So it looks like the election, whatever the result, is going to be very close. Once again, just as in 2000, the margin between the Democratic and Rebublican presidential challengers will be close to 50-50. How has this happened again? We’ve seen this not just in the US, but also other major democracies — recent elections in Australia and the UK have also been just as close.
I blame polling. Not the polling booths of election day — I’m referring to those surveys, focus groups, and think-tanks that modern politicians use to gauge the popular will before the election. Let me explain. Think of politics as a game (I know, not hard to do) where the objective for each party is to modify its policies in the run-up to an election in response to polling, focus groups, and suchlike, in order to maximise its percentage of the popular vote. In winner-take-all democratic systems like that of the USA and UK, the game is played within a system where there are two contending parties. As this game plays out over time, each party will quickly identify those policies which, if adopted, will cause its popular vote to drop below 50% and thereby lose the election. If so, the logical choice for that party is to adopt the policy of the opponent, or something close to it. The result? On major issues that are relevant to most of the electorate, the parties converge in policy. What’s left are those issues that the parties are willing to stand upon on principle and won’t lose them the vote. Sadly, in modern politics, the desire to win far outweighs the propensity to stand on principle, and so all we are left with to differentiate the parties are the “wedge issues” at the extremes of politics.
This leaves us with the paradox of modern politics as reflected in the current US election: the two major parties are very similar in the major issues (the economy, the war) but differ wildly in the wedge issues (mainly social issues). And the parties, according to polls, are very, very close to 50% each. Since each party converges to 50% support, election results are no longer driven by any real choice in policy, but rather intransient and essentially random factors. These include the effect of third-party candidates, reliability of polling machines, and which party can most effectively get its supporters to the polling booth.
The irony is, that this is the epitome of democracy. Today, on every major issue, the policy of the ruling (or elected) party represents the will of the majority. Likewise, pluralities determine policy on wedge issues. Problems arise when the will of the plurality determines policy for the otherwise uncommitted majority. Even when the plurality is the majority, the majority can still be objectively wrong.
For this reason, strict democracies aren’t a great medium for social progress. (The famous quote sums this up well: a democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.) When slavery in the US was abolished, much more than 50% of the population was against doing so. (In retrospect, we should all agree that the majority was objectively wrong here.) But slavery was abolished because the US was then, much more so than it is now, a representative democracy. We elect leaders and entrust them to make decisions that will benefit us not just now, but also into the future. But today, those leaders are driving by the popular will through the proxy of the poll, rather than by their own judgement. Could slavery, if it existed today with the same popular support it did then, be abolished by today’s politicians? The current reactions to the gay marriage issue makes me fear not.
And so we come to the irony of ironies: the voters, via the pollsters, have ruined democracy as we know it. From now on, the decisions that affect our lives in fundamental ways will be driven by Nascar Dad, New York Liberal, and Flyover State Mom.
I am so depressed.