Democrats and the Logic of Capital

What do liberal, progressive or otherwise Leftist detractors from the Democratic Party have in common with Wells Fargo? They both endorse deferring responsibility in the face of fucking-up.

I say Wells Fargo because that is the bank I use, but I can imagine most banks advocating what I have in mind. For as long as I can remember, Wells Fargo has been regularly offering me credit cards. On the one hand, this is not entirely out of the ordinary. On the other hand, the most frequent kind of credit-card offer I get comes with what they call over-draft protection.

The idea here is that you use more money in your checking account than you have, and instead paying a $30 or more fee the difference is sent to your credit-card and no fee is incurred. In other words, the bank, usually what we associate with financial responsibility, is encouraging you that it’s okay to be financially irresponsible. If you do not have a credit-card, the bank will usually offer a line of credit to you. This makes perfect sense too, because since you need overdraft protection, you probably do not have the minimum of financial responsibility to keep up with your credit-card charges. Even if you aren’t a complete dolt, and get the charges paid off before they get completely out of hand, the bank still wins by encouraging reckless spending, especially if you regularly don’t pay off your credit-cards before the interest actually exceeds the typical overdraft fee.

A very similar logic of deferred responsibility dictates the actions of many “conscience-voters.” Seeing the Democratic Party let them down, they do what any good consumer is knows to do: instead of demanding quality, they demand choice. Typically, the choice implied is the choice of a third-party candidate. However, some freedom of choice advocates go so far as claiming that The People cannot be served by a single party, but only by multiple kinds of representatives who account for the diversity of The People. Everyone is entitled to their very own special opinion, and by extension everyone is entitled to their very own special political representative. Even within the Democratic party this rhetoric of choice prevails: “Yeah, Obama isn’t perfect, but he’s the best choice we’ve got!”

Instead of seeking more effective forms of political organization, many liberals and progressives retreat from power, whether they blindly embrace  or blindly reject the Democratic Party. They frame either move in a rhetoric of choice that is central to liberal capitalism, which is why Republicans can and do talk about responsibility in purely economic terms. Responsibility is a value the Left should embrace for itself, except it should re-cast it in terms of political responsibility first.

Some More Thoughts On IRV

Recently in The Nation, Katarina Vanden Heuvel has spoken about electoral reform. Much of it has to do with what I view as absolutely critical, but relatively peripheral issues—public financing, ballot technologies, media coverage and the like. At one point, she does take up the concrete question of the electoral process itself (how a vote is conceived to measure political will). It’s a long article, most of which I’m not discussing at this point, so I’ll just quote at length.

For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of American voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. During the 2004 presidential campaign, one poll suggested 57 percent of voters thought candidates besides Bush and Kerry should be included in the debates. In the latest biannual survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics of 18- to 24-year-olds, 37 percent of young voters agreed that there was a need for a third party.

If majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan and third parties more than “spoilers,” we need to experiment with more accurate ways to represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and opinions of the American people. Proportional representation–in which 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the seats–is one way. But the United States is an outlier when it comes to PR. We’re one of the few “advanced” democracies that don’t use it in national elections. But PR isn’t as alien as it might seem: Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a proportional voting scheme to elect its City Council for seven decades. Illinois used a similar system to elect its lower house from 1870 to 1980, and it enjoys broad bipartisan support. As opposed to our winner-take-all system, in which a mere plurality of voters can carry an election, full representation allows for the expression of a broader range of interests.

The Democrats’ use of proportional representation in their nominating process gives a sense of what it means: every vote counts, no matter how lopsided the result might be in any district or state.

Although not as radical a departure as proportional representation, instant runoff voting (IRV)–in which low-scoring candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ second-choice votes are added to those that remain, until one candidate wins a majority–is another way to challenge the duopoly while protecting majority rule for all.

Backed by groups like FairVote and the New America Foundation, IRV also has the support of McCain and Obama, along with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and third-party candidates like Libertarian Bob Barr, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader.

And instant runoff voting has begun to catch on with the public. IRV has won thirteen of the last fourteen times it appeared on a ballot, winning landslides in cities like Oakland (69 percent), Minneapo-lis (65 percent), Sarasota (78 percent) and Santa Fe(65 percent). San Francisco just held its fourth IRV election, and exit polls have found it popular there with every measurable demographic. This fall, Pierce County, Washington, with a population of nearly 800,000, will use it for the first time for a hotly contested county executive election. And new cities voting to adopt it will include Glendale, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Memphis, Tennessee. A bill instituting IRV for Congressional elections in Vermont was vetoed by that state’s Republican governor but will be back next year.

Finally, fusion voting has the weight of long experience behind it. Before the twentieth century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties, until major parties started banning it. Fusion allows two or more parties to nominate the same candidate on separate ballot lines. That simple change permits people to vote their values without “wasting” their vote or supporting “spoilers.” The positive experience of New York’s Working Families Party in the past decade shows you can build a viable minority party this way. And fusion has also helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system. These options would dramatically open our electoral system to more choices, ensuring the representation of diverse views instead of seeing them co-opted or suppressed by the “least worst” options presented by the duopoly.

Heuvel doesn’t tout its advantages as well as she could, nor really the problems it helps to mitigate. The dominance of two-parties is, on the face of it, a problem, but when you consider how it arises from our electoral process itself, you realize it is actually a response to the deeper insufficiencies of that process. As a response, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s comparable to the nasty symptoms you get when you have a cold or the flu: they suck, but their absence despite the presence of infection would probably mean worse things.

IRV doesn’t simply remedy the two-party system (a symptom) any more than a decongestant remedies a cold (a deeper problem). IRV remedies the way our political choice appear to us from without—notably in the media, but also in the sense that makes “Candidate A stole votes from Candidate B” meaningful, as if the votes belonged to them. In this sense, our vote is not our own, but almost literally the property of the candidates. When our political choices appear to us to come from sources other than us, the electorate, then our political will is effectively not our own. Worse yet is the triangulation that takes place between us, the politicians, and the supposed place where we meet to tell them what to do. We end up compromising with the politicians and media, rather than amongst ourselves, which is both the source and the end of political polarization from Nixon onward.

What’s at stake in calling for IRV is not simply the “freedom of choice,” if that at all, but the ability to take political responsibility. In this sense, it is not only demands that we change how we look at politicians (“now with more choices!”), but how we look at our own political responsibilities. It’s easy to, taking a cue from the above mentioned the implicit politicians vs. the people relationship demanded by our current voting system, view our political impasse as a failure of the gub’mint and not a conflict born of the electorate’s own inability to articulate its political will. Opening the conversation of electoral reform to include this thought will be a key transformation in the process that changes anything.

Like any Twelve Step program: admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Thoughts on Instant Runoff Voting

Ever since discovering Instant Runoff Voting, I have been amazed how our electoral process can so structure our view of politics, and how little it seems to be treated by political economists. Here is an element of the political process that is thoroughly material, and gives a definite structure to our perception of political choice and the possibilities of political action, but relatively little activism for reforming it (at least in the United States). I am only beginning to seriously survey the literature on this and other electoral forms, but I already see striking differences, in terms of property, between the standard American plurality vote (first-past-the-post, where it’s one vote to one candidate) and Instant Runoff Voting or otherwise Condorcet methods.

In the plurality vote, the votes belong to the candidates. This is why “candidate C” can “steal votes from candidate B.” There is also a bit of bottom-line Capitalist logic to how a winner is determined: not by a popular majority, but by getting more votes than any other candidate, which can easily happen with less than a popular majority when more than two candidates are running. Usually overlooked, too, is how pluralist elections depend upon a forced choice between one of two candidates. It is easy to point out the disconnect between the unspoken rule of pluralist elections and the overt rule of getting to vote for whomever you want, but they are nonetheless connected by the electoral process itself.

Two-Party politics is common fodder among critics of American politics, but Two-Party politics doesn’t represent an ideological limit, but a material limit to political choice in a pluralist elections. Psychoanalytically speaking, Two-Party politics is a symptom of an electoral system with material contradictions (The People cast their vote, but as belonging to the candidates/party). The problem for American politics isn’t so much that Two-Party politics gets us no where, but that as a symptom it has or is beginning to fail to make bearable our electoral system’s failure to enact The Will of The People. This is most apparent in the merging of the Democratic and Republican parties into Left and Right wings of corporate interests, that continue to erode the American economy, infrastructure, and capacity to take care of its own.

Instant Runoff Voting implies a very different relationship between the elected and the electorate, one that I think begins to return political determination to the electorate. Since votes in IRV do not belong to a single-candidate, each ballot effectively belonging to as many candidates for whom the voter wishes to express preference, votes are more easily (though not necessarily) determined by the voters themselves. One way IRV gives more determination to the electorate is by eliminating spoilers and making multiple-party politics an actual and not just a formal possibility.

This is a pretty interesting video on Instant Runoff Voting, the most popular one on IRV on You Tube, but they would have done better to explain how it gets rid of the spoiler-category and not just its effect on an otherwise two-candidate election. In the context of the video, IRV not only helps out “candidate B,” but “candidate C” too. In the initial example B loses to A because of C’s spoiler effect. In the IRV example, the authors assume that the same amount of people would give their first preference to candidate C. In the real-world of pluralist elections, if C is appealing enough to steal some of B’s votes when those voters “know C can’t win” because of the way pluralist elections work, it’s likely that there are more possible voters for C than this video suggests.

IRV makes it harder to argue against a candidate for reasons of “electability,” which makes it easier to for their platforms to be heard. It also makes it easier to raise legitimate criticisms against otherwise front-running candidates, who are often defended as “our only choice” (a fair argument to make, too, in a pluralist system!) by those otherwise willing to hear such criticisms. These are, of course, changes that are maximized by reforms in campaign finance and either the decline of television debates as a proving ground for candidates or the introduction of public national television channels for campaign information.