The trouble with democracy

"Voting . . . is a way of fighting without engaging in overt violence,
an example of what anthropologists call 'ritual combat.' Rather than
resort to direct combat, contesting factions in democracies marshal
numbers to their cause through covert lobbying and overt rhetorical
confrontation. They then let the electoral tally symbolize victory for
one side or the other, the primitive idea presumably being that he who
had marshaled the most bodies would have come out the winner in battle,
had it come to that." (MacCallum, 2006, p. 411)

Obvious, perhaps, but nonetheless illuminating for me, as was
MacCallum's entire insightful article. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in
Democracy: The God That Failed, has argued convincingly that democracy
doesn't work (a majority gets to vote itself the property of a minority;
representatives, in contrast to a monarch, have a time horizon which
extends only to the next election; and so on); but it was only
MacCallum's article--on a topic I thought I had no particular interest
in--which pinpointed for me what I can't stand about democratic process.
That process characterizes not just nations, but many smaller
institutions, including political parties. MacCallum explains how
democracy erodes community in residential associations, but his analysis
enables us equally to understand the often-lamented destruction of
community in the Libertarian Party.

Many people, I know, share my dissatisfaction with the rightward
movement of the Party, especially pronounced in recent years; but I
haven't heard anyone else complaining about the intrinsic nature of
Party process, which seems rather to be taken for granted. But, from my
experience of national and state conventions especially (potentially at
the local level as well, but the lesser divisiveness of local issues has
protected us somewhat), the anthropological term "ritual combat" seems
far too mild. "Ritual" connotes something more like ceremony and
play-acting; what I see typically is power struggles which engage, in
full intensity, many of the emotions--and the tactics, in the worst
sense of the term--of real combat.

Although I attended national conventions as far back as 1979, I did not
serve as a delegate until 2000, because what drew me in the earlier
years was the speakers more than the nitty-gritty of by-laws debates and
the like. But the process itself of becoming a delegate in 2000 was a
shocking introduction to the real world of politics. Although I had not
sought to be a delegate that year, either, I began receiving mail
addressed to delegates, in advance of the convention. I assumed a
simple mistake had been made, but then was given a delegates' package at
the convention. When I objected that I was not a delegate, I was shown
the list with my name. What had happened was evidently commonplace:
The California delegation was not full; state Party officials, being
Browne supporters, filled the remaining seats from the list of donors to
the Browne campaign. This is just the sort of practice that the
underdog candidates fret about each cycle, but I was told that it was
"perfectly legal." Although I benefited from this maneuver, in terms of
support for my preferred candidate, I was also left having to breathe
through my mouth. Clearly my implicit fantasy had been that, as "The
Party of Principle," the LP was above such things; now I see that that
is simply where democratic organization ineluctably leads.

Contests over candidates, however, pale for me beside those over
platform planks, which have severely threatened the identity of the
Party. It has also seemed to me from the beginning that I was destined
to be on the losing side, thanks to there being so many more
conservatives than libertarians; but I still had very little energy for
trying to prevail by fighting, even just with votes.

There are other problems with democratic process, discussed by
MacCallum, which don't involve fighting. An extreme example occurred at
a state convention a few years ago. A new plank was introduced on a
subject on which I had little factual background. I felt ambivalent; I
could see strong reasons for supporting both sides; and the time
allotted for debate was too short for me to reach any resolution. The
margin on the first ballot was a single vote, so a recount was demanded.
People were dragged in from the lobby. Some people, including me,
changed their votes from one ballot to the next. I forget how many
votes were taken, but the plank was ultimately defeated by 1 vote. I
had voted against, and later concluded that that was the wrong position.
(It is only a small consolation that positions taken by the Libertarian
Party have no relevance to anything. Someday, in our fantasy, they
might.) There have been many similar instances of the same phenomenon,
where I felt I was insufficiently informed, and that it was consequently
inappropriate for me to be casting a vote. On this point I suspect I'm
not alone: that I'm not that much less well-informed than average, nor
that much more wishy-washy. Abstention is surely an underused option;
on the other hand, too many abstentions make you wonder what you're
doing there in the first place.

Reflecting on these experiences over the past year or so, I was coming
to the ridiculous conclusion that what I wanted was a proprietary
political party (or several of them). Somebody draws up a platform and
chooses candidates, and I can sign on or not. But with a democratically
operated party, everything, including its basic identity, is constantly
up for grabs, and has to be fought over forever--a fight, as is often
observed, where our antagonists are those, out of the general
population, with whom we are closest to being in agreement. But perhaps
there's no need for a "proprietary party"; I can support individual
candidates and measures as I wish, without drawing myself into endless
battles, either those where I think I know what I'm doing, or those
where I don't. It is less obvious how to escape the larger democratic
system, unfortunately, but maybe somebody can hep me there.

MacCallum, S. H. (2006). Residential politics: How democracy erodes
community. Critical Review, 17, 393-425.