Dixon: Why Elections Still Matter, Except When They Don’t

An excerpt from an article by long time political activist Bruce A. Dixon:

Can electoral campaigns morph into social movements?

The short answer is no. We have to avoid and actively argue against the delusion that electoral campaigns build social movements. They don’t. I used to believe that under some circumstances they could. But I’ve seen twenty or more campaigns close up, in many of which some or the key participants hoped to morph into permanent bottom-up organizations capable of running themselves and holding candidates accountable. For reasons that require a book chapter to explain, it almost never works. I think I’ve seen it happen, sort of, once in my entire political life.

Electoral campaigns have been the graveyard of social movements, not once, but many, many times.

Wisconsin’s state capital was on the verge of a general strike over the machinations of the state’s governor and legislators, but instead they were directed into an electoral campaign to recall the governor and defeat a handful of state senators, in which huge sums of money were raised, countless volunteer hours expended, organizers deployed, and they lost, leaving few or no new permanent organized formations behind not beholden to the folks that sent them down the electoral road in the first place.

What if just a fraction of the money spent on Wisconsin’s futile recall effort had gone to pay organizers’ salaries and support for two years, and for ten or twenty photocopiers, with two year service agreements, available to grassroots organizations across the state? The movement in Wisconsin would be a lot broader, deeper, more diverse and more established. After electoral campaigns, win or lose, everyone pretty much goes home.

When campaigns are a good idea, when they’re not.

At the very least, your social movements should already be well constituted and in conscious motion before and outside of electoral politics before you enter into a campaign, or else the campaign will swallow them. The campaigns and candidates have to persistently pose the kinds of questions Democrats and Republicans dare not ask, let alone answer. Crucially they must raise up candidates from their own ranks who are loyal enough to the organization and its principles to resist the institutional pull of elected office and the elevated status our political tradition accords even to candidates for office. When you get a candidate on the ballot, that person becomes your spokesperson. If she is NOT with the program, won’t ask the questions that challenge capitalism, you’ve been a party to your own carjacking.

If you can do all those things, AND run a competent campaign, which is no small chore, it’s worth it. If you can’t, it’s not. Supporting Democrats and so-called “fusion” efforts are never worthwhile. Your volunteers ultimately become theirs, or disillusioned, and your efforts lend unearned credibility to the same old folks, who really need your new bottom-up enthusiasm every two years a lot more than you need them.

Campaigns that don’t ask the questions Repubs and Democrats shy away from aren’t worth mounting and their candidates not worth voting for. If you’re only demanding what the consultants say might actually get through the legislature in this or the next session, you’re not demanding enough, and if you do get it, your establishment allies will get the credit, not you. But if you demand five times above and beyond what they’re willing to give, asking the questions they dare not, any victory you win is yours.

Only fools dream that the establishment will allow us to vote them out of power. That will never happen. But until they’re willing to break down our doors, put bags over our heads and frog march us off to solitary somewhere our obligation is to make the most of open work with all the tools available. Completely eschewing campaigns and elections makes no sense.


31 Responses

  1. >If she is NOT with the program, won’t ask the questions that challenge capitalism, you’ve been a party to your own carjacking.

    In other words elections are futile because the majority of the electorate have no wish to “challenge capitalism”, merely to receive a larger slice of the cake. I can understand why this would be a disappointment to those wishing to initiate “social movements”, complete with “programs”, loyal activists and banks of well-serviced photocopiers, but will not be a disappointment to those of us who believe in democracy. The reason that both Democrats and Republicans are a disappointment to “social movements” who wish to challenge capitalism is that both parties are obliged to court the support of the median voter, most of whom would much rather go shopping. No doubt this is all the product of false consciousness, but it has proved remarkably resilient to deconstruction by the revolutionary vanguard.


  2. > In other words elections are futile because the majority of the electorate have no wish to “challenge capitalism”

    No. The issue Dixon is raising is the unrepresentativity of the candidates. Dixon is pointing out that usually the candidates are unwilling to represent the concerns of the voters whose votes they hope to win. They rely on the activists to mask the gap between their own positions and those of the voters.


  3. Given that the goal of candidates is to gain election why should they be unwilling to represent the concerns of the voters whose votes they hope to win? That sounds like a self-defeating strategy.


  4. Yes – about as self defeating as not responding to popular displeasure with the high salaries of the delegates.


  5. That’s the one example of departing from median-voter preferences that you constantly rely on and it certainly doesn’t apply to the UK, where a salary increase is being imposed on MPs by an independent review board. MPs are poorly paid in comparison to other professionals and this is because they are so highly attuned to voters’ concerns that they are reluctant to vote themselves a salary increase. I’m not too familiar with the US context, but recall that Naomi has already responded to you when you raised this point earlier.


  6. Collusion is a real danger, but to make the case that this is an example of such a thing you would first have to make the case that the wishes of the *average* constituent are being obstructed.


  7. And given the focus of this site on considered judgment, you would also need to show that this was true for well-informed preferences rather than straw polls (not sure how you would go about that). It strikes me that much of the evidence you have cited is on a par with “my mother-in-law could do better than those creeps on Capitol Hill”.


  8. Naomi,

    I think you have things backwards: I am not aware of any evidence that the wishes of the “average” constituent are affecting public policy. There is also no credible theoretical mechanism which would explain such an effect. In the absence of either evidence or theory, there is simply no rational basis for expecting responsiveness.

    The delegate salary issue is special not because it demonstrates unresponsiveness (it does, but there are many other such cases). It is because the salary issue is so straightforward that it is hard to come up with excuses for the unresponsiveness that are not transparently ridiculous.


  9. Yoram, as you well know there is a wealth of evidence, you are simply choosing to privilege Gilens’ overinterpretation of the minority of cases when preferences don’t align. And although you may not find the theoretical mechanism credible, the vast majority of political scientists would beg to differ. We’ve been over this ground so many times already but, as Naomi put it, “people can be stubborn jerks”.


  10. > “people can be stubborn jerks”.

    Certainly. Or maybe simply jerks.

    But putting this aside, I am curious: if, as you write, politicians’ topmost business is following “median-voter preferences”, how do you explain the fact that voters’ satisfaction with MPs is so low over much of the elections-based world?


  11. >how do you explain the fact that voters’ satisfaction with MPs is so low over much of the elections-based world?

    Because MPs are obliged to follow median-voter preferences and these preferences are uninformed (on account of the rational ignorance problem). That’s why I view modern electoral regimes as a form of direct democracy by proxy and give little credence to the competing ruling-class theory, which I think is an anachronism. Voters are, in effect, blaming politicians for their own lack of wisdom.

    The argument for an allotted legislature, IMO, is exactly the same as it was in 5th century Athens — the need to improve on the arbitrary and inconsistent decisions of the ecclesia. I don’t have much time for the competing thesis that it’s a matter of seizing power from a rich and disengaged political elite. That may well have been the cause of the original Athenian “revolution” (Ober’s term) but our concern is the fourth-century reforms.

    Of course I’m painting this in terms of ideal types — I don’t deny that politicians will seek to smuggle in their own agenda under the radar and I hope you would not seek to deny the possibility that the demos may suffer from some degree of epistemic short-sightedness. But our radically different perspectives explains why we continue to talk (or rather, shout) past each other. I consider that my position is supported by the majority of political scientists (although denied by most political theorists) and I think your championing of Gilens’ minority argument is clutching at straws. We’ve subjected his paper to a searching critique and I’m alarmed that this appears to have had no impact whatsoever on your thinking, viz your earlier remark:

    >I am not aware of any evidence that the wishes of the “average” constituent are affecting public policy. There is also no credible theoretical mechanism which would explain such an effect.

    It’s as if our very long debate on the interpretation of Gilens’ dataset never took place. By contrast I like to think that I learn from all those who participate on this forum — Naomi’s defence of a PR-based electoral regime and the argument for accountability has given me a lot to ponder on. The change in the argument from my first book (no place for elections and political parties) to the second was purely on account of the critical feedback that the first book received, so I don’t think I can really be accused of being a stubborn jerk (although I’m still convinced that an allotted sample of the demos should have the final word in matters of public policy).


  12. > Because MPs are obliged to follow median-voter preferences and these preferences are uninformed (on account of the rational ignorance problem).

    I don’t see how that explains dissatisfaction. Yes, the preferences are uninformed. But if they are being followed by the MPs, why aren’t people satisfied?


  13. Because a) uninformed preferences lead to poor epistemic outcomes and b) because politicians have no power over the laws of arithmetic.


  14. I don’t know what that even means.

    Are you saying that the voters support the politicians because they implement their preferences but then blame them for the poor outcomes that result from those preferences?


  15. Yes, or (more precisely) politicians implement median-voter preferences, or (even more precisely) they attempt to implement a package of median-voter preferences in so far as they are a) mutually compatible, b) affordable (hence the Healey ref. to the laws of arithmetic) and c) not derailed by unanticipated events. To my mind these three constraints are all executive functions (Crown prerogatives, in UK parlance), the goal of the legislature being to indicate preferences (those preferences being binding on the executive iff they are compatible with a-c).

    Needless to say the “median voter” is an arithmetic construct, so this is another reason why empirical voters are dissatisfied with elected politicians, particularly in polarised democracies such as the US (and Israel??) where many voters have preferences that are closer to the poles than the mid-point. It’s perfectly possible, in such polities, for politicians to follow median-voter preferences and yet for ALL voters to still be dissatisfied. I remember recently reading an interview with UK education secretary Michael Gove, where he pointed out that activists will thank him temporarily when he follows their wishes but will never forgive when he deviates from them. Although this was an observation on activist psychology, it still applies (to a lesser extent) to voters.


  16. According to you then the voters are not uninformed – they are so well-informed that they are able to tell with high accuracy which politicians implement policies that match their preferences keeping politicians responding to every whim of the electorate.

    But at the same time, according to you, voters are simply stupid – they keep voting for the same politicians and demanding that they implement the same policies with whose outcomes they are dissatisfied.


  17. The rational ignorance theorem has nothing to do with stupidity, it simply states that there is no point in voters taking the considerable time and trouble to fully inform themselves on political matters as their individual vote is of no consequence. I’ve no idea who my own constituency MP is, but would not consider myself to be unusually stupid. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t notice when a decision is taken that they might not approve of on an issue that directly affects them. And in a two-party (but highly polarised) democracy it’s perfectly possible for ALL voters to be dissatisfied with EVERY decision without disproving the median-voter theorem; all they can do at the next election is punish the party that displeases them most. Although I’m no expert on US politics, I would imagine that Obamacare is an example of this, as people generally view glasses as half empty rather than half full, particularly when they are not personally involved in the bargaining that leads up to the final decision. One of the merits of John Burnheim’s model is that it obliges participants to take responsibility for their own decisions.


  18. > The rational ignorance theorem has nothing to do with stupidity,

    You seem to have missed the point.

    Again: according to your model, the voters are far from ignorant (rationally or not). They are so well informed about government policy as to be able to verify that this policy is according to their preferences and as to be able to dismiss from office anyone who is responsible for any discrepancy between their preferences and the policy.

    However, according to your model, they are too stupid to put two and two together and realize that policy that they have verified is in place is causing the outcomes that they are unhappy with. They are somehow able to control every act of the elected officials, but at the same time they blame those officials for acting against their wishes.

    (To make matters even more absurd: according to you, even though the voters blame the elected officials for the poor outcomes, they keep voting for them because they are happy with the policies they implement.)


  19. The relationship between policies and their outcomes is far from straightforward. Take the Obamacare example. Supporters say that the recent decline in the uninsured rate is the result of Obamacare. Opponents say it’s because of the improving economy. Who’s right?


  20. > The relationship between policies and their outcomes is far from straightforward.

    Sure. But what Sutherland is claiming is that the voters control the delegates completely and still blame them for poor outcomes. This is like a puppeteer who is upset at his puppet for the puppet show not being entertaining. (And then still choosing the same act, and blaming the puppet some more.)


  21. You only have one vote. You only control *your* representatives. The actions of the others are not in your control. The people are not of one mind, with one will, acting together to control the government like a puppet.


  22. Perhaps “influence” would have been a better word to use. In any case, different people want different, often mutually exclusive, things. The actions of a democratic government (composed by any means) must necessarily reflect a compromise between many individual positions. There’s no reason to believe that a compromise that would make most people happy is even possible.


  23. Naomi:> The people are not of one mind, with one will, acting together to control the government like a puppet.

    Exactly — voters are not a homogenous entity (“the masses”) with a single and coherent set of preferences. Imagine a country in which half the population align themselves with the Tea Party and the other half are (for want of a better word) socialists. The leaders of the two principal political factions (let’s call them Republicans and Democrats) may well agree, respectively, with the opinions of their Tea Party and socialist supporters, but in order to win the election they need to extend their support beyond the 50% and this means adopting some of the policies of their opponents. Ditto with their opponents and thus commences the flight to the middle ground. Come the election you end up with a median-voter policy that nobody likes and a government chosen by a couple of hanging chads.


  24. Indeed. In fact you don’t even control “your” delegate since that delegate has a constituency of many thousands of people.

    Now the picture is very different from the one Sutherland originally tried to paint. With the lack of a single mind and single will “people’s preferences” becomes a very amorphously defined entity and constraints on government policy are very loose.

    It is therefore the candidates and the elected who set the agenda and determine policy – not the voters. Topics that are unsuitable to the candidates, but upon which there may be wide agreement in the population – like reducing the salaries of MPs – can be kept off the agenda and never impact electoral choices. Other topics may be discussed, but the range of options considered may be severely limited – again, to reflect the range of options that are suitable to the electoral elite.

    Now the dissatisfaction of the voters with government is easily explained – the voters understand that they are not in control and that elected officials have great power to determine policy. They voters are dissatisfied with the fact that this power is used to promote the narrow interests of the electoral elite and its allies at the expense of the general public.


  25. >It is therefore the candidates and the elected who set the agenda and determine policy – not the voters.

    That’s right. But the agenda and policies are chosen in such a way as to maximise votes. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic — a careful calculus to attract the maximum number of waverers (who would consider your party the least-worst option) without alienating your core supporters. This is a very difficult juggling act and one in which everyone comes out dissatisfied, but this is the consequence of diverse preferences within the electorate.

    >the range of options considered may be severely limited – again, to reflect the range of options that are suitable to the electoral elite.

    Yes, but “suitable” in the sense of attracting the maximum number of votes.

    I’m offline this evening and tomorrow, but look forward to resuming our discussion in due course.


  26. Attracting the maximum number of votes and following the voters’ policy preferences are two different things. In fact, rational ignorance implies that there is very little connection between the two. But even if rational ignorance were not a factor, the principle of distinction implies that policy primarily reflects the preferences of the elite.


  27. The principle of distinction only states that voters will select “outstanding” candidates; it’s a further claim (of “ruling elite” theorists) that these candidates will have different interests from electors (the masses). The competing (median voter) theory states that the principal interest of elected politicians is to ensure (re)election and this requires that they use their best efforts to represent the interests of as many electors as possible. As we discussed yesterday this is challenging in highly polarised plurality electoral systems, and this is augmented by the problem of rational ignorance, leading to the paradox that the pursuit of median voter preferences can lead to policies that nobody wants. How to resolve this paradox is a tricky problem, Naomi’s solution is PR, yours is to leave it to a deliberative minipublic, whereas I argue for a complex mix of direct democracy, election and sortition, allied with a powerful nonpolitical executive.


  28. I think you both are largely right.

    Yoram, I think you are talking about realistic problems in the systems with which you are familiar.

    Elected officials can and do sell the people things they would never have accepted had they personally understood the matter. Case in point: the Iraq War. On the other hand, this can be a good thing, as they can lead people to compromises they never would otherwise have been willing to accept. You need healthy oversight, and that is sorely lacking at present.

    I don’t think it’s possible to discuss these things without going into the details of individual systems. But that might just be the passionate institutionalist in me talking.

    In Israel, the multitude of parties makes assigning blame and reward too complex to be practical. Four parties in a coalition may not seem like a lot, but it really is. When you have two parties (let’s call them A and B) in a coalition, there is only one interparty dynamic in the cabinet. Let’s call that dynamic “AB.” I think this is healthy, if they were elected by PR. Each will represent a subset of the population rather than the median voter. Each will represent it’s voters more closely than a compromise big-tent party. You have less pre-electoral compromise, and more post-electoral compromise. That’s the textbook trade-off. Still, interparty negotiations are tough and important things are often discarded due to conflict between the goals of the parties.

    Going from 2 parties to 3 parties triples the complexity.


    Conflict between the the major policies in the platforms of any two parties can force them all to look farther afield to find more obscure policies to trade to build a compromise platform.

    When you go from 3 to 4 parties, you double the complexity and double the chances of nearly unsolvable policy collisions.


    You end up with six times the internal complexity of a two-party coalition. Let’s say two of these parties pitch an extremely popular policy as a part of their platforms. Let’s say that this policy is unpopular with the “elites.” Now let’s say the parties eagerly drop this policy as a part of their coalition negotiations. Whose fault is it? Did they give up too easily? The average voter doesn’t have the time and motivation to try to unravel the web of interparty negotiations to find out who is at fault. No party can be realistically be expected to implement any meaningful fraction of their platform so they can’t realistically be blamed for failing to do so. Which means there is less incentive to try.

    The US has the same problem occurring through a very different mechanism. There is only one degree of separation between the people and policy on matters that the president can act on unilaterally. The people elect the president, the president acts. In Congress, there are a whopping three degrees of separation: elections to each house, negotiation within each house of Congress, and negotiation between each house and the president. Weak parties mean each politician stands or falls on their own merit (read: personality). You literally have hundreds of actors in the system. I have no idea who my representative is. Truth be told, I don’t really care. Almost no one does. Individual representatives have no meaningful say. Together, they are tremendously powerful, yet there’s no real way to articulate national-level policy plans in legislature elections without strong parties. Come November, I’ll be voting based on party label. Unlike most Americans, I find no shame in this.

    One of the best examples of the actions of politicians diverging from the popular will is electoral redistricting in the US. Here is Florida’s Fifth District: http://i.imgur.com/tySc42r.png Nobody likes gerrymandering. Despite an almost universal consensus behind the creation of independent redistricting commissions, politicians remain in control of the districting process. 1.4 million more votes were cast for Democratic House candidates than Republican candidates in the last election yet the Republicans comfortably won the chamber. Why? Poor districting, mostly. But even the Democrats in Congress don’t make a fuss about districting because many (most?) would be less safe if their own districts were more fairly laid out. There are three full degrees of separation between action (such as the creation of redistricting commissions) and consequence. Those representatives have nothing to gain and everything to lose by going along with the popular will on this matter. Their parties might gain, but they are too weak for this to matter much.

    Keith: >Naomi’s solution is PR

    After a fashion.

    I think we need four things in an elected government:
    Broad inclusivity
    Stiff electoral competition.
    Crystal clear lines of responsibility.
    Rigorous oversight of the entire process

    The last one is where sortition comes in. Voters elect a policy branch, and some voters get drawn into an oversight branch to observe the functioning of the policy branch from top to bottom. All the way from campaigning and vote tallying to deciding what materials ought to be kept classified and appointing auditors, judges, prosecutors, watchdogs and the like. And… maybe enacting laws over the heads of the elected officials. I’m still waffling on that.

    The first three things are fantastically difficult to achieve in the same system. The most inclusive and competitive system would be a large-magnitude, nation-wide PR district. That would give you terrible accountability problems like we see in Israel. Meaningful differences between factions would also be drowned out by a multitude of redundant parties. Even a middle-of-the-road approach has weaker accountability than a pure majoritarian system. If you embrace majoritarianism, you risk collusion, the marginalization of minorities, and voter disgust with having no choice but to explicitly endorse policies with which they disagree.

    If you attempt to get around this impasse by having a majoritarian institution and a proportional institution in parallel, you risk setting up a transactional relationship which would then introduce an additional degree of separation between action and consequence. Hierarchical relationships don’t have this problem. However, if you elect two institutions in parallel and set them up hierarchically, you risk electing a lame-duck. You also get two co-equal mandates.

    A few years back I hit upon the idea of ranking parties the same way you rank individual candidates in an IRV/STV race. People can then vote for which ever party they’d like (even tiny <1% parties) first, and the other parties later without damaging the impact of their vote. You should end up with far more competition than the number of parties represented would seem to suggest. You can then force a reasonable number of parties by redistributing votes until you get to that number. You can re-tally the votes to get a pure majoritarian winner, the caucus of which can be given the power to elect and dismiss the chief executive at will.

    You end up with one party (and platform) with a majoritarian mandate, but it's weak, because it relies on lower preferences than the assembly tally. The assembly represents the people on a proportional basis. The executive party represents the people on a majoritarian basis. The majority winner will almost certainly be the largest party in a majority coalition because of the way in which the votes are redistributed. Or, rather, it'll head something that can be massaged into a majority coalition with the combination of an unambiguous mandate to head the government and the ability to assign cabinet positions at will.

    Dang. That's well over a thousand words. I always seem to write too much. And a lot was kind of off-topic. Oh well.


  29. Naomi – I am all in favor of discussing details where they matter, but any analysis according to which a system’s proper functioning supposedly depends on having exactly two or three coalition partners but not one or four, seems a-priori unlikely.

    > One of the best examples of the actions of politicians diverging from the popular will is electoral redistricting in the US.

    I disagree. This is a technical issue, with no clear policy impact. It is no more than a minor example of unrepresentativity (among many others). Because it has no policy impact, this issue serves as fodder for political talk shows and opinion columns, but it is no more than a distraction.


  30. Naomi,
    As someone who worked for the organization FairVotes. for over a decade: The Center for Voting and Democracy on IRV and STV reform in the U.S. for over a decade (I even got IRV adopted in my city, though it was later repealed), I agree that your scheme is one of the better ones out there for an electoral system.

    However, I still see it as woefully inadequate. Candidate based systems have one set of fatal flaws (politics of personality, rational ignorance, corruption, etc.) while Party-based systems have an overlapping but distinct set of fatal flaws (the distorted agenda-setting imperatives, need to demonize opponents, over-simplifying issues and fomenting disagreement, etc.)…and both select unrepresentative ego-driven decision-makers who are cognitively homogeneous (even if having different ideologies).

    Sortition offers a completely different approach to public decision-making that can be institutionally structured to overcome personality focus, rational ignorance, fomenting of disagreement, corruption and over-simplification, and perhaps most importantly allowing for more rational agenda setting and cognitive diversity among decision-makers. These are’t automatic with sortition — requiring careful design, but are possible, though not with elections..


  31. Naomi:> The people are not of one mind, with one will, acting together to control the government like a puppet.

    Yoram, I’ve been pondering on this comment and it strikes me that your overriding mistake is assuming that political science is a deductive exercise — most of your arguments take the form of syllogisms and other forms of deductive logic. But the study of politics is an empirical discipline and is informed by equally empirical disciplines such as history, psychology and sociology. The role of political theory is just to introduce a little clarity by, as Moses Finlay put it, the Aristotelian project of “adumbrating” regularities from the empirical. Note for example, that Aristotle’s arguments for democratic freedom and the wisdom of crowds are empirical (or analogical) rather than deductive.

    Most other principles in political theory are little more than tautologies — the “principle of distinction” simply states that electors will select distinctive or even distinguished candidates and the “principle of election” is that electors will elect the elect. Aristocracy is rule by the aristoi, democracy rule by the demos and monarchy rule by the one. There’s very little worth deducing from such a tautological base; much better to observe how human beings interact together in practice and finding ways to improve the quality and representative legitimacy of the political decisions resulting from such practices.


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