The Magazine

Another Voting Paradox

Political scientists and democracy.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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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.) 

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