Elections and the general will

by John Quiggin on March 19, 2004

Looking back at the debate over the Spanish election outcome, it struck me that many of the contributions to this debate suffered from a confusion between electoral outcomes and notions akin to Rousseau’s “general will”. My own contributions weren’t entirely free of this fallacious reasoning.

To clarify my point, suppose purely hypothetically that it could be shown beyond doubt that, in the absence of the terrorist attacks, the PP would have won, and that those who changed their votes did so in the hope that this would appease terrorists and induce them to direct their attacks elsewhere. Much of the debate has taken it as self-evident that, if this were true, then it could justly be said that the Spanish people had displayed cowardice, given in to Al Qaeda and so on. But even in this hypothetical case, this would not be true. It would only be true that the 5 per cent or so of Spaniards who changed their votes had done this. (I’d better emphasise again that I don’t believe the hypothesis to be true, and am using it only as an analytical device).

To take a marginally less controversial example, one way of interpreting the results of the most recent presidential election in the US is that the voters couldn’t make up their minds between Gore and Bush and decided, instead, to leave the choice up to the Supreme Court. Stated baldly, the claim seems evidently silly, at least to me, but when I checked, it wasn’t hard to find exactly this analysis being offered by Time Magazine

Writing in December 2000, for Time, Eric Pooley said

The voters couldn’t decide between Bush and Gore, and Congress is split between Republicans and Democrats, but as we groped for a solution to the election mess, we couldn’t help looking to the courts for a wisdom that rises above the nation’s two angry political camps.
which is pretty much the formulation I came to when I looked for a reductio ad absurdam of the ‘general will’ idea.

The correct interpretation is of course that (almost) no-one wanted the election to be decided by the Supreme Court. It just happened that the numbers of people who voted for the two candidates, as weighed by the vagaries of the electoral college system, were almost exactly equal. This could have happened in a bitterly partisan electorate, or one where most people were largely indifferent, or any combination of the two.

The function of elections is not to express the (non-existent) general will but to choose a government (or a legislature). If the process is working well, the decisions made by governments will either be acceptable to the majority of voters or will produce a change of government. Where the process works badly enough, long enough, some sort of structural change usually ensues. For example, after a succession of New Zealand governments implemented unpopular neoliberal policies, the voters threw out the constituency-based plurality system that had produced strong one-party governments and replaced it with a proportional system that virtually guaranteed coalition governments.

{ 36 comments }

1

mc 03.19.04 at 9:04 am

You’re a voice of reason.

2

Chris Bertram 03.19.04 at 9:48 am

I’m struggling to see what, exactly, the confusion between ‘outcomes and notions akin [characteristic of?] to Rousseau’s “general will”’ amounts to, John. But since Rousseau-interpretation isn’t the central purpose of your post, I probably shouldn’t quibble.

I take it, though, that your thought is that Rousseau’s gw equivocates between what is objectively in the common interest and what the people actually decide. FWIW I believe that on a careful reading of Rousseau’s text, that apparent equivocation disappears. See “my book”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0415201993/junius-21 for details.

And, in case it isn’t obvious, the conditions under which Rousseau thought that a democratic vote would be a reliable indicator of the common good don’t obtain in Spain or in any other existent state.

3

Matthew 03.19.04 at 9:49 am

As if that particular debate was based on rational political analysis, and not “us vs them” gut-talk.
Very interesting points nonetheless!

4

John Quiggin 03.19.04 at 10:47 am

Just to try and clarify a bit, Chris. If you look at a lot of discussion of the election outcome it’s as if the procedure was one of consensus – everyone in Spain got together and they all decided that the Socialists should be the government – and we’re now trying to guess why they made this choice. From my very limited knowledge, this seems to be the kind of thing that Rousseau had in mind when he talked about the general will. But I’ll be keen to check out your book and bring my rusty recollections up to date.

My point is that, at least when we consider individual elections with close outcomes, what happens is completely different – everyone makes up their mind for their own reasons, and it turns out that more people go one way than the other. The losers normally acquiesce in the result, but don’t acknowledge it as their own choice. Hence bumper stickers of the form “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy”.

While I think this is true at the level of individual elections, I think something more like a “general will’ prevails in the long run and at the structural/constitutional level. For example, I think it’s fair to say that Americans in general have chosen a system with two official political parties.

5

Chris Bertram 03.19.04 at 11:01 am

Well any system that delegated general law-making powers into the hands of representatives was anathema for Rousseau (at least for the Rousseau of the _Social Contract_ ).

And a society as large, diverse and unequal as Spain would not be one in which a general will could emerge (insufficient commonality of interest).

A party system would also, for R, be a mechanism under which a subset of the population could get their purely sectional interest to prevail over the general will. From his point of view, the fact that party X or Y won an election in a representative democracy wouldn’t tell us anything about the content of the general will at all.

Not that I’ve got any objection to the general point you’re making here, John, about the mistaken attribution to the people of Spain of some collective view on the basis of the result of a competitive election. That seems absolutely right! (I just get touchy about loose talk where one of my pet thinkers is involved.)

6

TomD 03.19.04 at 2:25 pm

The comment “Americans in general have chosen a system with two official political parties” sounds suspiciously neat to me: possibly a case of misapplied “revealed preference”.

How about this interpretation of the facts: Americans dislike the two-party system and would prefer to have three or four prominent parties, but have no way of changing the status quo because (thanks to the realities of funding) the two-party system is stable even against large perturbations.

Of course, just because a situation is stable doesn’t mean it’s what people want: non-cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a stable strategy.

7

Phronesis 03.19.04 at 2:34 pm

I share the general skepticism re: General Will, but your reasoning seems flawed to me. Why is that, according to your analysis, only the 5% vote switchers are “cowards”? When I vote, I may vote for a variety of reasons, and before terrorism, I may vote for one party for reason x, but after terrorism I may vote for the same party for reason y (the one that makes me a coward). You can’t look at the fact that somebody’s vote has not changed and infer that the motivation for the vote has not changed.

8

claude tessier 03.19.04 at 2:51 pm

But something like 70% of eligible voters voted – far more than usual (in the 50s). Therefore it is possible, indeed probable, that that extra 20% was against Aznar to begin with.

In other words, vote-switching was limited – and may even have cancelled out. It was the leftists who did not intend to vote but changed their minds about voting that caused the shift.

9

Conrad barwa 03.19.04 at 2:59 pm

While I think this is true at the level of individual elections, I think something more like a “general will’ prevails in the long run and at the structural/constitutional level. For example, I think it’s fair to say that Americans in general have chosen a system with two official political parties.

I think this might be bit of a mis-interpretation of the ‘general will’ and seems to resemble something more akin to a path dependency sort of idea. The largest difference from what I can see arises from the fact that the ‘general will’ was understood to constitute a holistic concept that was more than just the sum of its parts; sort of the reverse of what might be argued to be the driving force behind modern democratic procedural voting. In this sense I don’t think it could necessarily be split into different time-frames as suggested above. Also, I would be a bit sceptical about accepting historico-political narratives that legitimate a particular established system: it is quite difficult to overturn the architecture that is erected at the foundational moment of a polity, at least not without a great degree of social dislocation or violence in the more extreme cases. In this sense, there is a high degree of continuity in many democratic polities from their inception, drastic change usually being confined to periods of breakdown or a legitimation crisis; this is as true of England which has adhered to its form of Westminister parliamentary governance, the USA, India etc. of course some republics do come and go as in the case of France or see serious destabilisation as some of the other European democracies have over the last century but internal and structural changes that transform society and politics such as say the abolition of slavery, creation of the welfare state, end of empire are not usually attributable to any expression of the ‘general will’ as such, though they can said to be the outcome of longterm processes and transformations. The importance of the foundational moment, creates important restrictions in what can come after in the democratic political process and is not easy to overturn, even when the majority might prefer to do so; one reason why it is the object of so much myth-making. I don’t know enough of Rousseau to say with any certainty, but I wonder whether the figure of the Legislator is not another recourse to some mythologising here, in the creation of an idealised political order.

And a society as large, diverse and unequal as Spain would not be one in which a general will could emerge (insufficient commonality of interest).

10

Conrad barwa 03.19.04 at 3:56 pm

Whoops, lost the last bit of the post:

And a society as large, diverse and unequal as Spain would not be one in which a general will could emerge (insufficient commonality of interest).

Correct me if I am wrong, but would any modern democracies meet the kind of criteria that Rousseau had in mind for being able to express the General Will; given his preference for small, compact political communities to avoid the evils of giantism; probably only mini-states would even come close to this.

11

Chris Bertram 03.19.04 at 4:09 pm

Yes, Conrad, your are exactly right about that. I wasn’t meaning to single Spain out.

12

mc 03.19.04 at 4:31 pm

claude: In other words, vote-switching was limited – and may even have cancelled out. It was the leftists who did not intend to vote but changed their minds about voting that caused the shift.

I also think that’s what happened, based on figures

this sums it up nicely too: http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh031804.shtml

“So what are the basic facts? Here they are, according to the Times:
In the final poll, on March 7, the Popular Party led, 42-38.
On March 14, they ended up losing, 43-38.
That represents a very minor swing in public opinion. In fact, it may represent no swing at all; have you ever heard of “margin of error?” But so what! Our airwaves are full of people like Donald Lambro—people railing about the vast swing which the bombing produced. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find the real facts—facts which suggest something different.”

13

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.19.04 at 5:01 pm

I think you are right. Quite a few people generalize a close election into sweeping visions of popular will. As far as 5% (or whatever) of the population shifting its vote in response to terrorism, in my mind the unfortunate (not traitorous but gravely unfortunate) part is that these 5% seem to have changed the election is such a way as to lead Al Qaeda to believe that their bombs can positively effect elections.

In response to: “In other words, vote-switching was limited – and may even have cancelled out. It was the leftists who did not intend to vote but changed their minds about voting that caused the shift.”

This is getting into the popular will problem again. The leftists who don’t normally vote aren’t part of the process which normally chooses a government. The fact that they were always leftists is irrelevant to the question of the bombings effecting the election in a way that Al Qaeda favors. The question is, what caused them to vote. The answer appears to be: the Al Qaeda bombs. You will of course draw your own conclusions past that.

14

claude tessier 03.19.04 at 5:46 pm

Sebastian: “The question is, what caused them to vote. The answer appears to be: the Al Qaeda bombs. You will of course draw your own conclusions past that.”
But the Aznar government was determined to blame ETA and actively suppressed evidence to the contrary. State television ran a special on ETA terrorism the night before the elections. They sent Javier Solana to Brussels to do a “Colin Powell” before the EU. Maybe it wasn’t the bombs but the lies.

Why is everyone so intent on portraying Osama and his gang as some sort of Professor Moriarty mastermind?

15

Rajeev Advani 03.19.04 at 6:31 pm

This post is very reasonable but I have one quibble. Your assumption is that people fell victim to this line of reasoning. My assumption is that people did not fall victim to it, they just thought it was so immediately obvious to their readers that mentioning it would be cumbersome.

Let’s take your example. Mr. Right-Wing, who calls the Spanish people cowardly, is not confusing the general will for the electoral process unless you assume he’s stupid enough to be referring to the entire Spanish population. Generally in such discourse one shouldn’t have to specify every qualification for chiefly rhetorical statements. And I seriously doubt that any commentator meant to call even the pro-occupation portions of Spain “cowards.”

Then again, in heated discussions it’s probably useful to be careful. Mr. “mc” chastised me elsewhere for calling the Spanish people myopic for — even symbolically — hurting reconstruction. I didn’t think it would be necessary to insert the qualifier “only those Spaniards who oppose the reconstruction effort in Iraq” as it seemed glaringly obvious at the time.

Being too pedantic with one’s statements admits a level of disrespect for one’s audience.

(I’m still tossing this around in my head, so treat it as an inchoate “backlash” response to the post)

16

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.19.04 at 7:46 pm

“Why is everyone so intent on portraying Osama and his gang as some sort of Professor Moriarty mastermind?”

Well they did in fact get exactly what they wanted .

17

C.J.Colucci 03.19.04 at 8:04 pm

Here’s a radical notion: let’s vote for what WE want. If it’s what we want and we think we have good reasons for wanting what we want, let’s have some confidence that we can analyze our own interests and act accordingly. It’s always possible that outsiders have a different view of the situation and think that we are wrong about what we think is in our interests. It’s even possible that they’re right and we’re wrong. But you can’t run your own society trying to game outsiders’ perceptions. Should we not do what we think best for us because someone else, possibly erroneously, that it is best for them? Why sacrifice our own best estimate of the good to avoid “encouraging” those who have different estimates?

18

John Quiggin 03.19.04 at 8:24 pm

Just a note that I said, twice, that “I don’t believe the hypothesis to be true, and am using it only as an analytical device”

19

John Quiggin 03.19.04 at 9:05 pm

tomd & conrad,

It’s my understanding that the barriers to change in the US two-party system are not great. Most of the relevant institutions such as party registration for voters, primaries, and, most importantly, plurality voting are open to change by state legislatures or by initiative and referendum. Given that there are 50 states, and that a majority in any state could scrap the two-party system at any time, I think it’s fair to say that Americans have chosen to stick with the system they have.

20

pw 03.19.04 at 10:46 pm

The idea that a majority in a single state could scrap the two-party system is both accurate and absurd. It’s true that on a local level one often does find a multiplicity of parties making active contributions to the political scene, so in a sense your point has already been taken. But insofar as any state or locality has to work within the larger polity, who would be stupid enough to elect a mayor who could not call on party ties with their state’s governor or legislature, or a governor who was isolated from both republican and democratic colleagues in other states? Or a representative or senator who did not have a party caucus to go to for horsetrading and committee wangling? (Well, yes, Vermont. But who else?)

The two major parties also have resources to intervene in any given state, should they so choose, to make the entrance barrier for a multiparty system much higher than it would otherwise be. Party organizations often pump millions of out-of-state dollars into local elections just to defeat each other — think how much more vigorously they would oppose a chanllenge to their duopoly.

21

Conrad barwa 03.19.04 at 11:31 pm

John,

I see what you are saying and theoretically speaking you are indeed correct. In most democratic systems a drastic change of the voting system isn’t impossible if a majority wants it bad enough; I am just sceptical that politics quite works in this was and that there is indeed a high level of path dependency which means that outside periods of crisis, it is very rare for such change to indeed occur. Part of this goes back to vested interests, inertia and the difficulty of building up large enough coalitions etc. after all there are other things that concentrate the minds of voters. Campaign finance reform, frex, is probably something demanded by most voters but is very hard to enact in some cases, as in the USA. The obstacles to overcome are quite significant and I remain unconvinced that they would be outside periods of strain; I think some support from this can come from the fact that cases where such change has occurred outside civil war or revolution is quite rare, the NZ examples was cited but I would be surprised if there were many such examples. It is very hard to overturn or re-engineer the political architecture in this way and I don’t think this has much to do with voluntary acceptance as such, given that whatever voting system is in place, tends to be left so in most democracies. I think the increasing degree of voter alienation and declining turnouts are a reflection, to some degree at least, that the range of choice and act of voting doesn’t quite have the same democratic resonance it once had or would have if there was more demotic ‘ownership’ (to use an ad term) of the whole process.

22

Pedro 03.20.04 at 4:47 am

Hypothetical situation #1: The Socialist party has a slight edge in the polls pre-Spanish elections. The police, by a stroke of luck, manage to avert a terrorist attack. Public opinion shift towards the incumbent party and Mr Aznar gets reelected. Could we still say that the terrorists have somehow managed to affect the outcome of the electoral process in a democratic country?

Hypothetical situation #2: in the eve of the American elections, Mr Bush is not doing too well in the polls. A bomb goes off in Paris and he, unexpectedly, gets reelected. Since the shift apparently had to do with the fear of terrorism, could we equally classify this behavior as cowardly?

All the analyses I’ve seen so far about the turnabout in Spain seem tainted by at least three logical flaws: (a) the assumption that elections are sterile experiments and, therefore, susceptible to direct cause-effect determinations; (b) the assumption that the change of mood was “cowardly” or aimed at appeasing the terrorists, when in fact, even if you accept that it was indeed the bombing (and not the exploitation thereof) that caused the shift, it may indeed have happened for the very opposite reason – specifically, the “this is not working, let’s try something else” effect; and (c) the outrageous but quite common assumption that the Spanish “good” – in fact, the world’s “good” – is equal to the American “good”.

Democracy is a superstition based on statistics. – Jorge Luis Borges

23

John Quiggin 03.20.04 at 5:26 am

conrad, in addition to NZ, there were fairly radical changes in Italy not long ago. Most Australian jurisdictions have had significant changes in the way upper houses are elected over the past thirty years or so. In addition quite a few countries have had major party realignments – Canada for example. Of course, this requires a fair degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo, but nothing earthshaking.

I therefore think a revealed preference argument is sound in this case. If a majority or even a large minority of Americans wanted an alternative to the Republicrat duopoly, they could get it.

24

mc 03.20.04 at 9:37 am

pedro is absolutely spot on.

I’d like to see those points addressed by those who believe otherwise.

25

mc 03.20.04 at 9:47 am

Mr. “mc” chastised me elsewhere for calling the Spanish people myopic for — even symbolically — hurting reconstruction.

rajeev – that’s not really what I wrote, is it. I was “chastising” they way you completely overlooked all those factors that need to be taken into account about the Spanish elections.

Like, that 4% difference between the two parties, the fact Aznar had been governing for 8 years, the fact Zapatero’s troop withdrawal announcement is nothing but a sly electoral trick that has already been pre-empted by the scheduled changes in the US-and-allied management of Iraq, the fact Aznar shoot his own foot with the ETA-blaming and pressures on media NOT to report about Al Qaeda, etc. etc. And what pedro above says, as well.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but all those “coward, appeasement, victory for AQ” hysterical commentary in certain press outlets have been about ALL of the Spanish people, I haven’t heard anyone from that crowd make any fine distinction, or even implying it. It’s not a matter of pedantry. They’re not “that stupid”, they just eagerly embrace sweeping statements as they’re THE tool of all such rhetorical trumpeting. Most commentators in that group started from the “90% Spanish were against the war in Iraq”, and that’s also where they draw the conclusion “they’re all cowards”.

26

mc 03.20.04 at 10:12 am

these 5% seem to have changed the election is such a way as to lead Al Qaeda to believe that their bombs can positively effect elections.

Sebastian, I don’t have access to the minds of Al Qaeda, but I believe the intended effect of the bombs was to kill as many people as possible. They succeeded.

And of course to influence the interpretation of the vote. In that, they succeeded too. At least among those who claimed victory for Al Qaeda. Doing Al Qaeda a favour by hysterically screaming about how terrorism succeeded in determining, no less, not just “influencing”, but determining the vote, that’s the best effect terrorists could hope for, after the carnage itself.

Declaring democracy defunct or useless because of a 2% to 4% swing. Ignoring it was due mostly to the government’s management of the terrorist attack, not the attack itself.

That’s what Al Qaeda was hoping for. They got it, from their most unlikely friends, ie. those who claim to be the only ones who can be fighting terrorism more than any other. Fell right into the trap! That’s what happens when you start absorbing the extremists’ logic.

This is getting into the popular will problem again. The leftists who don’t normally vote aren’t part of the process which normally chooses a government. The fact that they were always leftists is irrelevant to the question of the bombings effecting the election in a way that Al Qaeda favors. The question is, what caused them to vote. The answer appears to be: the Al Qaeda bombs. You will of course draw your own conclusions past that.

And the conclusion is influenced by what assumptions one makes. You’re making a lot of assumptions there that don’t seem to take quite into consideration a lot of factors. Biggest of all being, how Aznar’s government handled the attacks. That is what swinged that small percentage of voters that determined the final outcome. If you don’t see that, then you haven’t been paying attention to what went on in Spain!

Plus, it’s not exactly a matter of people who “normally don’t vote” – elections are every four years, and there’s always a part of the population that is disaffected and doesn’t go to vote, but they’re not necessarily the *same* people every four years, you know? They’re not even all necessarily leftists, no matter what the results of the vote were. Many even among those who had previously supported Aznar were totally outraged by his outrageous spin attempts. I read there was a huge brouhaha among journalists working at the main national tv – state-controlled – because of the pressures they were put into to keep hammering on Aznar’s own ETA-blaming spin. If I’m not wrong, someone at the head of tv news also resigned on that.

Read Chris’ post “If there was an election tomorrow” again, and tell me how you can’t see that kind of awful government spin is what caused that small, but decisive, shift.

Which I think is not only natural but right – I did not oppose war in Iraq, but I wouldn’t have voted for a government that was taking me and my fellow citizens for idiots only to try and win elections, over the dead bodies of 200 of my compatriots.

I read a comment in another blog by a Spanish guy, who said Aznar lost this election all by himself, and that if he had been honest instead of declaring with absolute certainty that ETA was behind it, even while the intelligence material about AQ was already coming through, there was a good chance his party would have still been at the government, winning by a small margin – as was bound to happen anyway, whoever won – but definitely with a higher chance to win than by lying to his citizens over such a HUGE thing and in such a transparent, pathetic, arrogant manner.

That’s so hugely obvious, it strikes me as odd it can be ignored so easily by those who just want to prove that “Al Qaeda won”.

You have to at least consider all this, if you want to really view what happened in Spain for what it really was about.

27

mc 03.20.04 at 10:38 am

PS – that there was a higher turnout of voters after the bombings, compared to previous elections, is only normal, as people feel more involved, and feel more of a civic responsibility after such an event. That’s an effect of terrorism, but not inherently a bad one.

But we can’t claim with certainty that *everyone* of those who wouldn’t have voted before the bombs, and decided to go voting after the attack happened, were voting against Aznar.

The biggest part of those who were encouraged to go voting by the attack were probably those who felt outraged by Aznar’s spin, sure. But since the PP got a 38% anyway (! that’s not a crushing defeat, is it?), we should also assume that, not just among the voting population at large, but also among those who decided to go voting only after the attack, there were also those who stood by the PP.

And, that minuscule swing that gave the victory to the Socialists might have come from:

a) those who were going to vote Socialists anyway
(polls before elections said all kinds of contrasting results, in some the PP was leading, in some the Socialists were leading – we don’t know how elections would have turned out even if there had been no bombings, because they happened… The PP and Socialists were the two biggest parties anyway, very close, so we can’t *exclude* the hypothesis the Socialists could have won anyway, even if no attacks had taken place)

b) those who were not going to vote at all, and went voting as a reaction to the attacks and to Aznar’s spin on them – that includes both those who had already been leaning more towards the Socialists, as well as those who were not but who voted Socialist out of sheer disgust with Aznar

c) those who were going to vote Aznar, and had maybe even previously voted for him, but couldn’t stand his pathetic spin on the attacks

Whatever you think of the results of the vote, I don’t know how Aznar government’s appalling behaviour after the bombings can be overlooked. You want to blame someone? that’s your man.

He deserved to be ousted. Honestly, I think the Iraq war was a necessary thing, I think Bush and Blair took an essentially right decision there (even if how they went at it was screwed up in many ways), and I do think Aznar did well in joining that coalition, BUT, if an attacks happens in my country and my government tries to play political tricks about it, screw them, I don’t care. That’s not “short-sighted”, because *I* am a citizen of that country, and it’s me, not Americans or Brits, who have to live with that government. I simply don’t want a government who lies over terrorist attacks only to try to gain votes. Is that too much to ask? What kind of guarantee can that kind of behaviour give me against terrorism?? And I’m not saying I believe the Socialists can give me a higher guarantee of honesty, they’re playing tricks too with that troops withdrawal annoucenemnts, but at least, they were not engaging in immediate exploiting of victims of a terrorist attack only for (miscalculated) electoral purposes.

So, in the spirit of alternance in democracy, I’d rather give them a try – anything as long as that arrogant lying bastard is out.

This kind of reaction is so obviously natural to me, I have trouble seeing how it cannot be appreciated.

It’s not even the first time Aznar shows his authoritarian colours – no matter how much one might have agreed with his support for Iraq or not, he has been truly hard to like, for a lot of people with all kinds of political views, I can assure you.

28

Conrad barwa 03.20.04 at 12:32 pm

John,

conrad, in addition to NZ, there were fairly radical changes in Italy not long ago. Most Australian jurisdictions have had significant changes in the way upper houses are elected over the past thirty years or so. In addition quite a few countries have had major party realignments – Canada for example. Of course, this requires a fair degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo, but nothing earthshaking.

I am afraid that I remain still somewhat unconvinced. I can take NZ as a counterexample; the Italian case I would have thought more in the line of an attempt to make their govts less unstable rather than a completely drastic shift from one type of political system to another and the repeated changes of govt and financial scandals of corruption not to mention the other problems Italian dominant parties have had, can be said to fall short of a systemic crisis but constitute a series of mini-ones. Of course, from my impression the understanding is that the changes have not really had their intended effects as Italian govts are as unstable as before and corruption still remains a significant problem. In anycase, I don’t think the changes here are anywhere near as radical as what would have been the case if the US goes from its current system to some form of multi-constituency, PR-based, multi-party system. The Australian case, again seems limited to tinkering, though obviously at quite a significant level, and I think that compulsory voting might have something to do with it here – I am sure that if voting was made compulsory in the US and turnouts increased, we would see rather different outcomes. That it doesn’t and voter turnouts are low, remain indicative not of any lack of desire for change, but the fact that many Americans feel increasingly disengaged from the whole electoral process. Change in anycase is costly and the benefits deferred into the future and uncertain so a certain element of excessive discounting can probably be seen to be in play here; especially when the stakes are so high, I think it is fair to say that third party attempts to transform the system from within have been less than successful (e.g. Nader’s run in 2000). This is not to say that the majority of Americans don’t want a wider range than just the current duopoly, but implementing this change is hard, expensive and building enough agreement to form a coalition to push it through very difficult. Outside either a major systemic crisis, I can’t see it happening in the US. As a corollary, I think such transformations are easier to push through in relatively homogenous and smaller polities like NZ than somewhere like the US.

There also the question of how one approaches this problem: as an issue of contestation or of participation; I think from the reference to the General Will, it is participation what concerns us here and electoral reform to increase and institutionalise this has indeed been quite rare. Most reform has been along the lines of a contestation issue – to improve party systems, govt stability, reduce corruption etc. but the level of political contest can continue to increase while participation continues to fall and it is the latter which is in my view a more important indicator of democratic vitality. I also don’t really accept party realignments as necessarily indicative of this, you have referred to Canada but I have seen a similar phenomenon in India as well, where the era of one-party rule is now over and coalition govt the norm within a FPTP system. This is a result of changing party structures and the decline of these institutions combined with a collapse of old clientist links; rather than any single urge on the part of the electorate.

All this is not to say that there hasn’t been quite a few wide-ranging changes in electoral systems; one interesting thing about the ones cited most often in the literature as NZ (1993) Italy (1993) and Japan (1994) is that they occurred within a small time-span, I am unsure as to what this means but I speculate whether a demonstration effect of the New Democracies in Eastern Europe might have had an impact; other electoral changes have also only occurred after this period as in Venezuela, Bolivia and the changes in the way the executive is elected in Israel and Sri Lanka. In the former cases, systemic crisis seem to be responsible while the latter both concern states bogged down in long-running conflicts and seek to strengthen the resolution capacity of the govt.

I therefore think a revealed preference argument is sound in this case. If a majority or even a large minority of Americans wanted an alternative to the Republicrat duopoly, they could get it.

I would still stick with my argument that a high level of path dependency and bounded rationality has led to a situation where the majority/large minority might prefer a different system and certainly an end to the current duopoly but are unable to move towards this destination.

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masaccio 03.20.04 at 5:37 pm

We nominally have only two parties, but they seem to be made up of several sub-parties, which change helm from time to time. The Republicans still include some moderates, but the far right money and religious groups currently lead it. The Democrats still include the left, but the party has been largely under the control of its DLC interests. So, maybe the way we come to terms with our desire to change two parties is to change leadership among the coalition members more or less with the consent of the rest of our general group?

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Bean 03.20.04 at 9:26 pm

YES, Pedro! The “logical flaws” are right on target and the Borges quote a delicious irony.

I think the Democratic Party has all but split in two. What may be holding it together at this moment is the hate-Bush glue. But it’s also in a far healthier — one could say democratic — state than the Republican Party in which many center/moderate Republicans are trying not to burst into tears but who won’t admit it, even to themselves. What I think needs more examination is what has driven America to extremism and the narcissism which makes us think everything happening in the world is about us.

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Pedro 03.21.04 at 3:55 am

Bean, thanks. Expanding on your mention of narcissism, I think I may be entitled to a personal comment here. Since this is not a political discussion, but rather one on method & interpretation among considerate people, I tried to stay within my bounds and not hijack the conversation. But the fact of the matter is that I – like most people I know – am enraged and disgusted at the American attitude towards Spain. (No, I am not Spanish. I am Brazilian).

When 9/11 happened, there was a worldwide wave of sympathy towards the US. For some years now we have had to put up with 9/11 being thrown at our faces whenever any minor objection to American attitudes is raised, as if it were the worst thing to happen to anybody ever. However, when something of a similar scale happens in Spain (particularly if you consider the size of the population), and happens because Spain has chosen to ally itself with the US over a very objectionable course of action, the best Americans could come up with was calling Spaniards “cowards” at a time the smoke hadn’t even settled down.

I believe the concept of emotional intelligence was invented in the US. Two of its main pillars are empathy and self-awareness. I believe a crash course would be highly adviseable. The United States is making more enemies than it can afford to keep.

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Pedro 03.21.04 at 4:08 am

On a lighter note: looking over my original post on the matter at hand, it occurred to me that a second – and perhaps even more absurd – question could be asked concerning my Hypothetical Situation #1. Would it be proper to say that the Spanish police, by arresting the terrorists, had managed to affect the result of the electoral process in a democratic country?

33

Shalom Beck 03.21.04 at 2:10 pm

The PP believed that ETA was behind the bombing.

They had some evidence for this belief.

So if the PP had just lied, asserting that the bombings were Al Qaeda, and concealed the evidence that pointed to ETA, the PP might have been returned to office.

As for the original post here, all this shows is that statements about the general will cannot be disaggregated into statements about the beliefs of the majority.

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mc 03.22.04 at 3:08 pm

The PP believed that ETA was behind the bombing. They had some evidence for this belief.

No, there was not, it was only an assumption, and yet, the government said with absolute *certainty* that it was ETA, and applied huge pressures on national media to reinforce that.

They needn’t have said with certainty it was Al Qaeda either, because there were no certainties yet. They should simply not have said anything with certainty, until certainties started to come in. Like any respectable government should do in such an occasion.

Instead, they jumped on the occasion for (miscalculated) electoral gain.

It is interesting to remember that Jack Straw was also running very enthusiastically to Aznar’s help by reinforcing with equal certainty that it was ETA, even while the police had started to discover the Al Qaeda evidence. Because obviously the UK was following the same electoral mis-calculations that the PP was following, and had the same interests in the PP winning.

Declaring you’re absolutely certain it’s ETA only to try and save your ass (and attaching to that all your electoral repertoire about fighting separatists) even while your intelligence and police are already picking up a different signal, is worse than lying. It’s blatant spin of the worst kind, and taking people for idiots. And the proof is, that behaviour is exactly what lost PP the victory.

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mc 03.22.04 at 3:22 pm

From Reason, March 17:

The idea that the PP government manipulates the media for political gain has long been a part of the opposition narrative. Government-owned media such as TVE have been widely criticized, both in Spain and abroad, as biased and subject to political pressure, especially following their coverage of a 2002 general strike. The PP has also resisted opposition requests for documents on the crash of a Yakovlev-42 airliner in which over 60 Spanish soldiers died. Many believe the PP was attempting to cover government negligence in light of complaints about the safety of the craft.

The behavior of the Aznar government in the wake of the attacks seemed to confirm the worst of this view. Mere hours after the attack—an attack lacking many of the hallmarks of an operation by ETA, which nearly always phones in notice of its bombings—the government was acting as though the Basque terrorist group’s culpability was an established fact, and took the unusual step of pushing through a UN Security Council resolution pinning the blame on ETA. In a memo obtained by El Pais, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio instructed ambassadors: “You should use any opportunity to confirm ETA’s responsibility for these brutal attacks, thus helping to dissipate any type of doubt that certain interested parties may want to promote.”Aznar even telephoned the editors of major publications repeatedly in an attempt to pressure them to avoid any suggestion that groups other than ETA might have been responsible.

All this despite the fact that, even on the day of the bombing, a van containing Arabic language materials and detonators was found by police. The most serious blow to the administration story came after the foreign press began reporting on Saturday that authorities had arrested several Morrocan nationals in connection with the attacks. An SMS text-message campaign quickly mobilized a protest outside PP headquarters, where young people demanded “Tell us who really did it!” On Monday, after the elections, the government finally dropped claims, ill supported from the outset, that ETA had been responsible. In short, it became abundantly clear to most Spanish voters that the Aznar administration was cynically attempting to spin a horrific tragedy for political advantage. A backlash should scarcely be surprising.

36

Jeff Bogdan 03.23.04 at 3:49 am

A lot of columnists and bloggers, right, left and center, are exercised over the meaning of the Spanish vote following the recent terrorist bombing in that country. Some are saying that it’s a shame that the Spanish tried to appease the terrororists them by voting out the conservative government that was ahead in the pools just before the bombing. Still others say that Spanish voters were reacting mainly to the fact that the government first blamed the Basque seperatists even though they knew the real culprits were radical Islamists. And this does indeed seem to be part of the story. But you know what? Even if Aznar et. al. had not tried put the blame on the Basques, voting his party out was the smartest thing the Spanish could have done.

Recall that 90% of the Spanish electorate fiercely opposed the war in the first place. What really demands explanation is not why they threw the bums out but why, so soon after protesting the war in huge numbers, and despite massive confirmation of their original fears that they were being lied to, and despite all the news about what a mess the occupation had become, they appeared to be about to re-elect those that took them to war anyway.

Actually, you don’t have look very far for an explanation. In “sucessful” capitalist countries with a real middle class, a nice array of consumer products and a well-developed advertising industry, short-term economic considerations–who’s going to put a few more bucks in my pocket this year?–always seem to dominate elections. (Right now GW looks like he’s on the way to losing the next election, but if the economy were booming he’d probably get elected again despite the fact that we hung German generals for what he did to Iraq, and despite his clear intention to shred the bill of rights if re-elected.)

This is a serious problem in the theory of democracy–the apparent incapacity of democratic electorates to see past the tips of their $150 running shoes–but one that will have to wait for a more extended treatment. Perhaps Rousseau had something to say about it. But the point here is that the reaction of Spanish voters to the bombing does not show the Spanish have become abject appeasers of terrorism. They weren’t tilting toward Aznar because of his stance toward terrorism in the first place. They had almost completely forgotten about terrorism, and all they were thinking about was how they were going to afford something-or-other, and which party’s policies would be more likely to put the price of said something-or-other into their bank accounts.

It was the bombing that reminded them about terrorism. Specifically, it reminded them that invading Iraq did nothing to protect them against terrorism because Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist threat, nor did it present a significant threat on its own. It also reminded them that, as many people had predicted, the invasion has increased rather than reduced the danger of terrorism.

In other words, the bombing reminded them that Azner and his party were idiots. And why should we expect anyone to elect idiots? I just hope we don’t need anything as drastic as a rerun of 9-11 to remind us what a bunch of demented assholes we currently have in office.

¡Que vivan los españoles!

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