With Democracy, There is No Right Answer

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For
the past week, the press and many ordinary Americans have been treating
this Presidential race as if there were some kind of "right"
outcome. All that is necessary to find the correct result is to
look hard enough. If we just try really hard, we'll be able to uncover
the candidate that the "will of the people" dictates will
be the next president. The truth is that democracy does not necessarily
produce a "correct" answer. This election is essentially
a tie. Those people in Florida can recount the votes 900 times,
and they'll still come up with 850 different answers. Elections
are messy things. In every election some votes are thrown out, some
are damaged, and some are lost. There is fraud on both sides. The
only reason that democracy seems to work is because there is often
a large enough disparity between the number of votes cast for each
candidate, that the winner has some breathing room. This time that
did not happen.

Even
if it were possible to get a stunningly accurate count, how can
we say that one man deserves to be president over another simply
because a few hundred people happened to prefer one over the other?
How does this justify that half the nation must be forced to endure
the rule of a man they despise based on the votes of a mere handful
of voters? What could be more undemocratic than that? If you say:
"Well, the President wins because that's the law", then
you are relying on something other than democratic theory. You are
relying on the power of statutory or constitutional law which is
not democratic at all. At that point you have entered the legal
realm instead of the political realm, and democracy no longer controls
decision making. When it comes to close elections, candidates must
always be chosen by undemocratic means because democracy breaks
down in the case of a very close election. In places like New Mexico,
elections with unclear outcomes are decided by flipping a coin.
Other places decide by drawing straws. There has never been a close
election that could not be disputed in court or taken to some other
undemocratic forum.

Democracy
has failed to produce an outcome in five presidential elections.
This means that democracy has failed about 10% of the time. A system
that fails 10% of the time is a bad system. If a child safety seat
failed 10% of the time, a lot of heads would roll, yet we embrace
democracy like it's sacred dogma. We're fortunate in America that
we have a plethora of back up plans for when democracy fails. These
mechanisms exist because the authors of the Constitution knew
that democracy was a bad system. Only one institution of the federal
government was designed to be chosen through democratic means: The
House of Representatives. All others were chosen by some group other
than "the voters". Moderation in democracy was seen as
necessary to protect the blessings of liberty and classical liberalism.

Later
generations made the mistake of confusing democracy with liberalism.
They failed to note that democracy was only one tool of many employed
by the Constitution to protect liberalism. It was used to provide
balance among the economic classes and to allow for the representation
of diverse factions within the federal government. By spreading
democracy to the Senate and the White House, we have done away with
that balance so that American classical liberalism has now gone
the way of the dodo. Democracy, like any other tool, will be dangerous
if used incorrectly or left unattended. Some societies and some
generations have wielded democracy with great care. Here in America,
we have worshipped democracy for so long that it now rules us instead
of the other way around. The American government runs around the
world punishing those who refuse to adopt democracy, and yet we
have never shown that the system even works here in America.

When
all the smoke clears after this election, it will not be impossible
to say who really got the most votes. It won't even be possible
to say who got the most votes in Florida. The matter will be decided
by a judge, or a commission, or by a bargain struck between the
two campaigns. Why do we have any reason to believe that the exact
same outcome could not have been determined in some smoke filled
rooms by a bunch of delegates or other elites? Whites, blacks, rich,
and poor constituencies would all be represented through their respective
elites. State legislatures would send representatives to decide
on a president. It would be kind of like choosing a Pope. We'd all
sit outside the Capital building, and when the red, white, and blue
smoke rose out of the chimney, we'd know that a President had been
chosen. It would be fast, easy, representative of various interests,
and not a dime would be spent on campaign commercials.

Is
this scenario any less legitimate than the orgy of demagoguery that
takes place every four years? Politicians spend billions of dollars
on deceptive ad campaigns, make contradictory promises, avoid any
meaningful issues, and in the end, we need to have the outcome decided
by a district judge in Florida. I really don't need all the excitement.
I have a wife. I have a prostate. I have plenty to worry about without
having to endure this nonsense every four years.

(Thanks
to Thad Tecza for contributing to this article.)

November
14, 2000

Ryan
McMaken is a graduate student in American politics at the University
of Colorado. He edits the Western
Mercury
.

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