The Purpose Of A Vote
Ensuring good governance was likely what prompted the shift from direct democracy in the first place. While direct democracy is the truest form of self-rule, it is a fundamentally inefficient system of governance
It is hard to refute that corporate money these days is flowing into elections. Not only is it a leading source of campaign finance—in many cases it serves as the deciding factor between candidates. However to appreciate the effect this has upon democracy we must first consider the most fundamental part of a democracy: the purpose of a vote.
Modern democracy has moved beyond the direct democracy of Greece. Though nations like Switzerland and states like California attempt to bring in direct voting back to varying degrees, most have abandoned the system in favor of representative democracy. Here citizens no longer vote directly for policies or laws—instead they periodically select representatives to do so for them. This includes legislative representatives, like congressmen and MP’s, as well as executive representatives, like the President or Prime Minister.
However this transition makes somewhat unclear the purpose of a vote. In direct democracy each vote is for a clear purpose—expressing the public will towards a specific policy measure. Overall assent passed the policy; dissent shelved it. In an election however the purpose of a vote is more nebulous. The results of the election select our leaders—but to what purpose? Understanding what an election is to achieve will help illustrate the effect of money on an election.
Will of the People
Some believe that the purpose of a democracy remains unchanged: providing power to the people. The belief is that, in a democracy, electoral machinery should be used to transmit the will of the people from the ballot box to the national policy. The representative is merely the enactor of the public’s will.
In this view a representative isn’t so much a promise as she is a tool. The representative is chosen in order to make more efficient the process of implementing the will of the people. Whereas in a direct democracy citizens must take the time out from their lives whenever a decision had to be made, in representative democracies the citizenry need only be involved with the selection of a representative that broadly speaks to their interests. The representative is then elected with the responsibility to act as the people would in a direct democracy—and the people are free to run their lives for the remainder of her term. Once the term ends the representative must once again face the people’s vote. The election thus serves to check that the representative has truly represented the will of the people in her actions.
However there is a problem with this view. There is a myriad of issues involved in governing a nation—ranging from defense to fiscal policy, welfare to infrastructure. In an election with a limited number of candidates—as many of them are—it is very rare that one will emerge with the same set of values and ideas as the public. Often voters are forced to make choices between policies they believe in. Choosing a candidate often turns on picking the lesser of two evils—the closest candidate to the national will. But nobody is elected that completely represents the will of the people—which is often circumvented by a willful representative.
And while the end of her term serves as a referendum on her performance the electorate will once again be faced with the same choice of candidates. Once again they must choose from a small pool of candidates; once again they must pick the closest approximation of their will. Sometimes there will be a new candidate—one who happens to reflect their will more strongly. Usually they are still stuck with the same pool of candidates, and many times the electorate go with the devil they know. Which hardly sounds like the supremacy of their will.
One possible goal is the promotion of good governance. The idea is to consider political office like any other employment; just like a manager or technician the politician is charged with running the nation. There are clear standards of proper governance that a leader should adhere to. Here elections operate as performance reviews, enforcing good governance.
Ensuring good governance was likely what prompted the shift from direct democracy in the first place. While direct democracy is the truest form of self-rule, it is a fundamentally inefficient system of governance. When every decision is to be made the machinery of the government comes to a halt while the people are consulted through the ballot. Not only does this lead to lower productivity in government, but it also leads to less productive citizenry. Instead a series of representatives are elected, and impart the sole task of providing an effective government.
However this belief is predicated upon the existence of fixed standards of performance. But unlike companies there is no clear, singular goal for a government. It could be the welfare of its people, it could be the propagation of law and order. It might even be the equalization of economic opportunity. Or maybe it is something as simple as ensuring national security. Perhaps we ought to reconsider the corporation—maybe economic growth can be an indicator of good governance.
Unfortunately there is no clear consensus on what exactly constitutes good governance—and much less on how to achieve it. Some argue for more regulations while others argue for less bureaucracy. Some want progressive taxes, some want free markets, some want infrastructure and others wish to feed the poor. The very definition of success and failure are often the subject of political discourse; so how can elections guarantee—or even produce—good governance?
Peaceful Transfer of Power
One final view of democracy holds it to a much lower bar—peace. Democracy is seen as the means by which governments peaceably transfer power from one to another. This is the least ambitious view of democracy. Neither grand visions of self-rule nor guarantees of quality are offered—instead all that is on offer is peace. All it promises is an absence of uprising, violence or revolt.
The idea is that elections offer the people an opportunity to peaceably choose their rulers for a set period of time. Additionally leaders are held to a set term—after which they must once again seek the public’s approval. This allows peaceable “revolutions” by allowing the people to select and elect a new leader at a predetermined time—an easier alternative to violence. Meanwhile would-be kings are offered a safer and more legitimate route to seek power: the ballot box.
The first problem with this view is in meeting this claim. Within democratic nations unrest still occurs—be it in the form of communal riots in India or uprisings in the EU. Democracies in the Middle-east are routinely overthrown by military coups—from Pakistan’s Musharraf to Egypt’s al-Sisi. Violent regime changes still occur in nations with democratic institutions—which may give the lie to this claim.
While it is true that modern democracies experience fewer violent upheavals this may not be entirely due to the democracy itself. This may very well be a case of conflated correlation with causation; just because peace and democracy arrived together does not mean one caused the other. The fact is that modern military theology has become terrible in its destructive power. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons render most armed conflict unbalanced. Whereas before a few riffles could challenge the might of an empire the modern government has far more up its sleeve. This power asymmetry may be the true cause behind our peaceable times—the cost of revolution skyrocketed while odds of success plummeted.
The other problem with this view is in its very minimalism. There is no consideration of outcomes or freedoms—all that is needed is a free transfer of power. Many terrible regimes have come to power through electoral machinery, while many others have been validated by elections. Hitler’s shadow looms large, but more modern men like Putin of Russia and al-Sisi of Egypt have similarly co-opted the electoral process. All three hurt their people, yet all three offered their people a choice—an opportunity for a “peaceable revolution.” That opportunity cannot be all that democracy offers.
Perhaps the best way to view the purpose of a vote is multifaceted. Modern democracy functions at the intersection between these views. It aims at providing good governance, while respecting the will of the people. It offers a peaceful method for wood-be rulers to seek power while holding them accountable to the people. It acts in multiple directions to accommodate the various views of democracy.
Of course this does mean that democracy will face all of the problems discussed above. Yet by viewing democracy as a multifaceted goal we see that the flaws are in fact trade-offs—one value compromised in favor of another. It will suffer imperfect representation in exchange for better governance and peace. It will suffer imperfect governance in exchange for consensus and peace. And it will occasionally inspire unrest in exchange for better governance. Modern democracy is thus an imperfect solution to the separate pressures a political system faces. The vote becomes similarly multi-faceted and imperfect.
Why it Matters
This is an important question. In fact it may be the important question. How you view the influx of corporate cash into the electoral cycle will depend largely on what you believe they should accomplish. If the only goal is a peaceful transfer of power then likely this issue is of little concern. If an election should result in good governance then such donations should only be limited wherein they produce less then optimal results.
However if you believe that democracy was designed to create leaders that truly represent the will of the people then corporate campaign finance is a serious problem. When a handful of companies are able to fund the majority of our campaigns and when victory turns on how much of this money goes to a candidate there seems little place left for the will of the people.
By Akash Kashyap