About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Voting in America: the long view

I have recently elaborated on why I disagree with Jonathan Haidt and his position that the progressive view of morality is limited (we allegedly lack respect for authority and the sacred, among other things). One of the interesting commentaries on Haidt’s essay was by Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer, where -- among other things -- he talks about a liberal “bias” in the faculty at academic institutions (by the same token, one could talk about a conservative “bias” among Wall Streeters, but I don’t see anyone in the financial industry complaining about that, and by the way, where is my golden parachute when I retire from Stony Brook?).

But this blog entry is not about Shermer’s or Haidt’s views. Rather, it is on some interesting statistics brought up by Shermer in his commentary. According to his data “Republicans defeated Democrats 25 to 20 in the 45 Presidential elections from 1828 to 2004; in the Senate Democrats outscored Republicans 3,395 to 3,323 in contesting 6,832 seats from 1855 to 2006; and in the House, Democrats trounced Republicans 15,363 to 12,994 in the 27,906 seats contested from 1855-2006.”

These are staggering numbers, and it is perhaps worth pondering them for a bit. The obvious contrast, and the one Shermer wanted to point out, is that while Republicans are (much) better at winning presidential elections, on average they tend to lose in both chambers of congress (albeit by a far smaller margin than the presidentials). This immediately suggests that Americans want a president who is perceived to be strong and tough, a “commander in chief,” as they say, someone who can firmly answer that famous call on the red phone at 3 o’clock in the morning. (This, mind you, is a decision made on the appearance of toughness, not substance: just remember that an actual decorated war veteran, John Kerry, lost to a quasi-draft dodger like George W. Bush.)

On the other hand, Americans seem to trust the task of legislating more to politicians whose social and economic agenda is progressive, or at least moderate. These are the very same people who brought us all those things for which liberals should justly be proud, and that conservatives hate with gusto: social security, medicare, labor laws, and so forth. (There are, of course, exceptions here too: think of the Newt Gingrich Republicans winning on the impetus of the so-called “contract with America.”)

We are seeing a similar situation again this year, where Democrats are poised to make large gains in both the House and the Senate, based on the mess the Republicans have managed to produce during the past eight years, especially in terms of failing to protect the social net and squandering billions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich, a black hole of a useless war, and now a massive bailout of the financial markets. And yet, Obama and McCain are in a virtual dead heat, with Obama not being able to capitalize on all the discontent reflected in the overwhelming majority of voters saying the country is definitely heading in the wrong direction. (Yes, part of this is of course due to still widespread racism, the Hillary effect, the Palin effect, the blatant lies of the McCain campaign and so forth, but still.)

Why? Why would people adopt such a consistently schizophrenic attitude toward the leadership of their country? I am a rather simple minded voter, I guess, because I tend to be consistent in my choices: if I like the idea of a social net, universal health care, more emphasis on reconstructing America rather than on controlling the world by military might, then I vote for Democrats both in the legislative and in the executive branch (thereby also hoping to get some liberal judges in the judicial branch as well, as a bonus). Yes, I am a partisan, and I dislike the idea of bipartisanship unless it is strictly necessary. The reason for it is because for me ideas are important, not personalities. I couldn’t care less which presidential candidate would make for a better beer buddy, hunting buddy, or kissing partner. I don’t want to go hunting with or kiss my president or vice-president, and I have plenty of good friends to go have a beer with (actually, I prefer martinis). I cringe at the sheer gullibility of middle or lower class people who think that McCain is “one of them” even though the guy is rich beyond their dreams, to the point of not remembering exactly how many houses he owns. I find it sadly risible that someone would find Sarah Palin an appealing candidate because she knows how to “dress” a moose (I just go to the local shop and talk to my butcher).

But it all makes sense, if you think about it. Congress is a much more amorphous, less personal, political body. Most people don’t even know who their Senator or Representative is, and when they do they can often mention only their name and perhaps party affiliation, not much more. When personality is not on the forefront of things people tend to vote according to how much they like the ideas and proposals they hear, the way it should be.

When it comes to the presidency, on the other hand, Americans still display king (and, lately, queen) envy. Even though George Washington refused to be made King George we still have one of the most powerful presidential posts in the world (excluding president-dictators, though lately the line has blurred). It is all about personality and not at all about substance. This explains why people who watched a famous JFK-Nixon debate on television preferred Kennedy, while those who listened on the radio thought Nixon did better. I hated the bastard (Nixon), but the difference, I’m afraid, was due to the good looks of JFK and the all-too-visible sweat on Nixon’s face, not to the substance or even the rhetorical style of what either was saying. And so we keep having presidential election after presidential election where both the media and the public are hypnotized by how tough, likable, kissable, drinkable or whatever, a candidate is, almost regardless of what he (or she) is planning to do once elected.

Hence my modest proposal: let’s get rid of the presidency altogether! Switch to a parliamentary system with a prime minister who is picked by the majority party, even better if coupled with a “shadow government” on the style of the British one. Prime ministers come and go much more easily (and therefore they are bound to do much less damage), the cult of personality is contained, and a parliament is more responsive to the will and interests of the people. It’s time to end once and for all America’s love affair with the idea of the quasi-king commander in chief who can unilaterally declare wars, willfully ignore the law, and blatantly lie to the public -- as long as he is charming enough. Down with the presidency, long live the republic!


  1. I have to say that I definitely agree that it would be a good idea for the US to get rid of the position of President. If they really do wish to have a head of state for official occasions my modest proposal is that they accept back the British monarchy. Old Liz has proved to have been singularly harmless and Charlie, while having various inane ideas about homeopathy and such like, is never going to cause anything like the damage done by the current inhabitant of the White House. Hey, its better than ending up with Queen Paris of the house of Hilton.

    More seriously, I do think that systems allowing strong presidents do end up causing a lot of problems down the road. Poland, where I am currently residing, is in the process of working out how strong the president will be, and I do hope that a more parliamentary system wins out (the much more likely result, thankfully).

  2. don’t want to go hunting with or kiss my president or vice-president, and I have plenty of good friends to go have a beer with (actually, I prefer martinis).

    Martinis? Outstanding. When's the next time you expect to be in Harvard Square?


  3. I've made similar arguments (usually over dinner conversations at which wine was served), but given the deep constitutional barriers, I eventually shifted my attention to other (seemingly more promising) causes.

    Besides, parliamentary systems vary greatly in character - some even feature direct public election of the prime minister (e.g. Israel, at until recently). But even in the Westminster (i.e. UK-based) system, I've heard complaints of the PM office and cabinet as being too powerful or unchecked.

    And I suspect that we're talking about a moving target here, such that Shermer's numbers re: legislative victories in the US seem unlikely to hold under different rules.

    IOW, in the scenario in which presidential races are abolished here (which, admittedly, still holds some appeal to me, if only to reduce the amount of energy consumed during US presidential campaigns), interest groups would simply follow the power, directing all of their election-season lobbying and advertising efforts at legislative campaigns (not unlike what I'm seeing now in my congressional district; albeit, on a smaller scale), especially those candidates likely to be appointed to executive/cabinet positions (i.e. the parliamentary counter-parts to the US presidential "cult of personality" — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown come readily to mind, although I'm sure a Brit could think of other examples beyond PM's).

    That's not to suggest that all political systems are equally vulnerable to corruption and poor judgment, but I suspect that it's a misdiagnosis to suggest that the US's main problem is of a structural — as opposed to, say, cultural — nature.

  4. As a Canadian who has some experience of the Parliamentary model, I might suggest that it is no panacea. I think that the "will of the people" and the eventual roster of those in power might be more reliably linked by abandoning your electoral college, whereas we would do better, in my opinion, to drop the "first past the post" model in favour of a form of proportional representation.

    That is not to say that PR wouldn't improve things in the US, either.

    If accorded a parliamentary majority, a Canadian Prime Minister has more power within his/her government than a US President in his, even with the rather impressive destruction of institutional checks and balances carried out by your current White house occupant.

  5. Picking up on what Mufi said, one should remember that in a parliamentary system, when the government loses an important vote, the government falls. For this reason party discipline is far more intense than it is, say, in Congress. Typically, you vote with your party, or you are expelled from the party. This is especially true if your party is the ruling party. When a majority government is in place, and party discipline is intact, power is more or less concentrated in the hands of the cabinet. (Hence the saying that was thrown at us in Polly Sci class that "The cabinet is a dictatorship limited only by publicity"- not sure who said that). When there is a minority government, there is a risk of stalemate or paralysis (I have seen situations where we have had to have two elections within the space of a year), but sometimes,too, the cooperation can be quite fruitful. Some minority governments have passed more legislation than the majority governments that preceded or succeeded them.

    As to the issue of the president wielding too much power, say, in foreign affairs, I suppose it is true that under a parliamentary system the PM must first insure that his cabinet is onside, then his caucus, and finally the House of Commons (in the British system) as a whole. This does severely cramp his ability to act independent of the wishes of parliament.

    Of course, under both systems it would be fatal if the public regarded the PM or President as fundamentally undemocratic. Bad publicity may be slow to have an effect, but when it does the effect can be devastating.

    You are partly just assuming the role of devil's advocate, are you not, Massimo?

  6. paul01,

    yes, I am indeed -- in part -- playing devil's advocate here. Of course there is no panacea, and a certain amount of corruption simply goes with having a political system (look at my own country of Italy...).

    Also, as has been pointed out here, a huge obstacle to American democracy is the silly electoral college system, a historical leftover that doesn't make any sense any more.

    And it is true that parliamentary systems are varied; I favor proportional representation, even though it often leads to a weak government with many parties (then again, less chance of doing serious damage...).

    Finally, I of course recognize that a change of this magnitude isn't going to happen any time soon in the US. Then again, we need to point the way to better solutions, even if those solutions are very long in coming by. After all, for a long time people thought democracy itself was never going to be realized...

  7. I'd just like to add two comments:

    What andrew says about proportional representation in legislative elections is well-taken (i.e. even for the US), particularly if it is designed in such a way as to: (a) obviate gerrymandered districting; and (b) allow "third-party" candidates to gain some seats (since the best candidate is not necessarily a Democrat or a Republican). What's more, unlike the abolition of the presidency, these electoral reforms are compatible with the US Constitution, and can be achieved piece-meal at the state level (where most election laws are determined).

    I was also reminded that public opinion in the UK was widely opposed to participation in the Iraq War, yet the Labour Party entered anyway. That's not to suggest that public opinion is always right (e.g., if public opinion were to always win out, the UK might also have the death penalty), but it does question the premise that parliamentary systems are necessarily more representative of it (in case that's what Massimo meant to suggest - perhaps not).

    In fact, the more representative a politician's views are, the more essential it is that political constituencies be "tutored" (to use Philip Kitcher's term in a somewhat different context), and that just raises a whole other can-o-worms re: public education, national media, and cultural values.

  8. "and I have plenty of good friends to go have a beer with (actually, I prefer martinis)."

    Ah ha! Just as I expected, a member of the liberal elite, too much of a snob to have a beer with the average Joe! Shaken or stirred Sir Massimo?
    LOL :)

  9. When I was growing up I would hear people say proudly: "I don't vote for the Party, I vote for the man." At the time, this seemed like a good thing... the voter was independent and just wanted the best man for the job no matter what Party he was associated with. It wasn't until later that I realized the fallacy in this. I think that a lot of voters, as implied by Massimo in his article, are still in the "best man" (now women too) mode and somewhat ignorant of Party platforms. Obama took the chance that meeting with foreign heads-of-state in front of huge crowds would make him appear presidential. McCain has gambled on 'stopping his campaign and rushing back to Washington to address the financial crisis' to make himself seem presidential. And some people will buy into one or the other regardless of party politics.

    One of the things I was going to post on the Why do people vote Republican thread is something I came to realize after listening to a man-in-the-street interview on NPR. I'll call it The Deerhunter syndrome in reference to the movie. These are guys who are Democrats because they are blue collar, steel mill or auto plant union workers. But that's the only thing that ties them to the Democratic Party. Otherwise they are beer drinking, bowling team, gun toting, hunting buddies. Not exactly your prime candidates for liberalism. There's nothing like emotion to outweigh rational consideration. When it comes to jobs vs. guns & beer guess which one wins. And who's going to let them keep their guns and buy beer (except on Sunday)... the Republicans. I'm highly educated and socially liberal and I have a hard time fighting the Republican appeal. Joe Six-pack is falling for their platform hook, line and sinker.
    Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  10. From Paul01: "Typically, you vote with your party, or you are expelled from the party. This is especially true if your party is the ruling party."

    This isn't entirely true of the UK system. The list of legislation that each MP gets at the start of the week will have the most important (to the party) sessions underlined. MPs only really get into trouble for not voting with the government on items that are underlined three times (a three-line whip). On anything less you can get away with having urgent business elsewhere, and you'd be allowed to vote against party line on matters which weren't considered important or where there was a free vote.

    The only times that party discipline is consistently strictly imposed is in cases where the ruling party has a very small majority and needs to get all its MPs into the right lobby in order to win a vote at all (like the later Major government). This, of course, then gives enormous negotiating power to individual MPs, so cuts both ways.

    I wouldn't recommend taking our lot back as heads of state. Charles seems harmless enough but is rather too conviced of the rightness of his own opinions for comfort. Personally I think that if we introduced PR, took away the constitutional powers of the monarchy, and reformed the House of Lords, then the UK would be getting towards what a system of government ought to be. We've all got a way to go yet.

  11. Its not really schizophrenia. Until very recently, the Democrats were the majority party and this you see in their house record. The problem at the presidential level is not only the electoral college, but that its not an absolute popular vote but is summed up over states. This means that predominantly Democratic districts in red states entirely lose their voice in the presidential results. So, it may not be (especially in recent elections) that many individuals are going to the booth and choosing a representative and a president from different parties.

  12. Sheldon,

    I like my martinis shaken, of course. But I prefer a dirty martini, vodka, not gin. :)

  13. On proportional representation...

    I don't mean to recycle anyother bloggers post, but as it points out, PR can produce powerful majority coalition governments.

    The German and Irish models (the Irish model is my favourite, as it involves the Single Transferable Vote, which retains a strong regional connection) show you can have powerful governments under PR.

  14. What is the Single Transferable Vote? Is that like the Australian system in which you number the candidates in order of preference and if your first choice gets eliminated, your vote gets transferred to the second, and so on, with the result that your vote can not be 'wasted'? If so, then I really like that system.

  15. The Australian House of Representatives uses a system I believe is calle "Alternative Vote", where you knock out candidates one at a time until one is left. Single transferrable vote is used in the Australian senate, and is more complicated as you end up with multiple elected per constituency at the end, not just one. Both involve numbered preferences, and both have the advantage that there is no such thing as strategic voting, the best thing is just to vote your true preference.

  16. Hi Massimo! I love your writing & blog, but, well, after reading this post, I thought, "While you're dreaming, would you also like a pony?"

    Random thoughts that occurred to me:

    1. There is no chance of getting rid of the presidential system, I'm sure it has supermajority support in the country, and you would have to have a supermajority against to even have a chance of changing it.

    2. Frankly the system has served us pretty well overall, despite innumerable problems. Among the major, huge benefits of a strong presidency in American history: Louisiana purchase, surviving the Civil War intact & stronger than before, making the right decisions in WW1, the Depression, WWII, and (mostly) the Cold War. Yes things have been annoying since Reagan but hey nothing's perfect.

    3. I hate to mention this, but if you want to get into the risks of presidential vs. parlimentary systems, Hitler actually got into power via (a) a parlimentary system with (b) too many parties which (c) let him get in charge with barely a plurality rather than a majority and then (d) consolidated his power in a parlimentary vote where he threatened/twisted the arms of all of the parties (right-wing parties & the Catholic Center Party voted for him, only the Social Democrats voted against).

    There were lots of other reasons for Nazism of course so we can't blame the parlimentary system. The British parlimentary system famously resisted the Nazis under tremendous pressure so obviously blanket statements are dubious. I do think more than 2-3 parties makes the situation less stable, gives the extremists a bigger voice, leads to weaker/unstable government ,etc.

    4. It's a fallacy to compare the post-WW2 Democrats and Republicans to the pre-WW2 parties as if they're the same thing. The modern situation where the Dems are liberal/progressive/doves and the Republicans are conservative/hawks dates to maybe the 1950s. Go back much further than that and the Dems are the pro-slavery (later pro-segregation) party, and international interventionists (e.g. WW1/WW2), whereas the Republicans are the progressives. Lincoln was a Republican and African Americans were fervent Republican voters for generations.

    (There are still some remnants of the old orientation, e.g. liberal New England Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. The political re-orientation happened very gradually from maybe 1930 to 1960 but was massive by the time it was done.)

    (Also, the Republican Party didn't really exist until the late 1850s, I don't get comparisons going back to 1828 or whatever)

    5. When I saw those election numbers what impressed me was really how close to 50% they are. I think it shows that having 2 parties is a moderating/stabilizing influence, since each party strives for the middle in order to get the 50% majority

    6. What you are really complaining about isn't the presidential system or Republican Party since Lincoln, it's Reagan & the Bushes. (Which gives you your five-election margin for Republicans right there.) I agree completely, but if you want to talk about Constitutional reforms that would improve the situation, get rid of the Electoral College. It's an undemocratic anachronism, it makes the votes of some people (rural landowning whites!) matter more than the votes of others, and it gives a major structural advantage to the Republicans. The 2000 debacle was caused by it & many other elections are skewed by it.

    Just IMHO as they say!


  17. Oh yeah:

    7. And despite the power of the president the system does keep him in check. The obvious case is Nixon but there are many many other examples in American history where the courts, congress, media, public opinion, term limits, etc. have checked president(s) going in the wrong direction.

    I think the most important thing about any political system is not presidential vs. parliment, or even having full democracy, or deciding capitalism vs. socialism or whatever, but instead having strong checks & balances in the system. Power needs to be spread out.

    People sometimes say that Darwin or Einstein or someone had "the best idea ever" but really I think the people who deserve that label the most are the Founding Fathers, not for the specific system which can be argued about, but for their recognition that (a) humans are flawed & corruptible and (b) therefore a political system must limit the damage they can do.

  18. Massimo,

    Neither the presidential nor the senate data are statistically unlikely given even chances a Dem or Republican win the race (binomial test). The House data, by contrast, are significantly different by party. Furthermore, even if you condition the probability of a dem v. rep president winning on the results from either the Senate or House, there is no significant difference (Fisher exact test). Theories about president-kings and cults of personality are nice speculation, but there does not seem to be any evidence that the results of presidential elections are much different than you would expect them to be, at least from these data. A more powerful analysis would look, one election at a time, at whether the party of the president is generally the opposite of the party that is gaining seats in congress.

    -- Chris

  19. As someone pointed out in the comments(I'm a new commenter here), neither our presidential system, nor a parliamentary system, are absolutely perfect. And, as someone else pointed out, part of the problem lies with the Electoral College remnant of another time. Originally, the electoral collage was put there to "check" the masses in canse they made a bad decision --- among other things. That should definitely go, the sooner the better. And, like Dr. Piglucci, I think proportional representation is a very good idea. And the kind of presidency we have now, really started with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over many good things that the so called "conservatives" are now trying to dismantle(as they have for years), but because he was elected four times, he created a "personality cult" aspect to the presidency that hadn't really been there before. Ever since then, "personality" and "presence" has been very important in electing a president, for good or bad.
    Anne G

  20. "I favor proportional representation, even though it often leads to a weak government with many parties (then again, less chance of doing serious damage...).

    Sounds great, but definitely creates far more infighting and indecision than you can possibly imagine. I think that Israel has 30 and some parties. Ask a question about politics and political parties there and you'll get lots of rolling eyeballs and sighs of exasperation.

    Once again, sounds good in principle, but in reality people just WANT THEIR OWN WAY no matter what kind of system of checks and balances are in place.

    And that is where the REAL problem lies.

  21. And speaking of principles...

    "The obvious case is Nixon .."

    In principle what happened with Nixon years ago, is basically what happened with the Palins family a week ago. Since the Palin's were not AS forthcoming as some news outlets would have liked, a dem senator's son hacks the information out of their pcs just because he can.

    Same as breaking into personal files by anyone's definition.

    So LIKE where's the outrage? Personal information taken from one party by the other, is just that. And so, if WATERGATE was in fact truly considered a crime years ago for roughly the same reason, going through Palin's personal exchanges and pictures ought to be too.

    principles anyone?

  22. "Once again, sounds good in principle, but in reality people just WANT THEIR OWN WAY no matter what kind of system of checks and balances are in place."

    I find that very often when people say something about 'people' they are really just talking about themselves. So, most often, people who assume that everyone is just out for themselves, do so because that's what they are like, themselves (or, at least, think that they are). Thankfully, people are actually very complex and by no means driven only by selfish motives. Indeed, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of others is a human universal.

    And, yes, I am aware that my response can be reapplied to what I have just said about 'people'. Feel free to do so. I like to think I have the scientific articles to back up my gross generalisations.

  23. Don't know if 'people' are all that complex, K , but you certainly are. :) You think of just about every potential angle!

    One day, Konrad, I met this most wonderful Polish couple out on the freeway about 10 minutes from my house. Their car had just spun a few rotations across the freeway after running over a knife blade (??!!) which caused a blow out. What I saw first was an older woman (late 60s) sitting with the car door open with her hand over her heart.

    As luck would have it, these two were like the kindest people you would ever meet anywhere. Geeze, I mean, I took them home with me (and our kids) till their car was fixed. And I was so glad I that did. I seriously learned so much from them. This gentleman related to me a time when there was no food in Poland for like 8 months! He told me that they, and he was just a child then, would dig around in the forest for whatever. The stories I heard that day totally broke my heart, but I knew that God had preserved him for a reason. We have kept in touch. I just loved those people! What a blessing they were to us!

    But it brings to mind the fact that it could be an incredible danger to a nation to not have strong and decisive leadership. Without it, children and others definitely can starve and suffer when rogue nations place innocent people in the midst of conflict.
    And conflict, in case anyone has forgotten, can be quelled when decent people (authority figures) DO SOMETHING.

    Passivism is more or less a crock.

  24. "In principle what happened with Nixon years ago, is basically what happened with the Palins family a week ago."

    That is just obscene to compare the Watergate scandal, perpetrated by the office and political machine of a U.S. president, to one or a few rogue hackers who don't hold any elected office.

    Obviously, what those hackers did was immoral and illegal, but hardly comparable to the government corruption of the Watergate scandal.

    See how silly you are.

  25. Obviously, what those hackers did was immoral and illegal

    Immoral and illegal indeed. The worst is that, in doing that, they have shown that Palin was also doing something immoral and illegal -- using personal email for official matters. Or so I've heard, because I haven't read her emails. :-)

    Still does not make what the "hackers" did right, of course.

    Digression, actually, I've read it wasn't much "hacking" properly. The guy just guessed the response to her "security" questions to reset "lost" passwords; stuff like zip codes, pet names, etc. Google mining, basically.


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