Last week’s round of upsets in Senate primary races was interpreted by many as the product of an anti-incumbent and -establishment mood. Maybe more than that, however, it was the standard result of primary voters rewarding those especially to the right or left. In the Kentucky Republican race, Rand Paul defeated Trey Grayson. In the Pennsylvania Democrat race, Joe Sestak defeated incumbent Arlen Specter. And incumbent Blanche Lincoln is in a runoff with Bill Halter for the Arkansas Democratic ticket. In all three cases, primary voters have punished the more “moderate” candidate.
Are these primary votes a good thing? Not every democracy has them.
Democracy seems to be in their favor, though. Rather than party insiders somewhat shadily selecting candidates and placing them in seats strategically, the members of the party themselves decide who shall represent their views.
Parties have an entrenched and often positive role in our system, as the sort of ideological categorical guides I discussed earlier, as a means of cooperation and organization, and as an additional systemic check (on each other). Related, they have an enormous amount of power. To leave the selection and placement of party candidates to a few unelected party leaders affords those people an undue amount of democratically unaccountable influence. And independent candidates, who have an difficult time fighting party machines, cannot be counted upon to check party leaders.
Also, primaries might afford the people an opportunity to escape the traditional, status quo views of party leaders (see Rand Paul).
Opinion polls and democratic decision making
Anyone watching the recent health care vote on C-SPAN heard the same refrain from the Republican opposition: the healthcare bill (now law) is morally wrong because a majority of Americans oppose it. Many conservatives made this argument during the year-long slog, citing public opinion polls for support. Indeed, across the political spectrum public opinion polls are regularly used as a defense for or against particular legislation or government actions. But what do opinions polls really tell us? And what role should they have in deciding how we as a political society should act?
The impulse to invoke public opinion as a moral basis for democratic actions is understandable. Citizens in democracies are self-ruling. Acting contrary to the majority opinion is often seen as violating the public will. And opinion polls are as close as we can get in the short term at least, to taking the temperature of the public. Elections are held periodically, but they can only stop perceived injustices after the fact. For instance, assume Congress passes a wildly unpopular bill. It may take upwards of two years before the electorate can voice its disapproval through elections. But after two years, the damage may already be done. It is difficult to retroactively repair injustices. Opinion polls are all we have to assess the public will on a bill by bill basis.
But do opinion polls actually tell us the public will?
Are term limits a good idea?
Should there be limits on how long politician’s can remain in office? The majority of states now impose term limits on their governors and many people would like to see similar limits placed on officials elected for federal office. Public support for these sorts of laws has always been high and 23 states had passed laws imposing term limits on their U.S. Congressional representatives before the Supreme Court declared these restrictions unconstitutional in 1995. Now, the Tea Party, “with its roots in anti-Washington sentiment,” has become the newest advocates for term limits and has helped reignite the debate over this contentious issue. Both supporters and critics of term limits cite the importance of representative and effective government but they are divided over whether term limits would help us achieve these goals. Read more
Here’s a passionate and thought-provoking presentation by lawyer / activist Philip K. Howard at this year’s TED meeting:
I think Howard is right in his basic observation – we live in a culture permeated by preventative, and often combative, defensiveness. And that makes it tough to get anywhere. He squeezes his most important prescription into the very end – probably by design: greater leeway for authorities to “make the law as they go along.” That would certainly help to thwart overly intrusive, broad regulation, but is the American public prepared to surrender their (ever more convoluted) rights to judges and government bureaucrats?
American politicians and their love-hate relationship with democracy
Americans love democracy, right? In many ways it is our democracy that defines us as a nation, born as we were out of a revolution over “taxation without representation”. I mean, we export this stuff to other countries for heaven’s sake.
And yet with his domestic agenda stalled and his super-majority in the Senate eliminated by the voters of Massachusetts, President Obama has turned to arguably less democratic tools to push his policy proposals. And liberals as a whole, The Weekly Standard claims, “have assigned responsibility for the mess they’re in…to larger, structural faults in American politics and society. Beginning with you.”
The turn against democracy should come as no surprise. Every President faces falling approval ratings. Every Congress sees its electoral stars fading. And almost every time, the instinctive response is to scorn public opinion and “stand on principle.” In some peculiar way, we even encourage our politicians to ignore us. A January Allstate/National Journal poll found that 83% of Americans would trust politicians more if they made a “stronger effort to stand up for principle.”
The use and abuse of executive power
On Friday The New York Times order real viagraref=”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/us/politics/13obama.html?hp” target=”_blank”>reported that the Obama Administration, faced with an uncooperative Congress, is looking into “a list of presidential executive orders and directives” to push its governing agenda forward. The article was, unsurprisingly, met with a barrage of criticism from the right. RedState writers suggested Obama was “dusting off his best Hugo Chavez imitation” and that his Administration had become a “DICTATORSHIP BY FIAT” (emphasis in original).
As The New York Times article notes, presidents can legally make policy without Congressional legislation “through executive orders, agency rule-making and administrative fiat.” But just because a president can doesn’t mean a president should. So should Obama use his executive powers, like executive orders and directives?
Why my opinion has never mattered…
Here’s something nobody ever talks about, but nevertheless seems like it should be very important: Public opinion polls are almost all done by calling landlines. Do you own a landline? I don’t. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name a friend in my generation who has one.
The demographic implications are pretty obvious – landline polls are likely to skew heavily toward older populations. Comparative studies show that landlines also favor females and whites. (So just replace the word “Americans” in poll results with “Elderly white women” and you’ll get a better picture)
This is a tough issue to get around, and understandably, polling companies have been quick to downplay its significance. Pew says that mobile-only and landline-only polls produce “virtually identical” results. But the same study they used to draw that conclusion provided the numbers that demonstrated the demographic gap described above. Mobile- and landline-based populations will likely converge on some issues, but certainly not all. Politically, it would seem to follow that polls err to the right.
In my view, the increasing scarcity of landlines poses a major obstacle to an already unreliable service; pollsters already have to worry about people without any phones, people who don’t answer phones, and people who aren’t sincere or who don’t understand the questions. Now, with some estimates suggesting that half of adults 30 years old and younger use only cell phones, we can be fairly certain that our voices just aren’t being represented.
It’s unlikely that polls will go away, however. I can’t imagine what the media and anyone with an agenda would do without them (and their infinite, and rather convenient, layers of interpretation).
On the bright side, polls are no more misleading than other mainstay methods of generalizing the “general will” (hat tip to Rousseau), such as, say, voting. The voting demographic is as small and unrepresentative as any, yet we don’t exactly stop political commentators mid-sentence and protest, “Well, technically, New Yorkers didn’t elect Senator Schumer, a relatively small number of voters in New York elected him.”
In other words, whether we’re talking about polls, elections, workers, readers, or viewers, we’re likely to be generalizing the views of a smaller subset onto a much larger population. We’re often reminded after references to the beloved “town hall” government of our Forefathers that civic participation was actually quite limited. Things may not have changed as much as we might like.
UPDATE – I’ve received some rebukes and note here that Gallup, for its part, claims that it’s known about this for years and is continually fixing the issue and including cell phones in their polls. This may be true, but if it wasn’t still a problem, they wouldn’t be calling for so much research on the topic. Someone call me and poll me so I can get over my skepticism.
The New Republic carried an article last month arguing that there exists a realistic way to get the Senate to abolish the filibuster. Taking a page from John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” principal, which states that people should choose just moral rules as if they have no knowledge of how they would be effected by the chosen rules, author Nicholas Stephanopoulos argues that the Senate should pass a law today to ban the filibuster in the future. Since there is no way to know which party would be in the majority in, say, seven years, senators would not know how the rule would affect themselves or their party (satisfying the Rawlsian test). And political self-interest could stop being an excuse for keeping the filibuster in place, as the current majority may very well be the minority in 2017 (satisfying the political feasibility test).
As Stephanopoulos writes:
A debate now on whether to eliminate the filibuster in the future would transform senators’ decision-making calculus. The key questions would no longer be whether they enjoy the personal clout conferred by the filibuster, or whether it advances or threatens their parties’ agendas. The issues, instead, would be whether it makes sense for almost all Senate business to require a supermajority.
Implicit in Stephanopoulos’ argument is that it does not in fact make sense for Senate votes to require a 60-person majority. But why not? Read more
Matt Yglesias makes an interesting point:
We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.
Perhaps our current gridlock isn’t just a matter of partisan politics. If Yglesias is right (that legislative minorities should either have to wait to take power, a la the UK, or share power in a proportional way), then it seems that our system is built for simple obstruction.
Snark and political conduct
There are several justifications for the republican form of government, in which citizens elect representatives who then legislate for the nation. One perennial argument, for example, is the expertise and time ruling demands. Another is the net efficiency of a more limited voting process. An enduring basis for republicanism, however, has been the quality of deliberation it supports.
This position actually originated as an anti-democratic argument.