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Hullabaloo


Friday, April 22, 2016

 

Boaty McBoatface and our sinking democracy

by Tom Sullivan

Last month I brought you the tale of the UK's Natural Environment Research Council's online poll for naming a new research vessel:

The NERC announced the online voting contest to name the nearly $300 million boat to be launched in 2019 recently, and the leading vote-getter so far is the simple but silly "Boaty McBoatface."
Uri Friedman of the Atlantic considers the outcome and what it says about democracy:
The boat, which is really a ship, acquired new significance this week, when a British official suggested he wouldn’t respect the results of an online government poll in which more than 124,000 people voted to christen the country’s new $300-million research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.” The name received three times more votes than the runner-up entry. The people of the Internet had spoken emphatically, and they’d spoken like a five-year-old.
Journalist Ross Clark observed, “Our leaders, of course, love democracy—until it comes up with an answer different to the one they were expecting.” Friedman asks, "Is democracy a lie?" before citing research suggesting it is, sort of:
In their new book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels gather an array of recent social-science research to challenge what they call the “folk theory” of democracy—the popular conception that “what the majority wants becomes government policy.” Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” may be rousing, they write, but it’s not realistic. Most voters have neither the time nor inclination to pay close attention to politics. They support parties and candidates based not on specific policy issues or coherent ideological reasoning, but rather on their social identities, partisan loyalties, and immediate circumstances—things like their race or religious affiliations, the political party they’ve backed since childhood, and the state of the economy at the time of the election.
Boaty McBoatfacites are in Monty Python fashion thumbing their noses at pomposity, as Nell Frizell wrote in the Guardian. "Nothing makes my lips twitch for a knob joke or silly name like a group of middle-aged professionals trying to be inspiring, profound or historic." But the hue and cry over the conduct of presidential primaries in this country has more to say about the “folk theory” of democracy than Boaty McBoatface.

What voters fail to understand is that primaries do not work like general elections. That they fail to grasp this is not proof that primaries are corrupt, undemocratic, or unfair. But it is an opportunity to consider how democracy works in practice as opposed to in folk theory, if in fact it does work.

Brad Friedman interviewed John Opdycke, President of OpenPrimaries.org and writes:
Opdycke explains why shutting non-party affiliated voters out of the process is of particular concern in primaries that are run with tax-payer funding and resources. But, he explains, the problem is larger than that. "This is a very serious question. Who does the political process belong to? Does the process itself belong to the people, or does it belong to the political parties? Right now, our democracy belongs lock, stock and barrel to the political parties, from top to bottom. And that is a very big problem and it is beginning to come to light."

[...]

While recognizing that political parties are private organizations with a First Amendment right to organize as they see fit, Opdycke explains how the result blocks people from the process and makes it nearly impossible to change the system. "They control the political process. They control the boards of elections. They control how redistricting is done. They control the primaries. They control voter registration. They control every aspect. They even control the Presidential debates. And we Americans, we've participated in that. We have in some ways ceded our power to these political organizations and I think the time has come to take that back. Not abolish political parties, but simply return them to an appropriate place."
Opdycke overstates in saying our democracy "belongs to" the political parties. Still, the major parties (private organizations) have become such a part of how government functions in the states that taxpayers are subsidizing what is essentially formal polling of party members for the purpose of their selecting general election candidates. Primaries are not public elections in the proper sense and are not similarly final. But here are two fair critiques of the system I see:
1) taxpayers should not be subsidizing private organizations polling their memberships (Opydyke), or if they do...
2) the polling (primaries) should be open to the non-party members who are footing the bill through their taxes.
Complaints about the parties' internal processes by nonmembers is chaff that obscures those issues. But there is a flip side to Opydyke's characterization of parties' influence.

A lot of us are not joiners. We prefer to stand alone. But recognize, that choice has a downside. In the political arena, the two major parties are like rival unions. People who join are voters too. They have not ceded their power to them. They exercise it through them, finding strength in numbers. As a nonmember (independent) you are free to schedule a meeting with the boss to negotiate the terms of your employment and see where that gets you. But that is where independent voters stand. Unorganized. Alone. Nonmembers complaining that they have no voice in selecting the union president or in strike votes, and that they don't like how the union conducts its voting is a bit cheeky. Unless they are actually subsidizing the unions' elections as independent voters subsidize the Republicans' and Democrats' primaries.