The “50 Percent of the Votes, Plus One” Doctrine

Karl RoveOne thing I really hated about Karl Rove was his “50 percent of the votes, plus one” doctrine. I don’t go for that precisely because I believe in democracy and not in mob rule. Of course, it is all the worse in the United States where very few people vote. So getting 50% of the vote almost never means 50% of the people are in favor of a particular policy or candidate. And the conservative approach is always the same: get as few people to vote as possible.

There are some things that are not open to a vote, however. This is what the Bill of Rights is all about. This is why it is so frustrating to hear libertarians, who I think are totally wrong but usually fairly smart, say that if slavery were what the people wanted it would be okay. Wrong! And in a small defense of libertarians, the smart ones understand this very clearly. There are some rights that are not open to a vote. What’s more, we have rightly decided as a people that there are some rights you cannot even give up. If you want to be a slave, you can’t be. That is a freedom you do not have.

Scottish FlagSo even though I still believe that Scottish independence is a good idea if done properly, I find the vote quite questionable. What if the “yes” vote had received “50 percent of the votes, plus one”? Would that really have made it okay to upset the current reasonable state of things on the basis of a single vote? I don’t think it would be. And that brings up an interesting question: what level of support would justify independence? I wish there were an easy answer to that question.

There are two parts of it. First, I think there should be a very clear majority. I think some kind of supermajority would be appropriate — perhaps 60%, although maybe just 55% would be more appropriate given that it isn’t the only requirement. Second, I think there should be a high level of homogeneity in that majority. This is similar to the decision of the Second Continental Congress that all the colonies be on board before they decided on declaring independence. Clearly, this creates all kinds of problems of definitions. You wouldn’t want Scotland divided up by households so that some old crank is the only thing that is stopping Scotland from getting its independence. But Scotland is divided into 32 council areas and I think majorities (or maybe even submajorities) in all of those ought to do.

I’m sure this is the kind of proposal that is likely to make me hated by everyone on all sides of the issue. But the truth is that I don’t much care how Scotland wants to organize its affairs. I’m just using it as an example. When it comes to very important and disruptive things, I think more than a simple majority ought to be needed. Of course, here in the United States, we have a conservative movement that is the worst of all worlds. At the same time that they believe that they ought to be able to turn America into a theocracy with “50 percent of the votes, plus one,” they stubbornly obstruct the government on things they even agree on. See, for example, how the Republicans in the Senate use the filibuster against nominations that they later vote unanimously for.

The truth is that creating a governmental structure that works is really hard. My hat is off to Mr Madison. But it is also true that there is literally no free system that can work if the vast majority of the people don’t abide by social norms. That means that nothing works if we don’t treat each other with shared humanity. And I think this is why America is at such a dangerous point in its history. The leadership of a major political party does not accept the legitimacy of the other political party. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Supreme Court had canceled the Florida recount and anointed Al Gore president? The same people who concocted the Brooks Brothers riot, would have started a revolution. Liberals didn’t like how George Bush became president, but they accepted it because they accepted the system. I think most conservatives accept the system. But the people leading the movement do not. And things could go south quickly if “50 percent of the votes, plus one” ever worked in the liberals’ favor.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The “50 Percent of the Votes, Plus One” Doctrine

  1. Not hard to make historical parallels to 50+1 taking power and how democratically they behaved from that point forward.

    And that’s an appropriate comparison, because most people who vote for the Koch-funded goons don’t want what those goons enact. They have a mixture of motivations, such as social issues, disgust with political backbiting, simplistic desires to see their taxes lowered, belief in meritocracy meaning that the rich shouldn’t be “punished,” all kinds of abstract notions. When it comes to what the far-right enacts once in office, most people are appalled (but then it’s too late; again, historical parallels.)

    This is a really useful post, because it gets to a very important issue; that anyone wanting to expand democracy needs to do the hard work of organizing and educating. Winning elections isn’t enough, unless you want to be a tyrant. There are those on our side who want to be tyrants, naturally, but I suspect a lot fewer now than 40 years ago. We can’t half-ass it anymore; we’ve got to catch up, and it’s going to be a slog.

    Sorry the Internet sucked for you elsewhere. It’s really a pain in the ass in a lot of ways. The nasty interactions you described would be resolved in eight seconds were it a face-to-face conversation. Web anonymity allows those of us who dislike conflict to try and engage people from a secure distance. I’ve had some good results with this and I’m sure you have too. Some of the engaging I’ve done with Web strangers I wouldn’t have done if I had to do it face-to-face.

    But then there’s that moment where you “push the button, Frank” and your musings are just boom, out in the ether, can’t take ’em back. Liberating, in a way. Horribly discouraging and depressing, in another. Nice to put an end to agonizing over word choice and hit “send.” Brutal in how quickly others can read the worst intentions you didn’t entirely mean (I usually mean them a bit, hoping for dialogue, and find I angered others so much that the subtlety of my criticisms is hopelessly lost.)

    Sometimes you type something you think is really precise and nobody gets it. Sometimes you type something you think is a mess and a few people get exactly what you were aiming at.

    Ultimately I’d consider our current method of communication to be a net loss; what we get from quick responses and the freedom of anonymity doesn’t make up for what we miss by not knowing who we’re typing to, and how to type to them.

    Maybe it’s a learning process, and we’ll figure out how to have debates online that are just as productive as door-to-door shit. I hope so. Because I am stone useless at door-to-door shit. People terrify me!

    • No, I don’t think it will get better. It is the “whites of their eyes” problem. Apparently, the reason we have large visible sections of white in our eyes is that it allows us to better communicate with each other. So we really can tell instantly if something we are saying is going wrong. You’re right that any problem I had with Infidel would have been gone within seconds. It really wasn’t until the very end of our exchange that I understood what had happened. Until then, I was just prattling on not realizing just how big an issue I had stepped in. And all the emoticons in the world won’t help that.

      A techie friend of mine has this philosophy of reading email. She says you should always assume the absolute best reading of it because that was pretty much always right and otherwise you spend all your time trying to settle confusion. The problem is that it is hard to do and almost no one else does it anyway. Of course, when the issue is politics or anything else people care deeply about, it is so much worse.

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