A Question Which I Wish Americans Would Ask Themselves

New Zealand has a referendum this weekend that will influence whether or not the country will change its electoral system (currently MMP, i.e., a mixed member proportional system).  In an editorial in support of keeping MMP the following line from an editorial in the New Zealand Herald (Flawed, but MMP is pick of the bunch)suggests a key question we should all ask ourselves.

The line:  “Change would be justified only if MMP had failed to produce governments that voters recognised as an expression of their collective will.”

Which leads to this question:  do elections in the United States produce governments that voters recognize as an expression of their collective will?


Update: If one doesn’t like the phrase “collective will” I would suggest the following reformulation:  ”do elections in  United States produce governments that voters recognize as adequately representative of the various political points of view in the electorate?” Another way to put it:  do our elections create an adequately representative Congress?

Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. I don’t think “expression of the collective will” is necessarily the best way to judge a governmental system. Limitations on government for the purpose of protection of individual liberty (which, I would submit, is the primary if not the sole legitimate purpose of government) and minority rights often means thwarting collective will.

  2. As Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem shows, there is no such thing as a “collective will”. It’s a concept that hangs around due to the vestigial Hegelianism in the politics of most industralized nations, the idea that society should be seen as an organism with its own agency. Given the horrors that sort of thinking has led to, this is not a fantasy that ought to be encouraged. Indeed, the single biggest common factor in the craziness we see in both the Tea Party and OWS is the delusion that their individual policy preferences somehow represent a “collective will”.

  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    I tend to agree. Collectives don’t have wills. They do, however, have leaders who impose their will upon them and them clothe it in the aura of legitimacy.

  4. @Doug Mataconis: Yes, but as I always point out in these posts when you offer this rejoinder: I am not advocating for majoritarianism.

    Indeed, as a libertarian I would ask: do you think that the US electoral system adequately represents the interest of the population? Are there, in fact, 0% Libertarians in the US electorate as is the case in the Congress?

  5. @Doug Mataconis: @Stormy Dragon: To me in this context, the issue is a not a single collective will, but a question of whether, in fact, the electoral system produces elected officials that approximate the general views of the population?

    Are we really satisfied with the duopoly that our electoral system very much helps create? In other words: do you believe that what we have in the Congress is an accurate reflection of the electorate? I have my doubts on that count. In anything, the large number of noncompetitive House districts underscores my position.

  6. MBunge says:

    The first question to ask is has the functioning of America’s representative government changed recently? Are we talking about real concerns that have existed for decades or are we blaming a system that used to work well for dysfunction created recently by forces that have little to do with the system itself.

    I don’t think there’s any democratic system that can function well in our current political environment. And if Democrats start acting like the GOP, forget about functioning well. Politics that is entirely about power and is divorced from ideology or the common interest is incompatible with democracy.


  7. @MBunge: I would submit that that there are long-term problems to go along with the shorter term ones. To wit: a large number of uncompetetive House districts gerrymandered such so as to effectively end political competition. From there I would note that there are political philosophies and policy positions that are exist in the populace that never even get a chance of being heard because of the way elections are structured.

    I would submit, in fact, that the long-term problems have helped create the more recent ones.

  8. MBunge says:

    “To wit: a large number of uncompetetive House districts gerrymandered such so as to effectively end political competition.”

    Is that better or worse than parliamentary systems which give the party in power wide lattitude to call for or put off elections for their own political benefit.


  9. @MBunge:

    Is that better or worse than parliamentary systems which give the party in power wide lattitude to call for or put off elections for their own political benefit.

    Radically worse, in my opinion. Early elections allow the voters a choice.

  10. Trumwill says:

    I don’t have any philosophical objections to multi-member districts, though I do get antsy when we talk about a true multi-party system. The status quo has its advantages. If I vote for a Democrat, that is broadly a vote in support of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama. If I vote for a Republican, that is broadly a vote in support of Boehner, McConnell, and the Republican nominee (or, in an off-year, against the president). In a multiparty system, a vote for Clegg can be a vote for Clegg, Brown, or Cameron. I don’t know until things shake out. Now, the UK doesn’t have multi-member districts, but the same concern replies (except even moreso as more parties become established).

    I wouldn’t mind so much a system with committed coalitions (like Australia’s National/Liberal parties), so that if I were libertarian-minded I could vote for the Red Libertarian Party if I were right-leaning or Blue Libertarian Party if I were left-leaning, and as various party-factions in a coalition rise and fall the risers within the coalition get more power or less power.

    But it would be hard to secure guarantees as that goes, and a new system could become more problematic than an old with backroom deals on coalitions to get that 51% to establish control of a legislature or to name a chief executive.

  11. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I understand where you’re coming from there but, of course, we have a political system where dominance by two parties was largely inevitable by unintentional design. We can talk about things like proportional representation and MMP, but that would require, I would think, radically changing the nature of the Legislative Branch.

    Before we do that, I think we have to ask ourselves (1) why? (2) is it worth it?

  12. @Trumwill:

    When you look at multi-party systems,such as what Israel has, for example. I’m not sure they recommend themselves to stability, or to a government that is essential centrist

  13. 1-) In most countries the political structure is almost always something like a two or three party system. There are coalitions of small parties that works a single party, there are several parties that are powerless.

    2-) In fact, I think that it´s impossible to create a system that creates representation that is “adequately representative of the various political points of view in the electorate? Frankly, people outside comments sections of blogs aren´t so worried about ideology.

    By the way, I can tell you about a Catholic country in South America that uses PP and where the Evangelicals holds the second biggest caucus in Congress(The first is the rural landowners caucus!).

  14. @André Kenji de Sousa:

    Frankly, people outside comments sections of blogs aren´t so worried about ideology.

    During the years I actually worked retail politics, this is the one lesson I learned that the pundits, the bloggers, the ideologues, and even I forget. Most people don’t vote based on a coherent ideology.

  15. Dazedandconfused says:

    I’m not sure if this has been a topic on this blog already, but Gate’s Liberty Medal speech was a beaut, short and sweetly to-the-point. It’s partially about how the centuries of gerrymandering is now producing too many Congress-critters selected in single party primaries. Such are not very representative.


  16. ponce says:

    Limitations on government for the purpose of protection of individual liberty (which, I would submit, is the primary if not the sole legitimate purpose of government)

    This libertarian idea of government has always baffled me.

    The best way to protect your “individual liberty” is to leave society and go live on your own in the wilderness somewhere.

    Yet you never hear of any libertarians acting on their bizarre political beliefs and leaving the comforts of civilization.

  17. James Joyner says:

    Dave Schuler frequently made the point on our defunct OTB Radio program that we have far too House districts given a population of 310 million. That’s probably right, although I don’t know how big a legislative body can be and still function effectively. (Although that certainly begs the question right about now, since it’s hard to argue that our current one functions effectively.)

    I like the idea of a two party system, in that it forces big tent thinking in order to get to 50 percent plus one. I fear the extremist tail wagging the dog in a multi-party system. But we’ve somehow managed to coalesce into two parties that are simultaneously 1) not very representative, 2) not very different, and 3) bitterly polarized.

  18. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think I would go with Will Roger’s maxim on this issue, “we have the best Congress that money can buy.”

  19. jd says:

    This is so totally mental masturbation. We can’t begin to talk about how well our Government aligns with the “will of the people” until we’ve removed Big Money from the picture. Our representatives are representing the lobbyists, not us. OWS is right on target!

  20. @jd: I must admit, I am not sure I understand your criticism insofar as you are clearly stating that our current system of representation is inadequate.

    In other words, you are arguing that money and lobbyists have undo influence. As such, isn’t the question I am asking directly in line with your critique of American government?

  21. D Rudolph says:

    There are two separate questions here. The first is, “does the makeup Congressional officeholders reflect the makeup of the American people?” This question is partly ideological, partly geographical, but also partly racial, partly religious, partly cultural: input legitimacy. Do Americans feel like Congress gives them a voice in the political process?

    The second question is, “does Congress do what the people want them to do?” This is about output legitimacy, does Congress take actions (or fail to take actions) that individual voters would do if they were in the same position? Does Congress represent their voters interests when acting in the political process?

    A perfect example of this is the debt controversy. Republicans won the House in 2010 by campaigning against Obama and Obama’s economic policies, for lower taxes and lower spending. We can say that, broadly speaking, their electoral victories represent the will of the people on those policies, or at least those people who bother to vote. On the other hand, voters are extremely dissatisfied with Congress’s performance on those issues. They think a compromise of some kind should have been reached, and they blame Republicans as well as Democrats for it.

    I think the reason is that obstruction and bad behavior are good for fundraising and firing up “the base”, so it’s a cheap political trick to take in order to improve your chances at reelection. It’s not an issue when one person does it, but the problem is, every legislator is personally better off by taking an adversarial stance rather than compromising, even if it changes the overall outcome for the worse–it’s like a giant, 535-man prisoner’s dilemma. If that’s the case, we simply need to adjust the rules of the game to make it more personally costly for Congressmen to defect. Not enough that they won’t even try to block an awful appointee (Harriet Myers, for instance), but at the very least enough to stop stupid stuff like Borking.