Shaun King, columnist for the New York Daily News, knows how to fix American representative democracy. For King, a democracy that could elect Trump is no democracy at all, and he has five solutions, growing increasingly more ambitious: automatic voter registration, mail voting, making elections a national holiday, abolishing the Electoral College, and making the Senate more representative.
Now, I have no problem with moving federal elections to weekends or allowing mail voting, and it doesn’t bother me very much when states institute automatic voter registration. As for abolishing the Electoral College and making the Senate more representative — well, those are truly terrible ideas, but they have approximately no chance of happening anytime in the near future. The actual proposals in King’s article are a convenient mix of the inoffensive and the unrealizable, and therefore are not particularly concerning. But the underlying attitude behind the piece is concerning — indeed, it reflects a very popular theory of democracy that is unworkable in practice and incoherent in theory, and that undermines confidence in our own quite excellent system.
Why, one may ask, does American representative democracy need fixing? To be sure, there is much room for debate as to the current state of American institutions: My particular hobby-horses here are the growing power of the presidency and the courts relative to Congress, and the parlous state of civic culture. But King’s concerns have little to do with such institutional concerns — what worries King is that American governance doesn’t represent the popular will. “Our current system is such that the overwhelming majority of Americans despise Trumpcare, but politicians have the power to pass it anyway,” laments King. We’re not getting “meaningful gun reforms and reasonable immigration reforms” and it’s because “our government no longer represents the popular will of the majority of Americans.”
King is advocating here the popular theory that governance, properly construed, is a sort of constant referendum: that government consists of always advocating the policies that obtain majority support in the latest poll. Put aside the fact that even liberals don’t consistently believe this, that Obamacare didn’t have majority support when it was passed, that many wanted the courts to mandate gay marriage when most of America still opposed it, that some polls suggest most Americans support one way or another Trump’s refugee-ban policy — and consider the two main complaints: that some American institutions allow politicians or parties to win without winning a plurality of votes, and that Americans don’t vote enough. Both are very frequent complaints — generally on the left, but occasionally on the right as well. Both are unfounded.
The first complaint is very often a simple failure of civics. There are two sovereign bodies in the American political system: the states and the federal government. The Electoral College and the Senate — the two allegedly undemocratic elements of the American political system — fail to consistently reflect plurality popular opinion at the national scale because they are also structured to represent the states. Now, it is possible to make the case that it shouldn’t be this way: that the states shouldn’t be sovereign units and that the Constitution should be amended to reflect this. As a staunch federalist, I disagree quite strongly with this point of view, but it is an honest argument. But it is disingenuous to claim that these federalist structures are intrinsically undemocratic. Rather, they reflect a federalist view of democracy that balances democracy at the level of the state with democracy at the level of the broader nation. Martin Diamond put it best in his excellent essay “The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy”:
In fact, presidential elections are already just about as democratic as they can be. We already have one-man, one-vote — but in the states. Elections are as freely and democratically contested as elections can be — but in the states. Victory always goes democratically to the winner of the popular vote — but in the states . . . Democracy thus is not the question regarding the Electoral College, federalism is: should our presidential elections remain in part federally democratic, or should we make them completely nationally democratic?
It is unfortunately representative of the current political debate that the word “federalism” never once crops up in King’s article.
The second complaint falls apart upon closer examination. The claim that American democracy requires automatic voter registration, mail voting, and a federal holiday for elections is in effect a claim that democracy entails the largest possible number of citizens voting. In the same vein are the occasional proposals that America adopt Australia’s system of mandatory voting. There is debate over whether voter-ID laws effectively prevent some Americans from voting — National Review has weighed in on this debate — but that isn’t really what’s at stake here. What’s at stake here is a matter of just getting as many people as possible to the polls: King, for instance, worries that “finding where, when, and how to register” to vote “is cumbersome beyond belief.”
What good is done by dispensing ballots to every adult citizen who would not trouble himself with investing the effort to send an application to the registrar’s office, or to figure out the correct polling place, or to arrange his schedule so he has time on Election Day?
Now, as a 21-year-old who has voted in three elections since turning 18, I would challenge the contention that it’s really that hard to fill out some forms and make your way to the correct polling place. But it probably is true that if we automatically registered everyone, or made Election Day a federal holiday, or allowed people to vote by e-mail, more people would vote. To which I wonder: So what? What good is done by dispensing ballots to every adult citizen who would not trouble himself with investing the effort to send an application to the registrar’s office, or to figure out the correct polling place, or to arrange his schedule so he has time on Election Day? How much harm is really done to democracy when those who by all accounts don’t seem to prioritize their own voting very highly don’t vote?
Liberals like to talk about the sanctity of voting—that it is a civic duty, an ethical responsibility that comes with citizenship. And actually, unlike, say, Kevin Williamson, I agree. But if you believe that voting is a sober obligation, why would you want to make it such a trivial act that it can be done without a moment’s thought or planning? If voting really is sacred, ought we really to make it frictionless for those who don’t seem to take it very seriously at all? Really, it’s not voting that liberals hold sacred — it’s votes. Liberals believe that an expanded electorate will vote Democratic and, in large part because of this belief, they have internalized a notion that democracy, properly construed, is something of a poll. The higher the response rate, the better the poll — as if democracy were nothing more than sampling the attitudes of the broader public to see which candidate is most in line with a Rousseauian sort of general will.
This version of democracy does not make any sense, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a static set of coherent public attitudes that can be dispassionately measured. Poll after poll has found that Americans are shockingly ignorant about politics — a problem almost certainly compounded within the population that doesn’t regularly vote. Public opinions are often far less robust than they may seem — support for an issue often changes dramatically depending on how it is phrased in opinion polls. And many widely held political positions are incoherent: Americans often express support for the “good parts” of Obamacare — such as the pre-existing-conditions provision and community rating — but not the “bad parts” of the bill — such as the individual mandate — as if it were possible to have some without the rest. This all suggests that expanding the electorate would serve less as a transparent view of the policy preferences of America and more as a slightly improved measuring of tribal allegiances.
Fortunately, there is an alternative vision — one that I, at least, find quite compelling. In this vision, there is nothing passive about voting: rather, voting is the crucial act whereby the American people affirm “the consent of the governed” by collectively choosing their leaders and representatives. The heart of democracy is not some abstract correspondence between governance and popular attitudes; it is the citizenry going to the polls and choosing its government. This is a serious task, and it should be taken seriously. It is a shame that many Americans are poorly informed, or lazy, or don’t particularly care much for voting. But it is not a failure of democracy that we don’t reach out to them with open arms. Democracy is not just a poll. It’s something greater.