Voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Xiaoyu Lu explores the cognitive dissonance of overseas Chinese students.

The rebellion against liberal democracy of these four individuals does not fit into prevalent narratives that portray Chinese overseas students as isolated, materialistic and politically insensitive. Their critical reflections came from genuine transnational exposure. However, does it mean that they became more nationalistic and supportive of China’s system? There is a further layer of complexity: most of the returnees I talked to insisted on their liberal values, agreeing on fundamental ideas of an open and inclusive society. In other words, they believed there was still a political gap for China to fill, but not one that followed a Western standard. This picture is perhaps troubling for both home countries and host countries, as they aligned with no particular model.

What they rebelled against was not the existence of a common value. Rather, it was the sense of superiority, the idea that there was no alternative, and the belief in liberal democracy as an orthodoxy,which they found frustrating. They became disillusioned with Western liberal democracy, because it did not live up to the promise of being a liberating force. Instead, they felt it limited democracy to a particular geography, history and set of institutions, which denied the participation of others. Their views underlined the tension between contemporary democratic values that reflect human universals, and the parochial politics that excludes so many people from claiming citizenship of a global community.

Their dilemma was how to express alternative views against liberal democracy while not being the proponents of political repression. Like me, they questioned a singular understanding of democracy, yet wanted to avoid relativism. They were hesitant to criticise the Chinese government, but also didn’t want to unquestioningly accept it. Their transnational encounters made them open to pluralism, and tolerant of multiple views and values, yet their pluralism was not always compatible with contemporary liberal democracy. Above all, they rejected that a single model or idea from another country could be the saviour for China. Rather, they are much more nuanced: double dissidents in an age of globalisation.

Hat tip to T. Greer, who has much more to say:

A few thoughts:

1) Interesting how almost every single one of these people conflates liberalism with democracy. It is quite possible to have deeply illiberal democracy. That might even be the global norm — especially for places with newly minted middle classes.

2) Democracy as practiced in the West is, in my humble opinion, better than other systems for mostly one reason: it provides a system of conflict resolution that does not require coups, civil wars, or violent suppression of the other side to manage disputes or power transitions.

3) Compare the track record of the United States (especially the northern half) and the British dominions with almost any other political regime on these grounds that has ever existed over a three-century period, and you will see the value of this quite quickly.

4) Democracy promises 3 political ideals that hold great power over the imagination. Some of these ideals are more strongly realized than the others in 21st-Century government. None, however, are guaranteed results of representative democracy.

They are: liberty, equality, and self government.

I suspect that disillusionment with democracy and liberalism writ large comes with the feeling that the gap between one of these ideals and the reality yawns to wide — or a disenchantment with the ideal itself.

Of the three, Western democracies have probably done the best at preserving liberty. This is the one I miss most while in China. My life is deeply affected by my inability to worship as I would like, to speak as I would like, and to associate with whom I will.

Libertarians will criticize Western governments for being too hostile freedom writ large, but for most people these things are protected. By and large, Westerners are also free from arbitrary detentions, torture, and have protections like habeas corpus, etc. These things matter.

You can hypothetically have all of those things in a non-democratic system. On the eve of WWI, most Europeans did have them, or something close to them, even though the amount of democratic influence differed strongly empire to empire (Russians are an exception).

You could feasibly have a non-democratic system in China that protected these things — just as you could feasibly have a democracy that did not.

This brings us to the next one. Equality.

Trouble with equality is everyone has a different definition of it. You can do complete economic equality on the one hand down to a much more restricted version of pure legal equality on the other. The definition I think is most meaningful is the one Tocqueville keyed in on.

Worth reminding ourselves that what Tocqueville found so extraordinary about America was not its freedoms — in some ways, he would claim, Americans were less free than folks who lived in aristocracies, as aristocrats have a much greater tolerance for heterodoxy than democratic politics ever allows. No, what impressed Tocqueville about America was its equality. He thought Americans were economically about equal — or at least they had equal economic opportunities. Later studies of economic inequality in the antebellum era have proven this notion wrong.

But Tocqueville made that inference from a solid observation: Americans of different classes were regarded as *social* equals. One can exaggerate that claim, of course. Class existed in the 1830s. But the difference between the USA & Europe was vast.

The reasons for this sense of shared social equality (disclaimer about white men, blah blah blah) came mainly from three sources: The first was that most Americans were functionally independent. They owned their own farms or shops. They were their own bosses.

So even if you met a millionaire, you could fool yourself into thinking you were his equal, because he did not control you — you controlled you.

This version of independence mostly disappeared by the 1920s in the USA. Populists tried to stop its leaving, but they failed.

Second reason: Americans were legally equal. One man, one vote. All shared the same liberties. This one has largely stuck around.

Third reason: Americans were possessed with this ideology of social equality. This ideology originally proposed that any white man was the social equal of any white man simply by merit of being a white man. Voting rates were so high in the late 1800s partially because they were strongly associated with manhood.

Well, women got the vote & the ideology changed a bit, but mostly stuck around. In America you could see that by the polls asking folks if they considered themselves middle class — both the poor and rich insisted on it, even when, statistically speaking, it wasn’t true. America wasn’t that much more economically mobile in earlier ages — people just really believed it was, and in many locales, especially rural ones, tried hard to downplay local differences.

But I suppose that’s mostly gone now in America, and I’d suggest, France. Amy Chua’s “market dominant minority” model is helpful here.

So whether you measure it in social terms or economic terms, mod democracy doesn’t really deliver on the equality thing.

Which leaves us with self-government. Back in the 19th c and early 20th c this was the center of the pro-democracy propaganda. Inasmuch as you say things like “we will follow the will of the people” I suppose you are still spreading it yourself.

Poli scientists Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels have a good book that shows how this a complete myth in any large scale polity, Democracy for Realists. Basically, voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law.

But that really isn’t what self government should be about. Self government is about communities making decisions for themselves — communities that are small enough for individual voices to be heard, and for a sense of communal identity to be formed.

Which basically means local government and civic societies. These, in my humble opinion, are where the brilliance of democracy is supposed to be — the place where democracy can make good on its 19th-Century claim to make better people out of its citizens than other regimes. But the 21st Century has done poorly here.

Civic society has been in a decline in the USA for a good six decades, and few other countries ever matched the USA at its height. And no one cares about local government anymore. Most are consolidated till they are not local anymore (story of school boards) or are subject to control from above.


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    If you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers. Achen, Bartels and the Chinese students are focused on democracy. Democracy is more rightly defined as a process that includes voting and representation (or not) among other things. The more proper Western approach would be to consider liberty and natural rights. The Western approach assumes that all people are equal and equally capable of self-government on the condition that there pre-exists a functional civil society on which to build. Tribalism, caste systems, oppressive religions and communism are incapable of providing a foundation for liberty or the protection natural rights.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    Liberty? Democracy? The two terms are not much compatible. Democracy is the vote of majority or one of major minorities do define what are the reasons to use State violence.

    If an author wants to talk about Liberty, then it implies restriction of power and how much space for voluntarism there is in a society. Things that occur with because people decide in freedom to associate and make them not by law imposition.

    Democracy has only been associated with Freedom for two reasons, historically helped destroy Ancient Regime and it is a functional to get rid of a ruler. But it is much more difficult to get rid of the myriad laws that Democracy created.

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