Distinguishing characteristics, positively valued?

In a 2007 interview, Bernard Manin explains to Hélène Landemore his theory of the principle of distinction (my translation):

[E]lites play in effect an important role in a representative government. This is so because elections necessariliy select individuals who possess uncommon characteristics which are positively valued by the voters. A candidate who is not distinguished by certain traits that are judged favorably cannot win an electoral competition. That said, the electoral method does not determine which specific distinguishing characteristics positive judgment are those which would get candidates elected. These characteristics are determined by the preferences of the voters, that is, by ordinary citizens. The voters choose the distinguishing qualities which they want to find in their representatives. The qualities could consist of a number of things, including an exceptional ability to express and disseminate a certain political opinion. Even in this case, we are still dealing with elites, in the sense these people who are exceptionally capable of defending an opinion possess a talent that most of the people who share the opinion do not. This is the meaning I attach to the term “elites”.

Manin’s claim that the distinguishing characteristics of the elected must be valued positively by the voters, or else they would not be able to win the elections, is empirically refuted by the case of the 2016 presidential elections in the US. In this case, both candidates are disliked by a plurality of the voters, have negative favorability numbers and have a majority of their “supporters” state that they are voting against their opponents rather than for them.

2 Responses

  1. The peculiarities of the US primary system do not refute a general thesis, they are the exception that proves the rule. The UK Labour Party is currently undergoing an election in order to select a leader who would be more likely to possess the distinctive qualities valued by voters, otherwise they will lose the election as more Labour voters prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn.


  2. >A candidate who is not distinguished by certain traits that are judged favorably cannot win an electoral competition.

    If one party puts forward a candidate judged to possess these favourable traits (whatever they may be) by the majority of the voting public, she will win the election. The problem with the primary system is that the candidate is selected by a tiny number of hard-core partisans. In sum, the problem Yoram identifies is the primary system, not the principle of electoral distinction (which is little more than a self-evident tautology).


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