Fixing the machinery of democracy

The goal of medianism.org is to focus less on a minority with elite power and more on the vast group of people in the middle or even below the middle. In economics, that means focusing more on the median income, and in politics, that means focusing on the median political view. That is just another word for democracy. Most people think that the USA is a democracy in which the majority rules, but we aren’t. Our democracy is flawed like almost all democracies in a way that becomes obvious after you think about it for ten minutes.  We are have a plurality voting system, not a majoritarian voting system.  This is a problem because democracy isn’t very popular right now, but a lot of the so-called failures of democracy are not really failures of democracy. They are really examples of how voting systems are not democratic because they elect someone that the majority rejects. This is leading to democracy becoming so unpopular that voters have essentially rejected it in some nations by voting for authoritarian rulers! It could happen in the US too.  Here is a scary chart by the New York Times

Less than 30 percent of American millennials think it’s essential to live in a democracy. Millennials are our future. Although this data predates the present election, right now millennials are probably particularly disenchanted because Trump was particularly unpopular among millennials, and he was had the lowest approval overall in history at only 41 or 42% approval. Gerald Ford is the only previous president who began his presidency below 50% approval, but he wasn’t elected president. (The graph lacks a vertical scale, but the continuous horizontal line is at 50% for reference and there is a shorter line marking the average for each president.)

A 54% majority voted against Trump. Even many people who voted for Trump really disliked him and wished they had another option to vote for. Polls suggest that Trump would have lost in a 2-way election against every other plausible candidate whether Republican (Kasich, etc.), Democrat (Clinton, Sanders, etc.), or third party (Johnson, Stein, etc.).

It is too early to say how good or bad Trump will be as president, but there are numerous examples throughout history when a terrible person was elected because the machinery of democracy was flawed and a passionate minority selected a leader against the will of the majority. For example, Hitler won an election where he seems to have been opposed by vast majority of the electorate. Hitler wasn’t a failure of the popular will. His election was a failure of the democratic machinery to recognize the popular will. There are numerous examples of democratic machinery selecting unpopular candidates like this throughout history. Recently in India the extremist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party won with only 31 percent of the vote, and has been running the country as if it has a popular mandate ever since. Mohamed Morsi won in Egypt with similar levels of support from extremist Muslims.  His unpopularity later led to his deposal in a military coup.

The electoral college system a uniquely American undemocratic flaw, but that is not even the worst part of our system. Our main flaw is shared with most election systems around the world. It is that they are pluralistic, not majoritarian. They elect NOT the choice of a majority, but the choice of the biggest plurality. For example, Trump should never have been selected as the Republican candidate because a majority of Republicans opposed him throughout the primaries. Because Trump’s opposition was split until near the end, he actually only got a fairly small minority of Republican votes in the primary. Less than 15% of eligible Americans showed up to vote in the Republican primaries, and a minority of them chose Trump, so only about 6 percent of eligible American voters actually selected Trump in the primary which is 4% of all Americans. Trump developed a very enthusiastic following of 4% of Americans who showed up to rallies and supported him in the primaries, but that was a tiny minority of Americans that selected one of the two candidates that we were all limited to voting for in the general election. Although Trump had higher negatives and lower overall support than any other Republican candidate during the primary, he won states because he had a small plurality of enthusiastic supporters who loved the unusual features that separated Trump from the rest of the Republican field.

Amartya Sen and Eric Maskin explained:

In the early contests, Mr. Trump attracted less than 50 percent of the vote… a majority of voters rejected him. But he faced more than one opponent every time, so that the non-Trump vote was split. That implies he could well have been defeated in most (given his extreme views on many subjects) had the opposition coalesced around one of his leading rivals. In such a scenario, he might have been out of contention long before he could ride his plurality victories toward his first outright majority win…

American primaries are not the only recent elections to produce winners lacking the support of a majority of voters. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party received only 31 percent of the vote in the last general election, but got a majority of parliamentary seats. (Even including political allies, their vote share was no more than 39 percent.) The B.J.P., a right-wing party with a Hindu ideology for which only a minority of Hindus voted, has been running the government since, which is fair enough, given the electoral system. But it has also been persecuting political dissent as “anti-national.” Even majority support doesn’t give leaders in a democracy a right to stifle dissent. Invoking the battle cry “anti-national” in the name of the entire nation seems especially pernicious from a government without majority support.

As with the Republicans and Mr. Trump’s flirtations with fear and violence, India now suffers the ill effects of a serious confusion when a plurality win is marketed as a majority victory.

… Replacing plurality rule with majority rule would improve American primaries. More broadly, an understanding of the critical difference between a plurality and a majority could improve politics around the world. In an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson, wrote that “69 percent of the voters did not see you as their savior,” adding that they also “disagreed on what, actually, constitutes our [country].”


Sen and Maskin propose a voting system that is better than our plurality voting system, but their article is riddled with subtle errors because they promote a system that isn’t as good as Approval Voting or Score Voting. If you want a fun, in-depth explanation of these voting systems, read Gaming The Vote by William Poundstone.

On page 91, Poundstone shows how bad our voting system has been for the presidency. Here is an amended excerpt of some of the bigger failures:

  • 1824: John Quincy Adams lost popular vote w/ only 31%
  • 1844: an abolitionist spoiler elected a slave-owner.
  • 1848: a former Democratic president sabotaged the Democratic Party.
  • 1860: 4-way vote split contributed to the Civil War.
  • 1876: Rutherford Hayes lost popular vote w/ 48%
  • 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost popular vote w/ 48%
  • 1892: Grover Cleveland lost popular vote w/ 46%
  • 1884: a Prohibition Party candidate helped elect an “ally of the saloon.”
  • 1912: a former Republican president prevented the reelection of a Republican president.
  • 2000: a consumer and environmental advocate elected the favored candidate of corporate America.
  • 2016: Donald Trump lost popular vote w/ 46%

At least 11 out of 49 presidential elections did not go to the most popular candidate because of spoilers or the Electoral College. That is a failure rate of at least 22%, and a lot of these presidents were disasters. Even though the 1860 election gave us Lincoln, who was a great president, it also gave us the Civil War so that election is hardly a success. Poundstone writes, “Were the plurality vote a car or an airliner it would be recognized for what it is — a defective consumer product, unsafe at any speed.”

The machinery of our democracy was put into place at a very undemocratic time when only a tiny percent of Americans were allowed to vote and slave-owners got extra voting power for owning more slaves even though slaves could not vote. Indeed, slavery is one of the reasons the Electoral College was instituted. It gave slave states more power than they would have had under a popular vote and there is still an element of this.  Bill O’Reilly supports the Electoral College on the basis of preserving “white privilege.”  Since the Constitution was first written, our democracy has changed from something that white male elites enjoyed to something that most Americans enjoy.  Here is a list of major improvements to democracy.

  • 1810: State religious requirements mostly eliminated
  • 1850: Property ownership requirements eliminated
  • 1870: Abolish slavery (15th Amendment)
  • 1920: Women can vote (19th Amendment)
  • 1961: Residents of DC (Bigger than WY) can vote.
  • 1965: Blacks and Native Americans (Voting Rights Act — expanded in 1970, 1975, and 1982).

Mass democracy is a very new thing in the history of the world. There were zero nations where a majority of the adult population could vote in 1900. Today the majority of the world’s nations has universal suffrage or thereabouts. More progress should be expected in the next century to make democracy work better at representing the will of the majority. Anti-democrats often rail against democracy by calling it a dictatorship of the majority, and that is the worst possible way to think about it.  But any other political system would be a dictatorship of a minority which is even worse. America’s system regularly gives a dictatorship to a minority to select our president against the will of the majority. A simple solution would be to eliminate the electoral college and use approval voting or score voting instead. Instant runoff voting is an alternative that has gotten a lot more attention, but it isn’t as good even though it too would still be a big improvement over our present system.

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