The Magazine

Another Voting Paradox

Political scientists and democracy.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

While most Americans spend their Labor Day weekend savoring the last moments of summer vacation, political scientists are normally hard at work at their annual association meeting, held this year in Seattle. This event is usually a rather sedate affair, with scholars debating such recondite subjects as “Bayesian approaches to political research” and “The political-theological problem in Xenophon’s thought.”

Caricature of Liberal Professors

Thomas Fluharty

But this time things were a little different. A dissident group of members challenged the American Political Science Association’s governing system, asking for some modest changes to the constitution to institute competition in the selection of officers and the governing council. The dissidents billed their proposal as a small step toward democratization. Imagine, then, their great surprise when defenders of the status quo, who included some of the leading political scientists in the nation, instructed them in no uncertain terms that devices like competitive elections, labeled “procedural democracy,” counted as next to nothing in comparison to “substantive democracy.” Substantive democracy meant “diversity” as computed by race, gender, and ethnicity.

Without going into details​—​who would care?​—​the association’s current form of government might most accurately be described as a cooptocracy. A nominating committee, appointed by the association president, proposes to the membership a slate of nominees for all of the officers and representatives to the council. (The president at the Seattle meeting was Professor Carole Pateman of UCLA, known best for her work Participation and Democratic Theory.) The nominating committee’s slate can be challenged by candidates nominated by a petition process from the members; but the way things normally work​—​and always, now, for the officers​—​“elections” take place with only one person “competing” for each slot. Only in the case of council representatives have the dissidents put up alternatives in recent years, winning a few seats.

The change advocated by the dissidents was to require the nominating committee to name two candidates for each position. Democratic theory would suggest, they insisted, that this limited competition would increase member interest and participation in elections and afford an opportunity for an occasional candidate to raise a substantive question. Professors Gregory Kasza of Indiana University and Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania led the way in arguing for the importance of elections as an integral component of anything resembling democracy, with Smith, a leading theorist of democracy in his own right, wondering what signal would be sent to our students if the nation’s political scientists rejected electoral competition.

Hold on there, Professor Smith. The responses came fast and furious from a legion of defenders of the coopt-ocracy. Such stalwarts in the profession as former presidents Theda Skocpol of Harvard and Henry Brady of Berkeley pointed out the indignity of asking great scholars to stand in competitive elections and invoked the old conservative saw that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But the nub of the case for defenders of the status quo was that elections do not enhance, but limit democracy: The key to democracy is found in the assurance of diversity, not of views but of physical characteristics. 

One self-described Latino speaker said it will be time enough to permit procedural democracy when certain groups are assured, at some point in the future, of their proper overall representation within the association. Until then, the great beast of the mass of political scientists cannot be trusted. (It is rumored that certain group caucuses own the privilege of naming candidates whom the nominating committee slates, making the system one of managed diversity.) 

Political scientists today generally consider themselves an empirically minded group, less impressed by airy theoretical speculations than by attention to “hard data.” On this dimension, the cooptocrats possessed a clear advantage in the debate. The association’s treasurer, Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan, one of the profession’s most decorated methodologists, introduced the only real evidence. In a lengthy speech, he proposed to answer the question “How have competitive elections changed the council?” Analyzing the cases over the last six years in which competitive elections for the council resulted in dissidents defeating the nominees proposed by the nominating committee, Lupia generated a table, which he read in full, that bears close study. It compares the diversity attributes of the victorious dissident candidates with the diversity attributes of the candidates proposed by the cooptocracy, but not elected.

Interpreting the result, Lupia observed, “In nine of the ten cases [I counted nine], competitive elections led to the council being more white or less international than it would have been under the nominating committee’s recommendation. .  .  . From the perspective of racial, ethnic, and international diversity, the actuality of these elections is difficult to support.”

This evidence, cited time and again, appeared to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the debate. It was so impressive that on my return from the association meeting, I immediately con-vened a panel of graduate students at the University of Virginia to further mine this rich data set and allow it to speak in all of its nuance. The heated objection of one panelist​—​that Lupia had buried the fact that the dissidents promoted more gender diversity (six females instead of three!)​—​was duly noted, but quickly set aside. Other panelists pointed out that there were several factors in play here, not just gender, so the full matter could in fairness only be determined by a more rigorous statistical approach that assigned weights to each variable. The resulting “Diversity Index” the panel constructed adopted the following weights. For gender, a male received a (-1) designation, a female (+1); for race, White (-1), Asian (+1) and Black (+2). Country of origin provoked some discussion, but in the end, in accord with the spirit of diversity’s concern for reversing the domination of hegemonic countries (and their allies) over oppressed nations, the panel decided to accord a (-2) to America, (-1) to dependent American allies like Taiwan and Israel, and up to a (+2) for the former French colony of Benin. For each entrant on the table it became possible to calculate a single diversity score [t = R(race)+O(origin)+G(gender)]. For example, to take the outliers, a White American Male (WAM) was scored at -4, while a Black Benin Male (BBM) rated an impressive +3. The White Female from Israel netted -1. When the totals for the dissidents who were elected were compared with the totals of the candidates from the nominating committee who were defeated, the panel had little difficulty concluding that the cooptocracy had, if anything, understated the strength of its case. These were robust findings in every sense of the word. 

The wisdom of social science was happily confirmed at the association meeting. Leaving the hall, I saw a smiling set of past association presidents being congratulated by their coopted beneficiaries. Substantive democracy had prevailed​—​by an exercise of procedural democracy, no less.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers