districts are not equal in proportion in terms of population. If both a small group of people and a large group of people have one representative, then we can hardly claim to have political equality, regardless of the possible problems created by the winner-takes-all rule. In some countries, rich minorities have often been given small districts, which favored them politically and offered them a very large and disproportional share of the seats in parliament. This is called gerrymandering.

For these and other reasons, the type of democracy instituted in the U.S. deviates, in part, from the principle of one-man-one-vote (a reason for some to call it a republic rather than a democracy, although the difference between these two concepts is spurious, see here). Whereas each member of the House of Representatives represents more or less the same number of voters (even though the system is based on voting districts), the Senate seats are not allocated according to population. Each state, large and small, gets two seats. Wyoming, with barely half a million citizens, has exactly the same political influence in the Senate as California (37m citizens). If you view U.S. states as large districts, you could say that the U.S. Senate has institutionalized the bias that gerrymandering can create in district systems.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the U.S. Senate, the Second Chamber in the U.S. parliament, didn’t have so much political power. Its powers, defined in the Constitution, include

  • consenting to treaties as a precondition to their ratification
  • approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation.

Even a minority of Senators can block legislation. The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. As it takes 60 votes out of a total of 100 Senators to stop a filibuster, a minority can block everything if it wants. So again, a further restriction of the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote. The Economist has calculated that if the least populous states ganged together, senators representing 11% of the population could thwart the will of the remaining 89%. Speaking of tyranny of the majority … The filibuster has often been used for very conservative and ill-intended purposes such as the preservation of Jim Crow laws and wasteful farm subsidies.

It can of course be used for more positive purposes as well. It can slow down over-anxious House representatives and hence improve the quality of legislation. The division of the legislative power into two parts, an Upper House and a Lower House or a House of Representatives and a Senate, is typical of a democracy and makes it possible to correct mistakes made in one House. One House can slow down or stop another House when some decisions are too risky or are taken without the necessary reflection or discussions. This system

doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

If we expect two houses or chambers to control and correct each other, then the participants of both must be selected in different ways. But it seems that this can still be done with a higher degree of respect for the principle of one-man-one-vote.

The reasoning behind this deviation from the one-man-one-vote system in the U.S. was to ensure equal representation of each state in the Senate, so that populous states can’t take measures that harm the fundamental interests of small states and therefore can’t violate the federalist philosophy of the U.S. It was supposed to be a counterweight against the “people’s house” (the House of Representatives) that would be sensitive to public opinion. Trust in public opinion has never been very high (which I argue is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But rather than protect the U.S. from the tyranny of public opinion, one has delivered it to the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic at all.

What is Democracy? (35): A Complete Waste of Time?

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.

Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless anf futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.

It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the benefits (if any).

There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.

Similarly, when large numbers of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.

A better way to express this idea:

The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.

So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)

What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.

What is Democracy? (30): Control, Transparency and Publicity

Plutarch believed that politicians should live in houses with big windows, so that the citizens would be able to check at any time the morality or absence of morality of politicians. One essential characteristics of democracy is indeed control. Politics and government must be transparent and public, and citizens use this transparency and publicity to verify the actions of politicians and the government. The citizens, more specifically, verify whether these actions are in accord with the elections promises and the will of the people as expressed in the elections.

There is a human right to privacy, and a democracy is hell-bent on protecting human rights, all human rights. But there is no contradiction between democratic publicity and the protection of privacy. Democratic politicians have a right to privacy. Control, transparency and publicity are limited to a politician’s official function, and do not extend to his personal life. Of course, if his or her personal life has an impact on the politician’s function, then intrusion is allowed, because a political function serves the realization of the will of the people, and the people must be allowed to check this realization (or the absence of it).

In an ideal democracy, one cannot govern against the will or without the consent of the people. Those in power are chosen by the people and receive from the people an assignment to rule in a specific way, an assignment given on the basis of an election manifesto. Power is temporary because it is a loan, rather than a gift. The loan is conditional upon the way in which power is used. Power continues to belong to the people and the people can take it back if they consider that it has not been used in a satisfactory way and that the assignment has not been properly fulfilled.

The people know whether or not they are pleased with government policy and with the way power is being used, because they ask those in power to give account of their actions and to inform the people of the way in which they use power. If, on the basis of this top-down flow of information combined with journalistic efforts, the people are not satisfied – for example, because the decisions taken by those in power contradict the wishes of the people, even though these decisions have been taken in the name of the people = then the people judge those in power in a negative way and decide to give power to someone else. If they are satisfied, then the loan is renewed for another fixed period of time.

This kind of accountability implies free flows of information and openness, transparency and visibility of power. Democracy and publicity are necessarily linked and all the actions of a democratic government must be public (except perhaps, for certain actions that cannot be successful when done in public, such as matters pertaining to national security; in these cases, however, publicity is only postponed, not eliminated).

What is Democracy? (3): Popular Sovereignty

Democracy and absolute, uncontested or unquestioned power are incompatible. In a democracy, one is allowed and even required to criticize and, if necessary, reject those in power. And if one is able to convince a majority of the people, then the people will remove those in power. The people give power and can take it away. Nobody can acquire or claim power in a permanent way, as if it were his or her private property instead of a public matter. Nobody can personify, embody or crystallize power. Power in a democracy is undefined, or at most temporarily defined and subject to formal and legal rules that make it possible to criticize power. This criticism, depending on its severity, its force and its success, will lead to either the removal of people from power or the renewal of their mandate.

In a democracy, power is the provisional and temporary result of a power struggle between those who want to change the government or its policies and those who want to keep it. This struggle should not be abolished and should continue indefinitely according to stable and foreseeable legal rules and procedures (for example those regulating the elections and the election campaigns). Periodically, the struggle reaches a climax. Elections are a temporary decision of the struggle in favor of one or a few of the parties. Power is, therefore, an object of temporary use rather than property, and is always the result of conflict, criticism, struggle and competition between opposing views on good government.

In a democracy, you can only have power on a temporary basis because your power is the result of an election victory, and you have to undergo the test of future periodical elections in which you make yourself accountable for the things you have done or failed to do. You return to the electorate on a regular basis in order to ask for its judgment and to see whether some or other form of criticism carries sufficient weight. After a political struggle between candidates (incumbents and others) and between points of view regarding the record of the government and the promises of the opposition, the electorate decides who can have or use power and who should stop using power. If it decides that it no longer wishes to obey a certain person in power, for example because that person mad a mistake of failed to do what he or she was asked to do – which is pointed out by political opponents in the course of the pre-election struggle – then the electorate takes away the power from this person. The leaders do not appoint themselves. They are appointed by the people, and have to render account of their actions to the people. If the people consider that the leaders made the wrong decisions or failed to do what they were instructed to do, then the people can dismiss them. Nobody’s power is a matter of course. Power is not self-evident. It must always be assigned, reassigned and legitimized by way of accountability and refutation of criticism.