If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
I thought about titling this post It Takes Two to Party, Too but then thought better of it.
It was going to be some follow-on thoughts to an article I wrote last fall. I wrote some ideas down, read some additional articles, and then moved on to other things.
That original article was about the two-party system and the implications of its health or the lack thereof. Most people, however, aren’t party operatives, who think of the health of government being tied to the health of parties. Most people, in fact, are turned off by language that implies that party should take priority; over policy, over governance, and over principle. This leads to a presumption that peace is around the corner if we could all just compromise a little more and come to a broad agreement.
First of all, there seems to be a miscalculation of who is the broad center and what it is that “we all” believe. I see a combination of two factors here. One is the (fairly) recent double occurrence of gaps between the nationwide popular vote and the electoral college. Add to that a (presumed*) gap between popular will and the majority in the Senate. Mix these perceived inequities with in-group confirmation bias and the result seems to be many Democrats** who genuinely believe that nearly every right-thinking person in America agrees with them. In reality, even the most popular ideas have trouble getting more than about 80% agreement, and many of our most contested ideas have fairly even splits. Elections are close and political controls swings back and forth because there is a split in the electorate – not because everything is corrupt and the will of the people are always perverted (even if that latter assertion is also true).
This exposes a moral and ethical problem. Suppose it really was true that Democrats could achieve a minimum of 50.01% of the vote in every district in the nation. Does that mean they have a “mandate” to run roughshod over the 49.99%? Our political system values, both in word and in structure, upholding the rights of the minority. That includes both the political favored minority and the politically unfavored minority. Of course, it is impossible to simultaneously to uphold the will of the majority and the will of the minority when those opinions are in conflict. The system resists change, allowing the status quo to be maintained by a less than a third of the seats and the right set of rules. This is frustrating to a reformer who feels he is not only right but has the will of the people on his side. Given time and the votes, the majority can generally get their way. It is for this reason that we feel a collective urge to protect the powerless. It is also for this reason that we feel the need to advocate for individual freedom when it conflicts the “needs of the many.”
Both of these are political questions, of different types. There is the electoral question of winning votes and what that implies and, particularly, what it means for the next time around when you’ve got to tally the votes all over again. It is also a political question when asking people to vote outside their immediate self-interest.The first of these falls apart when one side thinks they have a “permanent majority.” When that attitude begins to dominate the thinking, we are forced to rely on the second. Is it sufficient? Has it been historically?
I’m going to refer to two articles that were published about the same time as my earlier article. The first (in the order that I saw them) is a Wall St. Journal editorial. The article was about the political chaos ensuing preceding the Brexit resolution was to follow, but looked almost unattainable at the time. It was not the Brexit details that got me, but a subheading that accompanied the article.
Free states don’t act on small majorities. They ask what voters really want and build broad support.
Set aside the anthropomorphisaztion of the “Free state” and the reduction to a single mind of “the voters,” and it is essentially making my the same point as I have, above. A majority works for some questions – do we spend a million dollars more or less on program Z, for example – but on the big issues, success follows consensus.
A day later I read another article online, that makes a similar case in ever more persuasive language. The author likens laws to contracts established among willing adherents. Contracts should be mutually beneficial to their signatories and generally will be structured so as to emphasize the areas of agreements. Likewise laws, at their best, state to what society has agreed (maybe not universally, but preferably overwhelmingly).
Given that the author is correct (and he strikes me as being so), even if you are not worried about granting power which will fall into your opponents hands in a future election, even if you can’t empathize with the political minority, there is a certain stability that comes from creating laws that have broad support versus those that you can enforce by seizing the reins of power. That means it is, once again, in the self-interest of the politically-powerful and politically-self-righteous to seek consensus and cooperation in the service of stability.
Is this true? Is this borne out by historical example? The imposition and then repeal of prohibition might be a good example of where a law, created over widespread objection, first cause chaos and disruption before being defeated through the political system. To the contrary, there are definitely examples of social change from the late 1960s onward that were driven by first changing the law. Is this an aberration or the new norm? I hope the former, dread the latter, and worry that we may need to discover the truth the hard way.
*I say presumed because there has never been a national, at-large popular vote for Senate. You can run numbers and say if (for example) the voters who voted for Chuck Schumer were allowed, by virtue of their populousness, to elect a second Senator, they’d elect someone much like Chuck Schumer. While this is certainly a fair possibility, it is also possible that we’d see a very different outcome given a different system for electing Senators. Likewise, Hillary Clinton twice lost the delegate game (once to Obama and once to Trump) while winning the popular vote. To her supporters, this is proof that she shoulda/woulda won the election given a better system. However, it is absurd to think that both Obama and Trump would have followed the same electoral strategy if the path to winning didn’t involved delegates. Obama’s run, in particular, was marked by sophisticated optimization of campaigning efforts to target exactly the delegates he needed.
**It’s not just Democrats. Republicans do the same, but we’re talking about Democrats here.