Democracy Here and There

Democracy frustrates people. That seems a permanent feature of democracy. If I voted with the majority, and my candidate or party wins, I feel pleased. If I voted with the minority, and my candidate or party loses, of course I feel disappointed; but as long as the election seems fair, I can console myself with that thought, and try harder next time.

But back in 1951, a mathematician named Robert Arrow demonstrated that the election cannot really manage that. Arrow picked three obvious characteristics of a fair election, and showed that no system of voting could have all three.

Real world elections often fail in more spectacular ways.

No one outside the United States of America can figure out how our primary elections works. Each state has its own set of rules: “winner take all” or some complex version of proportionality; open primary, or closed primary, or caucus; delegates free to choose their candidate, or who must vote one ballot, or two, for their candidate.  It all makes no sense in theory.  It all just seems to have grown for arbitrary historical reasons.

No one inside the United States can make sense of the system either.  The New York Times publishes elaborate, mind-numbing charts of the primaries, caucuses, delegates and their consequences.

This chaos actually has its upside.

National elections in the United States seem designed to frustrate as many voters as possible.  Since the votes count by states, and most states reliably belong to one party or the other, campaigns can more-or-less ignore most states.  Florida, Ohio, and perhaps three or four other states, actually have campaigns.  The others have uncontested “go-through-the motions” voting without suspense.  Pundits can call the election in those states before voting starts.

So if you vote Democratic in a red state, you know you might as well have stayed home; your candidate will lose your state.  If you vote Republican in that red state, you will enjoy the sense that your candidate won, but the candidate would have won without your vote.  Vice versa, of course: if you vote Republican in a blue state, you will get little satisfaction from your effort.  If you vote Democratic, you will get the pleasure of contributing to the winning effort, but contributing a negligible amount. If you sat out the vote, your side would win anyway.

General elections in the USA frustrate most of the voters.

The crazy patchwork quilt of primaries and caucuses changes all that.  Democratic voters in the states of the former Confederacy have given Hillary Clinton a huge lead in popular vote in the primaries; their votes in the general election will not matter, since those states reliably vote Republican in Presidential elections.  Republican voters in blue states have given Donald Trump resounding victories in the primaries.  Trump has not done nearly as well in states which might actually vote Republican in the national election.

Voters who scarcely count in the national election matter a great deal in the primaries.  The crazy patchwork quilt gives them a reason to vote; it makes them less frustrated.

The chance for brokered conventions, in which party elites might override the choices of primary voters, creates the opportunity for reintroducing an even greater measure of frustration.  Stay tuned for what happens next. Whatever happens, a great number of voters will feel disenfranchised.

Democracy in Israel frustrates people in a totally different way.  Voters pick a party, and the seats in Knesset get apportioned according to the popular vote.  Each individual vote contributes to the success of a party. Geographical location does not make a voter irrelevant, as it does in the United States.

When the party elite choose the actual candidates presented by each party, voters can legitimately feel frustrated by not having the chance to vote for the individual they prefer.  Some parties have begun a primary system to allow party members to have a say in picking the slate.

Democracy frustrates Israeli voters in another way.  No party has ever had a realistic hope of gaining a majority of the mandates in Knesset.  After the campaigning, shouting and posturing has ended, and after the voting has ended, the outcome of the election remains deeply in doubt. The President offers the opportunity to the leader of a party to try to form a government.  Party leaders negotiate behind the scenes to try to reach a stable coalition.  Tiny parties sometimes have extraordinary leverage.  Eventually the negotiations settle with some sort of coalition, but what you get does not necessarily resemble what you voted for.  The largest party in the coalition necessarily negotiates itself into unwelcome constraints in order to please the minority coalition members.  Voters, even those who voted for the largest party in the coalition, might feel frustrated.

In both countries, in all countries that practice democracy, leaders should watch out for how much frustration they produce in the course of securing political power.  I think we do not want to discover the limit of public toleration for frustration.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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