Democracy, Who Needs It?

1 comment March 17th, 2008at 09:35pm Posted by Eli

The always-delightful Stanley Fish explains all about how democracy is bad because people are stupid, and that’s why it’s perfectly okay if the Democratic superdelegates decide to vote however they damn well please:

In my last column I said in an aside that there are no ethical issues in the controversy about the superdelegates to the Democratic convention. This is the not the view of media pundits who keep asking the question, “What is the right thing for the superdelegates to do?” — and then, more often than not, answering it by saying (as Time magazine editor Richard Stengel did in the Feb. 25th issue) that the superdelegates should follow the will of the majorities in their districts and their states, because to do otherwise would be undemocratic.

This is nonsense….


[T]he founding fathers… were more fearful of democracy in 1787 than the Democratic elders are today.  James Madison complained in Federalist 10 that “measures are too often decided . . . by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Democracies, he continued, have ever been “spectacles of turbulence and contention.”

Alexander Hamilton was even harsher in his judgment. Replying to the assertion that “pure democracy” would be “the most perfect government,” he declared, “no position is politics is more false” because “the ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government.” Indeed, he concluded, “their very character is tyranny.”

In saying such things, Madison and Hamilton continue a long tradition in which fear of the demos (often called “the mob”) informed a preference either for monarchy or for representative government, that is, government by a class of professional politicians who were presumed to be cooler and wiser heads, less swayed than the people by the passions of the moment.

In such a form of government, the more prestigious the office, the less the office holder is responsible or responsive to the mass of citizens. House members must face the voters every two years, and as a result they campaign perpetually and always have at least one eye on public opinion. Senators serve terms of six years and are relatively insulated from the pressure to react immediately to their constituents’ demands. In fact, until 1913 and the ratification of the 17th amendment, senators did not have to worry that much about their constituents at all, because they were elected by state legislatures. Only a few years ago, retiring Senator Zell Miller said that popular election of senators was a bad idea and that the 17th amendment should be repealed.

Oh, well, if Zell Miller thinks so, then it must be so…

Anti-democratic elements are everywhere in our political system. The presidential veto is undemocratic. The rules governing filibusters and the closing off of debate are undemocratic. The procedural devices by means of which floor leaders or committee chairmen can prevent issues from coming to a vote are undemocratic. The fact that Rhode Island and California have two senators each is undemocratic. The appointment of senators by governors in the wake of a death or a resignation is undemocratic. The presidential line of succession is undemocratic. The fact that a vice president who has not been elected to the senate presides over it and can cast a deciding vote is undemocratic. Judicial review – the practice by which the Supreme Court invalidates laws passed by the people’s representatives – is undemocratic….

So whatever your view of the superdelegates may be – whether you regard them as counterweights to popular frenzy or as a paternalistic imposition by a bunch of old guys (and gals) – it can’t be said that their very existence is an affront to the workings of democracy, for large parts of this democracy work in just the way the superdelegates were intended to.

What does this tell us about what the superdelegtaes should do in the present situation? Not much. In fact there is no “should” – no sense of moral obligation – in the equation. By definition, they can do what they like. One could say that they should exercise political judgment but, given that they are political and not moral agents, that would be tautological. In this case, political judgment can go in any number of directions. A superdelegate might ask himself or herself, “Who do I think would make the best president?” or “Who do I think will be the best general election candidate?” or “Whose policy views are closest to mine?” or “With whom do I have a history of cordial and profitable interactions?” or “With whom am I more likely to have more influence?” or “Who is more likely to be friendly to my state or region?”

Any of these questions is an appropriate political question, and depending on the answer (or perhaps combination of answers) the nod might go either to Clinton or Obama. It would also be appropriate, but not morally obligatory, to ask, “What would be the effects if we superdelegates were to tip the balance in favor of the candidate who got fewer votes and/or won fewer delegates?” And if it were judged (again an empirical not a philosophical judgment) that the effects would be harmful – a victory in the general election might be imperiled – a vote for Obama would probably be in order (although that might change depending on what, if anything, happens in Michigan and Florida). As an analyst, rather than as a voter, I could live with any of these outcomes, as long as it was a genuinely political outcome, and not one based on principle.

So there you have it.  Backscratching and political self-interest are more important than, y’know, the actual preferences of Democratic voters.  The possibility of tearing the party apart and undermining the nominee’s legitimacy is barely worthy of consideration.

Maybe I’m goofy, but my understanding of representative government has always been that we elect our leaders to govern for us, and if we don’t like the job they’re doing, we replace them in the next election.  But we still ultimately decide who represents us.  The mob may not rule directly, but it decides who does.

Also, it sure was news to me that the Democratic Party is part of the government and therefore subject to the same undemocracy that Fish sees there.  I had always thought that the Democratic Party was supposed to go along with the will of the Democratic voters, not thwart it.

(Yes, I know that the Electoral College can deny victory to the popular vote winner, but the outcome still boils down to individual voters, with no at-large bloc of supervoters who can reverse the outcome.  Unless you count the Supreme Court.)

Entry Filed under: Elections,Media,Politics,Wankers

1 Comment

  • 1. Cujo359  |  March 18th, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    As I’ve written before, small groups of people are often decisive in elections. Is it any better that many folks from outside the party voted in the state caucuses that Obama has largely won? Just like mobilizing the base, forming alliances with other politicians is a part of politics. I’m no less happy with them determining the outcome than a small group of people who were trying to nominate the weaker candidate, or by a small difference in the popular vote.

    At some point a close race comes down to how a few people voted, or did or did not show up.

    Now, if someone’s winning by a large majority and the superdelegates can change the outcome, that’s another thing entirely. I think, though, given their numbers that’s not possible.

    I’m more concerned about who they pick.

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