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Elections and the general will

March 19th, 2004

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.

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  1. March 19th, 2004 at 18:25 | #1

    Some years ago (isn’t the internet old) I remember correcting Lev Lafayette on this sort of reasoning in news:aus.politics when he inferred that the Fijian elections implied all sorts of things about “Fijians” wanting a certain sort of society. Over and above the fallacy JQ pointed out, he fell into the trap of using democracy to define “we the people”. Clearly Fiji is one of those cases where identity issues will get the answer you ask for, depending on just who and just how you ask for it. Mr. Lafayette saw the point about taking the implications of one election too far.

    But there is a more serious point. Just as we find aggregating things convenient, abstracting out a certain level of detail, so also it is easy to think of whole countries as entities. After all, this approach does produce results – invade Iraq, get Saddam Hussein, and so on. And, in responce, those dealt with as an entity tend from human nature to react collectively. Over time, the myth takes on flesh (which is the function of myth in human affairs – I am careful not to write “purpose”). This is actually the mechanism by which tribal chiefs gained greater local control in the face of European pressure, along with gaining control (a la Pirenne) of resources that were flowing in from outside, like guns and nails and such. Once the myth has been operating, to a certain extent it comes true – we are working in that strange mystical area of people’s ideas having consequences, and if their ideas are of an aggregate, somehow that emerges too. (I’m not for it, I’m just describing it.)

  2. Warbo
    March 19th, 2004 at 19:21 | #2

    In the case to hand, it’s been amusing to see the same reasoning applied to the British, Spanish and Australians (“who bravely stand beside us as we fight the forces of evil”) and the French (“cheese-eating surrender monkeys”) perform a backflip with spin, twist and raspberry to produce the “cowardly Spaniards”.

    Even odder, this leads RWDBs to imagine that lefties worship characters such as Chirac, who seems to be a complete prick.

  3. TJW
    March 20th, 2004 at 02:02 | #3

    Thats similar to what I was thinking just before. Some actions require more than a simple majority – a two-thirds majority for example. This will supposedly require both parties to support any change. But isn’t it possible for a party to (very rarely) get two-thirds of all seats but with much less than two-thirds of the vote?

  4. TJW
    March 20th, 2004 at 02:03 | #4

    I was thinking specifically of removing judges.

  5. Louis
    March 20th, 2004 at 16:55 | #5

    John

    quoting you-
    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.

    remove the last fullstop, add a comma, “then……you fill in the rest.
    :-)

  6. March 20th, 2004 at 17:07 | #6

    Louis, if you had read on, you would have found the rest filled in two sentences later:

    “… then it would only be true that the 5 per cent or so who changed their votes had done this.”

    So what exactly is your point here?

  7. gordon
    March 21st, 2004 at 10:45 | #7

    I hope Americans who think anti-(Iraq)war activists are anti-American are reading this. As PMLawrence notes, to consider whole countries as entities is terribly misleading, and many people in Australia and Europe who oppose the Iraqi war know that they are opposing a particular Government acting at a particular time and place, not “America” or “Americans”. I have a feeling (which I think I mentioned sometime last year) that we make the distinction between a nation and its government more easily and frequently after the Vietnam War than we did before – but maybe its just a better-educated population now. Mind you, there does come a time when events drive people to lose the distinction. I’m sure there were people in the UK, USA, and many other countries who, while thoroughly deprecating Nazism, maintained that there were millions of Germans who were blameless and perfectly decent people. As WWII cost more and more casualties, the only “good” German became a dead one.

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