Saturday, May 14, 2005

pause - answers for commenters....


My last posting elicited a storm of very intelligent comments, so I will pause and offer ten capsule replies here, before resuming my riff on "majority rule in American political life."

1 - I do not claim that "consensus" can always replace majority rule. That would be as simplistic a notion as majority rule itself.

What I MEAN is that consensus should be a mature goal of anyone who prefers a decent civilization over one riven by divisiveness, rancor and bitterness. Imposition of majority will upon an angry minority is at minimum regretable. More often it is a sign of political immaturity and failure to communicate.

Such an imposition of majority will may (though regretable) also be utterly right! As in the banishment of slavery and - later - Jim Crow. But the pain and danger were undergone as a last resort.

A pretty good example of mature politics happened during the Clinton Administration, when democrats stopped ignoring the useful portions of GOP criticism of the welfare system and started listening, at last, to the parts that made sense.

The resulting Welfare Reform Bill had its problems. As usual, the goody portions wound up with less funding than they needed (e.g. remedial job training for those forced off the dole.) But the overall results were a tonic for the nation and the exercise proved that "liberals" were NOT the sort of intransigent fools that they were soon to be portrayed... when this spirit of negotiation was abruptly dropped in favor of all-out "Culture War."

2 - I do not agree that political indecision is always good. (Notice that many on the right, who praised divided govt under Clinton, are now happy to ignore the loot-and-spend frenzy that has taken place once their side got all the reins.) Government has jobs to do. We need accountability! That will allow some degree of vigor, where govt is needed... while allowing us to quickly notice and act when it starts putting its hands where they don't belong.

3 - I am willing to stay with our present system. Which emphasizes the individual representative and not the party. You are more likely to get both kooks and statesmen... each with some value, now and then. Parliamentism forces you to believe in a party line. An official ideology. An imperfect model of the world, interpreted by an imperfect party hierarchy. The US system lets local constituencies vote for the specific man or woman, sometimes quirky and willing to cross party lines. (Though not, alas, at present.)

4 - I have many suggestions to improve the present system, but they must be ranked by plausibility. And any tinkering with the Constitution is by nature (and perhaps rightly) implausible. (I'd love to see a preferential ballot like Australia (and the Hugo Awards) in which you can 1st vote your heart and then get a second chance to vote pragmatic.)

Hence I would reform the Electoral College with a couple of tweaks that DON'T require amendments.

(a) File a lawsuit against winner-takes-all allocation of electors and force proportional allocation, as is done in Maine and Nebraska.

(b) Encourage electors to realize that they are supposed to DELIBERATE! They might even (as I had hoped in 2000) make a gesture now and then. Lieberman should have been W's veep. Just two electors could have made it happen! And the message thus sent would have outweighed any actual power Lieberman attained.

That one move would have told W "You do NOT have a mandate. You have the power to prove you are a real man and a real american by leading us all." But all of his electors were loyal, unimaginative hacks.

(c) Main urgent item? SCREAM if your state and precinct still has touch screen systems that don't also create hand-autitable paper ballots that go into a sealed ballot box. Scream, then scream louder! Or you betray your nation. No less than that.

Also encourage EARLY voter registration by anyone reasonable and have them MAKE SURE THEY ARE ACTUALLY ON THE ROLLS, months in advance. Party-based exclusion in Ohio & Florida was rampant.

(d) Other suggestions? We desperately need to establish the office of Inspector General of the United States. Remind me! I will post my mini essay about this.

5 - Oh, fight plans to make your state political districts "fair and balanced" by taking redistricting out of the hands of politicians.

Surprised? See where I decry many ways that gerrymandering is evil. Our governator is proposing this measure and it sounds great. I HATE gerrymandering.

And yet I oppose Schwarznegger's move.

Because what we really need is either a federal law, so it happens everywhere, or DEALS that make it happen simultaneously in an equal number of democrat/GOP districts. GuvAhnold could negotiate such a deal with say Utah+Georgia+Fla. But he won't. ANd dang if I will support making things "fair" in blue states while leaving it all corrupt in the Confederacy.

( idea. Spread the word that we should change blue/red metaphors to blue/gray!)

6 - I have long believed that the virtual districts concept - creating representation by affirmative affinity, rather than majority stomping on minority - was a good idea! But the Constitution....

7 - Thanks for sharing the Limbaugh Big Lie that - ' Liberals never achieve anything. They just sit around and endlessly talk and are always pessimistic.' Goebbels would be proud! I hear Limbaugh (like many conservatives) even dares to display a picture of Martin Luther King on his wall! Gahhhhhh!

Dare me some time to present my "list of major US political accomplishments in the 20th Century." The list is very long. Most items are now - restrospectively - seen as good and great, by consensus. And only two items are even remotely related to initiatives proposed by the GOP.

It is absolutely devastating. And - mind you - I do NOT disagree with as many "conservative" or "libertarian" positions as you might think! There are many ways to contribute to a civilization and the conservative mindset has its creative roles to play.

But re: major US consensus or law-driven accomplishments, Limbaugh is spreading a diametric lie. RL's position would make even Goebbels blush.

8 - Oh yes, the other item "If liberals don't like someone, they and the liberal mainstream media will simply amplify everything negative about that person, be it Bolton, Owens, Janice Brown etc. and will never present them in a fair light."

Yeah? Let's recall the 8 year campaign of lies about the Clintons. Some of the lies were at least political. (e.g. predicting a "tsunami of indictments" after the GOP gained power: seen any?) But the relentless smear campaign against the Clintons' MARRIAGE? Where did that come from? And WHY???? Can there have been any reason at all other than petty meanmindedness?

I saw, first hand, under very credible circumstances, what "Bill & Hill" thought of each other. And lemme tell you something. Those two reeeeelly liked each other.

That entirely unnecessary, brutal and vicious assault upon their family was not only unnecessary and hypocritical (most of the "House Prosecutors" who went after BC had had messy divorces - some incredibly immoral). I was also simply evil.

(And the phrase -- "Liberal mainstream media?????" Eeeeeeek! Goebbels strikes again!)

9 - One of you suggested to limit the total number of words in federal law, so that new laws must first edit the old ones, or at least simplify. Good idea.

Al Gore was the first person in the republic's history to actually DO that. Fat lot of credit he got. Again, a great conservative idea... and nothing happens till a democrat "sees the light."

10 - I agree that "progressive" is a better word than "modernism".

But it is already freighted with left-right meaning, alas.

My whole reason to pick 'modernism' is that it has already obsolesced into disuse. It can be picked up and dusted off and given OUR chosen meaning! It lets us strike out at orthogonal angles.

If we establish from the start that Modernism has almost many leftist enemies (e.g. postmodernists) as those on the right, then we have a chance to convince millions of conservative modernists out there that we are offering them a real home. In exchange for pulling their support from the regressive troika (kleptocrats neocons-apocalypts) they may join reasonable moderates of all kinds and work together, finding pragmatic ways to make a better world.

A new movement that will push some libertarian-conservative values, as well... so long as they are aimed at the overall goal of human progress.

Well, it's a thought....

Thanks all. You are a very bright bunch. More soon.



Anonymous said...

Just a nitpick - Although breaking down the alocation of electors in the states proportionally would undo the idea of 'swing states' and could be considered more fair, doing so in the manner of Maine and Nebraska could be disasterous. Both those states break down their votes by congressional districts, with a bonus of two 'senatorial' electors for the popular vote winner. Since they are both small states, the opportunity for gerrymandering is minimal. In larger states, gerrymandering to this end could be used to circumvent the will of the people. I won't disagree that dividing the electors by popular vote in general, with or without the 'senatorial' bonus, might not be such a bad idea, as long as the same standard was applied to all the states equally.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me for speaking to the man, but I've always wondered why Dr Brin, you don't run for political office yourself. You don't have to answer if the reasons are personal. As an avid reader of your fiction, I would be disappointed. But I'm thinking about the larger picture here.

Anonymous said...

Now to ask question to the topic rather than the man.

1 - Can consensus be ever achieved when the participants define their positions as diametrically opposed to another? What happens then? The way I see, majority rules simply because consensus is frequently impossible. Is this how you see it?

2 - Besides leadership "accountability", I would add "trust", which I view as the other side of the coin. But I'm not going to assume so. Is this going too far?

Anonymous said...

@Anders Brink

1. That seems like a very poor (pathetic really) way to come to a decision. It's a method of forcing a decision but not a good way to find the truth.

2. I believe someone rather famous once stated that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It's always possible that the methods of holding people accountable are in some way flawed. Keeping your eyes open is better than trust.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps I wasn't being clear enough. If you define your position as diametrically opposed to some others, it would be very hard to build a consensus, isn't it?

I know about the eternal vigilance quote. What I specifically want to know is whether that precludes trust altogether. After all, teamwork is based upon trust, think about that! Ultimately yes vigilance will save the day, but in the meantime, it helps to understand that many of us operate on trust.

Anonymous said...

Responding to a few of the points in the original post:

(3) I'm all for staying with voting for representatives rather than party slates...but the current (2-party) system effectively means that (a) issues are all dichotomized, whether or not this is appropriate, (b) it's all us-vs-them and remember what they did to us last year now that we have the majority, (c) individuals have a lot of trouble crossing their party if they want to continue being legislators, and (d) the parties are internally sufficiently heterogenous that legislators seem to be affiliated with one or the other for reasons of expediency only. We need a way to make it feasible for other parties (libertarians, greens, whatever) to gain significant representation, so that issues will be considered from more than just 2 sides, and legislators will not be so often confronted with the "loyalty (and reelection) or principle" choice (the more and smaller the parties, the more likely you'll find one that suits your views).

(I'd like to get rid of political parties altogether, but that seems unlikely.)

(4b) IMO, this is not realistic unless parties can be constrained to choose electors that are guaranteed to have no political ambition of their own. How can you keep parties from choosing the most loyal electors available?

(4d) Consider yourself reminded. :)

(8) I don't think that your answer was responsive. Saying that the Clintons got themselves unfairly trashed is not a refutation of the notion that those that the Democrats oppose are currently being unfairly trashed. (I like the NY Times...but if there's much to be said in favor of Bolton, I'm not hearing it from them.)

(9) Another proposal for limiting laws on the books: set it up so that _all_ laws passed by Congress have a built-in "sunset" clause. Probably requires altering the Constitution, though.

Anonymous said...

@Anders Brink,

I would say that if positions are diametrically opposed then one of the two parties has to be wrong and more investigation should be insisted upon by both parties.

Yes, trust is necessary to be able to work as a team, but it is always a good idea to assume that your team members are not infallible or incorruptible.(Maybe I'm stating the obvious here. You probably were not talking about absolute trust.)

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of other problems with Parliamentarism that ought to be brought up, since it often crops up as a favorite solution of many political outsiders.

First and foremost, it eliminates one of the major checks and balances built into the US system. The executive becomes beholden to the legeslative branch and is no longer able to exert any sort of control. I'm an American living in Germany and if the Chancellor opposed a move by his party in the Diet, he would soon find himself looking for work. Try explaining this to a European and they just don't get it.

The other big problem is that, as Dr. Brin notes, requires a party line to be followed. One result of this is that the people become isolated from their government and are less able to hold it to account. There is a lot of discussion right now over the European constitution. When one politician here suggested putting acceptance of the constitution to a vote of the German people, he was accused of "popularism". the idea that this is a bad thing and that the people are supposed to sit back and let the politicoes make the decisions is appaling to an American. (And don't think this is some sort of German thing about following the rules and thatsort od stereotype. Only two or three European states have submitted the constitutiion to their people; the rest are making that decision at the governmental level.)

Anonymous said...

David Brin said:
"Spread the word that we should change blue/red metaphors to blue/gray!"

You wouldn't be trying to start another civil war would you ? :)

Anonymous said...


The U.S. wasn't exactly formed by referendum either. Okay, that was a long time ago but still, why not regularly hold a referendum on the federal level to decide whether the U.S. should continue as it is, or that states should be allowed to leave he federacy. Any E.U. country that wants to leave the union can do so.

"The executive becomes beholden to the legeslative branch and is no longer able to exert any sort of control."

Partly true, but I like my supreme leaders somewhat less then omnipotent.

"The other big problem is that, as Dr. Brin notes, requires a party line to be followed."

No, if you don't like party policy you can leave and start a party of your own. That's not really a problem in a system that has multiple parties to choose from on the federal level.

Anonymous said...

The term "modernism" still has a lot of intellectual freight for anyone who's going to pay attention to this discussion at all. A new coinage would be better.

As for why David Brin doesn't run for office, why should he? The pay is crap and he'd never have time to write his novels. Besides, many people (it seems) would vote in an idiotic musclebuilder but I think nobody's crazy enough to vote in an SF writer. SF writers are cute and neat and kooky, and make cool advisors and such. But they're not really the type you need in office.

NoOne said...

As one more example of the sad state of affairs in American politics today, head over to the PEW research center and discover your political typology. One of the more infuriating surveys out there especially since it purports to go beyond the red-blue divide. Basically, it assumes that there's just one political spectrum - instead of a higher dimensional space of politics which is then projected down into a spectrum - and attempts to fit us into the spectrum straitjacket. If you consider yourself pro libertarian, pro environment, pro small business, anti big business (in many contexts), anti big govt., pro big business (in some contexts), pro religion, anti church, good luck. Please, someone put me out of my misery.

David Brin said...


DB Responses:

1- Actually, some of my proposals violate self- interest. After years proposing that electors should be allocated proportionately, instead of winner-takes-all, I was shown math indicating that the GOP would actually benefit. Because their "small state advantage" would then be the chief deviation from true popular representation of will. That sentence may take some parsing. In any event, this reform would primarily benefit the Libertarians + Greens. They should be the ones filing the lawsuit.

2- Me run for office? I am far too contrarian and eager to poke at whomever I am with. I would offend the "party base". Also, my wife would moider me.

3- Yes, when you define yourself in opposition to your subjective strawman image of another "side", then consesnsu pretty much becomes impossible by definition.

4- The miracle of our accountability arenas ( is the way they allow "good" competition to start to look like cooperation and fierce reciprocal accountability to start to look like "trust". These are emergent properties. (Very stylish, philosophically! ;-) See how I describe this in EARTH.

See the article linked above for discussion of why the Internet has (so far) failed to improve political debate.

5- See my culture war piece for my chief political suggestion of all. In gerry mandered districts, we MUST make the dominant party's primary the focus of political action. If we actually had a national Modernists Association, I would urge that it urge all moderate/pragmatist americans to re-register with the official party of their district and fight the primaries like their childrens lives depended on it.

6- Of course parties choose electors for the trait of loyalty. But also failure of imagination. Out of 271, could not ONE W elector have saved us by performing the Lieberman gambit? I do believe W would have been forced into a conciliatory posture. In any event... no Cheney. Dang. Envision that.

7- Re: Bolton and the court nominees. It is simple. ARE there reasonable alternative choices that the President could make, that the opposition would (albeit grudgingly) accept? The answer under BC was no. The senate stonewalled on general principles, setting today's tone. The answer today is yes. There are many strict constructionist jurists out there of the OLD conservative type that Reid and others would be willing to accept. SO long as they are not apocalypts who openly state that they expect the end of the world.

Good stuff. More soon...

jomama said...

Once everyone gets their hands
on gummint and their own way
'to do it', it'll get so convoluted
it'll collapse. Because no matter
what it does, it makes new enemies
better than it does anything else...
each and every day.

It's a design feature.

Anonymous said...

Our host said: "Imposition of majority will upon an angry minority is at minimum regretable."

Everyone sounds like an underdog in politics recently. Maybe if we all stepped outside the one-dimensional political spectrum, we'd parse two-party politics as two near-pluralities imposing their will on the majority.

As far as kooky legislative practice: what if we took a page from the criminal system and gave each law a trial by jury, rather than letting five high presbyers of the law decide? Prosecution and defense could come from the Senate...many of them are trial lawyers, anyhow.

Also, I recently read an introduction to a Wired review that seemed to describe this website until I discovered it referred to a book about porn controls. A quote from it made me think of you guys, too:
"look left, look right, conclude they're both nuts, and calmly but firmly insist on the obvious."

-Gil Reavill

Anonymous said...

Did I say five? I meant nine. Oops.

Tony Fisk said...

Here's my tuppence worth on the points DB makes:
1) A similar thing happened in Australia. Consensus was one of the hallmarks of the Hawke (and Keating) Labor government as part of its Industrial Relation reforms. It went out the window when Howard was elected in 95, being portrayed as cozying up to the (left wing) union bosses.
2) Key to accountability is rapid feedback. Politicians are far too ready to let things ride until the next election. Apart from haranguing from the opposition benches, the only other way they are currently held accountable is via the newspolls and editor columns, and they're easy to ignore.
3) --
4) The main Australian parties loathe preferential voting and, come election time, are always claiming that a vote for the minor parties is 'a wasted vote'. ie: it's got something going for it!
However, the Australian system has its problems as well. Mandatory voting being a perennial gripe. OTOH, it's not as easy to 'engineer apathy', as suggested in point 4(c). ...and I concur with the need to scream!

5) I recall a humorous article about hair colour, in which the punchline was about 'red being the new grey'...

Now, here's tuppence worth of my own:
Going back to point 2, and 4c, on the need to make government more accountable: If the voting process can be made more convenient, people may participate more willingly and more frequently. Although it's got problems, I think that electronic voting is one way of achieving this.

But, why does every discussion on this particular topic that I've seen get so hung up on specialised voting machines set up in polling booths? Do people really see no alternative to going down the street every four years on the off chance that the queues are short enough?

What's wrong with an internet poll (with digitally signed acknowledgments)?

Use your mobiles!

Anonymous said...

About allocating electors proportionally: I'm for it, but I can't see it happen. The swing states would lose their weight, and wouldn't do it, and the red and blue states wouldn't do it because their dominating party would lose control. Even if by some miracle all states agreed to use it, returning to winner-takes-all would be too tempting for at least some, and the others would react by doing the same...

To Anonymous' rejection of Parliamentarism: Parliamentarism (with the legislature having control over the executive power) is not the same as Proportional Representation. The UK has Parliamentarism and majority rule. The US could have Checks and Balances and Proportional Representation.

What you need to make sure is that people can elect Representatives individually, e.g. by cumulative voting or open lists (they don't have to be party lists) in districts that don't elect too many of them (3 at least, 5 looks right, 7 still works).

I think such multi-member-districts would increase turnout, since people are no longer stuck in districts their candidate could never win, and allow minor parties to gain seats where they are strong. Party line voting is actually encouraged by gerrymandering, because parties use that to maximize their control.

As for the constitution requirement, multi-member-districts don't need a constitutional change, just a change in federal law.

Anonymous said...

Tony Fisk:

The most fundamental reason why on-line voting is a bad idea is quite simple: it makes it impossible to independently verify the results of the election. There have been many documented instances of voting software screwing up. If that happens with Internet polling, you're out of luck: there's no way to do a recount, and no guarantee that a second poll (if you should choose to try that in lieu of a recount) wouldn't have problems of its own.

I live in a place (Orange County, CA) that uses electronic voting machines that do not produce paper trails. Same problem.

Elsewhere, you can find my analysis of desirable properties of voting systems, and a proposal for vote-counting that incorporates automatic recounts. (Summarization of the latter: what's the the best way of making voting tabulation honest? Get the competing organizations to each sponsor their own tabulation, in addition to the government-sponsored tabulation, and make sure that they're using software and hardware from different manufacturers.)

CJ-in-Weld said...

"( idea. Spread the word that we should change blue/red metaphors to blue/gray!)"

Just a minor gripe - may I be permitted to believe that a Republican candidate is the lesser of evils without being subject to an implication I support slavery?

Anonymous said...

Lucian of Samasota said...
"As for why David Brin doesn't run for office, why should he? The pay is crap and he'd never have time to write his novels. Besides, many people (it seems) would vote in an idiotic musclebuilder but I think nobody's crazy enough to vote in an SF writer. SF writers are cute and neat and kooky, and make cool advisors and such. But they're not really the type you need in office."

Yeah, besides, it works *much* better the other way, when you can leverage a political career to become a writer. (Witness Newt Gingrich, although in his case it helped immensely to pick an excellent co-author... :-)

BTW, I just stumbled on this blog (I was re-reading the Uplift series and came to Dr. Brin's site to see what he's been up to...) and found the opinions here to be *very* interesting reading. It's going into my regular political reading list...

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of proportional representation would fly better at the state level, rather than the federal level. In Oregon, our House is composed of 60 districts and our Senate is composed of 30 districts. Rather than have these districts created along very different boundaries, a Senate district is simply composed of 2 House districts. I don't quite see the point.

I propose that state Senate be composed of districts just as now, with individual candidates competing against each other. The individual (likely with a party affiliation) is the focus. The House, however, would move to a proportional system. Individuals may or may not be the focus, but certainly ideas ought to play a larger role than personality. There are many ways to implement this, and the various states should try different systems to find out what works and what doesn't.

The end result is that we would have 2 bodies that have their members chosen is strikingly different manners. We have the Senate, which presumes to represent a geographic community. And we have the House, which presumes to represent virtual (or ideological) communities.

To my mind, there isn't much point in having 2 bodies that are effectively identical in composition (or at least, select their members identically). Why not just have a single body, as Nebraska has? To my mind, we should have the different bodies selected by different methods. Perhaps there should be more than 2 bodies, if a case can be made for other methods of selection. (E.g., a House of Professions, with a member representing Engineers and a member representing Plumbers, etc.)

Geographic proximity is not the acme of representation, but it is still a needed tool. It's just one of many.