I did not expect to be writing another Radical Moderate post for awhile, but with the presidential primaries coming up quickly, I thought I’d better get my two cents in.
No, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.
Instead, I’m going to talk about the Worst Form of Government; i.e., democracy.
Because democracy sucks. Really. Every election cycle is the same—incumbents or wannabe-incumbents puffing their accomplishments, covering their mistakes, slinging crap at their opponents, each side gathering growing Greek choruses explaining why their chosen candidate walks on water and pisses wine. Their candidate is always the one who will finally clean the shit out of the Augean Stables, whip the money changers from the holy temple, et cetera, et cetera.
And of course my favorite syllogism rules the election cycle.
- I am a rational/good human being.
- Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
- If you do not believe X, you are either ignorant, stupid, or evil.
- Because you are ignorant, stupid, or evil, it is useless to debate with you and pointless to listen to you.
The only difference is the candidates must at least debate a little. But it’s mostly pro-forma, and studies have shown that public debates rarely move the needle of public opinion much.
And when the election is over? Sometimes the winning candidate actually picks up a shovel after taking office, but then he must fight the rest of his political party plus the other party to get anything real accomplished—while fighting for his political survival against opponents who don’t want him to accomplish anything and who will try an minimize or discredit everything he does accomplish, so that they have a chance of beating him in the next election.
Most of the time nothing substantive gets done. The stables remain full of crap and buzzing flies.
And now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, a word from Winston Churchill:
Because the man was absolutely right, and here’s the disconnect. “No on pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.” Except we do, or at least we believe that it can be made reasonably perfect or nearly all-wise if we just elect the right people. This is because we labor under the delusion that elections are supposed to reveal the wisdom of the people; a water-to-wine miracle in which a largely uninformed citizenry somehow identifies and chooses the most informed and qualified citizen to lead them.
Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it? And that’s not even beginning to talk about the effects of tribal thinking (by tribes I mean liberals and conservatives).
The truth is that elections are not there to give us the best possible leadership; they never do. The best man or woman for the job is almost never the most electable one—the paradox is baked into the system. Elections are there to give us the opportunity to hold our leaders accountable. Without democracy, the only way for citizens to hold their leaders accountable is through armed revolution. Bullets are the only alternative to ballots.
So, what should you be looking for in a candidate? That is very much a question of taste and ideology, and I’m not going to say Vote For X!
Okay, I will say this; whatever your political tribe, look carefully at your candidates. All of them will claim that they can fix everything, or at least fix Problem X. They might actually be able to do some good, there, who knows? But most of the time applying government to social and economic problems is like trying to do brain surgery with a drill (to extend the metaphor, you need the drill, but only up to a point).
In my opinion, the chief qualification for office a candidate can display is his understanding of what we are. We are not a pure democracy (pray daily that we never become one).
The framers of the Constitution, the political leaders who argued for and against it, and the citizens who voted to make it the Law of The Land, were deeply suspicious of government power. Of course everyone is, but they were also deeply suspicious of the power of the people. They understood that a majority could be as bad a tyrant as one man, so they wrote up and ratified a grant of power with all sorts of Thou Shalt Nots; the Constitution, and most specifically, the Bill of Rights, is the Ten Commandments for US government.
Famously, at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, an attendee asked Ben Franklin “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
We are a constitutional democracy, within the framework of a republic. The next president must be the candidate who best respects the limits of the Chief Executive and the constitutional limits of American democracy. Democracies die when they lose sight of the limits of government power. The First French Republic devolved into terror, tyranny, and empire. The Italian Parliament freely elected Benito Mussolini—the father of modern fascism—in 1922. In 1925, “by necessity,” he set up a legal dictatorship.
None of the current candidates, of either party, are a potential Mussolini. But as we follow successive leaders who whittle away at those Thou Shalt Nots, we get closer to the day when the we find ourselves living under an unconstitutional democracy, led by a government that considers mere rights subordinate to peace, efficiency, prosperity, fairness, equality, and all good things. It will do what is necessary, for our own good.
To end with one last quote; “Necessity is the justification for every infringement of human liberty: it is the argument of tyrants, the creed of slaves.”
In this election cycle, vote for the candidate most likely to sustain and strengthen the worst form of government.
12 thoughts on “The Radical Moderate 3: “The Worst Form of Government.””
I don’t know what you mean by “pure democracy”, but I always found it very antidemocratic that you only get to choose from two parties, two candidates. I’m not a US citizen, but from out here it looks like an oligarchy where the people’s only choice is which of the two parties gets the white walls for this period.
Perhaps you could take a look at the rest of the continent to see different democracies at work, ones which have somehow survived even through several dictatorships.
A pure democracy is like an absolute monarchy, only the people are completely sovereign. In a pure democracy there are no constitutions limiting what governments can do; if the representatives of The People want to suppress free speech, criminalize religions they don’t like, seize property or lock people up arbitrarily, etc., they can pass laws allowing them to do so, because there is no “higher law” preventing them from doing it. The only limit on power in a pure democracy is majority rule; it’s the “two wolves deciding what to have for dinner.” In a constitutional democracy, the sheep is armed with the constitution, which guarantees his rights.
As to America’s “two-party system”; you need to remember that there are a lot more than just two political parties in the US. There’s the Independent Party, the Libertarian Party, the National Party, etc. It’s just that candidates need to win by majorities or in runoff elections; the two main parties are broad enough to build a large enough consensus to do that. When one of the parties doesn’t sufficiently pay attention to and represent its party-members, you get splits and they lose votes to third-party candidates. It’s not perfect, but in its way it’s more democratic than many parliamentary systems, where you vote for the party rather than the candidate.
Apologies for the late reply. Wanted to give your post and reply proper consideration. Came to see if there were maybe news of a future Wearing the Cape book; wound up poking political stuff instead.
For all practical purposes, we have two real parties. The third parties are relevant nationally only when they sabotage the main party closest to their own goals. At the state level, third parties are effective only when they’re able to direct a noticeable amount of votes toward one of the main parties, and in return the main parties then adjust their platforms and sometimes even candidate choice. An example is the Working Families party in New York, which is slightly left of the Democratic party. In New York candidates can run on tickets of multiple parties, which allows Working Families to noticeably influence local elections in the state and occasionally even field its own candidates.
Voting for individual candidates is largely irrelevant as a measure of democracy. A vote for a candidate is a vote for his party. The parties choose the candidates, and they are not going to choose candidates to diverge terribly from their aggregate platform. Parties are fundamentally collections of politicians and voters with some shared views. Politicians can’t deviate too far from the party platform, or they get booted. Most moderate Republican congressmen have been purged over the past eight years, for example, since their views and actions no longer aligned with those of the party base.
In the United States, over 75% of voters already choose their candidates based on their party affiliation. The number increases when voter fatigue is factored in — most voters do not know their state representative, their state assemblyman, their district attorney, or their town dogcatcher, except through their party affiliations. Only 10-25% of American voters are true independents; while over 50% of voters self-identify as independent, they actually consistently vote for the same party in every election. Most studies lean towards the 10% end of the range.
In theory, candidates chosen as individuals should be more responsive to voters than candidates chosen from party lists, but in practice this link is overstated. Both candidates and their parties want to win elections, so both have fairly equal incentives to listen to their potential supporters. Meanwhile, a member of the House of Representatives has a potential constituency of 700,000. A Senator from California has a constituency of 20,000,000. At such scales, the link between individual voters and congressmen cannot be particularly strong.
Parliamentary systems are not necessarily closed-list PR systems. A parliamentary system is a system where executive is selected by the legislature and depends on the legislature for survival. For example, the British Parliament (legislature) chooses the Prime Minister (the executive); the PM can call elections, and Parliament can issue a Motion of No Confidence and force the PM to resign. In contrast, the United States uses a presidential system, where the executive and the legislature are independent.
Whether a system is parliamentary or presidential has no bearing on its method of filling legislative seats. Proportional representation is one method of filling parliamentary seats, though it’s also possible to have a multi-member executive chosen through proportional representation.
A majority of parliamentary systems don’t use closed party list proportional representation (PR) to select candidates, so conflating the two doesn’t make much sense. Sixteen countries use closed-list PR. Thirty countries use open-list PR where voters can vote for individual candidates and the candidates with the most votes get placed on the top of the list. Germany and Italy use open-list PR at the sub-national level.
The United Kingdom uses single-member district plurality — each parliamentary district gets one seat, and a plurality of votes grants the seat. This is the source of our current system of electing Congressmen and state legislatures.
It’s necessary to distinguish between the system of government and the method of apportioning and filling seats, else we wind up arguing apples and oranges. Sadly, while there are clear definitions for things like ‘parliamentary’, there aren’t too many useful non-technical definitions for what it means for a system to be more or less ‘democratic’.
For example, if we stipulate that a system is more democratic if the composition of its government more-closely mirrors that of the population, then the United States is one of the least-democratic countries in the developed world, due to a variety of structural choices.
Our plurality system means a huge portion of the population is not represented for lengthy periods of time, sometimes for perpetuity. If a district selects a Democratic congressman, for example, all of the Republicans in that district do not have a representative in government until the next electoral cycle. Since 90% of Congressional districts are non-competitive — the incumbent party has a 90% chance of better of winning in 90% of Congressional districts, that means millions of Americans might as well not bother voting for a Congressional candidate because their vote is irrelevant, and that their particular interests will never be represented except by proxy through representatives from other districts. In the case of presidential elections, our current plurality system simply shuts a particular party out of the executive for four to eight years.
Our system of closed primaries is producing extremist Republican candidates; depending on how the Sanders/Clinton dynamic goes, we might start seeing the Democratic party also drift to the extreme and away from the center. In theory, in a two-party system both parties should chase the theoretical median voter and so will drift toward the center to the best of their ability. However, closed primaries select candidates based on the median party voter, and so tend to generate candidates who will at least to some extent deviate from the median voter. About thirty years ago, the Republican party leadership realized that they could win elections by mobilizing the party base while demobilizing the independent and the opposition voter. As a consequence, the Republican party over the past decade has begun producing increasingly extreme candidates at the local level, since the mobilized base is more radical than the party median and is disproportionately vocal in its views.
The Democratic party has generally pursued a policy of chasing the median voter, but that seems to have ended with the Obama campaign.
The two parties in our system do not accurately reflect the views of most voters, and a lot of voters have to choose between the not-worst options when deciding between the two main parties. The Republican party is socially conservative and favors policies which benefit corporations and the wealthy. The Democratic party is socially liberal and favors policies which benefit the bottom 80% or so of the income pyramid. I refuse to call the Republican party fiscally conservative because their actual policies are built around unfunded tax cuts and reductions in spending on economically-critical infrastructure and social services like education which are essential for a developed economy to function for any length of time.
ANYways. A social conservative who favors expansion of government spending has to decide what is more important to him. Ditto for a social liberal who favors a reduction in government programs. Both parties promote continued American military involvement abroad, which some Americans find objectionable; their views are also go unrepresented. People do not inhabit a one-dimensional line on the political spectrum, and the current party system forces tradeoffs that they would not have to make under proportional representation with multiple parties.
There’s also the broader problem of winner-takes-all systems — they frame politics as a zero-sum competition rather than as a cooperative enterprise where compromise leads to mutual benefits. During times of crisis, exclusion of opponents from the political process in less-developed countries incentivizes those opponents to use extralegal methods like coups and armed revolutions.
So there are definite democratic concerns with our current system, in that it produces a government that does not properly reflect the views of the voting population, and forces a fair number of voters to choose between two parties who might represent them on some policies while being diametrically opposite them on others.
I have often considered the viability of a representative system where anyone can run for a seat in Congress, and if he achieves at least 10% of the vote in his state, he’s in, with a “representative’s vote” proportional to the percentage of the voting electorate that voted for him. In theory, a state would likely have 3 to 7 congressmen representing them at any given time, and most voters would have a representative who represents some or all of their views.
I agree with you completely. I’ll only add that anyone seriously concerned with government and its potential for evil should read Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law”. It is a cautionary tale about the gravest danger of a democracy — when the dear people realize that they can vote to make plunder legal. Then the democracy is on a steep, dangerous hill, and can careen over the precipice at the bottom with only the tiniest push of a finger.
Once they start voting themselves bread and circuses, financed by the fruits of other peoples’ labor, doom is not far away.
Very good points.
Mr. Harmon, a book question: how do you envision India in your setting? How many of their breakthroughs are based on superhero stories, vis a vis Indian folklore and mythology? My curiosity was piqued by this delightfully weird webcomic called Kill Six Billion Demons: http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/
It’s heavily based on Indian mythology.
I do mention somewhere that there are capes in India, but also a lot of breakthroughs patterned as avatars of Hindu gods. Beyond that, I haven’t considered it that closely yet.
Wow, this is all really heavy going. I just came here because wanted to throw a theory at you about Small Town Heroes; that the new overload of Cuba is a future version of Hope, without all the good things like saving Shelly and stopping the vampire plague the T.T.A. did for her. I’m thinking she would would probably be a lot less nice then the current timeline Hope. She’d also probably hate Artemis and be a total badass.
Ok, I just went up and read the other comments. They are surprisingly coherent and sensible. I just spent twenty minutes trying to write something smart about democracy and gave up, so USA! USA! USA!
I’m British; that was technically treason. I don;t think much of Democracy as such, I think it fails on some of its key ideals as has been pointed out above. But it is the only way to allow all factions within a nation to express their views and thus co-operate for the national good without fighting for power against each other. There have been other ways people tried to achieve this; China’s current government springs to mind. But China limits the groups allowed to influence policy and suppresses other groups with the power of the state. China is not a dictatorship. Its more like a very select, small committee of interested stakeholders. It works, and you’d struggle to argue that China’s government doesn’t work right now, because the outside groups excluded from policy making power like the Christians and pro-democracy campaigners or the Tibetans, aren’t powerful enough to disrupt that government.
I don’t think China is going to stay stable as it currently stands. Again, it was pointed out above that without democratic power you have no way to remove a failing government without hugely destructive violence. China is managing well enough for now, but the very fact of its growth is creating new power blocks that aren’t being represented in that governing committee and aren’t likely to be represented without tremendous social change.
The very best aspect, arguably the only really good point in its favour, is that a democratic government can change hands without violence. Autocracy may be efficient for a while, able to make the trains run on time as they say. but if “wars are fought by human beings” – (Clausewitz), then you can say the same things of governments. The leaders get older. They get cynical. Power attracts the corrupt and self interested. Personal interest become more prominent. South Africa hasn’t changed Party since Mandela took power, and the lack of change has led to an utterly corrupt government now destroying the country he built in slow motion.
I’d say that the “rules” of democracy are less important than the culture of the nation and the values of the people who run it. I get pissed, a little, when people complain about the corruption of the political class in the US, or the UK for that matter. Our political leaders are damn near saintly in their virtues compared to most of Africa or Asia or south America.
Ok. ranting now. I’m done. About an hour of unintended work above. I’m putting my foot down and stopping here.
So can I get an answer on my theory about Hope? Go on, no-one else is going to read down this far, you can trust me, It’ll be like an Easter Egg for the people who read all that politics stuff.
Good thoughts! And, no.
Rereading this, I realized I was ambiguous. Just to be clear: “no” means “no the Tyrant is not a Future Hope.” Cool idea, though!