Elections and the general will
Looking back at the debate over the Spanish election outcome, it struck me that many of the contributions to this debate suffered from a confusion between electoral outcomes and notions akin to Rousseau’s “general will”. My own contributions weren’t entirely free of this fallacious reasoning.
To clarify my point, suppose purely hypothetically it could be shown beyond doubt that, in the absence of the terrorist attacks, the PP would have won, and that those who changed their votes did so in the hope that this would appease terrorists and induce them to direct their attacks elsewhere. Much of the debate has taken it as self-evident that, if this were true, then it could justly be said that the Spanish people had displayed cowardice, given in to Al Qaeda and so on. But even in this hypothetical case,k this would not be true. It would only be true that the 5 per cent or so who changed their votes had done this.
To take a marginally less controversial example, one way of interpreting the results of the most recent presidential election in the US is that the voters couldn’t make up their minds between Gore and Bush and decided, instead, to leave the choice up to the Supreme Court. Stated baldly, the claim seems evidently silly, at least to me, but when I checked, it wasn’t hard to find exactly this analysis being offered by Time Magazine
Writing in December 2000, for Time, Eric Pooley said
The voters couldn’t decide between Bush and Gore, and Congress is split between Republicans and Democrats, but as we groped for a solution to the election mess, we couldn’t help looking to the courts for a wisdom that rises above the nation’s two angry political camps.
which is pretty much the formulation I came to when I looked for a reductio ad absurdam of the ‘general will’ idea.
The correct interpretation is of course that (almost) no-one wanted the election to be decided by the Supreme Court. It just happened that the numbers of people who voted for the two candidates, as weighed by the vagaries of the electoral college system, were almost exactly equal. This could have happened in a bitterly partisan electorate, or one where most people were largely indifferent, or any combination of the two.
The function of elections is not to express the (non-existent) general will but to choose a government (or a legislature). If the process is working well, the decisions made by governments will either be acceptable to the majority of voters or will produce a change of government. Where the process works badly enough, long enough, some sort of structural change usually ensues. For example, after a succession of New Zealand governments implemented unpopular neoliberal policies, the voters threw out the constituency-based plurality system that had produced strong one-party governments and replaced it with a proportional system that virtually guaranteed coalition governments.