Anxieties of Democracy: Who Counts? How? Why?

War and Democracy

Humans have inflicted untold horrors on each other through wars of aggression and preemptive defense. It is therefore ironic to consider that wars and the threat of war have been responsible for some of the biggest franchise expansions in human history. Governments need manpower and money to fight, and, depending on the capital- or labor-intensity of the prevailing war-fighting technology, wartime mobilization can force governments to make democratizing concessions and/or to secure property rights for the rich. Here are some stylized facts: Cleisthenes organized the common folk of Attica to oust Spartan-backed rivals in 506 BC, in exchange for which he promised universal male franchise (the Athenian ecclesia). Themistocles’s naval strategy against the Persians, which manned the triremes with able-bodied commoners, underpinned Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms. Rome, though not exactly democratic, extended the franchise to fighting men in Rome and its territories following the army’s sit-down strikes in times of need. Feudalism in the Middle Ages in Europe reflected the wealth requirements of maintaining heavy cavalry, given the new threats on horseback from the East. Blood contributions were not always rewarded with political concessions, of course. Absolutist rulers of early modern Europe raised large armies in France, with money from merchants in exchange for royal offices, and in Spain, from New World gold. Once those sources of funds were tapped out, governments were hard-pressed to field large armies without making significant concessions, and Napoleon’s enormous post-Revolution army set into motion a chain of wars and democratic movements lasting through World War II. Women got the right to vote in the U.S. and Europe around the time of the first and second World Wars when they supplied an emergency workforce, and U.S. blacks won Civil Rights during the Vietnam era when they were spilling blood for America in Southeast Asian jungles.

If the modern democratic republic—with its combination of property rights and a nominally universal franchise—reflects in some way the constitutional adaptation to interstate competition over hundreds of years of warfare, does our debt-financed, mercenary- and drone-fought warfare put our democracy in jeopardy? It is one thing to worry, as Immanuel Kant did, about the quality of decisions regarding which wars to prosecute and how to prosecute them if citizens’ concern and vigilance diminish. An even larger worry—one of democracy’s central anxieties—concerns the consequences for the quality of our democracy itself.

Implications for future research and policy:

What triggers citizen vigilance on matters of war and peace? Is the American public anesthetized to the costs of war and national debt? What political institutions might more effectively subsidize the costs of collective action on issues of high collective but low per capita costs such as war or financial meltdown?

Descriptive and Substantive Representation: The Gender Dimension

Proportional representation (PR) systems have the advantages and disadvantages of creating the possibility of small-ish parties that match the intense preferences of groups of voters. Organized labor, for example, is not an electoral majority by itself, and is therefore diluted as a voting bloc in majoritarian systems; parties have to gain or maintain a legislative majority, disinclining them to make special deals with one bloc of voters that reduce the party’s ability to respond to the interests of swing voters. For a labor-based party in a PR system, by contrast, the mobilizational support of organized labor is a political asset without the corresponding liability in district-based systems. The mutual reinforcement of organized labor and labor-based parties in PR systems is probably an important reason for stronger labor market protections and the redistributive bent of European democracies.

As we also know, PR’s appealing features produce some unintended consequences. Stronger unions and the higher minimum wage can, because of statistical discrimination, price women out of the private sector because it is more costly for an employer to invest in the human capital of a hard-to-fire worker who is actuarially more likely to take herself out of work for caregiving reasons. Even Europe’s more generous childcare and parental leave provisions are insufficient to make up the difference, with the result that women are disproportionately employed in the public sector (gender segregation) where the expected productivity costs can be passed on to the taxpayer. PR countries are better at addressing class inequality, but higher female political representation on PR lists (descriptive representation) has not addressed gender-based economic disparities.

Female labor force participation rates and the percentage of female managers are higher in majoritarian than PR countries (hours regulation does not work), but the percentage of women at the very top of the income ladder remains exceedingly small: 3 percent C-suite occupants of S&P 500 firms are women. In majoritarian countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. where markets are given freer rein, income rises in hours worked, because hours-worked is a noisy signal of productivity used by many firms for convenience, and/or because managers actually learn by doing. Perhaps the hours required to compete for the most remunerative jobs in market economies is incompatible with the still-gendered roles of caregiving in today’s society.

Implications for future research and policy:

How can we measure productivity apart from income (a tautological measure) or hours worked (a crude proxy)? Can a country like the U.S. impose tax or other incentives to socialize the costs of family work, or regulations to incentivize more gender-neutral parenting?

Descriptive and Substantive Representation: Income, Race, and Other Dimensions

Geographically-based electoral systems, depending on the size and composition of electoral units, are vulnerable to voter self-sorting into internally homogeneous districts that elect representatives who reflect narrow and strongly held preferences over policies. This self-sorting generates at least two problems. Even if, for example, it may be a good thing for poor blacks to have representatives from the few districts in which they are concentrated, they may “lose” electoral power by over concentrating their votes.

A second problem is that representatives of internally homogeneous districts weaken party leadership. In the extreme case of India, representatives prefer to forgo the economies of scale of a large legislative party in order to preserve their electability from their district. In Japan, the power of internally homogeneous rural districts has held back immigration and trade policies that would benefit the median voter in Japan, who is an urban consumer and taxpayer. In the U.S., the self-sorting of voters into urban and suburban districts may be partly responsible for the entrenchment of ideological extremism.

Representatives from heterogeneous districts should be willing to delegate more authority to party leadership, with the attendant pluses and minuses of the Westminster system. A stronger front bench should be able to take into account the party’s long-term interests and calculate policy costs and benefits in a more encompassing way.

Implications for future research and policy:

Do heterogeneous districts in fact return more moderate politicians to office, and conversely, are politicians from homogeneous districts more extreme in their views? Does legislative polarization track demographic self-sorting? If so, should the U.S. adopt geographically-free “districts” (along the lines of Athens’ 10 demes)?

About the Author
Frances Rosenbluth is the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science at Yale University.