Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 2

Part one is here.

A useful part of Wang Shaoguang’s article “Representative and Representational Democracy” (2014) is his critique of the arguments for elections as a democratic mechanism (and in fact as the most fundamental component of democracy). The whole matter of the justification for elections in terms of their expected outcomes is usually avoided by electoralist dogma. Instead the discussion is framed using formalisms: elections are judged as being “legitimate” because they follow some supposed principles of “representativity”. The issue of how those principles themselves can be justified other than in terms of system outcomes is not addressed.

On the rare occasions when the expected outcomes of elections are addressed, two mechanisms are offered as connecting elections with desirable outcomes – Wang refers to these as the “authorization theory” and the “accountability theory”. These arguments go at least as far back as the Federalist papers. Wang first presents and critiques the authorization theory:

According to authorization theory, during elections each political party puts forth its policy positions and promotes its candidates, while the people have the right to choose to support whichever party or candidate they want, and they will vote for the party and candidates of their choice. In the sense that those who are elected start governing only after they have been invested with the authority of the people, this system is of course democratic.

Yet authority theory is in fact grounded in three unstated but indispensable assumptions. First, that voters are rational, and that they have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the various policy positions of the competing parties and candidates, as well as the pre-conditions necessary to implement those policies and their possible consequences. Second, that politicians will scrupulously abide by their promises, and that when they take power they will implement to the letter the policies that they promoted during the campaign. Third, that implementation of the policies promoted during the campaign is in the best interests of voters. Yet to actually realize any one of these three pre-conditions is incredibly difficult, and to realize all three at the same time is almost impossible. A large number of empirical studies have shown that voters are not necessarily rational, and that in fact they are often politically ignorant. In many circumstances politicians are not willing, able, or inclined to act according to the platform presented during the campaign. Indeed, if policy was implemented according to the capricious nature of electoral language, in which candidates speak out of both sides of their mouths, it would not likely benefit voters. What is even worse, modern elections are geared toward the rich, and parties and candidates must raise a tremendous amount of money in order to cover election expenses, without which they simply cannot run for office. What this means is that, for electoral parties and candidates, the most important people are not average voters, but rather wealthy donors. Given that without wealthy donors there is no way to gain power, it is in fact these donors who truly “grant power.”

Wang’s critique of the authorization theory thus rests on the lack of information by the voters: they are unable to judge candidates properly because (1) to the extent they know anything about the candidates at all, they know it only through the media which is controlled by the rich, because (2) due to complexity, there is in fact no way to know if what a candidate promises is realistic or is a good idea, and because (3) there is no way to know whether a candidate even intends to do what they promise.

The lack of information critique of the “authorization theory” – whether emphasizing the objective epistemic obstacles, as Wang does, or emphasizing the disproportion between the effort required and the impact each individual voter has (the “rational ignorance” argument) – is certainly valid, but it fails to explain the depth of the electoralist crisis. A lack of information could explain erratic, random-like performance, where government policy is inconsistent and outcomes fluctuate. A consistent pattern of poor outcomes, with steadily increasing economic disparities between the ruling elite and the average citizen indicates that electoralism has a systematic tendency toward anti-democratic outcomes. Lack of information alone cannot explain such a situation.

Wang next deals with the “accountability theory”, which he describes as “emphasiz[ing] the role of elections in punishing elected officials[, dealing] with how politicians end their political careers.”

Accountability theory is also premised on a series of hypotheses. First, that politicians will not necessarily honor their promises. Second, that even if they do honor their promises they will not necessarily benefit voters. Accountability theory further hypothesizes that in the case of the occurrence of the above-mentioned circumstances, voters will certainly be displeased, and these unhappy voters will force these politicians out of power at the next election, choosing another group to replace them. This is what is called demanding accountability, and its basis lies in the ability of voters to force politicians out of power. If representatives want to stay in power over the course of multiple terms, if they do not want to give up power, then they have to govern carefully while in power so as to win the favor of the voters.

The problem is that modern political systems are all incredibly complex, and any given policy—from its inception, drafting, approval, promulgation, through to its implementation—will involve many different political parties, factions, departments, and officials. Additionally, the positive and negative effects of the policy will be determined by internal and external factors. If voters are unhappy with the effects of a policy, they do not necessarily know whom they should punish. Politicians will of course find a variety of excuses and rationales in order to shirk responsibility, directing the unhappiness of voters towards other people and places.

Another problem is that accountability theory assumes that voters have the choice of many parties and politicians. If you are unhappy with A, then you can choose B; if you are unhappy with B, you can choose C…. In reality, within a two-party system there are only two choices available. Even in a multi-party system, there is still a limited number of choices. In a situation in which alternatives are limited, voters are often faced with picking their poison.

Moreover, while politicians surely hope to win multiple terms, losing is hardly a disaster. In fact, after they leave the political arena their profits will often be even greater. For example, in recent years in America, fully half of the congressional representatives who lost their seats have joined lobbying groups, with much larger salaries than when they are in office. Take for example Bill and Hillary Clinton, one a former president, the other a former Secretary of State. After leaving politics their annual speaking fees have been enormous. In other words, those who leave the political world after serving for a number of years, will have the possibility of gaining a tremendously lucrative future return on investment. In this light, it seems to me that the latent threat of “demanding accountability” is nothing but a “paper tiger” for a clever politician.

Here Wang offers three refutations. The first is also based on lack of information – because of complexity and because of unforeseeable effects, voters don’t know whether politicians should be punished when they are unhappy. This again, could explain some inefficiency in the system – maybe quite a lot of it – but not systematic oligarchical effects.

Wang’s second and third refutations go much farther toward explaining the observed effects of electoralism. The second refutation – that the choice available to voters is minimal – is in fact a refutation of the “authorization theory” rather than of the “accountability theory”. For a reason that Wang does not quite explain the selection at the voting booth is poor. Thus voters do not really “authorize” anyone through their votes but rather make a constrained selection among bad choices. Accepting that this is the case (while still keeping in mind the need to explain the lack of good choices), if all alternatives are poor, it would only to be expected that the electoral outcome would be systematically poor as well. This is thus (part of) a much more useful refutation of the “authorization theory” than those offered above.

Wang’s final refutation explicates the obvious flaw in the “accountability theory”. According to the ideal of “accountability theory”, an elected politician has an opportunity to serve narrow interests – and consequently get personally rewarded – or pursue public interests and get re-elected, but not get personally rewarded. In any other context this would be considered a system incentivizing corruption, a system whose outcome is a never ending sequence of disappointments and an electorate who is increasingly cynical about politicians and about the electoral system. Only in electoralist dogma can “electoral accountability” be considered a theory supporting the conclusion that elections produce a government devoted to the public good.

By going beyond the standard complaints about the epistemic difficulties that are dogging elections Wang goes father than the loyal critique of electoralism that is made within Western political science circles. Chinese political scholarship could, then, serve as a useful challenge to Western orthodoxy. If one is not interested in actually learning anything, it is of course much safer politically to simply ignore it.

9 Responses

  1. It is very helpful to be reminded of the mechanisms and drivers of social institutions like Representative Democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to see another explanation of why rule by popularly elected politicians is undemocratic, and contrary to the interests of the people.

    Unfortunately academics living under the Beijing regime do not have academic freedom regarding political theory, so what can be reasonably expected from them is limited.


  3. To get an American understanding of why elections cannot produce responsive government, I highly recommend the 2016 book by Achen and Bartels, “Democracy for Realists: why elections do not produce responsive government.” While the authors dismiss sortition without serious examination, they make an irrefutable argument that elections cannot work to deliver democracy. Their tepid responses for reducing the failure at the conclusion of the book involve essentially accepting the inevitability of oligarchic rule and granting more power to political parties, but the first 90% of the book is very good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Simon,

    > Unfortunately academics living under the Beijing regime do not have academic freedom regarding political theory, so what can be reasonably expected from them is limited.

    So Chinese political scientists have an excuse if their theory is limited by orthodoxy. What is the excuse of their Western counterparts?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Terry,

    Achen and Bartels’s book was mentioned on this blog back when it was published. It may have a very good description of the symptoms, but the analysis of the disease (at least according to this summary essay – I haven’t read the book) does not manage to get to root causes. In view of this, it is perhaps not surprising that their proposals of reform are not convincing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Simon,

    > Unfortunately academics living under the Beijing regime do not have academic freedom regarding political theory, so what can be reasonably expected from them is limited.

    Please do not assume the circumstances under which I conduct my research. In fact, I am perfectly free to say whatever I would like to say.

    BTW, I published a book, Sortition, Democracy and Republic: From Athens to Venice in 2018. If you read Chinese, you might take a look

    Wang Shaoguang

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Prof. Wang,

    Welcome! It is such a pleasure to have you visit.

    > [To Simon] Please do not assume the circumstances under which I conduct my research. In fact, I am perfectly free to say whatever I would like to say.

    Of course, you must be aware that it is a frequent presumption in the West that people in non-Western countries are living in constant terror. With the conformity of elite Western political thought it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this presumption is to a non-negligible extent a projection of the terror that controls Western academics. One wrong move and you will be scraping adjunct professorships your entire career.

    > I published a book, Sortition, Democracy and Republic: From Athens to Venice in 2018.

    Sounds interesting. What is the background for your interest in sortition? Is there a lot of interest in sortition in China – either in academia or elsewhere?

    For those of us who do not read Chinese, do you have any work on sortition in English? Or maybe there is work in English on sortition by other Chinese academics? I am interested to understand to what extent sortition is viewed in Chinese scholarship as a democratic mechanism and an alternative to elections?


  8. Shaoguang,

    Has sortition played any role in Chinese political history?

    Do you think the recent use of sortition in China will continue and increase?

    It is very good to see you comment on this thread.

    Liked by 1 person

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