With Democracy, There is No Right Answer

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.