Another way 2016 revealed democracy’s fallibility

2016, I think it’s fair to say, has not been a good year for confidence in democracy. Brexit, Trump and the various ructions to come have reawakened some of the oldest arguments in political theory: that democracy doesn’t work. David Van Reybrouck ruminates on the poor quality of debate in democracy. Arguments abound that the masses need to be saved from themselves by benevolent representatives. Trump has awakened long-standing fears about citizens being seduced by popular demagogues. It’s no surprise that Jason Brennan feels vindicated in his view that the current system gives too much power to the ignorant and ill-informed.

The shocking results of a couple of weeks ago demonstrated another, more subtle limitation of democracy: the fundamental impossibility of aggregating preferences. Democratic elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people. But ‘the people’ does not have a single clear-cut view on anything: it consists of individuals, with contradictory preferences. Votes are supposed to reduce this multiplicity of views into a single mandate. Yet there is no universally valid way to make this transformation.

What this year’s U.S. presidential election reminded us was that the rules of the game matter, but that these rules are always to some extent arbitrary. It’s an insight Kenneth Arrow reached 75 years ago, but 2016 has crystallised it. Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump, but Trump won more of the votes that matter under the Electoral College system. Is that unfair? Perhaps, but if it was only the popular vote that counted then Clinton could have become president with relatively little support in the interior of the country. If you think these geographic imbalances don’t matter, ask a few Scottish people how they feel about being governed by a Conservative government. If we wanted to make sure that the president had widespread geographic support, the election could have been decided on the basis of winning the most states. In that case, Trump would have won easily.

An intriguing hypothetical is to consider what would have happened if the election had been held under the Alternative Vote (AV) system (which Maine voted to introduce for all elections but Presidential ones on the day Trump was elected). As I have argued elsewhere, AV is best suited to picking the option that is least hated, so I think there’s a good argument it would have been the most appropriate way to resolve the contest between the most unpopular candidates in presidential history. My suspicion is that such a system would have favoured Trump, since it looks as though he benefitted from voters deserting third party candidates in the last few days of the election. But then maybe the ability to vote for a third party candidate without worrying about wasting or splitting votes would have allowed a viable alternative to both Trump and Clinton to emerge. Talk of AV is not just idle speculation: the French Presidential election follows a similar process, and this may turn out to be a major factor in keeping out Marine Le Pen. In a few months’ time, we may have pause to consider that the Front National would be in power had the French elections followed the same system as the US, but that they aren’t because the French electorate are asked to select the candidate they hate the least.

The arbitrariness of electoral systems is yet another reason why idealistic defences of democracy have taken such a battering in recent years. In such a context, is it any surprise that people are increasingly falling back on less ambitious, minimalist justifications? Is the peaceful transition of power the best we can hope for?


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