Monday, 13 November 2006

Party politics

Warning! Long post!
Some context from an earlier conversation:
daleyl: Have you ever thought about how ridiculous the idea of democracy is combined with the two party preferred system? The people have the power of choice (between two slightly different choices)
Tanya: The real problem to my thinking is that each parlimentary member can't vote according to their electorate's wishes if it goes against the main party's wishes - if they do, they are severely punished
daleyl: Good point.
belly: yep!!!! That's why you have to vote for the party that you think would be better... Rather than the person in your electorate...
Tanya: I think that many people get into politics from a genuine desire to initiate change, but they get so consumed by the party politics and 'playing the game to get elected' that they forget what they initially set out to achieve
daleyl: I have deeply cynical views on the whole thing. It is a farce. Its a distraction.
belly: Tanya, you make a very good point...
Tanya: Unfortunately it's the only way to initiate change - what's the alternative?
daleyl: Its rolling machine, and like you said, once you get in you get caught up in it probably without knowing it.
belly: Though there are some people that do go against "their" party for their electorate.... I have seen one particular member threated with going to jail... but he stood up for what he believed in...
daleyl: But the only way we are ever going to effect change is if we get serious about waking people up from the material induced slumber that we all live in.
daleyl: Fucking revolution. Thats what I am about.

(couldn't leave that quote out :D)

I feel like playing the Devil's Advocate (though I should admit that I'm not at all qualified to do so :p). There are some real advantages to having a multi-party system, as opposed to a nonpartisan system in which parties are constitutionally disallowed. I suggest there is a benefit to the people, from compromising personal principles to follow the party line, and playing the game to be elected.

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Tyranny of the Majority
Parties are accused of "playing the game" to win elections for their own sake, and not for the sake of the people they're meant to be representing. Yet, deliberately playing the game just to win votes is arguably better for the people, and therefore for democracy, than is standing unwaveringly by one's personal principles.
The problem is the so-called "tyranny of the majority", a problem inherent in representative democracy. It occurs when an absolute majority of representatives can consistently block the interests of a (possibly vocal) minority. If representatives are elected based on how similar their personal principles are to the majority of the electorate, and if those representatives then consistently vote according to their principles, then the minority in the electorate will never have their voice heard in parliament.
Thankfully it doesn't happen that way. Both independents and especially party members compromise on their personal principles in order to win votes. It's a game in which every vote counts. The strategy is to compromise policies such that the number of votes gained from the targeted minority is greater than the number of votes lost from alienated core supporters.
This strategy should be applied when the minority has a much stronger conviction than the majority, such that a small change in policy yields maximum gain for minimum cost. This is the exact situation where the tyranny of the majority would otherwise oppress the minority. Playing the game for votes distorts the representation in parliament of vocal minorities, mitigating the tyranny of the majority, and this is arguably beneficial for democracy.
Consider some examples of vocal minorities versus largely indifferent majorities: environmental causes, opposition to war, and stem-cell research. Of course, it's not all rosy. There's the flip side of the coin, too: opposition to euthanasia and opposition to gay marriage (though that could swing both ways, so to speak ;) ), for example.
The point is that it may be beneficial to give more voice to those of strong conviction, and who are presumably familiar with an issue, than to those of weak conviction who are presumably not. Ironically, playing the game for votes furthers this goal, whereas standing firmly by principles does not. And if you can say anything for parties and independents, parties are better at the former and independents are better at the latter!

I think there is some virtue in compromising one's own principles, and even some virtue in compromising the principles of the majority of one's electorate - in certain cases, and guided by game-playing strategy. After all, the fundamental tenet of democracy is that no single person is infallible. Why should any representative necessarily believe that their personal principles are worth voting by in parliament when they may have compelling evidence to the contrary?

I should end by reiterating that I am mainly playing the Devil's Advocate here. I would hate to see politics dominated even more by the major parties! Nevertheless... if you've read this far anyway, what do ya reckon?


Anonymous said...

All excellent points Nick! I can certainly see your point! I also see that I'm going to have to be more careful about what I type in MIRC seeing how it can now come back to bite me in a blog ;)


Luke said...

Interesting argument for real. I can't say that I disagree with everything you put forward, but I do think it highlights a fundamental flaw in our notion of government. Everything you put forward is based around pragmatism. The direction of a nation (which is really human progress in general) should be held to higher order ideals.

Your whole argument highlights the dichotomy of the people and the government. This is the flaw. Why is it this way? Why do we feel disconnected from government? Why don't we feel that we are surrounded by government in a way that is inspiring? Instead of feeling the need to distance ourself from it. As for higher order ideals, how do things like justice, valor, environmental sensitivity, tolerance and other slightly abstract concepts fit into a system that is based around minimally bending from your agenda so that you can ultimately carry out your original agenda?

This is utopian thinking no doubt. I don't think human beings (at least as we know them now) are capable of transcending the need to divide into factions and define their identities by differing themselves from others for the sake of identity (which negates the whole concept of having an identity in the first place).

So in trying to bring this back to having some relevance to your post, I do think you are correct. "Playing the game" is probably good for us the people, but the fact there is a game to be played is repulsive.

Nick said...

Nonsense Tanya, it didn't come back to bite you :) I actually agree: less party discipline and more principles would probably be a good thing in the current political environment. I was just arguing the dangers of taking things to extremes. And like I said, I was just mainly arguing for the sake of it :)

Yeah Luke... I see what you're saying as well. And I definitely agree that the disconnect between the people and government is disheartening.
The problem with holding government to higher order ideals is the difficulty of determining what they should be. The argument is that playing the game "discovers" what those ideals are, dynamically, rather than having them set in stone by fallible human reasoning.
The question is, of course: is playing the game the "best" way of doing so? It's definitely a philosophical question at this point in time...