Politics & Policy

Jersey Dems vs. Democracy

Well, sort of.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the New Jersey folderol too closely. I don’t know much more than the fact that a grubby little man named Robert Torricelli dropped out of the Senate race because he was going to lose. I also know that he basically took the neo-Dickensian position that “if the people don’t like me, then the people are a ass.”

Of course, as a matter of principle, it’s entirely possible for the people to be entirely wrong. They’re not, in this case, because Torricelli is the sort of guy better suited for explaining cost-overruns in his “sanitation” business to the Newark City Council. But, in principle, a senator could be right for thinking the people were wrong.


As longtime readers know, on my best days I can muster only two cheers for democracy, because sheer numbers need not have any correlation to moral authority. If they did, Americans could vote tomorrow for the ritual slaughter of everybody named Bob and “democrats” would have to endorse it because “the people have spoken.”

The Founders understood that democracy was important, but if you didn’t filter it through a republican system you’d be just as likely to end up with a tyranny of the majority as you would with a healthy society. Don’t worry, I won’t quote the Federalist Papers, but trust me, it’s in there.

There are many sophisticated people, for example, who think being able to vote with your remote control would enrich our democracy; I think it would ruin it. (See “Vote.con.”)

Consider the growing push to give prison inmates and other convicted criminals the vote, on the grounds that their “voice” is allegedly sorely missing from our “national dialogue” (I agree as a factual matter that it’s missing; I just think it should stay that way). This debate is a perfect illustration of the deficiencies of democracy fetishism. Imagine that we gave criminals the vote and they wanted to empty the prisons. Would this position be any more legitimate or wise or right solely because they scrounged up enough votes to win a referendum? An idiot is no smarter if a billion people agree with him and a genius is no dumber if a billion people don’t.

Indeed, since when is any “dialogue” enriched by the addition of large numbers of the ignorant, the apathetic, and the criminal? Have a one-on-one debate with a friend about tax policy and then invite a dozen children, thugs, and couch potatoes to join you — then let me know if the conversation becomes more intelligent and enlightened through the addition of these “marginalized voices.”

People who fetishize voting forget that voting is merely a mechanical means to an end, not an end in itself.

They also forget that one of the reasons we have complicated rules for when and how elections are to be held is so that we can educate the public about the issues and personalities involved. If this educational process didn’t matter — if people didn’t need to know anything about the candidates — we would simply hold election day the same day as we announced the candidates, and people could flip a coin inside the voting booths.

But that educational process does matter, because democratic societies only function properly when citizens — not merely “people” — vote. Any old carbon-based life-form, spastic monkeys and deranged hobos included, can pull a lever. The people we want to vote are the ones who actually have a considered opinion on the issues at hand. If that’s 300 people out of 300 million, that’s fine with me.


The New Jersey supreme court decided that an election needs a choice between two major-party candidates. Fine, they may be right — I don’t know. But I am sure that an election is meaningless if debate and competition between candidates takes a backseat to mere lever-pulling.

As any teacher will tell you, educational processes must of necessity rely upon arbitrary rules. Deadlines force students to study for tests and get their term papers done. Sure, deciding that a paper is due on the 15th, instead of on the 14th or 16th, is entirely arbitrary. But if you say “turn your papers in ‘whenever’” the work will simply never get done.

The same holds true, for example, for election days. A firm election day — like any other deadline — forces citizens and candidates alike to concentrate. Politicians run the most ads as the deadline approaches, and voters pay the most attention.

The actual date of Election Day is arbitrary and meaningless — but the fact that there is a firm and final date is essential to democracy. That’s because the organs of our political culture have grown around that firm deadline — and other election rules — like coral building around a sunken ship. These organs — debates, editorials, magazine profiles, garden-club meetings, voter guides, speeches at school assemblies, what have you — serve the public’s need for information and debate. It is these processes which make a democracy work — not the ability to pull a stick or punch out a chad.

If, for instance, voter turnout were too low on Election Day, sure, we could give the people an extension. But we would not enrich our democracy by extending the deadline just so we could round up a few lever-pullers and chad-punchers who couldn’t be bothered to vote on time. Saying voting is what makes a democracy healthy is like saying chewing is what fills your belly.

This is what’s wrong with the Torricelli maneuver. Forrester chose a strategy to run against Torricelli. He made a long series of careful decisions about the kind of campaign he was going to run. Obviously, if he had been running against Frank Lautenberg he would have made different decisions, and the campaign would have looked very different. In short, Forrester played by the rules of the game. The voters were told what was going to be on the test and that is what they prepared for. If that educational process is less important than the merely mechanical process we call voting, then why have campaigns at all? Indeed, why shouldn’t the Republicans convince Forrester himself to drop out so they can drop in Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rudy Giuliani?

Oh, don’t tell me it’s because those guys don’t live in New Jersey. If, as the New Jersey supreme court sees things, having a choice between two candidates is the sine qua non of an election, then surely the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t from New Jersey is a mere technicality, paling in comparison to the need for competitive lever-pulling.

Besides, the rules that say you should be a resident of the state you run in are a limit on direct democracy, too. But they serve a function in a republic, in that they educate potential candidates on the nature and flavor of the communities they are supposed to represent. If these rules can always and everywhere be chucked aside — by judges, no less — for the sake of putting the glory of ceremonial lever-pulling above the imperative to have an informed electorate and qualified politicians — then there’s really no need for electoral politics at all. Just let the judges decide.


The Latest