Friday, February 19, 2010

Majorities, Madison, and Democracy

More comments sparked by this Kurt Anderson essay (well, really, just using it as an excuse to talk about one of my favorite subjects, but plunging ahead)...

Madison's terminology (for example in Federalist 10) confuses people.  He contrasts "democracy" with "republic," and praises the latter.  But as the democratic theorist Robert Dahl says, the real difference between the two is semantic and cultural -- one looks to Greece, the other to Rome, but both are all about popular control of government.  Better to read "direct democracy" for Madison's "democracy" and "representative democracy" for Madison's "republic."  Both are forms of democracy, and neither is inherently better or worse (or, to use the word that makes me cringe in this context, "pure"). 

Democracy is rule by the people.  (See below for an important clarification).  At least in a first-order sense, it's democracy whether the people themselves decide public policy (as in a direct democracy), or if the people elect some subset who then decide public policy (representative democracy).  It's true even if decisions are made by a mixture of those directly elected by the people and those indirectly elected, as was true of the original Constitutional scheme (and is still true today with respect to the courts).  What matters is whether it comes down to the people or not.  And thus what makes a polity less democratic is if there are portions of its governance that are beyond the reach of the people (directly or indirectly).  Obviously, that would include anything like an aristocracy (by birth) or a monarchy, or an unelected dictator.  Democracy is also threatened, or diminished, when elected officials, once they're elected, can do whatever they want without any constraint.  Democracy is threatened, or diminished, when parts of the government are removed entirely from any sort of popular control -- if, for example, the actions of a bureaucracy (including those bureaucrats that are the armed forces) are beyond the reach of elected officials. 

Democracy, at least in my view, is also threatened and/or diminished if the government only represents a subset of the people -- even if that subset is the majority of the electorate.  I've quoted Hannah Arendt before on this subject, and I'll turn to her again:
...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).
This is true whether the minorities are ethnic or religious minorities, or minority interests (such as farmers in an overwhelmingly non-agricultural nation), or minorities of opinion or ideology. 

Madison has, roughly, two solutions to the problem of preventing the natural "technical device" of majority decision from become majority rule.  The one we're most familiar with is basically to generate any number of new technical devices to prevent simply majority votes from becoming simple majority decisions: representative instead of direct democracy, separated institutions sharing powers, bicameral Congress, and federalism are all Madisonian devices for this purpose.  This works, as Madison famously discusses in Federalist 51, because individual ambitious political actors will be unwilling to go along with any simple conspiracy of the majority; it also works just because a successful conspiracy of this type is so hard to put together.  The other solution, as I discussed earlier today, is just making the nation so big that there are no real natural majorities.

I should tie this to the filibuster, since that's what everyone is interested about...I don't think Madisonian ideas push anyone either for or against the filibuster.  To the extent that any particular set of rules makes governing impossible -- I'm looking at you, California -- then I think I'd object to them on Madisonian grounds (because if no one can rule, then the people are not ruling).  I don't think that's quite true of the filibuster, but it's a concern.  Of course, just as Madison didn't want any single majority to rule, he certainly didn't want any (single) minority to rule.  I don't think that's really the case in the Senate right now, but again it's a fair concern.

A couple of other notes.  First, on why majority rule (as opposed to majority decision) is problematic.  In addition to Madison's concern with tyranny of the majority, we can add two other issues.  One is the problem of intensity -- generally, our intuition is that in cases in which an indifferent majority opposes an intense minority, we feel that the proper -- the proper democratic -- solution is for the minority to win.  A pure majority-rules system cannot accommodate that intuition.  The other, more complex, problem has to do with mathematical properties of voting, and I hate explaining it because I'm not very good at it -- but, basically, voting doesn't necessarily do what we want it to do in cases in which there are multiple voters and multiple choices.  So what we think of as majorities may in many cases actually be artifacts of (arbitrary) voting rules.

Second, I said at the top that democracy is rule of the people.  It's extremely important to distinguish between The People, thought of as a united group with a single clear interest, and the people, understood as plural, with all kinds of differences and disagreements and colliding interests.  Democracy is interested in the latter -- the former is an excellent path to tyranny of all sorts of nasty kinds.  My advice is that whenever you hear anyone talking about "the people," be sure to think about which of these they're talking about.


  1. A typically elegant analysis, Dr. Bernstein. You are a natural-born blogger, and I've found myself in recent weeks turning to you before my other favorites (Gelman, Nyhan, Monkey Cage, Coates, Cohn--we share tastes.)

    My only caution about your analysis is to raise the question of whether representative systems, whatever you call them, really count as "rule by the people." I think this is more troublesome than most political scientists are willing to admit, though Schattschneider did call his book "The *Semi*-Sovereign People." If I hire a plumber, in some sense I control what he does, but am I plumbing? I don't like the term "pure" either, but I do think you have to face the severely diminished sense in which the people "rule" in a representative system.


  2. Thanks, TFB!

    Well, if my wife asks if I've taken care of the leak, I'll probably say yes whether I did it or a got a plumber to do it, so I don't think the analogy is quite right. But that's nitpicky, I guess...I do actually have a (very long) response to this, which I'll save for some other time, but basically I think that democratic political systems will be open to meaningful participation, and even encourage meaningful participation, but will also "work" democratically given that many people aren't interested in participating most of the time on most issues. And I think Madison believed that, and that the American system is an attempt to fulfill that part of democracy, too.

  3. Your post talks around, but doesn't address head on, the different types of (also arbitrary) voting rules employed around the world. I have a feeling that the vast majority of Americans are completely ignorant of the fact that we have voting rules in the US that are among the harshest to political minorities in the world. I certainly had no idea that the US is one of very few nations where the candidate that gets the most votes automatically wins (except in LA, ME, and some other run-off jurisdictions) until I met my Australian wife and learned about their system of elections.

    Our voting rules make the presence of a viable third party virtually impossible (see Ross Perot, who received 19% of the popular vote and 0% of the electoral vote). This suppression of third-party views increases the likelihood that "Majority Decision" is actually "Plurality Decision," which is another word for "Minority Rule." In what other country can you elect the Head of State with 43% of the vote (Clinton, 1992) or the Governor of a State with 37% of the vote (Ventura, MN, 1998)?

    Runoffs, Proportional representation with thresholds, preference voting, compulsory voting, professional (as opposed to political) election authorities, etc. are all systems that are used outside the US. They have their pluses and minuses, but they are simply off-the-table here.


  4. I disagree with TFB here. While it is true that individuals do not make specific policy decisions in a representative democracy(unless, of course, they run for and win office, which all citizens are legally allowed to do), that isn't to say they don't "rule". A simply analogy would be one to basic employment. You are hired by a carpenter to make a cabinet because he is busy with other orders. You instead make a chair and he fires you. Who is in charge in this situation, you or the carpenter? And who, in the end, accepts the thanks or bears the responsibility for your work? Is the carpenter made any less a carpenter by hiring out some of his work? This is the way in which the people rule under a representative system (which, if we're honest, Old Rome really wasn't with its Senatorial and Equestrian castes). The people rule in that they choose representatives on the basis of how far they trust those representatives to defend their interests and wield the power of recall and appointment over them.

    In a healthy representative system, the people possess a clear-eyed notion of their interests and will continue to send up representatives who adequately pursue policies that further local interests at a federal level. This is what makes faction and party such a threat to our system. A representative system where voters begin to identify their interests more powerfully with abstract "big" issues, such as the morality of abortion, the truth of certain scientific theories, the victory of "their kind" of people over "other" sorts of citizens, or the primacy religion is owed cultural, than with their immediate, practical interests begins to break down for the simple fact that too few people remain interested in dealing with the practicalities. Such factional prides and disagreements also breed wide-spread resentments which can lead to the undermining of governmental authority, not merely by rebellion or riotous behavior, but also by supporting faction members against lawful punishment and using the courts to pursue baseless charges as vendetta against members of the opposite faction. In effect, the health of the party becomes more important than the health of the nation.


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