Beyond the principle of distinction

The primary negative effect of the electoral system is the obverse of its ostensible function. This effect is what Bernard Manin called “the principle of distinction” – the delegation of political power to people whose situation and outlook is significantly different from those of the population at large. As a result of this difference, the political elite serves interests that are different from, and often antithetical to, those of the average voter.

However, the electoral system is often presented by academic advocates and by electoral activists and politicians as providing a value to society above and beyond its function for selecting government officials. It supposedly encourages meaningful popular participation in government through voting, informed discussion, organized activism in electoral campaigns and awareness of the importance of compromise and coalition building. In fact, the electoral system encourages none of those patterns – on the contrary: it is antithetical to them. This is due to several characteristics of the electoral system that are not consequences of the principle of distinction.

  1. Politics as competition The electoral system is a mechanism in which groups compete for power. Allocation of power through competition has several related effects:
    • When political power is gained through competition, its attainment comes to be seen, primarily by the winners themselves but by others as well, as a reward. Corruption – use of the hard won political power to further the interests of the winners and their associates – then becomes a natural consequence of the achievement.
    • Continue reading