Saturday, August 28, 2010

Elections Revisited

Some time ago on the Fray, Gregor tried to get me and others excited about what he saw as a paradox at the core of democracy: in general, different election methods can give widely different outcomes, and some of the ones that seem most fair can in certain circumstances lead to ludicrous results. His post is here. See also Concorcet's Paradox. If a fair election is a theoretical impossibility, and a "free and fair election" is the minimal requirement of democracy, what's left?

I thought then, and I think now, that voting has as much to do with rituals of power as with fairness. Failure to vote is an issue less because your vote is likely to affect the outcome, but because it's a kind of ritual impropriety, a poo-pooing of politics, like insulting the bride at a wedding.

Turns out democracy has a lot of problems tucked into its elaborate mythologies. The guy who writes about them most lucidly is Raymond Guess, whose History and Illusion in Politics is a handy primer of bogosity. Voting is but a small bud in an elaborate bong. Why in the hell did I ever think the contract theory of government made sense? What kind of contract is this -- I'm part of the contract from birth, and if I decide I don't like it, I can go to jail. Does tolerance make sense? What is a human right?

Guess writes with incredible clarity on these and other matters. I had been wondering how it was that institutions that I felt were the cornerstones of our democracy have been tumbling so easily. Part of the reason is that most of us never understood what they were doing in the first place.


Keifus said...

I always voting gave you a license to complain, and that's about it. But impropriety isn't always a bad thing. Behaviors should always be questioned.

I think I'd like the book.

(I think part of the thing with Glee is an underlying message that high school is basically a horrible place. The problem with the show might be that it doesn't communicate it too well, made more obvious when you consider these kids whose lives are wrapped up in talent and impassioned artistry. The quality of the performance is obviously a wink to the audience, and it's funny, but it rubs off after a while just the same.)

Dawn Coyote said...

"Part of the reason is that most of us never understood what they were doing in the first place."

That's a scary thought, if I have the implication right. Sometimes I wonder if, for all our veneer of social progress, we're just an economic collapse away from shooting the neighbors for food.

On the other hand, the fear and trembling the Tea Party seems to inspire of late baffles me. They seem more like sheep in sheeps clothing than a threat to truth, beauty and the American way.