By Mitchell Blatt*
Nigel Gould-Davies, professor at Mahidol University and Associate Fellow at the Chatham House for Asia and Russia & Eurasia, has asked an intriguing question of his students and shared it on Twitter. If a democracy is dysfunctional, should it be radically reformed, even in ways that are anti-democratic?
The question proposes theoretical changes including outlaws on “unhelpful” criticism, policy by committee, and intelligence tests for voters.
First question of democracy exam I set my students. Will be interesting to see answers –& how they now wd in West… pic.twitter.com/SL9bGf68l5
— Nigel Gould-Davies (@Nigelgd1) October 27, 2016
Being that Gould-Davies is a professor in Thailand, the recent constitutional referendum there that approved the junta-written constitution adds underlying connotations. But there are deeply troubling questions about democracy emerging around the world, even (maybe especially) in Western countries where radical populists, who espouse their own anti-democratic values, are having influence. With an election coming up in one week in the United States, it may be the right time to consider the questions, at least theoretically.
Among the complaints about America’s system of government that have manifested themselves in recent years are that it encourages gridlock and extreme partisanship and foster anti-intellectual know-nothingism.
The problems with partisanship could be dealt with in purely democratic ways. Changing the terms of elections but still maintaining universal suffrage, for example. The big difference in turnout between presidential elections and off-year elections, coupled with the advantage Republicans have in turning out the older, mostly white voters who vote in off-year elections, means that the composition of Senate (and, to a lesser degree, the House of Representatives) can change sharply in the middle of a president’s term, leaving them with little possibility of getting legislation passed in today’s partisan environment.
Proposals that have been made that could change that would include rearranging the Senate elections so that they are always aligned with the presidential elections or implementing mandatory voting. Both proposals would have the effect (in the short term, at least) of benefitting Democratic candidates by turning more natural Democratic voters out, so the Republican Party would oppose those. The same effect could be achieved by continuing Democratic efforts to register and turnout their targeted voters, but that is a long and hard road that they are already working on.
2016 Proves We Need Instant-Runoff
One proposal that should be considered seriously to benefit mainstream candidates who can govern with consensus is to have instant-runoff elections, also known as “ranked choice.” On the ballot in Maine this year is a proposal to change their elections to instant-runoff. The benefit is clear in 2016, with two unpopular candidates running for president.
In Utah presidential polls, Republican nominee Donald Trump and independent candidate Evan McMullan are nearly tied and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is close behind. McMullan voters are being told by Trump supporters, “If you vote for McMullan, you [by not having voted for Trump] could cause Hillary to win the election!” Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is winning about 7 percent in the Utah polls. His supporters chose him instead of Trump, and the vast, vast majority of them would certainly support McMullan over Trump, but if Trump wins the state, it will probably be by less than 7. Instant-runoff would get rid of this “lesser of two evils” compromise problem.
An anti-Trump voter who supports Johnson could rank his votes:
If Johnson fails to hit the winning treshold, it goes down the list, thus no one has to worry about “electing Hillary/Trump.”
Although the Maine provision would only apply to state elections, not the presidential election, it would apply to Maine’s primary election. Because Trump only won 44.9 percent of the vote in all of the primaries and rarely won 50 percent in any single state until Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out, it is likely that many of the states he won early on would have been won a less extreme, more qualified candidate instead.
Runoff elections also are in effect in states like Louisiana (for its Senate election) and France, where the xenophobic National Front often qualifies for the runoff election and then loses. The difference is that instant-runoff eliminates the need for a costly second election.
The Tough Questions
The tougher questions come when considering to what degree anti-democratic measures can be adopted to stop anti-democratic candidates. It is easy to say from a point of comfort that everyone should be allowed to vote and that free speech should be absolutely respected. If a near majority of the voters in your country, however, believe that one race is inferior and vote for a politician who believes that race should be eliminated or enslaved, it’s not so easy to say that. Who is to say that it isn’t better for the rights of the people to restrict voting rights rather than put such implements in place as to legalize violations of fundamental rights through the vehicle of the state?
These are not philosophical questions, but questions with historical precedent and current application. Voters in Egypt in 2012 elected president the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that opposes banning female genital mutilation. Does a fundamentalist Muslim’s right to vote for any candidate at all he wants trump a woman’s right not to be assaulted?
Thailand was grappling with the effects of a corrupt populist party run by Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister that won much support from the countryside because of its excessive farm subsidies, the impetus for the coup. Lest Americans forget, the majority of U.S. voters for years thought that slavery shouldn’t be outlawed and elected leaders who kept it legal.
But the situation in Thailand also illustrates how attempts to “fix” the poor choices of voters are usually not strictly limited to fixing the problem. NGOs and individuals involved in other issues also face the brunt of crackdowns on civil and political rights. Power hungry governments will always use any excuse to enhance their power.
The Tools the Founding Fathers Gave the U.S. Have Been Lost
The founders of the United States had these questions about democracy in mind when they wrote the Constitution. They knew that many voters were uninformed, so they put in systems to deal with that, like the election of the president by the Electoral College and the election of Senators by state legislatures. Progressives and populists have steadily taken away those safeguards for reasons that were lauded as pro-democratic.
The Seventeenth Amendment, passed in 1912, turned Senate elections to popular vote. Steadily laws have been passed in many states binding Electoral College electors to the results of a state’s president elections, and in most other states, the culture surrounding voting is such that there could be mass unrest if a state’s electors voted for someone other than the person who won their state’s election.
Some conservatives argue on the basis of “federalism” that the Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed to bring back the influence of “the states.” What that argument misses is what the word “state” really means. Ostensibly “the states” don’t have any influence now, this argument would have us believe, because they don’t vote, but every eligible voter among their populations have the right to vote. The “they” that doesn’t vote is that state’s legislators, a relatively elite, highly educated group.
It’s not that the state’s interests aren’t represented; it’s that too many of the voters are ill-informed. The problem is one of education, not of loyalties to their state. In practice we can see how this works by contrasting the results of Republican party primaries with the actual elections for statewide RNC delegates. Although the know-nothing candidate Trump, who in interviews has not known what the nuclear triad, Hamas or Hezbollah are, or much other knowledge about policy, won most of the primaries, Cruz won almost all of the elections for delegates in states that held them. The voters who vote in those elections are by necessity more involved and more informed about politics. They might have hardline conservative positions, but they know (better than the average person) the issues that each candidate believes and represents, as opposed to the Trump supporters who don’t care about policy.
Some of these reforms might sound good in theory, but even if they are implemented, hard as that would be to do, they might not work out as we expect. The Republican Party actually restructured its primary system before 2016 in order to try to avoid a prolonged primary that would weaken their candidate. Look at how that worked out.
The facts of history show that the problem of elections and governments that involve humans could be problems with humans rather than elections.
About the author:
*Mitchell Blatt moved to China in 2012, and since then he has traveled and written about politics and culture throughout Asia. A writer and journalist, based in China, he is the lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook and a contributor to outlets including The Federalist, China.org.cn, The Daily Caller, and Vagabond Journey. Fluent in Chinese, he has lived and traveled in Asia for three years, blogging about his travels at ChinaTravelWriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchBlatt.