Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Majorities 1

Ezra Klein takes to the filibuster wars again today. It's a good post; Ezra is an honest filibuster opponent (i.e. not a liberal apologist). He and Matt Yglesias have been carrying on this fight for a long time, and they make their case well.

I have mixed feelings about the 60 vote Senate, but I have stronger feelings about majoritarian democracy. I'll just note for now that the two are certainly not equivalent; there are lots and lots of anti-majoritarian institutions within the overall political system, so one can oppose the 60 vote Senate without supporting pure majoritarianism. So in this post, I'm mainly talking about majority rule, and not the filibuster per se. And I'm going to focus on just one issue within the general topic of majority rule. More, perhaps, later.

So: majorities. Ezra writes:
If the Democrats pass health-care reform, but an angry populace throws 12 Democratic senators and 35 Democratic congresspeople out of office, and then impeaches Barack Obama and replaces him with Haley Barbour, nothing will happen to health-care reform. At least, not if the remaining Democrats don't want anything to happen to health-care reform. That is, on some level, insane: A landslide election is not likely to result in anything close to a ratification of the public's will.
Here's the problem: there's just no reason for us to suppose that a "landslide election" such as the one that Ezra posits says much of anything about the "public's will."

In Ezra's scenario, people get upset about health care reform and toss out the incumbent party. That could happen. Much more likely, however, is that electoral landslides are effects of other forces, such as the economy. That's certainly what is endangering the Democrats right now. It's also what put Barack Obama in office in the first place. Well, that, and general discontent with Bush and the Republicans, which had to do with lots of things -- Iraq, Katrina, and then lots of secondary issues. Not to mention things that aren't even "issues." Some voted for Obama because, all issues to the side, they just liked him more than they liked John McCain. Or they didn't want Sarah Palin to be Vice President. Or they wanted to vote for an African American president. Or they were worried that McCain was too old.

That's the problem. No election is over one issue, and so it just isn't correct to say that the position of the majority party, the party that won the most recent election, is the "public's will."

And even if the public supported Democrats because they favored health care reform, that still doesn't get us much of anything. Remember, the Dems right now do have a filibuster-proof majority (if they want it) for the Senate Finance bill. Is the public's will for the HELP bill, but not Senate Finance? Of course not; the public doesn't pay anywhere close to enough attention to know the difference between those two.

Majoritarian democracy seems to Ezra and Matt as if it puts more power into the hands of the electorate, because it means that elections will yield results in a more straightforward cause & effect way. But it does that by creating the illusion that the individual voters are expressing their views on each and every issue by casting their votes. If that's not true -- and we know that it isn't -- then it's hard to make the case that empowering electoral majorities is really a better form of democracy.

Indeed, the best case for that sort of majority-rule system is based on a very thin idea of democracy. If we suppose that most people are almost entirely disengaged from politics, and capable of little more than a simple "things are good/things are bad" judgment, then two-party competitive elections are a solution not because they allow the electorate to transmit their views on issues, but because elections at least give the parties an incentive to keep people from getting upset. If you think that's all that democracy is capable of, then majoritarian institutions are a reasonable solution, although even then there are all sorts of complications (for example, it puts a huge amount of weight on the opinions of swing voters, who are the least engaged; also, and I think more seriously, people's reward/punish instincts can be pretty screwy, as seen by the people blaming Obama for the current recession).

Most arguments for democracy, however, include a stronger voice for ordinary people. What that requires, I think, is some separation of electoral results from policy outcomes -- not to exclude the public, but to encourage them to be engaged in additional ways. Elections are important, but they are a very blunt instrument. Asking them to do much more than register "things are good/things are bad" judgments is, I would argue, overly optimistic about the nature of elections. (I'm trying to streamline this, but I should point out that elections do lots of things beyond registering choices between candidates (or parties), and they do some of those things quite well; among other things, they are critical to the process of representation). That necessary separation, in the Madisonian system, requires something more than simple majoritarian institutions.

Again, that doesn't necessarily mean the 60 vote Senate. With or without the current filibuster, we have bicameralism; balance of powers between president, Congress, and courts; federalism; and a wide variety of other anti-majoritarian devices. It does mean, however, that it is deeply problematic to argue that the filibuster is unjustified simply because it thwarts majority rule.

1 comment:

  1. I'm on record in many ways for being a "thin" democracy type. I don't trust these idiot voters as far as I can throw them.
    However, I am for a functional government. 2 parties are an inevitable (and, to us "thin" types, good) outcome in our system. To not allow those parties to contest policy is odd. I get the argument about the saucer cooling the tea, but once we get the parties we have, it's not a rational debate. Were there actual persuasion taking place, then we'd have "thick" democracy and all the lovely benefits. But we don't have that. Thus, requiring 60 votes simply institutes a pro-status quo bias. You don't need 60 votes to keep policy the same; you only need that to change policy.
    Furthermore, once you're a "thin" democracy type, you also don't think much of the voter's ability to cast blame appropriately. Some voters are going to blame Democrats for the failure of health care (they're doing it now, in fact). The "Democratic party" isn't running the show, but is held accountable as if it was! This situation encourages all kinds of mischief-making on the part of the GOP. The GOP has simply not participated in any kind of reasonable effort to compromise or pass anything.

    Thus, I fall into the category of those who oppose the filibuster but support anti-majoritarian provisions. My anti-majoritarian provision of choice is a strong role for courts.


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