The Stability of Electoral Politics

The Enlightenment thinkers, whose ideas were put into practice during the Age of Democratic Revolutions at the end of the Eighteenth and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, believed that elections could replace hereditary monarchy as a principle of stable and peaceful succession of governmental regimes. Rousseau thought there should be elections every year, a thought shared much later by the English Chartists of 1848, who wanted an annual Parliament. This idea of how to avoid the succession crises of the Roman Empire or of what to do if a king did not have legitimate offspring, which had led to general wars involving all the major European powers, or if the King had become so obnoxious that his people could no longer put up with him, was a radical idea in at least three ways. First, it meant that the life of a regime would be rather short: four years in the American system, and so long as the Prime Minister could command a majority in a Parliament subject to frequent elections, no Long Parliament, such as had kept Charles I in power, any longer allowed. How could such a short term regime build up the expertise in its leadership or its ministries so that experienced people could cope with a crisis? In an electoral system, as we who observe the political scene well know, you are up for reelection just as you are getting the hang of the thing. Thomas Jefferson confronted this problem when he said that you could train enough “natural aristocrats” so that they could manage the government. Second, elections are a rather cumbersome device. It requires gathering people at polling stations, examining their credentials and certifying the results, all of which might lead to unrest. The Founding Fathers left the governance of elections to the states while the number of seats each state would be granted in the House of Representatives was decided by a decennial census, science replacing the judgments that had led to rotten boroughs in England, where places which had lost their populations were still represented in Parliament because Parlament had long ago granted representation to those places. And, third, you are trusting to the people to make these very crucial judgments, people not as well educated as, for the most part, the people that were elected to represent them. It would have made people considering the prospects of democratic elections think that the experiment could not last very long-- and yet it has lasted more than two hundred years, and elections as the way to legitimize a ruler are respected largely everywhere, even in Russia. Putin may rig his elections but he stands for them and is somewhat concerned about public opinion, which is why he presents himself as a macho man, which is more than can be said for the leaders of China and North Korea. Why has government through elections proven to be so reliable in keeping succession orderly even if the choices made by the electorate are not always wise?

The mechanisms that developed in the course of the Nineteenth Century proved to stabilize a politics based on elections even if they would have been thought to thwart them by inserting a layer of organization between the electorate and those elected. The Founding Fathers had regarded factions as the enemy of republican rule, especially if there were a faction that was in the majority and so could ride roughshod over the Constitution. Such worries were realized in that political parties were organizations that represented and fueled both factions and coalitions of factions so that they might comprise what Rousseau had called “the will of all”, by which he meant a numerical surplus, rather than “the general will”, by which he meant the underlying sentiments that motivated a population at a given time. But political parties disciplined their voters. As Robert Merton pointed out seventy years ago, the political parties supplied groceries and arranged for jobs for the newly arrived Irish and other immigrants in exchange for their votes. People knew to whom they owed their political allegiance. So each party, in every election, had a reliable turnout and so elections would be decided by the small number of people who were on the fence or could not otherwise be accounted for. And that has been the shape of politics ever since: most of the vote is not in play but events can shape how the others go. Moreover, a two party system, which is what most democratic nations evolve towards, provide a way for any issue that comes up to have an organized set of detractors, and so lead to a debate rather than a steam roller effect whereby a policy gets shoved through before an opposition can gather. You know, if you are in the House of Commons, to shout “Shame!” to the proposals made by the other side. Third parties are important only in that they shift sides to get support for the pet issues and interests of their constituents, which is the case with the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain and the religious parties in Israel.

In fact, by the end of the century, party politics had become so enshrined as the way electoral politics was supposed to operate that Max Weber, in his famous essay of 1919, “Politics as a Vocation”, argues that party politics are the basis for a responsible politics that weighs carefully all sides of an issue and wonders about their consequences rather than being responsive merely to the ideology of the time, which is the case with “amateur” politicians. The professional politician knows that defeat is only one election away and so one may have to postpone one’s plans to a time when it is suitable to further them, for otherwise one only insures defeat, and it is useful to cultivate what might interest the voters, even if that slogan or point of view is not one to which one would otherwise feel warmly. A good politician is always a trimmer. FDR bided his time with his internationalist sentiments, even though he had been elected to a third term, gradually moving along the sentiments of his constituents with language ever more subject to interventionist interpretations. He was a master of both shaping and responding to public opinion.

Public opinion emerged in the early Twentieth Century as the nemesis of electoral government because it could be so uncompromising and irrational and yet sweep a population away. Both Lord Bryce and Ortega Y Gasset saw it as overwhelming government, as the final resort of any electorate. You didn’t know what hobby horse of thinking the population might take as its own. The masses were irrational and might change on a dime to please whatever demagogue took their fancy. They had no sense of an ordered society and so of what would be given up if ordered society were abandoned. Not much more than a generation later, and based on their Marxist heritage, the Frankfurt School took up these same apocalyptic themes. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the masses had been robbed of their senses by consumerism and bourgeois ideology and so could no longer think straight about what were their interests.

To the rescue came Paul Lazarsfeld, a Democratic Socialist from Austria who came to America in the Thirties bringing with him the methods for public opinion research that would, from 1940 on, dominate the analysis of American and other elections. The views of the voters were stable rather than volatile. They were dominated by the person’s socioeconomic position as that was only slightly modified by education, religion and other demographic factors. Ideology played no part in determining how a person would vote, only their interests and their identifications, people voting for the rich because they had the ambition of becoming one of them, not because they had any sense of the rights or wrongs of an economic policy. And that model held pretty well into 2000, people choosing personalities who appealed perhaps to their views on social issues rather than to their views on economic issues because for the upwardly mobile the issue of abortion showed you could be an upstanding moral guy even if you didn’t have all that much money. Times seemed to change in 2000 because personality overshadowed all other issues. Bush was affable while Gore was a stiff and Obama seemed a clean-cut young man who gave you an easy way to show you weren’t prejudiced.

Umberto Eco, the distinguished student of language, novelist and critic who recently died, in his later years seemed to resurrect the apocalyptic sense of those who opposed the masses as well as those who advocated for them when he defined the present age as one of a “liquid” society, by which he meant that it had no established order but only a mad quest for celebrity, whether on Twitter or on television programs where you made a fool of yourself just so you could be on the air. In such a society, there is no place for realistic assessments of political programs. It would seem that Eco was providing a very clear picture of the Trump Presidency: someone who was only a celebrity and had no idea about what he was doing with government.

But Eco got it wrong and so do the people who apply that model of social chaos as the way to understand what is happening under Trump. Trump may have campaigned as an iconoclast but he has become a creature of the Congressional Republican party, only getting the legislation through that they are able to bring their very slim majorities to support. As I have suggested, his foreign policy mischief can be outlasted, as well as most of his domestic policy, however cruel it is to see him separate parents from children at the border. His excesses can be attributed to the fact that Trump is both stupid and mean, but the real villain here, as I have many times suggested, is not Trump but the regionalism that has dominated American politics ever since Revolutionary times, and so is a product of the social order rather than a way to upset it. The South resists being brought into the way of life of the industrial north and Far West. It is a question of a backward culture rather than of all of culture having been smashed to smithereens. We just need to wait until the Hispanics and the Blacks and the Northerners who have moved down there and so changed the demographics for the region to begin to catch up with other places in terms of public decency and social policy. It shouldn't be very long. Trump will be over, I think, by the 2020 election cycle. In the meantime, avoid falling into apocalyptic thinking. Electoral politics is a sound way to organize governments.