More democracy?

James Fishkin

Forty years ago, in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter argued that the expectations for democracy bequeathed to us by the classical tradition were hopelessly unrealistic. He offered an alternative bare-bones definition, one actually satisfied by many large-scale nation-states. ‘The democratic method,’ he said, ‘is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.’ This minimal definition has since been treated by many as a pale shadow of the full-bodied democratic idea. After all, élites may ‘compete’ for office in elections without any very meaningful or widespread participation by the electorate, without majorities being satisfied on particular issues, or without the groups that care most intensely about particular issues getting what they want. While this may be the kind of democracy realised in many nation-states, the question naturally arises whether so pale a version of the real thing is worth having.

We may grant that Schumpeter’s ‘competitive’ model (the mere requirement that politicians compete for elective office) is pale and uninspiring as an ideal, but the conundrum facing democratic theory is that there are serious reasons to be distrustful of each of the more full-bodied versions – at least as any of them might be instituted at the level of the large-scale nation-state. Of course, some issues might be decentralised and turned over to small, highly participatory sub-units – a possibility explored in Robert Dahl’s new book Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: but if we restrict the discussion to those issues handled at the national level, the burden of proof is on those who would go beyond Schumpeter’s minimal and uninspiring position.

There are four major ideals of democracy that seem to have a hold on the popular imagination. Let us see what ‘more democracy’ might mean in each of these four senses. First, suppose that by ‘more democracy’ we mean increasing the fit between majority opinion and public policy. In all the major Western democracies there are serious impediments to majority rule on specific policy issues. The framers of the American Constitution were self-conscious in their design of checks and balances, many of which stand as impediments to majority rule. The separation of Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, the territorial design of the election system, the bicameral character of the legislature, the evolution of judicial review, all provide impediments that have frustrated majority opinion on major policy issues.

A more general impediment to majority rule on particular policies, one not special to the American system, results from the simple fact that electoral competitions typically select parties or office-holders, not specific policies. As a result, the process of building coalitions in constructing party platforms, or in forming a government from various parties (in multiparty systems), will typically consist in piecing together groups with intense interests in particular areas of policy. Such coalitions of intense minorities produce packages or platforms of policies, which, on balance, may have majority support. But each particular policy in the package, if submitted to a referendum in isolation, will often be opposed by a majority of voters. In other words, each group is willing to go along with the overall package because it gets its intensely valued policy. But no particular policy is in the package because it has majority support. This pattern, which Robert Dahl dubbed ‘minorities rule’ in a classic analysis twenty-five years ago, is commonplace throughout the Western democracies.

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