Beyond the principle of distinction

The primary negative effect of the electoral system is the obverse of its ostensible function. This effect is what Bernard Manin called “the principle of distinction” – the delegation of political power to people whose situation and outlook is significantly different from those of the population at large. As a result of this difference, the political elite serves interests that are different from, and often antithetical to, those of the average voter.

However, the electoral system is often presented by academic advocates and by electoral activists and politicians as providing a value to society above and beyond its function for selecting government officials. It supposedly encourages meaningful popular participation in government through voting, informed discussion, organized activism in electoral campaigns and awareness of the importance of compromise and coalition building. In fact, the electoral system encourages none of those patterns – on the contrary: it is antithetical to them. This is due to several characteristics of the electoral system that do not follow from the principle of distinction.

1. Politics as competition The electoral system is a mechanism in which groups compete for power. Allocation of power through competition has several related effects:

  • When political power is gained through competition, its attainment comes to be seen, primarily by the winners themselves but by others as well, as a reward. Corruption – use of the hard won political power to further the interests of the winners and their associates – then becomes a natural consequence of the achievement.
  • Winning the electoral competition is also seen as an indication of competence. The winners come to be seen as possessing of some admirable qualities that are required for governing. In an electoral contest, for example, where fame, ambition, lack of scruples, and a knack for manipulation are important traits for a candidate to become successful, such traits come to be seen as being essential for effective government.
  • Treatment of politics as a competition tends to become, over time, part of an ideology that treats many other aspects of life as a competition such as inter-personal relationships, workplace relationships, business relationships, relationships between social groups, international relationships, etc. All those interactions come to be seen primarily and reflexively as situations where one has to gain an advantage over others and where co-operation is less natural than antagonism.

2. Secrecy and manipulation A sitting government can increase its re-election prospects by controlling the information available to the public. Governments therefore have an incentive to increase government secrecy, obfuscate legislation and mount misleading propaganda campaigns. The considerable power of the government apparatus and its privileged position as the originator of policy allow the government to respond to those incentives with highly effective systematic action.

3. Degradation of the public discourse and critical faculties Due to the low mental effort invested in voting and lack of relevant data required for making informed decisions, elections are decided based on sub-rational decisions. Therefore, substantive arguments carry very limited weight in winning elections. At the same time, sub-rationality opens the door for influence by employing slogans and manipulation. Anti-rational discourse thus becomes an effective electoral tool and is widely applied. Being widely applied it becomes the norm. Rational discourse becomes an abnormality that is viewed, by the force of habit, with suspicion. Thus many members of society become habituated to irrational thought in all matters that are beyond their immediate surroundings.

4. Siphoning of political energy into electoral campaigns In an electoral system electoral campaigning is seen as the primary channel of political organization. Therefore, grass root political energy is not channeled into sustained activity but into short-term high-concentration propaganda. Politics becomes the realm of a professional elite for whom it is a means for self-promotion rather than a participatory activity that is aimed at improving society.

As important as the principle of distinction and its results are, and as detrimental as they are to the public welfare, there are additional effects of the electoral mechanism that have significant negative impact on the political culture and ideology (and consequentially on public policy and public welfare). A political system which would promote the values of participation, discussion and coalition building would need to be designed carefully and may rely on various devices. It is clear, however, that an important step toward promoting such patterns would be moving away from electoralism.


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