On the strangeness of formal democracy: Elections as overrated (Part II)

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So Weird

The classical liberal tradition sees elections as an article of almost indispensable social value—the first and best indication of a politically empowered (democratic, free, or whatever) society. I have tried here to suggest how strange, and ultimately self-defeating, this conviction is.

The point is underscored when we dig deeper, asking: Just what about elections warrants this privileged place? How do elections secure this “value,” however we define it? Just where is the empowering, freeing (etc.) effect “located”?

It is tempting to answer that elections are a means for people to get things they want. They are a tool for generating desired outcomes: legislation, officeholders, tax breaks/hikes, municipal lotteries—in principle, anything we like. And satisfying desires can indeed enhance freedom, empowerment and other values of the liberal tradition.

But this function—“delivering the goods”—can’t be what all of the election-hype is about: First, elections nearly always have winners and losers—not everyone gets what they want. (This is true almost by definition; hence, an electoral “contest.”) But the same political tradition speaks as though elections empower the whole society; they are a generic value for all of its (voting) members at once. Indeed, this “universality” is part of what the tradition so values about elections in the first place: It is what allows us to say that, when x-nation holds elections, it is “the citizens” there who are empowered—not just the winning side in the last vote. When in 2005 some Iraqis celebrated the parliamentary vote (say, posing for pictures with a purple “thumbs-up” and proud smile) nobody assumed, nor demanded, that all were part of the majority-winning contingent who got the “outcome” they wanted from the vote. Whatever value the voters, and Western onlookers, were celebrating, was secured by their participation alone.

Any theory of elections that makes its chief, defining value dependent on who or what wins deprives it of this (alleged) universality.

Second, other expressions of the tradition suggest that the core value of an election rests entirely apart from its outcome: Serious-minded non-profit election-time ads urge “Exercise your right to choose” without bothering to press any particular ballot-option over another. Nobody doubts that the concerned producers of these statements have their preferences, but this takes a backseat in importance to “the vote” itself. By analogy, even though we believe some foods to be healthier than others, we might put aside these preferences to urge a sickly-thin person to “just eat something.” The simple fact that they eat is so important that what they eat pales in relative urgency. Likewise here, the simple fact that one votes is distinctly more important that who/what they vote for.

(Nor, apparently, is the point that it is important to vote for the ‘right thing,’ win or lose—as we might urge children to value good behavior even when it does not “materially” benefit them. As captured in a more vulgar election-time sentiment: “It doesn’t matter (or, I don’t care) who you vote for—its just important that you let your voice be heard.” That is, even when you vote for the other side—from the speaker’s perspective, the wrong, even seriously harmful, side—it is critically important to do so, much more important than the actual content of what is chosen. A bad vote is effectively encouraged, while just staying home risks penalty of four years’ loss of “bitching rights.”)

So the value that voting provides—at least, the one most lauded in the dominant political tradition—does not depend on which option wins, or even which options people choose when they don’t win.

Again, the sheer strangeness of such an implication: For how can this be? What is actually left of the voting exercise apart from the content—the rightness or wrongness—of its choices, and which of these wins and loses? Abstracting from these features, there is only the bare act of choosing. But—to expand a previous point—how can choosing in and of itself be empowering?—Or at least, how can it be all that empowering; empowering enough to justify the puff and bluster and poetry (and nation-building violence) of “free and fair elections”?

If choosing isn’t itself much of an outcome, then, neither does it lend much to the value of another outcome: How, again, can a thing become much better than itself just by being chosen rather than the product of another’s imposition, or of accident?: Plagued by a critical dry spell, does a farmer reject a deluge of water if it drops from the sky, or from the surreptitious garden hose of a charitable neighbor, rather than from the farmer’s own—conscious, self-chosen—efforts to artificially irrigate? Is the deluge less empowering because it is chosen by another, or altogether unchosen? (Or, when the farmer irrigates himself, does the harvest become more—nobly, almost poetically, more—empowering to him for being chosen?)

The point is only compounded in the electoral arena, given its competitive character. Unlike most other choosing behavior, getting what one wants in an election nearly always means another’s wants being frustrated. We have already shown how this violates the “universalist” spirit of the liberal tradition. Indeed, if it is dreadfully, contemptibly disempowering for an entire electorate to have representatives or legislation imposed upon it, rather than chosen by them, it must be nearly as dreadful that a large segment of it—the losing side in any vote—should have this outcome imposed upon them. (This effect has been called the “tyranny of the majority.”) It is a strange condition indeed, this “being imposed upon,” which is always tragic when it happens to 100% percent of people (say, an “election-less” populus which never chooses), but sometimes noble, wonderful, and momentous, when it happens to just 49%.

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