Summary: Some otherwise impressive thinkers like George T. Will acknowledge that the American political system doesn’t represent minorities, but conclude that it is somehow a good thing. In fact, he asserted that minorities shouldn’t be represented, and, for that reason, electoral votes shouldn’t be proportionally allocated. This article aims to refute that notion, along with his assertion that it would be a mistake for Colorado to allocate its electoral votes proportionally among the competing candidates.
Originally published 2004
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 consideration.
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.
This section refutes the pernicious notion that lack of minority representation in government is somehow a good thing.
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 nature.”
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”.
The claim is that the 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.
“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 political system.
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.
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.
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 citizens.”
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.
This section refutes the notion that it would be a bad idea for Colorado to allocate it’s electoral votes proportionally among competing candidates.
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, 23]
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, 23]
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
- John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Vol 1, Ch 4. 1776.
- Thomas Jefferson, from the Jefferson Memorial. Quoted in Fixing Elections, p.38
- Steven Hill, Fixing Elections
- George T. Will. Newsweek magazine. August 20, 2004. Back page.
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