Having two polarized parties is here to stay. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In Politics, 'Majority' Is a Complicated Idea

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Those who think that U.S. politics would work better if election-winning parties could more easily pass their programs should read Mo Fiorina's dissent over at the Monkey Cage today.

Fiorina considers the case for a parliamentary system that would allow faster action by what have become two polarized parties, and rejects it. After all:

But what if there is no majority? In the terminology of political science, our single member simple plurality electoral system manufactures majorities. But the fact that the winners in two-party competition get more votes or seats than the losers by no means guarantees that the winners' positions are those actually favored by a majority of the voters, only that those positions are likely to be preferred to those of the losers. Consider abortion. The 2012 Republican platform plank stated essentially: never, no exceptions. The Democratic platform plank stated the opposite: any time, for any reason. How many Americans would want a government in which either a powerful Democratic or Republican government was able to enact its abortion platform plank? Given public opinion on the issue, 75-80 percent would answer in the negative. Unleashing the majority would unleash a policy with nothing approximating majority support among voters.

Sorry for the long quote, but it's an important issue, and worth going into in some depth.

I agree with Fiorina that equating majority party with majority views on any issue is deeply problematic. Or just plain wrong. That's the most important point here, and one that any advocates of a parliamentary solution to polarization really need to grapple with.

However, Fiorina's conclusion that "the" majority is in the middle, an area often vacated by both parties, is also wrong.

Actually, there are two different ways to look at it. One is that if we assume that opinion stretches out on a single line, and the issue is amenable to partial solutions, then there are actually many possible majorities. There's a middle majority, centered around the mean position. But there's also a left-in and a right-in majority, both of which would probably (depending on the distribution of opinion) include those who support that middle position. If you want to get picky about it, if there are infinite gradations of the policy, then there are an infinite number of possible majorities (so that not only is there a majority from the far left toward the center, but also one that excludes the farthest left, and goes a bit more to the right). And that's only if the policy is truly one-dimensional; it's possible that for some policies, opinion is even more complicated, opening up other possibilities.

But there's also the Madisonian version of this, which would stress that these majorities are almost always illusions. Returning to abortion: it's true that pollsters can obtain answers from most people about the topic, but the truth is that many people (most people?) don't actually care very much about abortion at all. That's sometimes hard for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about politics to understand, because we're likely to care about plenty of issues as a function of caring about politics at all. But plenty of people only care about a handful of issues, or just one, or even none. They'll vote (at least in most major elections), and pay some attention when elections get near, but they just aren't engaged with "the issues" the way that those who really care about politics are. Among other things, that's one of the reasons why changing polling questions in subtle ways can produce very different answers: Most respondents don't have deep-seated opinions, and therefore will respond differently to slightly different versions of a question. You aren't going to get a true pro-life or pro-choice believer to give the "wrong" answer by stacking a question, but you'll get the people who don't care much about the issue to flip, because for them there is no "right" answer that reveals what they "really" think. They don't really think about it. (They might in the future if something happens to get them involved. That's not their current position, however).

In this way of thinking about things, there's really no "majority" on most issues. There are only pluralities (and multiple pluralities) of those who have real positions, and then lots of people who don't care very much. As for Fiorina's argument, the more attentive people are, the more likely they are to adhere to the party's (relatively extreme) positions, which makes it even less likely that his "majority" of the middle is any more legitimate than the "majorities" created by either side.

Where does that leave us? In my view, the Madisonian position is the best one. Which means that the parties have the hard and necessary job of constructing majorities for the various policy questions. By doing so, they give organized groups (and active citizens) something to support and something to oppose, and the plentiful opportunities for a veto give those groups an avenue for stopping or alleviating, or at least, in Robert Dahl's wording, being "heard effectively at some stage in the process of decision."

Destroy the parties altogether, or make party majorities meaningless and incoherent, and you'll never get constructed majorities in the first place, because the majorities don't exist outside of democratic party politics. On the other hand, make it too easy for the parties to enact those constructed majorities and too many people and groups can no longer be "heard effectively." Especially if the parties themselves aren't sufficiently permeable. If those majorities were real, that wouldn't be a problem, because as long as one of the parties faithfully represented that majority, then the parties would be doing their job. But since the majorities don't precede the political system, it's important that everyone have an opportunity to construct them. Even if, in the event, few do.

At any rate ... look, I do have a dog in this fight; I think what I call the Madisonian position is correct. But whether you agree with me, or agree with Fiorina (and you should definitely read his whole post) or disagree with both of us, what's critical to take away from this is that the idea of "majority" turns out to be quite complicated indeed. Especially if you support party majority rule, it's important to realize what exactly that is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him onTwitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net