One reason our political system often disappoints us is that we have exaggerated notions of what elections can accomplish.
The fundamental function of elections is to decide whether to remove an incumbent.
There's no room for nuance here. It's a strictly either/or decision.
Voters either unseat the incumbent, or they don't.
The basic question in 2020 is whether or not to send Donald Trump packing.
As Harvard's Graham Allison has noted, "Organizations are blunt instruments." He was referring to the difficulties leaders face when trying to control government's large bureaucratic organizations.
But voting is an even blunter instrument.
It cannot determine the day to day details of governmental decisions.
Unrealistic ideas of what elections can accomplish are encouraged by slogans like "government by the people," which cannot be taken literally.
Governing requires power, power requires organization, and in large organizations power to make day to day decisions gravitates into the hands of a few individuals.
This "iron law of oligarchy" was discovered by a German sociologist, Robert Michels, who was studying democratic political parties. Michels misunderstood the implications of his discovery and concluded that democracy is impossible.
But even though all governments are oligarchies, democracy is still possible because the circumstances within which the current oligarchs must work can make a huge difference.
In the Soviet Union, leaders couldn't be removed by voters.
They were a self-perpetuating oligarchy.
Top leaders in a democracy are limited in what they can do by their fear that voters might remove them in the next election.
Democracy isn't "government by the people."
It's government by some people, limited by the people.
This is why the incumbent removal function of elections is so central and so powerful.
It explains why voters are often at a loss when — as in the 2016 presidential election — there is no incumbent seeking re-nomination or re-election.
Such elections are often little more than a crap-shoot in which voters must guess which candidate would be best. .
If there is an incumbent, that official's behavior in office gives voters a basis for deciding whether to retain or fire that person. Since voters have no way to know how the challenger---who has not occupied that public office — would perform, their focus should be on the strengths and weaknesses of the incumbent.
The incumbent-removal function of elections explains why minor party candidates may make it impossible for elections to do their main job. When voters choose between two candidates, they can make a simple decision whether or not to retain the incumbent.
But if there are also third party challengers, a majority of voters might vote to dethrone the incumbent but split their votes among several challengers. This could leave the incumbent with the largest number of votes even though a majority of voters voted to remove.
In a free country people must be free to start new parties.
These often perform a service by pushing for new ideas that can be "stolen" by one of the major parties if they catch on. Once in a while a minor party may even take off and become one of the two major parties.
But people seeking any immediate influence over the government should resist the temptation to vote for third party candidates.
In effect, such a vote is a vote for the major party candidate the voter likes least.
Of course people have many other ways to try to influence government: lobbying, petitioning, trying to shape public opinion, even running for office. But voting remains the most powerful weapon.
In 2020, we have an incumbent president who must run on his record.
Those who want to discontinue Mr. Trump should vote, and they should vote for Joe Biden no matter how little enthusiasm they may have for him.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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