Saturday, September 28, 2013

When is Democracy not so Democratic?

In Political Thought this week we discussed the following from the Boston Mayoral election first round of voting.

Candidate Total votes % of votes
Martin Walsh  20,838 18.50%
John Connolly  19,420 17.20%
Charlotte Golar Richie 15,536 13.80%
Daniel Conley 12,764 11.30%
Felix Arroyo 9,888 8.80%
John Barros 9,138 8.10%
Rob Consalvo 8,592 7.60%
Michael Ross 8,155 7.20%
Bill Walczak 3,822 3.40%
Charles Yancey 2,388 2.10%
Charles Clemons Jr. 1,799 1.60%
David Wyatt 334 0.30%

In this system voting is done on a non-partisan basis and the top two vote getters move on to the final election on November 5th. This election is remarkable in that long time incumbent Mayor, Tom Menino, is retiring so there is an open race for the first time in 20 years. The dynamics of a once in a generation opportunity attracted a field of very strong candidates. Not surprising then, the result of first round voting was split so that the two winners emerged with a combined total of just under 36% of the vote.

The question posed to the students is what constitutes a "democratic" method of electing officials. Under our system we have two forms of democratic participation, direct democracy, which allows the people through mechanisms like initiative and referendum to have a direct say over the passage of legislation or creation of constitutional law at the state and local level. The other form is representative democracy where we elect our officials. According to the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl, Democracy consists of far more than just the form of selection, but that form must allow for the weighting of their preferences equally with no discrimination because of content or source. There is more in his work, A Preface to Democratic Theory.

At first blush that seems to be the case. All voter preferences are equally reflected in that in totaling 112, 674 votes all are counted equally. Until they need to turn into a decision and then the top two finishers win and the rest don't. Which means that the preferences of over 64% of the voters are not reflected in the participants moving onto the final round. In the second round the winner is the candidate with over 50% of the vote, but does that actually represent a majority given that the first choice of almost two-thirds of the voters is no longer and option.

This is why advocates for voting reform pose options such as Alternative Vote, where voters can rank order their preferences. Under that scenario the complaint heard about the Boston result, crowded field of candidates including six candidates of color, yet two Caucasian males emerge. For example, under an Alternative Vote, by rolling up the lesser preferences of the bottom candidates someone like Charlotte Golar Richie could have challenged the top finishers. It will be interesting to see if the second round of voting this year results in a higher turnout. In 2009 when Mayor Menino faced a serious challenge the first round brought out 81000 voters in a four way first round and nearly 110,000 in the run-off between Menino and Flaherty. In that case almost 75% of the voters in the first round saw their choices move on to the second round.

Full disclosure, as readers know I did spend some time helping Marty Walsh in this election and I will be thrilled when he is elected Mayor.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I just re-watched Sydney Pollack's great love letter to Kenya, Out of Africa.  Hard to do and not think about the heart aching events in Nairobi unfolding this weekend. Coming on the heels of the horror of the violence in Washington, DC it reminds us of the dark places where beauty is shut out. Madness.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Marshall Berman and All Things

On the Dissent Magazine website there are two wonderful articles about the late scholar Marhsall Berman, who passed away last week. The first by Michael Walzer. My friend Mark Levinson writes about running into Berman and/or seeing his book in far flung places. I had a similar experience maybe five years ago in London browsing through the gift shop at the Tate Gallery (of all places) and seeing a pile of lovely new copies of All Things Solid Melts Into Air. I remembered the book and wanted to read it (a voice in my head said someone I knew loved it) but decided not to buy it then and there because I was already carrying too much on the trip (as is my norm).

A few months later visiting NY, I asked Mark about the book and he beamed and told the story that is in his remembrance, about wanting to do for economic policy what Berman did for the consideration of Marx, urban planning, literature and modernity. So after coffee I went to the St Mark's bookstore and bought their remaining copy and spent a few days lost in this remarkable work. I was struck by his reminder of the lyricism of Marx's prose, as well as the evocative description of St Petersburg . So much so that given a chance to go from London anywhere for a few days at Christmas a few years ago I went to St. Petersburg to experience his description first hand. It was a profound experience. I was wonderfully privileged to be able to view the Nevsky Prospekt through his literary eyes. His writing also helped me plug an intellectual hole in thinking about the modern, progress and rationality.

So today in Political Thought I spoke a bit about modernity, 1848 and the wonderful quote from Marx that tells us so much about the power of social science observation ...

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face . . . the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.
One of my students is writing a paper on The Communist Manifesto so I was pleased to email him the pdf from The Nation of Berman's own review. Hopefully this work will not be lost and students will continue to read it. For me, a dog eared copy of a well read book is perhaps the greatest gift I can think to give an author.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Progressive Moments Here and There

New Yorkers go to the polls tomorrow and there is a chance to elect two progressives whose careers I have followed for many years. Not only that we are just a few weeks away from the same chance here in Massachusetts with two other very special people.

In New York City the primary election for local offices is tomorrow. A abdicate that gets 40% of the vote and has the most votes wins the nomination outright. If the leader does not reach the threshold then the top two finishers have a runoff a few weeks later. Gale Brewer and Bill DiBlasio are on the verge of outfit victories in their respective races.

I have known Gale and followed her career since the late 1970's where I was a classmate of her brother. Gale served the community as the top aid to then Councilmember Ruth Messinger. From that time until today, as an elected official in her own right, she has been a zealous guardian of the interests of the people and he neighborhoods under her care. For a New York looked to change course after the Bloomberg years there could not be a better choice for Manhattan Borough President.

Bill De Blasio is the Public Advocate for the city where he has fought for the interests of working families against hose who would use their money and power to withdraw services and further divide the city by race and income. As Mayor Bloomberg inadvertently pointed out, De Blasio and his family represent the cosmopolitan diversity that makes New York such an interesting and special place. He looks to be on the verge of hitting the 40% threshold and his success would send a powerful message to Democrats across the country about how to talk to the hopes of the average voter.

In Boston, State Representative Marty Walsh is an excellent candidate in a crowded field to succeed retiring Mayor Tom Menino. His personal story is very compelling as he overcame addiction, physical challenges and being shot (yes really) to serve his community in the Legislature. He has worked as an Iron Worker and a union leader and represents everything that you hope for a in a progressive leader. It is a unique opportunity for the City after Mayor Menino's long rule to set another positive direction.

To replace now Senator Ed Markey in the US House a close friend is also in a credible field. State Senator Katherine Clark is an exceptional public servant. A talented and hard working woman she could be making a fortune working as an attorney for a top firm anywhere. Instead she has served the Commonwealth as an attorney, state representative and now State Senator.  Her instincts are very progressive; a supporter of single payer who has made women's rights and the minimum wage as central issues in her campaign. She has taken on tough issues in the State Senate working through changes to the law regarding municipal health insurance and pensions, forging a consensus among unions and state and local officials which represents major achievements. 

I can only hope that these four people have continuing chances to serve their respective constituencies in the roles this aspire toward in the upcoming elections. They can use help through Act Blue or their own websites. But if you live in one of their communities, please at least make sure you vote.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Changing the Goalposts

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote today (10-7) in favor of an amended resolution in favor of military action against Syria contained significant changes from the original draft. At the insistence of Sen McCain the resolution now includes language committing the US to changing the balance of power on the battlefield in Syria. The resolution now goes beyond what the President indicated as his goal, punishing Assad for the use of Chemical weapons. The process is now thoroughly confused as to the goal.

It didn't make much sense to me to have the US military kill people because Assad killed people. Now the goal of launching military force to bring Assad to the negotiating table with the rebels sounds like a significant escalation, even with the restriction of no US troops on the ground. Worse, it is a continuing line of thought that I have heard since Vietnam about the vain hope for a democratic element between bad choices at either end of the spectrum. Through military action we can encourage democratic elements that will (miracle of all miracles) come into line with US values and foreign policy objectives. If you buy that I have a unicorn to sell you.

In the mean time there are two million refugees from Syria that could use significant help. The situation is so bad people are leaving Syria to go to iraq.