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The Democratic Ideal

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10. Not Quite Right, but Still Good:
The Democratic Ideal in Modern Politics
Arrow’s Theorem
• All democracies are fraught with problems.
• Economist Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that even
free and fair elections do not ensure that the
majority’s preference will be selected.
• Whenever there are more than two choices in an
election, the method used to add up the votes has a
tremendous impact on who wins.
• Further, one can never be certain that any one
method of counting votes will lead to the majority’s
single preferred option.
Arrow’s Theorem
• Imagine we are all going to elect the king of the ice cream social. We have
five candidates, cleverly named A, B, C, D, and Bruce, the singing Wallaby.
• The most conservative candidate is on the right, advocating the imposition
of vanilla for all, and the extreme liberal is on the left, demanding that we
all must sample all flavors.
• The moderates are in the middle.
Arrow’s Theorem
• With a typical method—the candidate with the most votes
wins—Bruce wins with 27 percent of the vote.
• It turns out that the vast majority—73 percent—would rather
have anyone other than Bruce.
Arrow’s Theorem
• If we require the winner to receive a majority of votes, the
two with the highest pluralities (the most votes) must face
each other in a winner-take-all runoff election. This changes
the result.
Arrow’s Theorem
• Bruce and Candidate A would get the most votes in the first round and
would have to face each other in a second round.
• Most who voted for the three eliminated candidates are closer to A on the
ideological spectrum than to Bruce.
• The vast majority of them would probably prefer Candidate A over Bruce.
• Thus, in the second round of this different, but still fair, method of holding
an election, Candidate A would defeat Bruce.
Arrow’s Theorem
• Does the runoff method ensure that the election
selects the majority’s preference?
• Both methods are considered fair.
• There are other fair ways of adding up votes that can
produce still different outcomes.
• What would happen if instead of voting for the
candidate you prefer the most, you vote against the
candidate you hate the most?
Arrow’s Theorem
This method would eliminate Bruce first, and A would likely be the second
voted off!
All of A’s, B’s, and C’s supporters, and roughly half of people who should be D’s
supporters, will vote against Bruce.
Assuming that voters will then turn against the remaining candidate who is
most distant from them, you can see the midpoint between the most extreme
candidates, A and D.
A is now the least-liked candidate and will be eliminated, and the ultimate
winner is likely to be C.
Arrow’s Theorem
In a round-by-round voting system, you vote for the candidate you like most, and the
candidate with the least votes in each round gets eliminated.
The first one eliminated is now C.
If C’s supporters split evenly between B and D, B moves up to 23.5 percent and D gets 25.5
percent, and A gets eliminated.
In the third round, all of A’s supporters go to their next-closest candidate, giving B 46.5
percent and leaving D’s 25.5 percent to lose to Bruce’s 27 percent.
In the final round, at least half of D’s supporters jump to B rather than to Bruce!
There have been four different winners in four different ways of counting the vote!
Arrow’s Theorem
• There are many other types of elections that are possible,
such as ranked votes, the use of open primaries, or an
electoral college.
• These methods also could provide different results.
• The example also assumes that the process of conducting the
election was perfect.
• However, in the real world problems come up (e.g., hanging
chads, misprinted ballots, voting machine failures).
• Arrow’s theorem shows that elections cannot be the perfect
means of making decisions because part of the process, the
way the votes are tallied, can significantly alter the outcome,
even when it is done perfectly and fairly.
Democracy and the Liberal Ideal
• When people hear the word democracy, they
typically think of elections.
• Pure democracy, or “rule by the people,” reflects the
idea of people governing themselves in a direct
• This is not viable in the modern world.
Democracy and the Liberal Ideal
• Direct democracy provides many
opportunities for participation.
• But it provides little tolerance for difference
and dissent.
• This can lead to a tyranny of the majority,
where an unrestrained majority bands
together to victimize the minority.
Democracy and the Liberal Ideal
• Plato believed that simply because a majority of
people have an opinion, that does not make them
• Aristotle believed that democracies amount to mob
rule in which self-interested factions fight for their
own selfish interests without concern for the public
• The Framers of the U.S. Constitution shared these
negative views of democracy.
Democracy and the Liberal Ideal
• The Framers created a republic in which decisions
are made by representatives of the citizens rather
than by the citizens themselves.
• Think of the many undemocratic features of the
Constitution, such as
–The Supreme Court
–The Senate
–The Electoral College
• Despite its flaws, democracy remains a powerful
Direct Democracy
• Elements of direct democracy can be a valuable part
of a modern democracy.
• Referenda are questions that legislatures put on the
ballot for the people to decide.
• Initiatives are questions that citizens put on the
• Initiatives can make legislators more sensitive to
what the public wants.
Direct Democracy
• There are two main problems with direct
democracy today:
1. People have neither the time nor the expertise for
the intricacies of politics
2. Most people have better things to do than
participate in every political decision.
• People are willing to leave governing to others
as long as the government does not get too
far out of line.
Representative Democracy
• The Framers of the U.S. Constitution consciously and
rationally designed it from nearly a blank slate.
• Four factors are critical to the effectiveness and the
remarkable endurance of the U.S. system:
– First, the Constitution uses representatives to create a
democratic government of specialists.
– Second, it institutionalizes revolt through frequent
elections of representatives.
– Third, it recognizes the potential downside of democracy
by specifically limiting the power of government.
– Fourth, it recognizes democracy’s limits by adding a few
undemocratic features.
Representative Democracy
• Basically, direct democracy at the national level in
the U.S. system is limited to choosing
representatives, and personal involvement in politics
is limited to deciding whom to vote for.
• Direct democracy in the U.S. system is best
experienced at the regional (state) and local
government levels, where referenda and initiatives
are utilized in the various state and local systems.
An Economic Theory of Democracy
• The spatial distribution of voter preferences in the
figures illustrating Arrow’s theorem is essentially
what Anthony Downs did in An Economic Theory of
• A half century later, Downs’s theory remains the best
way to discuss much of the why behind what we see
in modern representative democracies.
[1] Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers,
An Economic Theory of Democracy
The one difference between this figure and the earlier ones is that this one adds
an indicator of the concentration of voters along the line stretching from the
liberals on the left to the conservatives on the right.
The height of the curve indicates the number of voters holding a particular
ideological preference.
The curve is lowest at the ends and highest in the center.
This represents the fact that most voters are concentrated near the middle of the
political spectrum; they are moderate.
While it often seems the opposite, public opinion polls suggest that most people
are in the middle.
An Economic Theory of Democracy
The figure assumes two things that may seem obvious:
1. People will vote for the candidate that is as ideologically similar to themselves as
2. Candidates wish to get enough votes to win the election.
Given these assumptions, the spatial approach can be used to make some
interesting arguments regarding the following:
– The likely ideological position of successful candidates
– The most effective ideological position of political parties
– The number of parties a democratic structure is likely to host depending on how its
rules are structured
Winner-Take-All Systems
• Downs used his calculations to explain why the United States
has, and will probably always have, a two-party system.
• Further, he argued that those two parties would always
remain close to the nation’s ideological center.
• The United States uses a winner-take-all (no proportional
representation), first-past-the-post (no runoff elections),
single-member district system.
• In other words, each election has one winner, that winner is
the sole representative of a given location, and winning is a
simple matter of receiving the plurality (most) of the votes
cast in the election.
Winner-Take-All Systems
• One can now see how an extremist can manage to win an election when
there are a large number of candidates.
• Although most of the voters are in the middle, there are three candidates
competing over this area of the graph.
• By dividing the votes in the middle, it was possible for a representative of
a more extreme position to win.
• Fewer voters overall were near Bruce, but he did not have to share those
votes with any other candidate.
Winner-Take-All Systems
• The number of people voting for each candidate equals all of the voters
who are closer to that candidate than to any other.
• The height of the curve represents the concentration of voters; therefore,
the area under the curve, bounded by the two lines, is the total number of
candidate votes.
• The candidates in the middle get a narrower slice, but the slice is taller.
• The candidates at the extremes get wider but shorter slices.
Winner-Take-All Systems
• In most elections, candidates want to be in the middle.
• If one picks any two of the five candidates and runs them against each
other, the one closest to the center will always win.
• In a two-candidate election, the midpoint of the curve is critical.
• The one vote in the exact center is called the median voter; his name is
• Downs argued that this fight over the median voter (Karl) explains why the
United States will always have two political parties that are very close to
the political center (moderate).
Winner-Take-All Systems
• To win the general election in a two-party system, a party must run a
candidate who can capture the median voter of the overall population.
• But the parties represent different sides of the political spectrum.
• In a two-party system, the candidate exactly in the center of the overall
population is on the edge of his or her party’s political spectrum.
• The competition for the center yields fairly similar candidates.
• However, there must be some difference between the candidates because
within the candidates’ parties those who are at the middle of the overall
population are extremists within their parties.
Winner-Take-All Systems
The need to win the overall election drives parties to the overall center, while the need to
win the primary drives candidates toward the party’s median vote.
The likely result is that there will be parties that claim ideological ground just to the right and
left of center (locations 4 and 6).
Once these two parties are established, it almost impossible to add a third party.
New parties usually form to represent a dissatisfied portion of the population.
Most dissatisfied voters will be out at the extremes.
Rather than help dissatisfied voters get a representative that is ideological closer to their
views, the new party does the opposite.
A new candidate representing a more extreme ideological position (e.g., at 8) guarantees the
election of the moderate candidate furthest from the new candidate’s ideology.
The new candidate at 8 steals most conservative voters from the candidate at position 6,
which hands a victory to the candidate at position 4.
Winner-Take-All Systems
• This scenario has happened several times during U.S. presidential
• Whenever a third candidate has captured a significant share of the
vote, the candidate from the established party that was
ideologically closest to the added candidate lost the election.
• To win an election in a winner-take-all, single-member district
system like the United States, the winning candidate must be able
to achieve a plurality to win any election district.
• A political party that wins 15 percent of the vote across the country
could win none of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of
• To the degree that a new party has ideas that may appeal to the
center, the centrist parties will quickly absorb those ideas.
Winners-Take-Their-Share Systems
Given Downs’s work, how can there be so many
countries with more than two political parties?
Not all democratic systems have rules like those in
the United States.
Modern democracies come in two basic flavors:
1. Single-member district systems, as in the United States,
where one winner represents one location
2. Proportional representation systems, which are common
in many parliamentary democracies around the world
Winners-Take-Their-Share Systems
• The most common alternative to a winner-take-all system is a
proportional representation (PR) system.
• Proportional systems focus on political parties instead of on
• At election time, voters across the entire country cast their
ballots for political parties, not candidates.
• The seats in the parliament are divided among the parties
based on the votes they receive.
• All parties that get more than a certain minimum percentage
of the vote (e.g., at least 5 percent) win seats.
• The number of representatives seated from each party’s list of
candidates is based on the proportion of the vote the party
receives; that is, it is a proportional system.
Winners-Take-Their-Share Systems
If there are only two parties (A and B), both try to move toward the ideological center
because people vote for the party closest to them on the ideological spectrum.
The strategy of capturing the middle moves the parties away from the people out on the
Those people want representatives that better reflect their preferences, and they will form a
new party (i.e., the HGPC).
The HGPC party will capture all the votes from the midpoint between it and Party A and all
the votes from the extreme left.
The HGPC will win seats and win the right to vote in the legislature.
If the HGPC wins enough seats to prevent either Party A or Party B from holding more than
50 percent of the legislature, it will have power far beyond its numbers, as it can affect the
race for prime minister.
Winners-Take-Their-Share Systems
The dramatic gain in the HGPC’s influence will likely lead to the formation of a new
party on the right (BGBB).
Any dissatisfied group can offer its own party.
The only limiting factors are:
– The percentage of the vote needed to pass the qualifying threshold for at least one seat
– The strategic need to capture enough seats to either dominate or be a relevant party
This typically results in one or two large moderate parties and a large number of
smaller parties that vie for relevance.
The lower the qualifying threshold, the easier it is to get a seat and the greater the number
of smaller parties.
The Real versus the Ideal, Again
• In reality, the type of election used to create a
modern democracy is not an either-or proposition;
mixed forms are abundant.
• No method of electing representatives is inherently
superior, nor has any mixture created a perfect
representational democracy.
• Democracy in its ideal form holds great promise, but
in the real world it is fraught with problems.
• The common definition of the term democracy has
changed from majoritarianism, or rule by the
majority, to something else.
The Real versus the Ideal, Again
• Democracy is now commonly infused with undemocratic
elements, such as freedom of speech, protection of
minorities, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
• The modern definition of democracy has been stripped down
to its bare essentials.
• Joseph Schumpeter, in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy,
strips the term of all values and sees it only as a method of
reaching decisions: “The democratic method is that
institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in
which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a
competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”[1]
[1] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1976),
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