• Does Democracy Work?

    This is something I’ve struggled with for a while. I’m no student of political science (having slept through my college courses on the subject and managed a C). Does democracy[1] work?

    In general, the majority of decisions in a democracy are determined by the majority vote (either of the people or of their elected representatives). Our founding fathers had a fear of democracy, summarized by Alexis de Tocqueville as “the tyranny of the majority“.

    A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.

    So how does one compete with an unjust majority (or, in most cases, an uninformed majority)? For example, the majority of the US congress rejects the idea of human caused climate change. So, the US is not an ideal place to promote policies that help to reduce or stop climate change.

    There are other examples that make me have questions.

    First is with the elections. I understand that our presidential election system is just weird. I even understand the historical basis for it (and yes, that’s the entire point of my question). But there are cases where the popular vote winner doesn’t get the presidency (most recently when Bush beat out Gore in 2000). OK, there are only 4 cases of this happening in all of US history. There have also been cases of the presidents elected without 50% of the popular vote, but usually in cases with multiple candidates on the ballot (notably Bill Clinton in 1992).

    It’s certainly troubling to have to vote Democrat in Texas. Because the vote is wasted… and the Republicans remind the population of this every single election. So Democrats don’t come out to vote, because, even if 49.9% of the Texas population votes Democrat, the Republican candidate gets all the electoral college votes.

    This is not purely a US phenomenon though. The United Kingdom recently had an election and our own Tippling Philosopher mentioned these facts.

    • 50% of votes in the election (15m) went to losing candidates, while 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’ – i.e. they didn’t contribute to electing the MP [ed. Member of Parliament… watching Doctor Who all those years have finally paid off!]
    • 2.8m voters were likely to have voted ‘tactically’ – over 9% of voters
    • Under a more proportional voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – the Conservatives would have won 276 seats to Labour’s 236, while the SNP would have secured 34, UKIP 54 and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats – in Bristol and London
    • The ERS was able to call the winner correctly in 363 of 368 seats – a month before polling day – due to the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under First Past the Post
    • This election saw an MP win on the lowest vote share in electoral history – 24.5% in South Belfast
    • 331 of 650 MPs were elected on under 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30% of the electorate.’

    This has happened in the US as well (many times). In 2006, Rick Perry(R) was elected governor of Texas with less than 40% of the popular vote. In 2014, Wendy Davis(D) lost by the same percentage of the vote. The difference was in 2006, there was a vote split between several “independent” candidates that hurt the Democrats. If either one of the two independents in the race had not been present, then it is possible that the Democrat candidate would have gained those votes and been in the governor’s mansion.

    This is a problem with voting, which is something of a hallmark of democracy. The voting system is not the best to determine the “will of the people”. Due to problems like gerrymandering and the First Past the Post voting, the ability of the people to adequately express their “will” is in doubt.

    The comment about the ERS (whatever that is) predicting 363 of 368 seats (98.6%) over a month before is a problem. It’s like everyone knows that Texas votes Republican and California votes Democrat. It’s a done deal. It’s also interesting (and sad) when one can use the political party associated with a judge to predict their vote on various legal matters brought before them. This also explains why selecting the location of the trial can be very important[2].

    Further problems occur when the chosen representatives decide to do what they want instead of listening to their constituents. In 2014, a poll was released that showed that 89% of US citizens were in favor of background checks for all gun buyers. Yet

    Federal lawmakers failed to pass a bipartisan background checks bill last year in the months following the Newtown tragedy. The measure would have tightened background checks for gun purchases. (MSNBC)

    In this case, the majority opinion failed to be supported by lawmakers. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons and thoughts on why this didn’t happen. The point is that the majority of people in the US agreed with it and yet, the majority didn’t get what they wanted. I’m trying to think of any other issue that we can get almost 90% of the US population to agree on and nothing comes to mind, yet this didn’t happen.

    But let’s look at it from the other side as well.

    Everyone reading this probably agrees that people have the right to make their own choices on whom they want to love. Marriage is an integral part of that, from a legal aspect (marriage is a legal contract and that’s about it). Yet, according to Gallup, it was only in 2012 that even 50% of the US thought that gay marriages should be “recognized by the law as valid with the same rights as traditional marriage”[3]

    So, before 2012, the majority got their desires, that gay people could not have a marriage. Yet, that was still wrong. Regardless of what people believe, it’s just wrong to tell people that they can’t do things that don’t affect anyone else.

    OK, so after 2012, the majority should rule and gay people are allowed to marry… oh wait, this is the US. Majority doesn’t rule. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes minority vote gets to rule.

    Another example in the US, the majority of people (a larger percentage than voted for Rick Perry in 2006) hold the view that evolution did not result in humans. That is, that a deity of some kind created humans (or all life or the entire universe). In 2014, that view was about double that of the people who thought evolution really happened and resulted in humans. Farther back in time, the creationist view was 5 times that of the science view.

    Yet, since 1987 (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578) creationism could not be taught in schools[4]. So the majority doesn’t get their wish here and that’s a good thing. Yet, for climate change, also a science, the majority doesn’t get their wish again.

    It’s very frustrating to me (as I’m sure it is for everyone). We all want what we want to be correct and good and the majority. Of course, if I had my way, we’d live in a hedonistic society run by super-advanced artificial intelligences. But that’s just me.

    While the majority tend to rule, that’s not always the case. Nor, I think, should it be the case. Very often, the majority is wrong. But even if the majority is right, do they always get to control what happens (especially to the minority)?

    While I’m not a fan of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert), I still have some of his books. In The Dilbert Future, which I don’t actually recommend, he gives this example.

    If you were to find the smartest people on the planet and have them vote on an issue the public is split, There are two possible outcomes.

    1. The smart people are just as divided as the general public. That means intelligence is irrelevant to democracy. Ouch.

    2. The smart people all vote for the same side. That means intelligence is very relevant, but democracy erases its impact. Ouch again.

    I have a feeling I know which scenario is more likely. But I’m curious as to your thoughts on the matter.

    Again, I’ve been thinking about this occasionally, perhaps more so since the US presidential elections next year are already in full swing. It’s kind of like Christmas, the advertising and promotions get earlier and earlier each year. I don’t have any strong thoughts on the matter one way or another. I tend to agree with Churchill though.

    “Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”



    [1] Democracy: A system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.

    [2] Interestingly, I just found out about an algorithm that correctly predicts decisions 70% of the time.

    [3] Don’t get me started on traditional marriage…

    [4] It still is of course, because creationists don’t care about the rule of law.

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