This is my latest thinking on the subject, and rather long-winded, I’m afraid, so I’m posting it in six parts.
Some of it is reheated leftovers, my apologies, but my mind works slowly, I have to save it labour if I can. For the same reason, the title has been pressed into service again.
It’s written for the general public, not the erudite intellectuals of this forum, but I’d like to know if there are any errors of fact, in fact any suggestions would be welcome.
DOWN WITH ELECTIONS!
“DOWN WITH ELECTIONS!”?
How could anyone except a would-be dictator be so stupid, so irresponsible, or so perverse as to wish to see the end of elections?
In the developed and supposedly democratic world, we are accustomed to think that freedom and democracy, if not quite synonymous, go hand in hand; that one is not possible without the other. We assume, usually without giving the matter much thought, that elections are necessary for democracy and that they guarantee freedom.
It is easy enough to see why this assumption is so common.
First, citizens in countries that do not have elections, or where elections are a mere sham and the result is a foregone conclusion, are clearly not free. They are subject to dictators, or military juntas; those who are not in power have no rights and are at the mercy of the dictator, his police and his cronies. Clearly this is a bad situation, and no-one would deny that we are better off with elections, whatever their faults may be.
Second, ever since the monarchy was replaced in America and France by a government of elected representatives, we have been told by the Press, by philosophers and political theorists, and by the representatives themselves, that an elected government gives us democracy and freedom, that “we the people” are in control.
Third, since that time we have seen the expansion of the electorate from a franchise limited to propertied white males to an electorate of all citizens who have reached majority. It is obvious that this is a great step towards fairness. Consequently we believe that everything that needed doing has now been done, and that we all have a say in who has power, and that we have achieved freedom and equality.
Fourth, we see people in less fortunate countries desperately struggling, often at the risk of prison, torture, or death, to get an elected government like those in Europe or North America. Surely, if these people are willing to risk so much in order to have a political system like ours, then our system must be worth defending at all costs.
Yet despite these comforting assumptions, it appears that all is not quite well in our “democratic” world. There is a malaise; the man or woman in the street is increasingly dissatisfied and cynical about governments. The signs are evident: political leaders are increasingly regarded with contempt, they are seen to be corrupt, or weak and incompetent, or to have betrayed the interests of the electors. Voter turnout is low, often not much over 50%, sometimes even less. In the past it has been usual to assume that those who fail to vote are simply apathetic and too lazy to do so; it is accepted now that often they don’t vote because they know that their vote will have no effect, or believe that whichever way they vote, the politicians’ promises will be broken. Other voters turn to the extreme left or right, quite often not because they want to see an extremist party in power, but as a “protest vote” to show their disgust with the major parties.
We see too that there is a large gap between rhetoric and practice. Western governments, so ready to trumpet their commitment to freedom, nevertheless help to maintain or install dictatorships and military governments in other countries, and oppose any attempt by the citizens of those countries to free themselves. Moreover, blatant abuses of human rights are committed by elected governments, usually with the pretext that it is necessary to defend democracy against subversion or fanatics.
There is a feeling, then, that things don’t work out as they should. Most of us blame other people. For most of us the villains are the politicians, and for many, the media and big business. Politicians blame their political opponents, or sometimes the apathy or the ignorance or unreal expectations of the ordinary citizen. And everyone likes to blame “the bureaucrats”. Almost no-one, until recently, has considered the notion that it is perhaps not only the people involved who are to blame, but also the political system itself. Subconsciously we seem to think “Democracy means freedom, so since we have elections, we have democracy, and all would be well . . . if only “those idiots” had not won the election.”
Unprincipled and venal politicians are common, of course, and so are uninformed citizens.
However, I shall argue that it is neither the voter (or the non-voter) nor the politicians that are the real problem. The root cause, I believe, is the system, the system of free elections that we hold so dear, and which nevertheless is deeply flawed.
In a nutshell, elections don’t give the results we desire because they cannot.
There are many reasons why elections don’t work very well, including the following:
- Elections are all too vulnerable to fraud. Votes are lost or falsely declared invalid, ballot boxes are stolen or stuffed with fake votes, some voters vote many times, electronic voting machines have buggy software, recounts are impossible because there is no permanent record, or “it could not be done in the time available” or are “too expensive”, and so on.
To be sure, one might argue that these are not so much faults as abuses of the system. But without elections these abuses could not occur, so this is a weak argument: it amounts to admitting that elections are vulnerable.
- In principle, anyone can stand as a candidate, and the voter can choose any candidate whatsoever. But modern election campaigns require huge sums of moneyi, so in practice only those who have the backing of wealthy organisations and individuals can realistically be candidates. Generally speaking then, the ordinary citizen can neither be a candidate, nor vote for the candidate he or she would prefer, since the only candidates “available” – that is to say who have a hope of getting elected – are those who please these powerful groups. Our choice is limited to a small number of candidates chosen by others.
- Since survival (that is to say re-election) in politics depends on this finance, elected politicians must – at least to some extent – put the interests of their financial supporters before those of the public or risk losing their backing at the next election, which may mean certain loss of the election.
The interests of these supporters, of course, have nothing to do with your interests or mine, or those of the rest of the electors.
- The electoral system makes parties necessary. Even if election campaign expenditure were rigorously limited to zero, it would still be necessary for candidates to form groups. An unknown, independent candidate has no chance of election, because the electorate has no idea of what he or she stands for, and fears the unknown: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.
Even a celebrity, a sporting hero or actor, for instance, will have to work very hard to make his policies known and his candidature credible. A new candidate belonging to a large party, on the other hand, has a better chance of election, because most voters have a rough idea of what to expect, and will vote for the party whoever the candidate is.
Now electoral politics is adversarial. Parties struggle to be elected, and to prevent other parties taking power. Party strategists work hard, by means of gimmicks – funny hats in party colours, slogans, ribbons, banners, streamers, etc – to promote a sense of party loyalty in the voters, a sense of belonging to a group. The strategists deliberately polarise the voters, always stressing the division between “us” and “them”. Politicians, by their denigration of opponents, (and also by their questionable behaviour) further this polarisation.
No tactic is too base, too ignoble. Opposing candidates’ private lives are searched for anything that will discredit them. Calumny is just part of the game. It doesn’t matter if a discreditable report is true or false, mud sticks and the campaign managers know it, and the only thing that counts is the public’s reaction on election day. Who cares if there’s a bit of a scandal or the threat of a libel suit just after the election, as long as our guy gets elected?
Media reports of elections are couched in competitive metaphors, like those of a sporting match, or even in warlike terms, (“fight to the death” etc) and stress the battle between parties. It is not surprising that the voters often support their party (and abhor the opposition) in a “tribal” fashion, fervently and uncritically, like some supporters of football clubs. Whether or not this helps the candidate, it often leads to serious violence, and never to thoughtful consideration of issues. And surely politics ought to be about issues, not about personalities or “party loyalty”.
- Some countries subsidise political campaigns at taxpayers’ expense, ostensibly in order to reduce the effect of donations by wealthy groups. Unfortunately this leads to an unfair advantage for some parties, generally the largest, since the money is usually given in proportion to the votes that each party receives, or is limited to parties that gain more than a certain percentage of the vote. This serves to strengthen already powerful parties and discourages small parties with new – or at least different – policies. The American Political Action Committees, by donating only to the two major parties, have a similar effect, indeed it is sometimes even argued – absurdly – that they are necessary in order to exclude minor parties, in the name of stability.
- The motivation of candidates is open to question. There is a saying that “no man who seeks power is fit to exercise it”. Does your candidate want to change the laws to feather his own nest? Or is he high-minded and honest, and merely gets a buzz from making up rules for other people to obey? Or is he a complete “power-freak” in the early stages of megalomania?
It happens often that the politicians’ only aim, once elected, is to hang on to power and position by any means available. We can’t blame them too much: it’s perfectly understandable if they have been in politics – and out of the real world – for a long time, so that politics is their only way of making a living and supporting a family.
- Party politics always involves compromise. By joining a party, or voting for its candidate, we are obliged to compromise. We don’t all think alike, so the aims of any candidate or party will be different from ours. In the hope of furthering our principal political goals we have to vote for someone who will not attempt to bring about our other goals, which we thus effectively sacrifice, presumably because we regard them as less important.
Once elected, the politician will achieve nothing without cooperating with other elected members, and that entails more compromise. Your candidate may promise to act as you would wish on a particular issue, and may even completely agree with you on that issue, and yet make a contrary vote, following the party line. The “representative” will justify this by saying that in order to get anything useful done, she or he and the party must stay in power, and if a compromise is necessary to stay in power, then so be it, that compromise must be made. Which is all quite true in pragmatic terms, but what has happened to the candidate’s integrity?
Where, as in the US, politicians are not held to vote strictly according to the party’s dictates, the need to compromise in order to achieve anything can lead to a bizarre form of horse trading. “Will you vote for the new aircraft carrier?” “I can’t possibly do that. I promised to work to reduce government spending.” “Suppose you got a subsidy for planting new wheat varieties and a 150% tax rebate on farm machines?” “Throw in a four-lane bridge across the Muddy River and I’ll vote for the war against XXX as well.” And so important decisions depend on matters that have nothing to do with the question being considered, and usually nothing to do with any promises made at election time.
- Slogans rule! A candidate who says clearly what he or she means to do is immediately at a disadvantage with respect to those who offer meaningless formulas. A well-defined policy can be attacked, misrepresented, quoted out of context, and ridiculed. Slogans like “It’s time” “Yes, we can” and so forth have too little meaning in them to be capable of being distorted, though they help to rally the party faithful.
- The information the public receives from the media is always incomplete and biased, often grotesquely so. The media depend on advertising revenue, and even in the absence of overt pressure, self-censor their news content. To keep their readership or audience, and hence their revenue, they sensationalise their reports: nothing sells like fear. Also, given the pressures on editors, it is not surprising that even the best sometimes uncritically reprint or broadcast propaganda prepared by “spin doctors”. The media’s tendency to treat elections as sporting events, besides polarising the electorate, focuses on the fortunes of the candidates and the parties, not on their policies. (Even in this shallow treatment they can be grotesquely wrongii). Commercial television, in particular, favours the 10 second “sound bite” rather than any detailed discussion of policies or past performanceiii.
- Even if we had politicians with clear policies which the politicians honestly intended to implement , and which were accurately presented to us by the media, those policies could not take account of future events. Should we then vote for the declared policy, or for the person likely to make the best decisions in unknown circumstances? Either way, you cannot know what a politician will do once in power. This problem is inevitable because we vote for a person or a party, never on an issue except (rarely) in a referendum.
- It is all too easy for elected politicians to abusively influence school curricula, and a strong motive for doing so is to persuade future voters to favour the ideology of the politicians’ party or group. The tinkering with curricula by some US school boards to include creationism is notorious, and Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its militarist past is a consequence of the influence of nationalist politicians. The present Turkishiv and Hungarian governmentsv are also accused of fiddling with the school syllabus for political and ideological ends.
- Voting systems and counting methods are never perfect, and often very far from ideal. Even in the absence of corruption or tampering with the ballot, votes don’t count equally: a vote in a swinging electorate is more valuable than one in a “safe” seat. For example, in a system with one seat per electorate, a party with 30% of the popular vote will win no seats at all if its voters are evenly distributed in all electorates. On the other hand, it will win a very comfortable majority if its supporters make up 51% of the population in 59% of electorates.
People with similar political views or interests tend to be grouped in certain areas. This makes possible the gerrymander, where electoral boundaries are drawn to favour one or another party vi. Unfortunately, even without the gerrymander, electoral boundaries can never be perfectly fair. Many countries have inequality of the vote “built-in”, as in the case of the US Senatevii, and the Australian Senate, where each state has the same number of votes, regardless of population.
Some countries have adopted quite complicated voting systems to try to reduce such unfairness. Nevertheless, it is still common for a government to be elected which is not preferred by the majority of votes cast, even when there are no irregularities.
- In the common case where there are two large, approximately equal parties, a small party may exercise power that is out of all proportion to its size, if it is needed to form a governing coalitionviii. Conversely, if it is not needed, its voice will not be heard.
- There are fundamental philosophical problems with elections. One of the most important is known as the “Mandate-Independence Controversy” and has been summarised thus:
“Should a representative do what his constituents want, and be bound by mandates from them, or should he be free to act as best seems to him in pursuit of their interests.”ix
If we adopt the first position, and say he is to act as the mere instrument of his constituency, how can the representative get the opinion of each of thousands of constituents on every issue, and how is he to balance a large number of lukewarm “Yeses” against a few strongly-held “Noes”?x
On the other hand, if we think he should be free to act as he sees fit, in effect we accept the idea that he should act as the “guardian” of his electors, that is to say we approve the extremely dubious notion that the representative knows better than the constituents what is in their best interest.
- In the usual case where a politician is supposed to “represent” a constituency and not the people as a whole, another theoretical question arises: Should he act always in favour of the narrow interests of the constituency which elected him, or should he attempt to follow the “national” interest, as he sees it? Usually, of course, he will do neither, and will follow the interest or the instructions of his party.
- There are also mathematical problems. Two candidates (much less one!) cannot embody all possible political tendencies. Where there are more than two candidates, it has been shown mathematically that it is not possible to design a fair system, either for ranking the candidates, or selecting an outright winnerxixiixiii It is true that this mathematical problem applies whether voters vote for alternative candidates or alternative proposals. However, it is sometimes possible to present proposals in the form “A” or “not-A”, so that the question of ranking does not arise, or to amend a proposal to make it acceptable to a clear majority, by removing parts that offend some voters. (If only we could do this with candidates!)
- The costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits to the voter, because the chance of exercising the “pivotal” vote (the vote that decides the election) is minusculexiv. Why then should the voter take the trouble of studying either the candidates or their professed policies? (This is the problem of “rational ignorance”). It is for this reason, and not from indifference, that many of us don’t vote.
- A spectacular event which stirs emotions can swing an election in a way that voters later regret. The media’s need of sensationalism exacerbates this. Perhaps the most obvious recent example is the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. (“9/11”)
- In spite of being called “representatives”, in practice our elected politicians are not typical of the people they are supposed to represent; they are not the “portrait in miniature”xv of the people, since they do not have the same problems, aspirations, standard of living, and so forth. In short, they are an elite, and cannot be expected to vote as would the public they “represent”.
- The adversarial nature of electoral politics means that for reasons of saving face politicians may become “locked into” a policy which they later realise is undesirable; they become victims of their own prior propaganda. Admitting an error may be fatal to their chances of re-election.
- The low turnout that we commonly see (frequently around 60%) means that a candidate or party is often elected with the vote of only about 30% of those eligible to votexvi. Compulsory voting does not solve this problem, as it is impossible to enforce, and those who would not otherwise vote may make a blank or invalid vote, or where preference voting (“Instant Run-off Voting”) is used, may vote 1,2,3 . . . straight down the page (the “donkey vote”).
- Attempts to buy votes on election day are made – sometimes veiled, such as by arranging taxis to take elderly voters to the polls – sometimes blatant, such as by handing out cans of beer to voters.
In countries where the secrecy of the ballot is not respected, voters may be intimidated, and fear violence if they do not vote for a certain candidate.
In some countries the influence of religion is so strong that voters may be intimidated by it and fear fire and brimstone in the after-life or reincarnation as a cockroach if they do not vote for a candidate approved by the clergy. Religious leaders may dictate policies to candidates, and candidates or parties may find it to their advantage to ingratiate themselves with the clergy by making undertakings which remain undisclosed to the public. The influence of the Catholic church on such topics as birth control, abortion, and Sunday trading, for example, is notorious, but the Catholic church is far from being the only religious institution which has used its influence in this way.
All these practices mean that the true wishes of the voter are not reflected in the vote.
- We are sometimes told that elections serve to hold politicians accountable for their actions. This argument is breathtaking in its naivety – or its cynicism. In the time between elections, typically between three and six years, hundreds of decisions are made by the legislators. For any citizen, some will be desirable, some irrelevant, some undesirable, and some grossly immoral or inequitable. How then are the electors to hold the politicians accountable? In any event, the electors’ concern is presumably with the years to come, not the mistakes of the past. How are they to know that the alternative offered by the other party will be better in the future?
In fact, as far as accountability is concerned, we are in the situation of passengers in a bus driven by a drunk, in which all the seats face the rear. After a period of blundering into every conceivable obstacle along one side of the road, the bus halts briefly. Aghast, we implore another driver to take over: we can’t know what he will do, but surely nothing could be worse than what we’ve just been through. The new driver takes the wheel with a smile, swears that all will now be well, and promptly drives us into the ditch on the other side of the road. What do we do next? Do we then ask the first driver to take over?
- Finally, there is the question of the moral responsibility of electors. At election time politicians of all parties urge us to vote. If we do not vote, they say, we are irresponsible. “Every nation has the government it deserves” we are told; if we do not vote we deserve poor government. But if we do vote, we still get poor government. And by voting, we have approved the monstrous charade that we call elections. Either way, we are guilty!
Elections are wide open to abuse. (§§ 1, 2, 21).
In general, the ordinary citizen cannot be a candidate (§1), cannot vote for the person or (generally speaking) the policies he or she wants (§§ 1,6,21), the elector is kept uninformed and cannot know what a candidate will do once elected (§§ 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 22).
The election is always inequitable (§§ 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 20), and the person elected will not act in the elector’s or the public interest (§§ 4, 10, 17, 18).
We cannot hold politicians to account in any effective way (§22); and even a politician whose heart is as pure as the driven snow cannot know what he or she ought to do when elected (§§ 13, 14).
The nature of the political process is divisive, polarises the electorate, and can lead to violence. (§3).
It may also prevent necessary adjustments of policy (§19).
And at the end of the day it’s all our fault! (§23)
O wonderful world of elections!
There are no new discoveries here, of course. These defects are well-known to political scientists and, in part at least, to the rest of us, though we tend to forget them. As my barber said the other day, the problem is that we do not vote on issues, we vote for – or against – people.
It is important to realise that the problems above are also inseparable from elections: they cannot be fixed by tweaking the system.
In spite of this we still (thoughtlessly!) assume that free elections mean democracy and freedom. We call our system “representative democracy” although, as even the cursory review above shows, modern states are neither representative nor democratic.
(Because the term is established although it is a complete misnomer, I shall continue to use “representative democracy” to describe the type of elected government that we find in “western” and similar nations – including Japan and India, for instance.)
To avoid being misunderstood, I must emphasise that it is not the concept of democracy that I attack here. What I am attacking is the assumption that our present regimes involving elections are the best way – or indeed even a successful way – to ensure democracy. There is a better alternative, but before considering that alternative,we should look at some criteria of democracy, and consider how well representative democracy fulfils them.
Two highly regarded political scientists, James Fishkin and Robert Dahl, have each given a list of conditions which they believe are necessary and sufficient for democracy. Taking Fishkin first, he gives three criteria, which he calls “Political Equality”, “Non-tyranny” and “Deliberation”.xix
(Note: In what follows, the references in the form (§5) are to the numbered paragraphs above).
1 Political Equality
Fishkin defines this as follows:
“By political equality I mean the institutionalisation of a system which grants equal consideration to everyone’s preferences and which grants everyone appropriately equal opportunities to formulate preferences on the issues under consideration”xx
He expands this with the following subdivisions and explanations:
1a Formal Political Equality
This comes about:
“when every voter has an equal probability of being the decisive voter”
In other words, all votes must have equal weight, there must be no gerrymander, or electoral fraud.
As we have seen, with elections fraud often occurs, and voting methods always give unequal weight to votes depending on where the elector lives, or which party or candidate he or she supports.(§§ 1, 11, 12, 21)
Voters must be protected from threats, and attempts to bribe them:
“threats or bargains outside the political sphere should not determine results within the political sphere”xxi
Thus there must be no carrots or sticks – not “even in the afterlife “, as he says, not frivolously, for the influence of religious promises and threats should not be underestimated. (§21)
We have noted that voter intimidation occurs (§21). “Pork-barrelling” – as in our example of the Muddy River bridge (§6) – is common; we may consider that this is “outside the political sphere” because it is external to the question of whether the aircraft carrier is justified. Attempts to buy votes occur (§21) And in the parliament members are apt – or obliged – to put the preferences of their financial supporters before those of the electors (§2). There need not be an explicit threat; politicians know very well which policies suit their backers.
1c Effective Hearing
Voters must have access to all the information necessary to make a decision, and the capacity to use that information:
“Unless the media permit the full range of views . . . to get access to the media on issues of intense interest to the proponents of those views, then full realisation of political equality has fallen short”xxii
“appropriate background conditions of education preparing everyone for some minimal degree of autonomous citizenship”xxiii
We must ask how this effective hearing is possible when media coverage of elections is trivial, biased, and self-censored, when nearly meaningless slogans take the place of policy statements, and when deals are made of which the elector can have no knowledge? (§§ 3, 6, 7, 8, 16, 21)
“By tyranny I mean the choice of a policy that imposes severe deprivations when an alternative policy could have been chosen that would have imposed no severe deprivations on anyone”xxiv
“Non-tyranny” is in fact the hardest condition to ensure in any system. Unfortunately it is widespread. To take examples only from the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, there are:
The harassment of US citizens by the Commission on Un-American Activities.
The conscription of youths under voting age for the war in Vietnam.
The eviction of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Is, by the British government.
Actions by the Israeli government, including the forced expropriation of land for the establishment of Israeli colonies, destruction of property, and reprisal killings in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
The forced removal of children from their parents in Australia (the “Stolen Generation”)
The violation of the civil rights of blacks in the South of the US, in South Africa, and Australia.
The reader can probably think of dozens of other examples drawn from the last 60 years, without including the abuses inflicted by “democratic” regimes on their overseas subjects during the colonial period.
We can only conclude that elections are a very imperfect barrier to tyranny.
For this, Fishkin gives a definition drawn from Jurgen Habermas:
“a situation of free and equal discussion, unlimited in its duration, constrained only by the consensus which would be arrived at by the “force of the better argument” “xxv
As he notes, this is somewhat utopian, since time constraints will always exist in practice. Nevertheless, its succinctness makes this a good point of departure. He adds that:
“Participants must be willing to consider the arguments offered on their merits. “xxvi
Here, it seems, Fishkin is talking of debate on issues, rather than on candidates. But the representative system, with its attendant parties, essentially gives us a choice of candidates, not of issues (§3). We can hardly “deliberate” about them, because we do not receive all relevant information (§§6,7,8) and so we are left to speculate about what their actions might be, and to hope that we will not be let down as badly as we were last time. There is, of course, the stage-managed discussion that occurs on TV panels, and radio talk-back shows, but it is mainly window-dressing and succeeds mostly in influencing people who have no power to decide.
As for the possibility of deliberation on issues within the elected body, it is severely limited by party tactics and strategy (§6), by party whips, by the “guillotine” and by the filibuster. In practice, important decisions are made behind closed doors, and the discussion in the parliament is largely a matter of scoring points off the opposing party, and not at all about finding good policies.
So such deliberation as influences policy generally takes place out of the public’s view, while public deliberation has little or no practical effect.
In his 1989 publication “Democracy and its Critics” Robert Dahl gives similar requirements, five in number:
1 Effective Participation
“Throughout the process of making binding decisions, citizens ought to have an adequate opportunity, and an equal opportunity, for expressing their preferences as to the final outcome. They must have adequate and equal opportunities for placing questions on the agenda and for expressing reasons for endorsing one outcome rather than another.”xxvii
At election time, ordinary citizens in our representative democracies have almost no chance of placing questions on the agenda, and very limited opportunities for expressing reasons for endorsing one outcome (election of one candidate or party) rather than another. This is reserved to a very small group: politicians themselves, political journalists and editorialists, celebrities, and media proprietors. Still, we can indulge in the pleasure of writing a letter to the editor, and not seeing it published, unless it suits that eminent person’s notions. And then there is always the opportunity to wear a silly hat and daub our cheeks with a party’s colours, or to write on toilet walls . . .
Once the election is over, of course, we can march in the streets with a few tens of thousands of our close friends; this is likely to have no effect at all unless the numbers are sufficient to terrify the politicians, when they are quite likely to abjectly give in, without any possibility of knowing whether the demonstrators represent a majority of the electorate or not.
2 Voting Equality at the Decisive Stage
“At the decisive stage of collective decisions each citizen must be ensured an equal opportunity to express a choice that will be counted as equal in weight to the choice expressed by any other citizen. In determining outcomes at the decisive stage, these choices, and only these choices, must be taken into account.”xxviii
We have seen (§§ 1, 11) that this requirement is breached when candidates are elected. Since this means that representation in the parliament is biased, clearly it is breached when issues are decided in parliament. If we were in doubt as to this latter point, we would only have to consider §§ 2, 5, 6, 12, 18, 19, and 21. In any event, as far as our preferences on individual issues are concerned, §§ 9, 13, 14, and 15 mean that it is meaningless to pose the question of whether our preferences are taken into account fairly. It is simply not possible!
3 Enlightened Understanding
“Each citizen ought to have adequate and equal opportunities for discovering and validating (within the time permitted by the need for a decision) the choice on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen’s interests.”xxix
Citizens almost never vote directly on issues, so the only “matter to be decided” is the election of parties and “representatives”. Although candidates and parties often have a “platform”, it is anybody’s guess which parts of it they will choose to honour, and which undeclared policies they will spring on the unsuspecting public once they are in power. We can only conclude that no enlightened understanding is possible under representative democracy.
4 Control of the Agenda
“The demos must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda of matters that are to be decided by means of the democratic process.”xxx
(“demos“, in Dahl’s usage, is the voting public and does not include children, or persons excluded from voting for whatever reason.)
Clearly Dahl here is referring to the issues: proposals for laws and so forth rather than the election of candidates. The agenda is decided by the party leaders, usually behind closed doors. Not even the rank and file elected members have much say on the agenda, much less the demos. Issues which arouse strong views in the public may end up on the agenda, if it suits the party in power. We have no control of the agenda at all!
“The demos must include all adults . . . except transients and persons proved to be mentally defective.”xxxi
This is the one requirement which representative democracy comes close to meeting in some states, though only very recently. France excluded women – half the population – until 1946, Switzerland until 1971, Australia excluded aborigines until 1982, the southern states of the US put so many difficulties in the way of blacks wishing to vote that they were effectively excluded until at least the 1960s, and Israel still does not permit residents of the Occupied Territories to vote for the Israeli parliament, although it holds effective power over them.
On the whole, must we not say that representative democracy scores rather badly?
Two solutions, or rather two groups of solutions, have been proposed to remedy the defaults of representative democracy, direct democracy and sortition.
vii See Dahl, Robert A, A Preface to Democratic Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1956, p 116.
xvi According to Wikipedia, in the 2012 US Presidential election, the turnout was 58.2%, and Obama won 51.08% of the popular vote, which means 29.7% of eligible Americans voted for him,. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_us_presidential_election#cite_ref-VEP12_1-0 citing McDonald, Michael (March 25, 2013). “2012 General Election Turnout Rates”, . George Mason University. Retrieved April 12, 2013.( This link is broken now.) The US Census figure for turnout was 61.8% (http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-568.pdf), which means 31.6% of the electorate elected Obama.