Democracy? You’re Standing in It

Or the Illusion of Representation

Scottish Parliament - debating chamber, by Daveybot, with Creative Commons licenceDemocracy is the point at which freedom concedes to the majority, when the power to effect change is harnessed by the need to protect social mores. As a sort of rolling compromise, reassessed daily, reconfigured through political decisions quite removed from the experience of the general populace, it’s bound to disappoint. Those charged with representing the electorate, however it might be formed, are at best tangential in their politicking, presuming that their decisions are feasible for society as a whole. This somewhat shaky concept rests on the settled ground of the convention that once every certain number of years, or in an otherwise defined period, public participation determines the composition of the legislature.

In other words, we hold elections and hope for the best.

But what happens if public participation, as represented by votes cast, falls below a critical level? Can we still claim to have a democracy when insufficient electors determine who will lead and legislate? To what extent should representative democracy actually involve direct representation through election? Determining the threshold below which we might be able to say that a country has only a democratic façade could hardly be a straightforward task, given the many permutations of representative democracy around the world. Without considering gerrymanders or other electoral systems that restrict voting rights, how do we determine whether a democracy is, in fact, democratic by the standards I’ve set?

What immediately springs to mind is measuring the turnout of registered voters, but few countries make voting compulsory, so the extent to which those eligible actually bother to register will vary from country to country. The voting age also differs between countries, so pools of eligible electors won’t be directly comparable either. My initial guess is that an appropriate measure would be the number of people who voted as a percentage of the total population, on the presumption that democracies – Western representative democracies at least – have similar percentages of non-eligible voters, with a possibly higher than average non-voting prison population in the United States but similar percentages of underaged populace in most countries (only 7 countries have a voting age of 16, with most of the rest set at 18 and two at 25).

365-268, by sallyrye, with Creative Commons licenceNow this is by no means a precise measure, but it will allow me to discuss something curious about the presidential election in the United States this week. With the world almost literally watching, Barack Obama won an impressive victory. He’s an impressive man; I hope my children watch him as they grow older and realise that someone born of two cultures into a world of discrimination can excel, and do so based on convictions rather than malice. And we can all only hope that his politics are more representative of America’s aspirations than those of his predecessor. But it might be hard to tell.

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times today that Obama has a “real mandate” to introduce guaranteed health care, lower taxes for the middle class and higher taxes for the wealthy because John McCain attacked him as a socialist during the campaign and people voted for him anyway. Leaving aside the peculiar American aversion for socialism in any form, how do we define that mandate? In its strict grammatical sense a mandate is simply the authority vested in a politician by his or her electors. So a president elected with any level of support would automatically qualify. But notice how Professor Krugman turns it into a superlative – this is a “real” mandate, more than can be denied. It is, by implication, not a mechanically allotted political mandate but a more nebulous popular mandate.

But that doesn’t pan out terribly well.

After a great deal of chatter about a record turnout on Wednesday, the figures should be a little sobering, even for the most optimistic of progressives. The Wall Street Journal online has been doing its best to rubbish Obama’s claim of ballot “lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen” – not so much denying the lines, but questioning their lack of precedent. Sour grapes aside, even if the lines were bigger than in 1968 as the Journal claims, that’s still not a particularly impressive feat. With a turnout of 60-61% of registered voters, and only 70% of the eligible population voting, the numbers start to dwindle. Even if you ramp that up to the optimistic 64.1% on Infoplease, it still leaves only 148,218,161 voters out of an estimated 305 million population – just under half. Obama won just over 50% of the popular vote, which would make him representative of around 25% of the US population.

Where, I would have to ask, is the popular mandate in that?

To put this in a recent context, George W Bush received approximately the same percentage of the vote in 2004, with a very similar turnout. Given a slightly smaller population estimate of 293,655,404 that year, he could even have been more representative than Obama. That’s a discouraging thought, but if you track back to Obama’s nearest and most fondly remembered analogue, John F Kennedy, you’ll find that while the voter turnout was around the same in 1964 at 63%, he only carried 49.7% of the vote. With 34,220,984 people voting for him (just over 100,000 more than voted for Richard Nixon) and a total population of an estimated 180,671,158, he only represented 18.94% of the populace. Ronald Regan, if you care to check the figures, was slightly more representative.

Memory, by nobleIgnoble, with Creative Commons licenceSo, to reiterate, it seems difficult to ascribe a popular mandate to someone who receives a quarter or less quantifiable support of the populace, as American presidents customarily do. Of course mandates are flimsy, various things, used mostly by supporters to prove a point, and annoyingly often by politicians who know full well that they almost always have the direct support of less than half the population anyway. Obama, thankfully, seems too gracious for that.

But to remind ourselves of what we actually believe democracy to be, it involves the consensus of a majority – neither a majority of voters nor a majority of those eligible to vote, but a majority of citizens or their equivalent. The romance of democracy and the hyperbole of mandates lead us in many directions, but rarely past the halfway mark.

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