Democracy By Coincidence
Referenda and recalls are some of the seemingly democratic solutions to the failures of the electoral system or the representatives within it. In the former, the citizenry is directly involved in the legislative decisions of a nation’s policymaking, while in the latter, unsatisfactory politicians can be removed from their office by a vote of the people, rather than an impeachment proceeding by a legislative body.
In theory, referenda and recalls should be the answer to the perilous problems of a democratic system. Sometimes, too, they do work as they are intended. This though, like Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page’s wealth-based inequality-driven version of the theory, could just be democracy by coincidence. It is agreeable to most, though, that a system that is coincidentally democratic defies the true goals of democracy, but is just successful enough to keep the citizens satisfied.
This begs the question: what happens when the citizens are left unsatisfied? What happens when the desires of the citizens – even overwhelming majorities – are not met through democratic measures? Referenda and recall might be treatments to freeze or slow the cancerous risks to democracy, but they are certainly not finite in delivering the necessary cure to its ailments.
The Curious Cases: From Fall River to Brexit
The New York Times columnist Max Fisher draws interesting conclusions between a small town in Massachusetts and the political crisis afflicting the United Kingdom’s divorce with the European Union. In his words, “elections test only what [one] design[s] them to test,” and, public sentiment becomes less real “the more complex the question” on the ballot is. In Fall River, Massachusetts, a mayor plagued by corruption was both recalled and reinstated in a simultaneous ballot measure in a seemingly contradictory act of democracy.
Overwhelmingly, the people of Fall River voted to have Mayor Jasiel Correia removed from office for his crimes, with less than 5,000 votes in favor of him retaining his position. On the next question on the ballot, voters were asked to select a new mayor. The soon-to-be-recalled mayor was still on the ballot in a field of five contenders. In a field so diversified and polarized, this mayor was able to squeak out a win with less than 5,000 votes, as no other candidate could top him. Proving the American idiosyncrasies of our “first past the post” electoral system, democracy was validated and then swiftly voided.
In the United Kingdom, a question as complex as divorcing a leading nation from the European Union – a decision entailing a plethora of socioeconomic consequences – was narrowed to a referendum simply asking voters to “leave” the EU or to “stay.” By a thin margin, the citizens of the UK voted to leave. Shortly thereafter, the then-ruling Conservative party lost seats to Labour in the general election, sending a contradictory message to lawmakers that they did not have a true mandate to follow through on the Brexit vote cast from conservatism.
The two, one a small-scale example and one a massive international issue, represent the same conflict of interest in democracy: the will of the people. To some extent, the supposed will of the people is nothing more than a myth. The citizens of Fall River voted in a whopping majority to unseat their mayor and, then, in a minuscule minority, voted him back to the same office. The citizens of the United Kingdom, conversely, barely scraped a plurality to leave the EU, while its general elections majorly demonstrated that the will of the people was not reflective of the overly-simplified question posed on the Brexit ballot. The overall conclusion: elections, as they are currently designed, both within and without of the United States, are not sufficiently reflecting the public desires of the masses.
In Falls River, the recall and the reelection took place on the same ballot. Inherently, this is flawed. The removal of one official should not be coupled with the reelection of another, particularly if the one being removed can still legally be up for reelection. Moreover, the political entities (i.e. parties, politicians, interest groups, etc.) of Falls River, if truly interested in recalling Mayor Correia, should have ensured a sound political coalition against him that could verify a winner, rather than allowing five candidates to split the vote. Without ensuring that democracy could prevail after a recall, the recall – regardless of the results – loses its validity and purpose.
Brexit is even more distressing. Firstly, it represents the problems of the plurality system that exists in several leading democracies, including the United States. It seems that a decision as massively impactful as splitting a global superpower from the EU should require a more definitive answer from the citizenry than a bare plurality. If the will of the people of the UK was truly to be represented, and not just a political ploy of the Conservatives at power in 2016, the politicians would have ensured that at least a majority of the populace would have been required to split from the EU. Subsequently, Prime Minister Theresa May, despite her own political allegiance, should recognize her now-obvious lack of political capital and the figurative referendum called on her leadership with the seats gained by Labour in 2017. There is neither the political prowess nor the public proclivity for Brexit to be carried out. The results of an immensely complex question whittled down to staying or going, not even definitive in representing the wills of the people, should not be held as finite doctrine. Politicians, if a democracy is truly to work, need to reestablish the forbearance and tolerance described by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Regardless of political affiliation, if politicians truly care about the will of the people, they will act on it accordingly. The result of one vote – especially a particularly close one like Brexit – cannot constitute a rigidly-bound conclusion on public policy. It can guide policy and certainly should be carried out, but only if the people of the UK truly wish for this outcome to be delivered.
To remedy this tumor on democracy on a large scale, two things must be addressed: plurality and partisanship. In the United States, presidential elections and the controversy surrounding the Electoral College generally come to mind when discussing the lack of responsiveness in the American system. It is safe to say that the will of the people is not being enforced in America (though, even more important to note, the will of the people was not the primary motive of the Framers). If just one more person votes for one candidate over the other, the entire state’s votes are counted towards the vote of the one person (save Nebraska and Maine). If systems could be adjusted to be truly representative and reflective of the will of the people – and if politicians, like Robert Dahl desires, could be responsive to the needs of the citizenry – then the disease could be quelled. Perhaps the Electoral College could be apportioned proportionately based on a state’s votes or by results per each congressional district. Solutions can be devised to more effectively reflect the people, but only if politicians are willing to do so. With that, of course, comes the plague of partisanship, which will remain active so long as plurality reigns in America, which threatens to cleave our already split society even more. If the citizens of Fall River can agree to oust their mayor, they should, in theory, be able to at least agree that a different mayor is required. If the citizens of Brexit truly wanted this divorce, it would not be dragging out in the proverbial Family Court that the British Parliament has become.
It All Depends On Interpretation
In this brief conclusion, it is important to note that this is an interpretive argument. If one is a true Constitutionalist here in the United States, the will of the people does not trump all. The Framers believed in limiting the power of the people to an extent, so American democracy was never meant to be as representative as it is now and as diversified as it may become. If one believes that the situation in Falls River was truly democratic because the results, regardless of their zero-sum effect, were tallied and interpreted based on the most votes recorded on an issue, then that can be his or her interpretation.
However, if one believes that democracy should be inclusive and responsive like Dahl argues; that it should be tolerant and reliant on forbearance, like Levitsky and Ziblatt believe; that it should be more than coincidental, as claimed by Page and Gilens; and that as Fisher points out, it should be truly reflective of the will of the people, then referenda and recalls are not the sole solutions to remedying the issue. If we the people are to be represented and heard, democracy must continue to adapt and evolve, no matter how ugly or divisive it may be. The citizenries of democratic towns, cities, states, and nations must target the disease itself, and treat it with true democracy.
This article was written mainly in response to Max Fisher’s “How a Strange Massachusetts Election Helps Explain Britain’s Brexit Chaos” in the Interpreter section of the New York Times, published on March 16, 2019.
The graphics used are from the Daily Express and Paolo Calleri, respectively.
Coincidentally, I read Fisher’s article just a few days ago, so this read was especially interesting with that background. I drew two main points from your post: citizens and politicians should diligently safeguard democracy through good democratic institutions and practices, and public policy should reflect public opinion. As someone who really enjoys learning about public opinion and its role in democracy, I enjoyed reading your perspective. Your point that the Brexit referendum was pushed by a Conservative parliament, and then a Labour majority was quickly voted in afterwards, does make Brexit a particularly difficult situation to assess. Anytime someone is elected or a referendum passes with about 50% of the vote, we have to assume that the outcome only satisfies about half of the electorate.
Brexit seems to be a fairly new (legitimate) debate. ‘Brexiteers’ have been around for awhile, but it seems that only since Farage’s UKIP has Brexit become a major issue. One thing that I think will be interesting to follow is the short term versus long term opinion of this debate. Voter preferences in the short term are notoriously volatile. Media and elections tend to sway short-term opinions quite frequently. I wonder if this plays a part in parliament so quickly switching to a Labour majority. However, long term opinions turn out to be much more stable. One interesting explanation is that, in the short term, people tend to recall what is on the top of their heads in order to form an on-the-spot opinion. However, in the long term, core reasons for feeling one way about policy or ideology trend pretty obviously.
So, to your point about how the voters feel about Brexit, I am excited to see in the future how opinions hold or change surrounding the Brexit debate. Great post. Thank you for sharing your insight!