Monday, November 25, 2013

Why We Get Majorities Wrong

Matt Glassman comments on my earlier post on majorities:
I totally understand why people are so keen to get rid of the filibuster. I cannot for the life of me understand why --- given the shining example of majority-rule just a football field south of the Senate --- they do not understand that there are both positive and negative consequences to doing so.
I think I know the answer to this one, although I'll admit it's speculative. And the answer is...political culture. Or, if you prefer, poor education.

Basically, there's incredibly widespread belief about two things in the US, one which confuses us and one which is just plain false:

1. Democracy is the best system of government (sometimes, but not always, with the Churchill qualifier; sometimes, especially these days among conservatives, with an essentially nonsense distinction between "republic" and "democracy"); and,

2.  In democracies, decisions are made by majority vote.

That the first of these is virtually uncontested winds up with everyone believing that whatever reforms they support make things more democratic. This matters because it gets in the way of clear thinking about what democracy actually is, since it becomes whatever it is we think best. It is, however, not actually true. Some of us have other things we care about; for example, we might care more about policy outcomes than the system of government that achieves them. It's OK that we're not all committed to democracy above all else; it would help us talk about this stuff if we were willing to accept that (and, in turn, accept that democracy isn't all "[t]he good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day").

The second one is just plain wrong. At best, a pure, strict, majoritarian democracy is one of the many varieties of democracy, and not one that many democratic theorists (or, for that matter, democratic polities) actually subscribe to. But there are plenty of other forms of democracy. As always, I turn to Hannah Arendt on the difference between majority decision and majority rule:
...we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision.  The latter, however, is a technical device...In America, at any rate [the Constitution was] framed with the express and conscious intention to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the procedures of majority decisions from generating into the "elective despotism" of majority rule (On Revolution, 164-165, or at least it was in the old editions).
We adopt the "technical device" of majority voting often -- not always -- because it works well enough in many instances. That's just fine. But thinking that the goal is majority rule, and that the job of democratic design is to find procedures to empower one particular majority as much as possible, is totally backwards.

None of which is to say whether majority voting is appropriate in any particular situation, or to ignore that the Constitution has plenty of anti-majoritiarian mechanisms which certainly matter in the question of what Senate procedures are more or less democratic. It's just that I think basic democratic (mis)education in the US far too often equates democracy with majority rule, and leaves people believing that these questions are obvious and easy.*

The truth? Democracy doesn't always produce the substantive outcomes we want. And: democracy is more complex than just taking a vote and whoever gets the most votes, wins. That your grade school teachers (and, I'm afraid, many of your college professors) didn't explain that to you is too bad, but it is nevertheless the truth.

*OK, I spent way to much time trying to work "lie to me" into that paragraph, and I'll just settle for this footnote...basically, we watched that episode again last night, and as usual it's with me all day today. My apologies.


  1. To paraphrase Scott Lemieux at LGM, with regards to Glassman's comment, it is unclear that 1. The disfunction in the House is related to the notion of majority rule and 2. That eliminating the 60 vote requirement of the filibuster means the senate will act more like the House.

    In fact, imagine a world where the House is more like the senate - less majoritarian, with a minority of house members able to stop legislation from passing without consequences. We definitely don't have a debt ceiling bill, that's for sure.

    1. The first points are reasonable. I'm not sure I agree with them, but they're reasonable.

      I disagree with the last point, however. I don't remember whether the debt limit/reopen bill passed with 60% of the House or not, but I'm confident that it would have if it needed to.

  2. Do you think part of the problem comes from conflating the "numerical" definition of majority and "economic/political power" definition? The two are often the same; familiar exceptions include Saddam's Iraq, where the Shia were dominant in number but the Sunnis held all the cards.

    So while (numerical) majority voting is useful in running the place, there may be no higher goal in a multi-cultural democracy than preventing the economic/political majority from tyrannizing the economic minority.

  3. I think you are a victim of the very confusion that you identify as being endemic among Americans. You correctly note that, for most people, democracy isn't necessarily the best form of governance. The best form of governance is the one that, for any given issue, gives the best substantive result, regardless of how the result is achieved.

    But you then go on to assert that "democracy" must, necessarily, accommodate anti-majoritarian impulses. You are implicitly saying that it is possible to have a "democracy" where a minority makes the decisions. Hogwash. Yes, minorities are people too, and so technically a government ruled by minorities is a government "by the people" but that argument, taken to its extreme, can be used to call any form of government "democracy" as long as it is controlled by sentient humanoid life-forms.

    If the majority does not win, the minority wins. That may certainly be a good thing in many circumstances, but it is not democratic. Democracy, in its purest form, results in the "elective despotism" which we rightly seek to limit.

    Of course, majority rule is not a goal in and of itself. A "democracy" in the sense of a functioning self-governing state must protect the rights of minorities. It must therefore have at least some anti-majoritarian institutions. But the protection of minorities is not itself democratic - unless, of course, the protection of minorities is approved of by a majority, (in which case we're back to majority rule)

    What you are doing here is equating everything good within our system to the concept of Democracy. You are saying: "Democracy cannot fail; it can only be failed." Which is exactly the kind of confusion that you attribute to the rubes because of their "poor education."

    1. "If the majority does not win, the minority wins."

      Not necessarily! There are many potential majorities in most situations. The rules of the game plus the actions of the legislators determine which of these majorities (if any) emerges.

      Moreover, it's simply not true that a minority win "is not democratic." It entirely depends on which flavor of democracy one is working from. Majoritarian democracy is just one flavor, not the entire definition. It's just as wrong as pointing to those democracies which run on consensus and complaining that enacting the winner of an 80/20 vote is undemocratic because democracy = consensus.

      And, no, I'm very much open to outcomes that I don't personally like emerging from democratic processes. Furthermore, I'm quite aware that democracy can fail; I believe, for example, that democracy failed in the US in 1861. (It's complicated, since 19th c. democracy in the US was radically incomplete at best...but what failed, IMO, was democracy).

    2. JB has not really given a specific definition of democracy, but based on what I've read from him, it seems like it could be something along the lines of "a system of government in which the governed people are represented through broad access to participation in political decision-making". Which is to say, it's an abstract concept related to the principle of collective self-government, rather than a set of rules which define how a government operates. According to this definition, democracy need not result in "good" or "fair" decisions, but the decisions are based on political participation of the citizenry.

      For example, imagine that you, JB, and I have earned ninety dollars from shoveling our neighbor's driveway. Imagine the following three systems of government:

      1. I unilaterally appoint myself as arbiter of how the money is distributed. I decide that each of us will get $30.
      2. We hold a single vote in which a 50%+1 majority decides how the money gets split. You and I team up to form a majority alliance, and we agree that we will completely ignore JB and negotiate among ourselves. We vote that we will each get $45, and JB gets none.
      3. We decide that everyone should get a veto, so we need an absolute consensus. I'm a jerk and say that I will veto unless I get at least $50, so in order to break my veto, you both bargain me down to $40 and you each get $25.
      4. We hold a majority vote to decide who will be arbiter. JB and I both vote for me, and you vote for yourself. I give myself all the money.

      Which of these is the most democratic system? Obviously not #1, an autocracy, which ironically gave the most even and perhaps "fairest" distribution. But are the majority-rule political systems #2 and #4 actually better examples of self-governance through broad political participation than consensus-based and anti-majoritarian political system #3? Which of the three most reminds you of a representative democracy?

      Also, I cannot see in JB's original post anything that would suggest that he thinks democracy "cannot fail". He explicitly says, "Democracy doesn't always produce the substantive outcomes we want." That is, democratic governance can (and does) fail to bring about JB's preferred policies. There is nowhere in the post where he asserts that democracy cannot fail. In fact, I don't even see anywhere in the post where he suggests that a democracy "must, necessarily, accommodate anti-majoritarian impulses" (though I suspect he would agree that there are situations where the principles of majoritarian rule conflict with the principles of representative self-governance).

      Finally, empowering minorities is different from minority rule. For example, just because Republicans were able to filibuster the ACA and nearly defeat its passage, that didn't mean that they would have been able to unilaterally repeal Medicare, for example. So I'm not really sure where you're going with that.

  4. I go back to a quote from Harvard chaplain J. Peter Gomes that I used once before, to wit "this country does not do complexity well." Leaving aside the substantive issues about the Madisonian system and whether it is superior or inferior to other systems, I do think Gomes is on to something about our political culture -- something that has sometimes been mentioned in discussions about the ACA, to name one example. Americans, it is said, distrust government. One wonders if, in fact, what they really have is an intense and profound dislike and distrust of complexity, for which the government, particularly the federal government, is a handy synecdoche.

    One can perhaps see this as an area in which many different, apparently unrelated and contending, strands of our political culture come together. Anti-Madisonians, OWS, the TEA Party, Libertarians, Crunchy Cons, and any number of others are, despite their deep hatred of one another on many levels, absolutely united in their belief that the American system (a vague term that probably means slightly different things to each group and even each individual) is just too damn complicated, and from those complications the evils that plague us spring. Thus the TEA Party sees all kinds of interest groups infesting various corners and niches of the body politic like parasites, Libertarians see an ever-sprawling and more complex state apparatus, both anti-abortion and anti-gun crusaders can point to instances where they see clear majorities stymied by utterly illegitimate structural and procedural hurdles that simply have no sane reason to exist, and so forth. Meanwhile, the average person on the street, who cares little about any of it, is frustrated most of all, since he simply wants somebody to "show some common sense" and "do some obvious things to fix the damn mess" and has absolutely no patience at all for lectures about divided institutions sharing powers or different kinds of majorities.

    Where does this distrust of complexity come from? I suppose a first stab at an explanation may be a lack of social trust, and I am afraid that ethnic and cultural and economic diversity very much play a part in that. Faced with a highly complex, and likely to you not very comprehensible, system, your only real recourse is to trust that somebody within the thing knows what they are doing and means well. That trust is much easier to maintain if you also think they probably look like you, talk like you, go to the same church as you, and send their children to the same schools you send yours to. Otherwise, mistrust builds, as does fear of complexity, which spurs mistrust, which spurs fear of complexity, and... so on.

    Of course, it would help if some of the policies actually seemed to work, and the government functioned at a level above a comic opera. That would indeed help.

  5. There's a strange sort of moralizing tendency among the group of public intellectuals who are constantly laboring to prove that American democracy is somehow fatally flawed. They seem to believe that they highest virtue in politics being able to be "right" in some sort of maximal way. And for some reason proving that the Constitution is bad seems to be a way of demonstrating that you are in the right.

    Quite frankly it's never been clear to me what the whole point is, even if you are able to "prove" in some objective way that the democratic institutions of say, Bangladesh, are "better" in some objective way, it's kind of pointless. Why? Because actually the Constitution is never going to go away. As far as I can tell the closest time that's ever actually happened was during the Civil War, and that resulted in 2% of the American population being killed, which suggests to me that we could get rid of the Constitution and go to a system based on the "better, more democratic" Irish model or something, but we'd probably first have to fight a Civil War in which millions of people would die, which would of course not be worth it.

    While I'm on the subject of Irish politics, I actually took the time to look into these things, that is read about it on Wikipedia this weekend. My general take away is that the Irish party system is completely insane and their politics makes absolutely no sense to me. As far as I can tell there are basically two "center right" parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, whose main disputes seem to revolve around the legacy of Michael Collins. Fine Gael is supposedly "to the right" more that Fianna Fail but strangely enough has a decades long political alliance with the Irish Labour Party, which is supposedly "to the left" of both of them. Then there's a Green Party that's almost completely collapsed because of their close ties with Fianne Fail which has also largely collapsed because of Brian Cowen's terrible economic policies that basically destroyed the national economy. And according to The Irish Times the reason Fianne Fail dominated Irish politics for most of the 20th Century is because they have a more effective system of party organizations of local chapters than others. Oh and there's that Gerry Adams guy and the whole Sein Fein thing. Also a bunch of occupyesque tiny minority parties.

    The whole system makes absolutely no sense to me, but well, that's their system. The idea that this is somehow "better" that our model is really beyond me.

  6. I hesitate to drop in on this learned commentary but as I learned it in school, the American form of government is rule by majority and protection of minorities against tyranny, politically and economically. It's a built-in tension and so it never works all the time, but has worked significantly (and failed dreadfully.)

    The Senate changed the rules in a particular situation with two parts:1. as JB often says, political parties rule over ideology and (often) regional considerations, as well as that somewhat obsolete notion of individual thought and conscience. 2. The current minority was aggressively and openly abusing the mechanism that allowed minorities time and focus to build a majority, or to prevent the minority from doing something harmful--the filibuster.

    Both of these factors were different in the past and may be in the future. Rules will change (late but eventually) to reflect any change. Given the current situation and recent events, Democrats were driven to this choice. In practical terms however it is a difference of ten votes, and in the current Senate, fewer than that.

    The dysfunction in Congress will continue because the houses are ruled by different parties from different political planets (meaning different revenue streams.) The House will continue to pass ridiculous bills by majority vote and kill Senate bills, and now the Senate will join them in passing bills by majority vote that the House ignores. The immediate change is in the Senate's power to advise and consent, but in practice it is a change only in practice for the past decade or so. Before that, presidential appointments were rarely challenged successfully, by majority or minority. Or so it seems to me.

  7. All this feels like a lot of rationalization at JB's ambivalence at the filibuster (sorta) going away.

    I suppose you could have a democracy in which one branch of a bicameral legislature required a super-majority to do essential functions (like legislation or approving judicial or executive appointments). But it's not at all clear to me why you would want one or why anyone would regard that as superior.

    A US without a Senate super-majority requirement isn't a hypothetical. That's pretty much what we had until 5 years ago. It seemed like that worked OK. And the perpetual super-majority requirement was extremely damaging to all 3 branches of government.

    1. Quibble...the supermajority requirement has pretty much been there since 1993, although it's been more universal since 2009.

      But it's never been the case that majorities always get their way -- they don't in the House now, and they never have in the Senate. Some, particular, majorities and some, particular minorities, get their way.

  8. The basic problem for me is that nobody's convinced me that people whose only grievance is they can't get other people to agree with them are entitled to anything in the political process other than a middle finger and a direction to go moderate their views and learn to compromise with others and then they will get something.

    Now, that was NOT true of historically oppressed minorities, because in that situation structures in the political system prevent them from having basic procedural protections necessary so that they can obtain any power in the political process. So, we needed a whole bunch of civil rights laws to bring minorities and women into a state of fuller political participation.

    But ideologues? They have to learn how not to be ideologues. And the only way that is ever going to happen is if they repeatedly, consistently, get screwed over and don't get anything they want until they compromise.

    The filibuster is the ideologue protection act. I really don't care whether it meets Professor Bernstein's definition of "democracy" or not. It gets in the way of the important project of systematically disempowering people who want to act like bigoted toddlers rather than grow up and find common ground with a black President. We need to get on with that-- when conservatives start acting like grown-ups again, maybe they can have some influence.

    1. OK, but for the sake of argument, assume the following:
      1) a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, are committed to the GOP.
      2) #1 is true to enough of an extent that the fluctuations of the economy and politics means they stand a really good chance of winning presidential elections
      3) #1's truth means that the GOP is exceedingly likely to hold a superminority of votes at a minimum, and can win Congress outright if the winds blow right.

      You're right that the filibuster enables GOP intransigence. But, isn't it a live question whether that is a price to pay to have the protection in place against GOP tyrrany when (not if, it will happen) they control all the levers again?

      (Note that I'm favor of the idea that the GOP needs time in the wilderness to moderate and the idea that the current GOP is so problematic that Dems needed to go nuclear. I'm just saying that there is another side to this argument that doesn't necessarily disagree with all of your premises....just the one where somehow the electorate realizes how terrible the GOP is)


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