Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Democracy, Temporality, and Legitimacy

The most recent issue of the American Political Science Review (February 2004) includes an essay that I haven't seen any other the many political theory and science bloggers I read regularly mention yet, so I thought I'd discuss it here, since APSR's content isn't available online, and this essay is really one that deserves a wide readership. It's by Harvard professor Dennis F. Thompson, and titled "Election Time: Normative Implications of Temporal Properties of the Electoral Process in the United States." Not a thrilling title, to be sure, but the essay develops a framework for thinking about and linking together some of the most important and necessary political reforms in the U.S. today. Basically, Professor Thompson shows how gerrymandering, recall elections, exit polls, unrestricted campaign donations, absentee ballots and much more all challenge the legitimacy of our democratic process, by way of emphasizing the temporal requirements of democracy. It is important, he argues, that the particular moment of voting--"election time," as he puts it--be respected and cultivated, or else the process itself can be undermined. I've never been much of a "good-government" reformer (though California's recall election annoyed me to no end), but this article alone may make a zealot out of me.

Thompson breaks election time into three "temporal properties: periodicity (the intervals at which citizens vote), simultaneity (the range of time in which citizens vote), and finality (the extent to which the result of their votes is conclusive until the next election)." As he writes: "All three [properties] support popular sovereignty--the capacity of majorities to control government--in different but related ways. Because elections take place periodically, current majorities can overcome the dead hand of past majorities. To the extent that voting takes place simultaneously, elections express the will of a determinate majority rather than the preferences of a series of different majorities. Because elections produce final results, they legitimate the authority of a current majority until the next election....[O]ther democratic values, such as fairness and civic engagement, are also strengthened to the extent that the electoral process realizes these temporal properties." (I recognize that various political thinkers--Rousseau and Burke for example--would have numerous different reasons to question the Lockean social contract which Thompson implicitly endorses here as part of his test of legitimacy, but for the purposes talking about reforms in the American polity, I think we can set those criticisms aside.)

Thompson goes on to list certain "anomalies" which he think violate one or more of these properties, and why properly reforming a system challenged by these particular anomalies requires viewing the problem from within a temporal framework. For example, gerrymandering. It is widely recognized that the politicized drawing and redrawing of congressional districts--most recently associated with Texas Republicans, but of course going much further back than that, into the murky racial redistricting of the 1970s and 80s--has reached a constitutional crisis point. However, most of the basic arguments against the fundamentally undemocratic practice of giving elected representatives the power to define the electorate for voting purposes fail in one way or another. Thompson ticks them off: redistricting should be an objective procedural process, requiring random distribution? But that would undermine the ability of representative government to embody and reflect localized sentiments and preferences. Redistricting should create perfectly competitive districts? But that makes competition an end in itself, and maximizing competition in a democracy assumes that the work of representation is best understood as a utilitarian, market-based phenomenon. Partisan redistricting undermines accountability? But that ignores that fact that "even representatives in safe seats generally act as if their re-election is in doubt and therefore tend to be responsive to their constituents."

The truly conclusive argument against our current gerrymandering regime, Thompson feels, is that "elections are not one-time events....Each election, thought a discrete event, stands in an indefinite series....[Therefore, periodicity] provides the means by which present majorities can escape the dead hand of past majorities." To the extent which present practices of redistricting make the drawing of electoral boundaries an arbitrary, irregular process, going through unpredictable contortions or settling into near-permanency depending on the vicissitudes of party politics, then that periodicity--the reliable and legitimating process by which citizens may feel their views and the changes in such adequately internalized through electoral mechanisms--is lost. Invoking Madison's claim that "we can trust the normal process of representation...provided that the issue under consideration is one in which representatives share a common interest with their constituents," Thompson concludes that "the value of periodicity combined with the Madisonian principle implies that the authority for governing elections in general and redistricting in particular should be located outside the ordinary legislative process." He suggests that independent commissions, which have had long success in streamlining and therefore preserving the periodicity of the democratic process in Australia and Canada, not to mention in several states, shows us an obvious route to reform.

This is just the first third of the article. Thompson then goes on to show the negative consequences for democratic temporality posed by numerous other "anomalies." Regarding exit polls, Thompson is highly critical, particularly in connection with national elections. By making information available to later voters (for example, those in California) that was not available to earlier voters (those in New Hampshire), exit polls undermine the useful civic presumption that everyone is voting "more or less at the same time," therefore creating an impression (and arguably the fact) of unfairness, with certain voters having been excluded from the projection of a "more coherent popular sovereign." (Think about it this way: the election which Florida voters participated in was, in a very real way, different from the one which California voters participated in, to the extent that the latter voters went to the polls aware that Florida had already descended into chaos.) It is important for the sake of continued civic trust in our democracy, Thompson insists, for citizens to "vote at the same time...[and] make their choices with equal access to relevant information." Obviously, this argument is even more critical of the extended use of absentee balloting and early voting for the sake of convenience; while there are important concerns for fairness that make such exceptions to the rule of simultaneity necessary (providing for invalids or the elderly, overseas or military voters, etc.), it is certainly not something that should be encouraged, especially when the data (as Thompson shows) doesn't show turn-out increasing in any significant way in states which have made extensive use of absentee ballots or online voting. (In my usual populist/communitarian/traditionalist way, I would have liked it if Thompson had made more explicit the challenge which absentee ballots and "e-voting" pose to the civic ritual of casting ballots, and the public sphere that act helps sustain; but others have made the argument well, and it's clearly implied by Thompson regardless.) And then there is Thompson's case for campaign regulation, both financial and otherwise. Leaping over many dead-end arguments about the financing and directing of campaign expenditures and strategies, with the goal of generating more participation and less wearying echo-chamber-type spin and mudslinging, Thompson points out that the rules must be different for electoral and nonelectoral politics, because the former must be characterized by finality, meaning that legitimate elections must "come to a definite conclusion at a foreseeable time...which until the next elections marks an end to the process of deciding who will hold office." Political advocacy may be permanent, but campaign advocacy is not, and should not be. Thompson acknowledges that his argument only provides a "normative basis" for justifying strict regulation of electoral politics, not a criterion for distinguishing which regulations will adequately fulfill that purpose; to a certain degree, any sort of limit or directive imposed on the spending or collection of campaign donations, or the organization of debates, or the conduct of the candidates, is going to be arbitrary. Yet, he concludes, such acts need not be "objectionably arbitrary if they represent a good faith effort to capture...the principled difference between electoral and ordinary politics."

This has been a long post, I know (though not as long as some goo-goo posts I've read); I doubt many who aren't fans of Dennis Thompson will have made it to the end. But I just find it so interesting think about politics through the frame Thompson has provided, by way of the temporal "rhythm" of electoral politics. Time matters; it matters to how we conduct ourselves in the world, and thus matters significantly to what we do, individually and collectively, as citizens of a polity. Thompson's essay thus makes meaningful an aspect of political life I hadn't though much about before, and by so doing has given, in my view at least, a lot of long-proposed and reasonable reforms a new urgency and relevance. So find go call up any political scientist you happen to be acquainted with, and have them fax you a copy of Thompson's article--that, or go buy the latest copy of APSR yourself. You'll be glad you did.