In Praise of Indirect Democracy
Democracy in America works because it is indirect.
America has periodic elections between two major parties, and voters–even uninformed ones–have a great opportunity to cast their votes essentially as a “yes” or “no” in response to a simple question: are you happy with the last X years of governance? A voter need not be an expert on any policy at all to answer this question: they can go based on their own standard of living, or their friends’ standard of living, or how their families are doing.
Because of this, a two-party system can lend itself very well to responsible governance and policymaking. For all the talk about emerging majorities and electoral “locks,” they are only sustainable if a party produces good policy outcomes and rising standards of living. If the government does not produce good outcomes–or the hope that good outcomes are coming–they will lose elections, and the other party will get a shot at ruling. 1 Party leaders who are focused first and foremost on achieving power need to back candidates that support policies that are likely to work at improving people’s quality of life.
A similar logic undergirds the Electoral College. The Electoral College prevents candidates from attempting to run up the score in a single area of the country. Candidates must build geographically-broad coalitions by devising platforms that can appeal to many different types of voters. One may argue that the votes of people in Kansas are essentially meaningless under the Electoral College, but the opposite is true: Kansans, for example, have a powerful form of indirect representation because the parties must come up with platforms that are responsive to public concerns for people all over the country. Even if their votes are not directly meaningful, the parties must account for their ability to vote in crafting strategies and policies.
In a lot of ways, then, public opinion is reflected in American democracy much like the way an astronomer studies the sun: she doesn’t point a telescope at the sun and stare directly at it; she’ll use mirrors and projections as a way to limit the damage to her eyes. Such is how the American system is supposed to work: it is democratic, but in a way where the questions that people answer are ones that they are equipped to answer without much study, and the choices they make are circumscribed by systems that point towards rational policy outcomes.
Unfortunately, this fails in two specific circumstances in the existing American system. First is in low-turnout binding primary elections. In a low-turnout system where voters can select between multiple options, a candidate can earn a weak plurality and cruise to victory. This is, essentially, what happened with Donald Trump. 2 Moreover, in single-party elections, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between different candidates; low-information voters often default to a choice based on name recognition. The primary system does not do a good job finding candidates with potentially-effective policy programs; it biases towards attention-seekers and people with access to money.
Second is in a direct referendum on a complex issue. Voters often are not equipped to answer complicated policy questions in an informed way. Governments can do what they can to ensure accurate and equitable ballot wording, but really, how much do average people know about complicated new tax structures, or appropriate damage caps in malpractice suits?
In these cases, the common factor is that we do not use any of our mediating institutions as ways to steer popular sentiment into productive choices. Instead, we rely on uninformed voters to cut through emotional appeals, misinformation, and just plain noise to make their choices. We are left to hope that the ideal outcome comes to the fore and to pray that the consequences of bad decisions are limited.
Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in a direction away from our mediating and simplifying institutions: we see ballot measures of increasing significance every year, and we’re trying to undo the Electoral College in favor of direct election of the president. These trends are unfortunate and should be resisted. We venerate mass democracy, but we fail to see why it works: mass democracy does not work because of some ingrained wisdom and sense that the people retain through the generations. It works because politicians are incentivized by a fear of political death into doing things that benefit the public, and because the public is ruthless in its judgments.
An overreliance on direct democracy creates a situation where 52 percent of a pool of voters can vote for an incredibly tumultuous outcome without necessarily having grappled with the consequences. The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union may or may not be wise, but having it made in a one-time public referendum that was merely a political tactic employed by too-clever-by-half leadership is surely less than ideal.
Image by fernando butcher
- There’s an argument to be made that the Republican opposition in the 111th Congress “hacked” this system by voting “no” on all of Obama’s priorities. There is something to be said for this, but I don’t necessarily think that this was a “dominant” or unbeatable strategy for the Republicans. There were alternative counterstrategies for President Obama, as Sean Trende outlined in 2012.
- To his credit, baseball writer Bill James identified this possibility 15 years ago, while criticizing the Gold Glove voting process.