Thursday, April 26, 2012


Critique of Democracy

Many of my liberal friends lament that we do not have a functioning democracy in this country.  Money plays a big part in elections and in policies adopted by the elected officials.  Presidents solicit huge campaign donations from super-rich Wall Street types and then adopt policies and make appointments that these types favor.  Even if we could get rid of the effects of money on elections, we still would not have a truly representative government that approaches the democratic ideal, rule by a thoughtful and careful majority.  We have single member election districts.  This circumstance makes it nearly impossible for small "third" parties to elect anyone.  Our political parties are coalitions to elect that single member of Congress or that single member of a State legislature or the President.  These coalitions contain factions with differing views on how the country ought to be run.  Elected officials have to cater to certain of these minority groups in order to have a good chance at being reelected.

I compare our archaic system of choosing elected representatives with the election systems used elsewhere in the world.  In a small country like Israel, members are not elected from individual election districts.  Instead, members of the Knesset are elected at large for the whole country.  Different political and religious groups sponsor slates of candidates.  These groups win seats in the Knesset in proportion to the votes their slates receive.  Every faction is represented fairly.  I would call the process "democratic."  Every voting citizen is represented in the Knesset.

Consider how our system works if we eliminate the effects of money.  In each election district, the majority party in that district elects the candidate.  The result is that in a closely divided district, nearly half the population is NOT represented in the legislature or Congress.  Only in those districts where an overwhelming majority of the voters choose one candidate can one say that the great majority of voters are pleased with the outcome of the election.

Does a system in which every small bloc of voters has at least one representative in the national legislature provide better governance than one like ours in which a substantial fraction of the voters are dissatisfied at not being represented?  I don't know.  The experience of Israel suggests that a "democratic" election system does not necessarily produce a government and policies that please the majority of the voters.  It is my understanding that a majority of Israelis favor a peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians, including agreeing on a border between two separate countries, abandoning Jewish settlements that are on the Palestinian side of the border, making concessions about water rights, etc.  It is my observation that the present Likud government of Israel has no interest in doing any of those things.  Settlement activity continues. The wall between the Palestinians and the Israelis is routed to isolate small groups of Palestinians from their  farm land.

Why does the "democratic" government of Israel not follow the wishes of the majority?  It is similar to the effect noted above of the influence of certain coalitions.  Just as American candidates have to placate such groups as the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party to garner enough votes to get elected and re-elected, an Israeli government has to put together a coalition of many political groups in the Knesset to form a majority.  In both cases, the result is far from ideal.
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