Rebuttal to George T. Will's Assertion
that Minorities Shouldn't Be Represented, and
Electoral Votes Shouldn't be Proportionally Allocated
Summary: Some otherwise impressive
thinkers like George Will acknowledge that the American political system
doesn't represent minorities, but conclude that it is somehow a good thing. This article aims to refute that notion, along with the assertion
that it would be a mistake for Colorado to allocate its electoral votes
proportionally among the competing candidates.
by Eric Armstrong
In the August 20, 2004 edition of Newsweek magazine (back page), George T.
Will argues that America's political system is superior precisely because it
doesn't elect minority representatives. He makes that argument in an
attempt to suggest that the proposal Colorado is currently considering -- to
split it's electoral vote among the candidates instead of giving them to a single
winner -- is a "pernicious" idea.
Now, George Will is a bright guy. He's erudite, frequently eloquent, and he
delivers history lessons at the drop of a hat. I've frequently found myself
agreeing with his analyses, so when he says something, I have to give it careful
In the end, thought, I had to conclude that his arguments only sound good on
the surface. He argues that the lack of minority representation is really a
good thing, because (according to him) it produces a more centrist (unified,
effective) government, rather than an ineffective government composed of radical,
conflicting minorities. After deeper inspection, however, I believe that those
conclusions are simply untenable. This article presents my rebuttal to his arguments.
Unfortunately, not everyone has as large a podium as George Will. So my counter-arguments
will reach a much smaller audience. In Getting
the Money Out of Politics, I describe a system that can even the playing
field, giving other astute thinkers equally widespread readership, so they
can be equally influential.
Lack of Minority Representation in a Two-Party System
This section refutes the pernicious notion that lack of minority representation
in government is somehow a good thing.
Claim: The two-party system ensures that a "moderate majority" rules.
The article says that "America's constitutional system aims not
merely for majority rule, but for rule by certain kinds of majorities. It aims
for majorities suited to moderate, consensual governance of a heterogeneous,
continental nation with myriad regional and other diversities. All 537 persons
elected to national offices -- the president, vice president, 100 senators and
435 representatives -- are chosen by majorities that reflect the nations federal
Rebuttal: Gosh, that sure sounds good. But that "moderate
majority" he's talking about has a taken a severe shift to the right. The
influence of money in politics has become so pervasive that Democrats won't
risk alienating the corporations who deliver their lifeblood. Since Democrats
have moved to the right, Republicans have moved even further right
-- both because they can, and because they need to distinguish themselves from
Democrats who have co-opted more and more Republican positions. So that "moderate"
majority is becoming less moderate all the time.
Then there is the matter of rapidly dropping voter turnout. Less than half
of eligible voters vote in national elections. More people watch the Super Bowl.
Only a third vote in state elections, and participation in local elections has
dropped to single-digit levels. Do those figures indicate that "consensual"
governance. Do people avoid the voting booths because they are happy with the
government they're getting? Or have they become so disenchanted with the process
that they no longer thinks it makes any difference? Both observation and polls
suggest that frustration and disenchantment are the operative factors, rather
than satisfaction. So how can governance be declared "consensual".
As for choosing our elected officials chosen by majorities, how effective is
that, really? The people we elect are representative of the people who elect
them. So Congress is composed mostly of rich, white, males. But even when they
sincerely try to represent other interests, there is a difference in
their motivation and the strength of their convictions.
For example, it's wonderful that many of the rich, white politicians currently
in office are concerned about the welfare of working mothers. But at the end
of the day, they go home to a nice steak dinner, a soak in the hot tub, and
tea on the veranda -- not too warm, if you please, Jeeves. Since they're not
as committed, they pick their battles. Are they willing to fight tooth
and nail for that working mother, at all costs, come what may -- even if it
means losing an election? Hardly. But put that working mother into office, and
see how hard she fights for the constituency she represents -- the
constituency she has struggled with and commiserated with for most of her life.
Claim: A two-party system is more "moderate" because it excludes minorities.
The article claims that "A two-party system builds moderate majorities
by assembling them from coalitions of minorities..(the) electoral system handicaps
minor parties by electing a single person from each jurisdiction, chosen by
majority or plurality."
Rebuttal: In other words, the system is designed
to keep minorities out of office. According to Will, that's a good thing. But
it's important to recognize that minorities of race and sex aren't the only
minorities that are currently excluded from American politics. Philosophical
and ideological minorities are also excluded: Environmentally-conscious minorities,
alternative energy minorities, working mother minorities, alternative tax minorities,
and worker's rights minorities. The problem is that none of these minorities
are currently reflected in the legislature.
Of course, if all those minorities were represented, what a babble there would
be! With so many different voices, it would be impossible to find policies that
satisfy everyone, and difficult enough to find policies that satisfy the majority!
But that is precisely why it is vital to make sure that all minorities
are present in the legislature. It's easier to come to an agreement when they're
not represented, but it's less likely that such an agreement will be acceptable
to the population the legislature purports to represent.
If was for that reason that in 1776, John Adams said, "this representative
assembly . . .should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large."[Adams]
The whole point was to ensure that the decisions reached in the legislative
assembly should reflect the desires of the populace and that, in consequence,
those decisions would be acceptable to that populace.
Was John Adams wrong? One would scarcely thing so, despite Will's assertion
to the contrary. The original system was intended to represent minorities, and
it was designed to do so.
Claim: Our two-party system is more "evolved". "Today's
electoral system is not an 18th century anachronism. It has evolved, shaping
and being shaped by a large development the Constitutional Framers did not foresee
-- the two-party system."
Rebuttal: The fact that our Founding Fathers never anticipated
the two-party system simply confirms that it is an outcome they never intended.
It may be more accurate, therefore, to say that our current system "devolved"
from their original plan.
It is quite true that change is to be expected. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Laws
and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.
As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made,
new truths discovered ... institutions must advance also to keep pace with the
times."[Jefferson] To be considered "evolution",
however, those changes must advance the original goals and ideals of the
Throughout most of our history, multiparty politics were the norm -- largely
because limited transportation and communication systems made it difficult for
candidates to address a large geographic area. The legislature was therefore
composed of many different parties, each based in different geographic area.
As the communication and transportation systems grew, however, it became possible
for a party to reach across the country and support a candidate in every district.
It was then that the built-in flaw in our voting system became apparent, and
the devolution into a two-party system began.
It wasn't until the 20th century, in fact, that Maurice Duverger proved that
a single-winner (winner-take-all) election system inevitably devolves into a
two-party system, a principle that came to be known as Duverger's Law.[Hill,
54] In other words, the robust democracy our founding fathers nurtured
and established was doomed by the voting system they created -- a fact that
was unknown to them at the time. The unintended consequence of their decision
was to produce a two-party system that excludes minorities, rather than a multiparty
legislature that is a microcosm of the population. But to say that the result
is a better system is to say that they were wrong -- that they were
aiming at the wrong target.
That's an argument I'm unwilling to accept. I'm willing to believe that they
lacked some knowledge -- for example, the ability to foresee the emergence
of huge industrial conglomerates that would threaten the very existence of democracy,
or the knowledge gained by political scientists 150 years later that shows how
the choice of voting systems determines political outcomes. But I'm unwilling
to accept that their goals were wrong -- that philosophically, morally,
and spiritually, they were simply going down the wrong track.
Instead, it seems to me that the goals stated in the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution of the United States are among the most laudable ever committed
to print, and ever enshrined in the hearts of a nation. We have used those goals
for a compass ever since. The most serious argument we can generate on a subject
is, "that's not what the Framers of the Constitution intended". Those
are the arguments that are heard in the Supreme Court. We use those goals as
a compass. When the system isn't achieving those goals, we know it's time
to change the system.
Claim: Multiparty systems aren't effective. The article goes on to
say that, "In multiparty systems, parties proliferate, each representing
intense minorities. Then a group of parties strives to govern through (often
unstable) coalitions improvised after the election.
Rebuttal: The claim has some merit, but what it's really saying
is that a multiparty system isn't as effective as a system in which
only the majority has a voice. That's true, but it's not the only consideration,
nor is it necessarily the most important consideration. If it were, then dictatorship
would be the best choice of government. A dictatorship is much more effective
than a democracy, after all, because coalitions aren't needed. The only problem
is that a dictatorship comes up somewhat short in the area of representation.
Indeed, there are multiple measures of government that are important, not just
effectiveness. To win his Nobel prize for proving that there is no perfect
form of government, Kenneth Arrow showed that there are three useful
measures of government -- equality, rationality, and effectiveness -- and that
no one system can maximize all three variables. The best you can hope to achieve
is an acceptable balance.[Hill, 224]
In fact, many European systems of government do achieve such a balance
-- a balance between corporations and compassion, between corporate welfare
and universal healthcare, between corporate proliferation and college education.
Our system of government is clearly more effective. But in the process it has
certainly sacrificed equality, since not everyone is represented. And many would
argue that rationality has been sacrificed, as well, since many of the decisions
favoring corporations in the last few decades have been harmful to the people
that comprise our society.
When it comes to the importance of effectiveness, John Adams may have said
it best in 1776:
"Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said,
'For forms of government let fools contest,
That which is best administered is best.'
"Nothing can be more fallacious than this: But poets read history to
collect flowers not fruits -- they attend to fanciful images, not the effects
of social institutions. Nothing is more certain from the history of nations,
and the nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted
for being well administered than others.
John Adams, Thoughts on Government.
Claim: Our system prevents factions. The article quotes political scientist
Judith Best, saying our electoral system, "prevents the most dangerous
kinds of factions -- racial, religious, economic...It confines them within little
republics and forces them to compromise early and often with their fellow state
Rebuttal: That is an interesting argument that deserves careful
thought. It contains an element of truth that warrants consideration. Rather
than electing a minority voice that holds out for its own interests to the exclusion
of all others, and which acts to obstruct progress, the claim is that our system
forces a minority to be more conciliatory. In a land where religious tolerance
is built into the national fabric by the Constitutional separation of church
and state, that notion has strong appeal, because it means that the most radical
and potentially most disruptive forces can never hold office.
It would be tempting to find a way to dismiss this argument, were it not for
the very real fact of religious intolerance, and the incredible harm that has
resulted from it through the ages, all over the world. For the moment, then,
I'll content myself by agreeing with the goal, although not necessarily
with the means. The goal is to ensure that a rabid minority doesn't
inflict substantial harm on the general population. That's an important goal,
well worth supporting.
But it is equally important to keep the majority from trampling on
the rights of minorities. That's the goal of representation. It may be that
those two goals inevitably conflict. Or it may be that there are other factors
at work which determine how destructive a minority is likely to be, which can
and should be addressed. In fact, it is highly likely that it is the lack
of representation which, over time, breeds the frustration that turns a minority
into a destructive force. (However, religious minorities must be excepted from
that principle since, throughout mankind's history, strong religious convictions
have evidenced an unfortunate tendency to justify egregious harm to nonbelievers.)
It's also useful to remember that our nation's founders were passionate people.
They argued vehemently for the principles they believed in. The result was a
series of compromises that produced an ingenious system of checks and balances,
so that no one part of state or national government dominated over any other
part. Those kinds of compromises only occurred because advocates for different
ideas were represented at the congressional convention.
Interestingly, it's the ideas that weren't represented at that convention
that have caused the most problems for our country. Only white, male, landowners
were present. We've been fighting ever since for the rights of blacks, women,
and workers. And that may be the best argument of all for the necessity
of representation, despite the difficulties.
Proportional Allocation of Electoral Votes
This section refutes the notion that it would be a bad idea for Colorado to
allocate it's electoral votes proportionally among competing candidates.
Claim: Splitting Colorado's electoral votes would be bad. The article
says that, "Under the Colorado proposal, almost all of that state's elections
would result in 5-4 splits of its electoral votes." It then goes on to
suggest that the result could conceivably tip the election towards Bush, which
would be a different result than the outcome most Coloradans would prefer.
Rebuttal: Unfortunately, that outcome is a plausible possibility.
But it results from two circumstances which are both likely to change.
The first circumstance that could cause such an unintended result is the fact
that so few people vote. But a system that allocates electoral votes proportionally
means that citizens can't afford to sit out an election. If they expect
their candidate to win in their state, they need to vote to ensure that their
candidate gets all of the electoral votes they are entitled to. Voters who don't
think their candidate can totally win are similarly motivated, so the change
has the desirable impact of encouraging participation in the voting process.
In left-leaning Colorado, that single fact might change the expected 5-4 split
into a 7-2 split or better.
The second circumstance that could cause such an unintended result is the fact
that all but two other states currently use the single-winner system -- so potential
electoral voter in other states simply aren't counted. But if all states
were dividing their electoral votes proportionally then the election results
would truly reflect the desires of the electorate.[Hill,
This is another instance of a classic problem known as the Prisoner's Dilemma.
The problem works like this: Two convicts can only escape if they work together,
but the outcome is uncertain. If they succeed, both are better off (+10 for
both). But if they fail, they're worse off (-10 for both). So choosing to escape
is a gamble. On the other hand, if one of them chooses to rat out the other,
that one is definitely better off (+5) -- but not as well off as if
they escape (+10). If you're in that situation -- what choice do you make? And
can you trust your partner?
That's the problem that Colorado faces in today's election.
But the crucial difference between Colorado's situation and the Prisoner's
Dilemma is that Colorado's decision is a landmark event that can help to change
the game. Colorado is engaging in forward-looking, long-term thinking that will
not only encourage other states to take the same action, it will motivate
citizens in other states to take that action to make sure that their votes count,
so they can keep from losing elections that they would otherwise win.
So while the risk in the short term is that the gamble might not pay off. But
chances are that, in the long term, the Electoral College will do a much better
of job of choosing the candidate that the majority of the population wants,
instead of choosing the candidate that a majority of the population rejected,
as it did in 2000. The process has to start somewhere, and Colorado is wisely
considering the prospect of initiating the cascade.
It is crucial for the allocation of electoral votes to be based on the proportion
of votes cast in the election, rather than on the number of districts
won. Proportional allocation based on the number of votes most truly reflects
the desire of the population. Allocation by district, meanwhile, can produce
the same kinds of unfortunate results as single-winner elections.[Hill,
On the other hand, there is a danger that large urban populations
will outweigh rural interests. Since urban populations are notoriously unacquainted
with, and unsympathetic to, rural needs, the problem can't be taken lightly.
At the moment, however, it's clear that district gerrymandering by incumbent
political parties has rendered district-based politics all but incapable of
representing the electorate's true desires. So, despite the danger to rural
interests, there is no other choice for the moment. (In the future, hopefully
there will be a movement towards a mixed system, where half of the votes are
based on geographic districts, and half come from the statewide popular vote.
For More Information
See Taking the Money
Out of Politics, which explains the principles and purpose behind the Citizens'
Advisory system under construction at www.CitizensAdvisory.org.
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