Weakness is provocative

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our electoral system is destroying our society.

The United States uses single-winner, “first-past-the-post”, plurality voting for almost everything. When we elect someone, we define an eligible electorate, create some procedure by which candidates can get their name on the ballot, and the position goes to whomever gets the most votes, regardless of whether that’s a majority. It’s a simple, intuitive, form of democracy. It’s also terrible.

The most commonly discussed flaw, sometimes recast as a virtue, is “Duverger’s Law“, which points out this system herds people into two-parties. Plurality voting renders a multiplicity of political parties unsustainable, as distinct but somewhat aligned parties that fail to join together split one other’s vote, handing victory to groups the somewhat-aligned parties detest even more than one another. I endorse this critique. I think we’d have a much healthier democracy if citizens could make homes in political political parties that genuinely reflect each of our values and interests, rather than melting into two permanent, bitterly contested, coalitions. The Americanist apology that the broad coalitions forced by a two-party system yield moderation, stability, and compromise has, I think, been discredited by events. Instead, incumbency incentives within the United States’ two party system demand entrenched polarization, however dysfunctional that is for the polity as a whole.

Less frequently discussed than all of that is how weak first-past-the-post voting is, with respect to resisting corruption. And weakness, Republican politicians eternally remind us, is provocative. Single-winner, first-past-the-post elections are often described as “winner-takes-all”. That means that in a close election, the leverage, the “ROI”, associated with stealing a small edge can be huge. If the ultimate margin of victory of an election is likely to be within 2%, you only have to manipulate, suppress, or steal 2% of the vote to win 100% of the power. Then we are “shocked, shocked” that political entrepreneurs with an interest in the outcome (not necessarily of the parties themselves, it could be Russia!) do play for such edges.

But that’s only true for close elections, right? Yes, that’s right.

But because single-winner, first-past-the-post voting yields a two-party system, we should expect that the most consequential elections will frequently be evenly matched.

The two parties are strategic actors, and they want to win a struggle for power. [1] When either party’s strategy leaves it losing that struggle by a clear margin, that strategy will change, one way or another, even by poaching aspects of the other party’s identity if necessary. (Consider the realignment of the Democrats when 12 years out of power in 1992, or Republicans’ adoption of Dixiecrats.) With party institutions more eager to contend for power than they are devoted to any fixed ideology or constituency, a 50/50 divide is the equilibrium, the attractor.

So, to sum up, the United States’ electoral system yields:

  • Elections that, when closely matched, yield a tremendous return to just a little bit of manipulation, corruption, or voter suppression

  • A near certainty that the most consequential elections will often be closely matched.

That’s pretty bad, right?

It’s worse than that. Parties will try all of the above, manipulation, corruption, and voter suppression. But manipulation is the safest — because it’s often legal, “legitimate” — so it is done most loudly, most aggressively. If you can do something, any little thing, that fucks with the news cycle immediately preceding the election, you can win everything for almost nothing. But one pundit’s manipulation is another statesman’s persuasion, right? What’s wrong with trying to persuade voters to come to your guy’s side (or stay home rather than voting for the other guy)?

The thing is, a two party system imposes by construction its own political spectrum, expressible as the probability a given voter will vote for Party A over Party B. Given the broad, unruly coalitions forced by the two-party system, party alignments and realignments are tectonic. They happen slowly, except whey happen quickly in rare, unpredictable events we describe as “earthquakes”, like Donald Trump’s insurgency within the Republican Party (which up-ended some, but not most, of the Party’s prior commitments, and forced some reorientation within the Democratic Party as well). During the run-up to a given general election, however wildly platforms or promises veer left or right, the deep structure of the parties, defined by particular humans and their relationships and commitments, is essentially fixed. Given these fixed coalitions, Party A and Party B, there are the “hard-A-ists”, who would never think of voting B, and the “hard B-ists” for whom voting A would be treason. These groups are connected by a gradient, from the hard A-ists, through the soft A-ists, who are 80% likely to vote A but might sometimes consider the other guy, to the genuine independent, the swing voter, who might really vote either way. [2]

The swing voter is, by construction, the voter most indifferent to the core commitments of the competing coalitions. The swing voter is the motherfucker for whom the A-ists and B-ists really are alike, because her concerns are simply orthogonal to the conflict embedded in the structure of commitments that, by a given election, the two parties have already competed and collaborated to develop in order to divide the influence-weighted electorate (not one person one vote!) into a roughly 50/50 split. (The two parties compete to form and/or poach commitments that would render their side popular. They collaborate by agreeing to leave off the table commitments that might be popular among voters, but that would be antithetical to interests that both parties share, like privileging incumbency or appeasing rich donors.)

The commitments of the parties evolve slowly. They accrete over time in personnel decisions and private relationships. They are made credible by the formation of institutions that reward those who uphold them and punish those who do not. But the outcome of elections turns on precisely the voters at the margin who are most indifferent to the divergences between the entrenched commitments of the two parties. It’s not that these voters don’t care, don’t have strong interests, values, and views that they’d like to see represented politically. It’s that, in a given election, the actual contest between the two actual parties is confined to a narrow subset of potential disputes, and there will always be some group of voters who are more-or-less indifferent to that subset of disputes. And precisely those people are the margin of victory, the ones who decide our elections, much though not all of the time. [3]

Harry Frankfurt famously defined bullshit as expression that is indifferent to its truth or falsehood, communication whose purpose is instrumental, rather than to inform or to mislead. If over the timescale of an election campaign, party commitments are largely fixed in ways that usually divide the (influence-weighted) electorate about evenly, but that leave a subset of the electorate genuinely indifferent to which of those two sets of commitments prevail, there is nothing true or false to say that might persuade people. The most political of political speech, the speech we hallow with special Constitutional concern and deference, direct advocacy with respect to general elections, becomes, necessarily, almost always bullshit. We do not learn, at the political conventions now ongoing, which individuals, relationships, and institutions durably guide the parties, what agendas will quietly guide the patronage and grants of power or prestige within each party, should it come to rule. That’s not because there is some nefarious conspiracy to hide party commitments, but rather because the politically engaged public already knows and understands them. Most of us have embraced or made our peace or shunned the parties already, because the two parties’ commitments — both where they diverge and where they don’t — are actually pretty transparent. For those not moved to join a team by these pretty stable, pretty transparent commitments (that have little to do with formal platforms or campaign promises), all that’s left is bullshit (which sometimes takes the form of formal platforms and campaign promises, or uplifting personal stories expressing our team’s virtue and decency, or infuriating anecdotes revealing how craven and vicious prominent members of the other team are).

Our sacred political seasons are not where the great and weighty principles and compromises that guide our republic get worked out. That happens quietly, in hiring decisions and donor calls, in board and committee appointments, in the consultants and fellows who are hired, versus those who are effusively admired but passed over. Our two political parties are in a constant dance, forming and reforming in reaction to one another, in response to the electorate as they perceive it and the institutions (whose shape is also a battleground) through which that electorate expresses itself.

In the American system, most politics happens within the parties. The role of the public is indirect: To constrain the coevolution of party politics, because the parties must stay locked in 50/50 embrace. And then to flip a coin, to decide which coevolver wins. The public meaningfully decides only during elections (maybe including this one) where the 50/50 embrace has failed, where events have outpaced the parties’ capacity for realignment and left one party so far behind the midpoint attractor that the cloud of noxious randomness generated by inexhaustible bullshit and competitive manipulation and suppression just is not enough to give it a serious shot.

But many elections are close enough that it is not the party that decides, but the bullshit. And bullshit is too anodyne a term. The competition to sway a few points of the most indifferent fraction of the electorate during the run-up to our elections encourages parties to manipulatively incite passions, to inflame divisions, whose relevance to what will actually be decided is minimal. But the wounds to social peace endure, to be inflamed again and even further next time around. Bullshit is endogenous to our electoral system. But not just any bullshit. Painful bullshit, “toxic”, destructive of the mutual goodwill that institutions of a virtuous nation should seek to cultivate, while not delivering much in the way of meaningful enfranchisement to justify the pain.

This is not how I’d design a democracy. I’d like to change it. But, in the words of a prominent if not great statesman, it is what it is. I do think it a bit rich to complain when all kinds of actors — foreign and domestic, inside the parties and out — join the fray and try to bias the coin as it flips. It’s what we should expect, when we’ve crafted a system that very often gives all the marbles to whoever can put together an edge of just a few percentage points, in a few key races, among the portion of the electorate that cares least about what is actually at issue, who are forced to choose among parties whose commitments they have little role in shaping.

[1] More cynically, each party’s consulting classes require they always be perceived to be in close contention, or their gravy train would cease.

[2] I’m omitting discussion of maybe-nonvoters, but I don’t think they change the story very much. Like the marginal “swing” voter between parties, the eligible voter who might or might not show up sits at a point of indifference, where whatever the two parties are offering, the perceived advantage of one over the other is not great enough to overwhelm the cost or inconvenience of voting. Like the other category of swing voters, these voters are in practice absolutely crucial, should absolutely not be ignored by political campaigns. Get-out-the-vote is a big deal. But that is precisely because these citizens comprise part of the population of near-indifferent voters who often in practice decide our elections.

[3] Much, not all, of the time, because sometimes (like now, this election, I hope!), events outrun the slow competition and coordination of the parties to embody commitments that about equally divide the electorate, so that one party has a temporary but propitiously timed clear advantage over the other. When this happens we escape the pull of the 50/50 election, and the marginal, nearly indifferent, voters become less relevant. But it’s rare that a predicted victory margin is so wide and certain in real time that campaigns can afford principled restraint in favor of less principled attempts to manipulate the marginal voters. The cost of a small mistake in polling would be the whole game.


3 Responses to “Weakness is provocative”

  1. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    Israel is one obvious cautionary tale of how multiparty proportional representation can be similarly dysfunctional. It isn’t clear that adopting a more proportional system here would produce a better outcome than theirs. The deeper reform worth exploring may be sortition in place of elections, because elections are so terrible for reasons including but not limited to these

  2. Unanimous writes:

    I think you place too much importance on the electoral system. Public discourse occurs largely via the media which is made up of organisations in an existential competition to exaggerate and dramatise everything to the point of falseness. There are many varied electoral systems that are full of bulshit due to this.

    The worst performing electoral systems in history have been of the proportional representation variety where the bullshit you speak of is no longer primarily in the election cycle, but is unavoidably brought into the week to week runing of the government.

    Things that appear to help to some small extent include compulsary voting, and preferential voting. There are also degrees of proportionalness – such as large electorates that return 5 or so representatives each on a proportional basis so you end up with 4 or so parties with a real shot at being part of government and avoid the truely reckless bullshit parties.

    But none of the above really solves the problems you point to.

  3. hunkerdown writes:

    > The two parties are strategic actors, and they want to win a struggle for power

    I’m afraid you’re going to have to better support that statement. Both parties are agents working for the same oligarchy. Neither party wants to win because it would mean the other party gets hurt and playtime is over. The purpose of the bipartisan machine is to simulate combat, not hurt its adherents. In an acronym, LARP.

    Even if true as written, in practice the two-party system itself is fragile. If one of the two duopoly parties falls out of machine control, the other will follow quickly thereafter. Therefore, it is in the party system’s interest for each party to take special care to prevent the other from becoming irreparably damaged as a natural consequence of being the one seen taking pro-oligarchy actions. Those goofy acts of bizarre rationalizations, unforced errors, or punches pulled are in fact competent acts toward clandestine motives. Unfortunately, there’s a thread of human nature that loves its captors and abusers.