March 8, 2017

Amid all the heated discussions lately of electoral processes here ("here" being both HoF/BJOL and the POTUS/US of A) I’ve realized how naively we all approach the entire concept of elections. I sympathize with all you naïve folks, mainly because I’m very naïve myself in this regard, and for a fairly simple, direct reason:  although we all absorbed the basic information about voting very early, it’s actually a complicated and deeply philosophical concept that we were completely incapable of processing as children. A lot of what we processed, however, has stuck with us, and we are naturally reluctant to question concepts that we think we’ve understood perfectly well for our entire conscious lives.

Just take the idea of "qualified voters," which is a gigantic hot-button issue on the national scale in the U.S. right now. We tend to approach this as if the prejudices we bring to the issue are firmly settled facts and those who disagree with our own prejudices are insane, evil, demented, hyper-partisan, hopelessly stupid, hopelessly corrupt, treasonous, jingoistic or any combination thereof.  In reality, though, most of us have given very little thought to the question of "Who should be qualified to vote?" I’ve vacillated myself from setting the bar very high to setting it very low, and at various times in my life I was certain that universal enfranchisement or very selective enfranchisement was the way to go. There are reasonable arguments for both cases, and for numerous cases in between those extremes, but no clearly fair way to settle this issue, which is only one of dozens of open issues regarding voting and electoral processes. One of the realizations I’ve taken away from thinking about these processes is that every system we can devise is unfair to somebody, and most are unfair to several large groups of people.

That’s a painful realization, isn’t it? It’s painful because I think one of the first prejudices we have had driven into our tiny skulls when we first learned about elections is that they’re designed, above all, to be fair. Imagine if we taught our kids, "OK, the first thing you have to understand about voting is that it’s unfair, and that it has to be unfair. Our particular system is cruelly unfair to [voting bloc A] and incidentally unfair to [voting bloc B] and [voting bloc C] but other countries’ voting systems are horrible to [voting blocs D, E and F] and blithely dismissive of [voting blocs G, H, I and especially J]. It’s impossible to design a voting system that treats everyone fairly." But without that instruction, and with the opposite of that instruction, we all get brainwashed into assuming that any system is a fair one, and that our system (mirror, mirror, on the wall) is the fairest of them all. That’s got to be fundamentally wrong on its face, since every different voting system in the world, of which there are dozens, perhaps hundreds (depending on what you call a system and what you call a variation of a system), teaches that its system is the fairest one of all.

One irony here is that you might suppose that this question could be resolved—by voting on it. Imagine if you held some sort of nation-wide referendum on "Who is qualified to vote?" Well, who is qualified to vote in that referendum, right? The solution is stymied by the problem it’s seeking to resolve.

How did Americans design their electoral process, anyway? It’s not all that different from how the chaotic unsystematic system of the Baseball Hall of Fame began, which is thoroughly and scathingly covered in chapter 4 of Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, the key clause of which is "the Hall of Fame has never really thought through the issue of how to identify the most worthy Hall of Famers." A small group of self-appointed, educated 18th-century politicians under a lot of time-pressure and without specialized training or experience in electoral design argued about the American electoral process, plus a few hundred other related issues, and swapped, bargained, horse-traded, and compromised on most of these issues to come up with a system that worked. Sort of. Giving the Founding Fathers the most credit possible for wisdom and sound judgment, this is not the ideal way to design anything.   Far from it.

Let me give an idea of some critical issues in designing electoral and voting systems that, at least in theory, are open for legitimate debate. (Among the things I’ve learned in doing a little research on these issues is that "electoral" and "voting" processes are two entirely distinct subjects. I’m going to mix them up in the sample questions below. )

Who is qualified to vote?

What evidence of identity does a qualified voter need to supply at the polling place?

Should there be a national standard of qualification, or should every locality set its own standard?

How should candidates for office be chosen?

Should the winner be determined by majority vote or by a plurality?

How shall disputes over election outcomes be resolved?

Should everyone’s vote count equally?

What qualifications must candidates have in order to be on the ballot?

Should voting be mandatory?

Should ballots be open or secret?

Should a system include maximum democratic voting (i.e., referenda) or maximum representative voting, or something in between?


And on and on, with each of these questions containing many valid sub-questions of equal philosophical complexity. You might suppose naively that such questions are self-evidently answerable: "Should everyone’s vote count equally?" for example fairly screams "YES! YES! YES!" like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally but actually our Electoral College screams right back "NO! NO! NO!" and we all live with that. 

A very practical issue that arises right about here is whether we must, in fact, live with what we have. There are those here on BJOL, for example, whom I’ll refer to, slightly insultingly, as "Hall of Fame apologists," by which I mean that their argument seems based on the assumption that since historical HoF voting has yielded results that mostly seem admirable or at least acceptable, nothing about the voting needs to be different, or ever needed to be different. It’s just peachy-fine the way it is.  I’m sure there are those who feel the same about national elections, or even different national elections in different countries. "It’s what we have, it’s what I’ve grown up with, it’s had certain results over the years, and there’s no point to questioning this system" is my characterization of the apologist position, which I obviously am puzzled by, to say the least.

I apologize, not only for the slightly insulting term, but also for ignoring this position. If you think we’ve got a peachy-keen system, or several peachy-keen systems, working right now, then this article will simply not speak to you, as it inherently offends your sensibilities by suggesting that there is much that is flawed in our voting system, and in every other system. Personally, I think we must assume a profound sense of humility in even broaching this subject, because a lot of people a lot smarter than I am have devoted their lives to these issues and have come away with ideas that are very challenging to me. Take Kenneth Arrow, for example, a Nobel-Prize winning economist who just died a week or so ago: Arrow worked on the problem of having an utterly irrational system of voting, summarized here:​ur-voting-system-84c40aa39ef4#.lo7d9jjqm . For those who don’t wish to open that link, I’ll summarize the summary: Arrow proposes four straightforward conditions of rational voting systems, but when they’re combined, as they must be, every voting system violates at least one or more of these conditions. In other words, every voting system in the world exhibits irrationality. If you must begin an analysis of voting systems with the understanding that all systems are inherently irrational, as Arrow insists we must, then the whole process of voting must begin under a thundercloud of suspicion. Bring your umbrella.

Arrow’s thesis, which has been around a little longer than Bill has (Arrow first came up with this concept in his doctoral dissertation, written in the very late 1940s and very early 1950s), makes clear that all voting systems contain irreconcilable flaws, but this needn’t stop us from picking one that, as someone once said, is "more perfect." (That solecism always cracks me up, the concept of various degrees of perfection, much as the idea of various degrees of uniqueness cracks me up. This one is especially good in that it appears in a document that many patriotic Americans assume to be itself perfect, if not actually composed by the hand of God. What Gouverneur Morris, the actual "Penman of the Constitution," meant by the expression "more perfect" is something like "less screwed-up than those goddamned Articles of Confederation," though "more perfect" does, I will admit, have a more noble ring to it.) In other words, we can decide which flaws to accept and which ones to reject.

This decision rests on our agreeing to revisit the voting systems ab ovo, as it were, to be willing to reject and to accept anything we choose, regardless of what the Constitution or our childhood understanding of the Constitution says, as well as reconsidering the voting system of the Hall of Fame, and other institutions.  I like a system which demands that regular reconsideration take place at frequent intervals, because the assumption there is "Yeah, we probably screwed up something, we’re far from the sharpest mustard in the delicatessen, and future voters probably will be able to fix some of our inevitable screw-ups, if we let them."

To think otherwise strikes me as arrogant, but I’m not here to abuse anyone.  I have a little practical experience, in that I served for several years on the By-Laws Committee of the English Department, chairing the committee for a while, which believe me was a trip. It was like a Marx brothers routine, only funnier. Our By-Laws clearly state that every ten years, we must convene and revisit the By-Laws, which condition we chose to ignore, putting us of course in violation of the By-Laws. We met after about eight or nine years but couldn’t come to any sort of agreement as to the changes we wanted in the By-Laws—we know only that we all wanted different changes, and we wanted them very badly, but we couldn’t reach an agreement on how to vote for these changes. There was just enough ambiguity (and downright contradiction) in the By-Laws themselves to make concordance impossible. (Topping the comedy routine, it turned out when we couldn’t come to an agreement, the dean of the college stepped in to inform us that our departmental By-Laws in several places didn’t meet with her approval, so essentially we were told that anything we did according to the By-Laws could be voided by her refusal to accept the By-Laws’ validity, and she needn’t strive for consistency in her rulings.)  Among the simpler issues of contention (while we were under the illusion that we needed to have By-Laws in the first place) were such things as "voter eligibility." Some professors argued that voting should be limited to tenured faculty, others to full-time faculty, still others to all faculty. A few of us thought that only "full" professors should vote, or that their votes should count more than those of professors at lower ranks. Still others insisted that we appoint student representatives and that they, too, have voting rights.

There was a good case made for each position, which I won’t bore you with here, but will simply use it as my example of a fairly simple argument on a straightforward subject that proved incredibly difficult, complicated, and contentious. Another needlessly difficult issue that occupied this very small group for days was that of absentee voting: Could one voting member cast a proxy vote for an absent voting member? If so, would that absent voting member’s vote need to be written before we discussed the matter, or could the member holding the proxy just cast a vote as he or she saw fit for the absent member? Stuff like that took forever to get straight, and even then was settled only by majority vote, not by any unanimity or agreement or concord. In the end, the decision about proxies was decided by proxy votes that some on the losing side felt were illegitimate votes which, if disallowed, would have changed the results of the voting. My side won, but, man, were those losers cheesed off! I believe the ultimate and winning argument was "Let’s vote for my nonsense, which is no more nonsensical than the other side’s nonsense, and move on to other nonsense, okay? Please?"

What I’m trying to say by these examples is that every single issue regarding voting makes some sense to some people, and raises other issues, and we don’t even understand the purpose voting is intended to serve. Mostly, voting exists in order to settle issues (like my department’s proxy war) so they don’t linger and fester and remain in dispute. Even the people who lose an election can at least say, "Well, we had it out, we lost, and now we can move on." Voting gives closure, or at least the illusion of closure, for a while, and we all seek that. It settles not so much what choice is the right choice, or the moral or ethical or legal or appropriate choice, but just the choice that the people voting on that particular day opted to support, for reasons good or bad or indifferent.  That is ultimately all the electoral process is designed to do.

But we don’t trust the electoral process very much, do we? By "we" I mean "humans," though Americans will serve as a convenient example—we set up our peculiar electoral process out of fear of "the mob," which makes sense in Al Capone’s Chicago, but in the late 18th century "the mob" was—well, what we would call "voters" now. Women. Blacks. Recent immigrants. Servants. Those lazy worthless slobs who rent rooms instead of owning property. And though we’ve expanded the franchise greatly since then, there is still a great hue and cry over unqualified people who are still able, somehow, to cast an undeserving ballot. Fear of the mob is still with us, and although the mob may have changed, that fear is only growing stronger.

And fear of the mob makes some sense—don’t get me wrong. Someone just (like five minutes ago, as I write this) quoted in "Reader Posts" Churchill’s line about the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I’m sure that someone else is thinking now that the best counter-argument to that is Churchill’s "Except for all the others" line.  I’m pretty sure that there are Democrats who secretly favor giving people votes based on the number of advanced degrees they have, while many Republicans would like to award voting privileges based on income—there are dozens of alternative systems that would be favored, like my two examples, based on current perceptions of winning elections, not on any high-minded or well-thought-out principle, and I think all of these proposals have a certain merit. Honestly, one of the major driving forces behind our current, contested notions of voter eligibility is just simplicity: you don’t have to produce much documentation to vote in this country (though there are those who want more stringent documentation standards), and thank God for that. It would be hell to have to bring in all your graduate diplomas or your past tax returns to show your level of education or your current income, and it would turn becoming eligible to vote into a legal process that would take days instead of minutes. (I don’t remember what I had to show in order to become eligible. The first ballot I ever cast—for George Stanley McGovern, natch—was during my sophomore year of college, and I can’t even imagine what documentation I possessed proving I was me, and I was born here, and all that. Did they operate on the honor system on the upper West Side of Manhattan then? Is it basically an honor system now? That is, did I have to sign something swearing I was born here, and that I wasn’t a felon? How could I have proven a negative anyway? For the felon part, I can’t imagine there is any proof that’s even possible, much less required, so I guess they took my word for all of it. I was trying to become a felon in those days, but my heart wasn’t in it.) Both privileging higher education and privileging wealth would be called "elitist" (certainly by the uneducated and the poor) but I don’t mind being called an elitist so much anymore. I’ve gotten kind of used to it, in that I actually do believe that some people are better at certain things than other people. That, after all, is why I like major league baseball—what an elitist scam THAT is! Just because these guys are the best baseball players, do we really have to watch them and pay them and applaud them so much? Talk about elitism!

For that matter, what’s the big deal about the secret ballot? We’ve been arguing here, for example, about the Hall of Fame voters having their ballots revealed to the public, and most people, by my count, are protesting this change on the basis of ballots being secret. After all, they argue, isn’t the secret ballot a sacred and necessary part of voting?

Is it? Not really. We are accustomed to seeing how our representatives vote on various bills, aren’t we? We accept—no, we demand-- that their votes be cast in public, and that each vote cast goes into a permanent record. The HoF voters seem much more analogous to me to the U.S. Senators whose votes are public, than they are to voters in a polling booth—both the HoF guys and the Senators are a small select group representing a much larger group (the fans and the public, respectively), but even there I would question why we venerate the secret ballot for the general public. It would be WAY different to have our votes a matter of public record, of course, and some things that I can’t even imagine would be worse, but in a lot of ways that would be better. I’m supposing that a major downside would be retribution, shaming, intimidation, pressure—I get that. But the secret ballot has its drawbacks, too, among which I number a lack of responsibility for your vote. My point is that "The Secret Ballot" is sacrosanct but we haven’t really given a whole lot of thought to whether it’s desirable or not.

Many assumptions we make about the voting process are similarly sacrosanct, but in my view, worthy of questioning. I said before that fear of the mob, resulting in an Electoral College, is a reasonable fear—but under examination, doesn’t that principle violate the essence of voting?  It seems to me that if you’re afraid of what the mob can do, and you need to have a check on it, even a check as toothless and nominal as the Electoral College has proven itself to be, aren’t you then saying that you fundamentally disapprove of the idea of democracy? It’s not a bad position, disapproving of democracy, though it is elitist in the extreme: we need to have some group of smart (or capable, or rich, or land-owning, or something) people who can reject the electoral process if the people decide to do something colossally stupid, or self-destructive, or ill-advised?

What does it mean that everyone’s vote counts equally? A bedrock of democracy, it asserts flatly the equality of everyone—but then how can we have a system, like the Electoral College, that asserts that all voters do not have an equal voting power? Mind you, I’m not complaining about the Electoral College (not here, anyway) but I am pointing out how certain maxims that seem self-evident are equally self-evidently defied by actual practice, and no one seems to mind this contradiction very much. It’s almost as if the ballot, the sacred ballot, isn’t something we find important enough to devote a lot of thinking to. In some ways, "thinking" is considered too difficult for most people to manage, which is why we tend to reduce complicated processes to simple slogans and maxims, which then get applied and misapplied and misunderstood.  "All men are equal" uh, kinda. Sorta. Sometimes. Not really.

This misunderstanding and reduction to slogans isn’t limited to the electoral process. In much the same way that the "secret ballot" and "one man, one vote" get bandied about without much reflection, "innocent until proven guilty" is applied so broadly that we often forget that it’s a maxim specific to felonies in courts of law, and not necessarily or desirably applied to everyday life. It really makes no sense to apply it, say, to an inter-office dispute. Someone steals your favorite Bic pen off your desk in plain sight of the whole office, and you demand that he give it back to you. What’s his defense? "Innocent until proven guilty by a jury of my peers," he might respond idiotically enough, meaning that the pen is his, and you are in the wrong for asserting his guilt, until a fair trial has taken place. We all can see that this example is ludicrous, and that the pen-thief is not only dishonest but criminally stupid, but the same principle also applies to other non-legal situations as well. It’s ONLY in a courtroom, and ONLY for a felony, that we raise the bar so high as to force ourselves to suspend our conclusions until a fair trial has been conducted. In most other circumstances, you’re a jackass if you suspend all your good judgment and common sense until a trial, which isn’t even possible for 99% of transgressions, takes place.  Yet you hear this very specific charge being demanded in everyday situations all the time.

Maxims about elections substitute for real thought about the issues. They free us up from having to think long and hard about the principles behind the maxims, which many folks find painful, and free us up from having to think about why we have elections in the first place.

When this question is asked, which is rare, the usual answer is negative: what, would you have us ruled by a dictator? A king? The first hundred names in the Boston telephone directory, as Abbie Hoffman once asserted? Okay, it was William F. Buckley Jooooniah whut said that he’d prefer to be ruled by those 100 alphabetically privileged Bostonians than by the Harvard faculty, but the question remains: if we don’t vote, what alternative is possible? How can society decide what its laws should be, and who will administer those laws, without an electoral system?

I have a very good friend who (I’m serious now) is so far to my left politically that I can’t even understand what he’s saying half of the time. (He gets into intense disagreements with the American Communist party, various Marxists, extreme left-wing groups of every stripe, always on the grounds that their positions are too supportive of a capitalist free-market society.) This friend is adamantly opposed to the concept of voting (which takes the form of bemusement rather than anger, because he’s a witty and gentle guy), so much so that he refuses to supply a practical alternative to it: voting is a cornerstone of capitalism, and since the entire building must come down, my friend prefers not to get bogged down in petty details before we (you and I) agree in principle to raze the building. While it’s crumbling to the ground, my friend seems to believe, we can argue about the design of the building we would like to construct after the rubble is cleared away. But after an hour or two of badgering on my part (in the Museum of Modern Art the other day, as he and I toured all sorts of great art and silly repulsive art) he offered the model of American Indian tribal structure, which went on for millennia without elections, without campaigning, without politics as we know it—his point (I think) was that our society is not as dependent as we think it is on the apparatus that’s been handed down to us.  We just need to think outside the box we’re in, and outside of the box that box is in. Actually, now that I think about it, it was Abbie Hoffman who said that he’d prefer to appoint any full-blooded American Indian, even if he’s an imbecile, to rule over this country, as a token of repentance for virtually wiping out the indigenous people on this continent.

Hey, that’s got to make at least as much sense as having Donald Trump in charge, doesn’t it?

Don’t answer that.





COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider

I appreciate your writing about stuff like this. As I get older, I'm finding myself more interested in history and politics than in sports (which I still like).
3:42 PM Mar 20th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks to both of you for posting in a thread that almost everyone has ceased to read, or even to open. I appreciate the education I get here, all the time.
1:45 PM Mar 18th
Marc Schneider
"The problem is that the U.S. Constitution is a legal document in which I would prefer accuracy over poetry, clarity over color. I don't mind if a binding legal document about my rights is a little dry."

The Constitution itself is a legal document; the preamble not so much. The preamble has no legal meaning; no one sues over the wording of the preamble to the Constitution. The preamble is designed to set forth a political rationale for the Constitution, not a legal analysis that someone would rely on; accuracy is irrelevant because what would "accuracy" mean in that context? He obviously was going for effect; if he had said "a more effective central government," that would not have had much emotional effect. So, IMO, "more perfect union" is appropriate.
3:41 PM Mar 16th
Brock Hanke
Will and shall started out with different meanings. The distinction has largely been lost by now. In the original, "will" means intention backed by force of will. "I will do this" is much the same as "I am determined to do this." Shall has a meaning that is almost clerical. "I shall do this" means "This will happen by my hand no matter what happens to get in the way." It's actually, back in Medieval English, very close to a statement of predestination. As English speakers went through global contacts and the Reformation, "shall" lost a lot of that sense of absolute predictability, because people can't really guarantee that. So shall drifted closer to the meaning of will. The distinction seems (I have not studied the issue thoroughly) to have disappeared when the NeoClassicists, Alexander Pope and those guys, tried to systematize English and freeze it in place, because they really did believe that the England of that time was the height of achievement possible to human beings. But, even now, shall is usually considered to be a stronger word than will.
12:01 AM Mar 15th
Marc Schneider
"A small group of self-appointed, educated 18th century politicians under a lot of pressure and without specialized training or experience in electoral design argued about the American electoral process . . ."

That is not even really close to how the current system came about. The Constitution sets out basic standards for federal elections but (1) does not address state elections; and (2) doesn't say who should be allowed to vote. In fact, the current system was a process that evolved over time in many places. For example, the first state to allow women to vote was Montana. It was, as you say, a messy and chaotic process, but the framers had relatively little to do with how we define suffrage today. Obviously, the Electoral College has huge consequences for one specific election-that of president. But the process has changed immensely over time. Originally, Senators were elected by their state's legislature. The scope of suffrage enlarged over time as the concept of democracy become more popular (and, obviously, there were huge exceptions to the expansion of suffrage with respect to African-Americans and women.) The 14th and 15th Amendments-not part of the original Constitution-gave suffrage, in theory, expanded suffrage in reaction to the Civil War. And, of course, various movements in the late 19th and 20th centuries expanded suffrage even more. What we have now has little to do with what the framers of the Constitution envisioned. Like most things in life, our current system, for better or worse, was not the work of any one group.

As Steve suggests, the Electoral College itself reflects a fear of the mob that the Framers had. But that fear is present throughout the Constitution in, for example, the Supreme Court and the Fifth Amendment. The entire Bill of Rights (forced on the Framers by the anti-federalists who feared a strong federal government) is pretty clearly undemocratic in that it limits what the majority can do. So divorcing the Electoral College from the overall concept of what the Framers wanted to accomplish is sort of pointless. The people that decided to have an Electoral College were not big fans of democracy.

The issues Steve suggested that are involved in designing an electoral system are interesting and pertinent, but have absolutely nothing to do with how our voting systems developed. For one thing, the decentralized nature of American government almost mandated that elections would be decentralized. The only standardized qualifications are those for federal offices. For the most part, I doubt that these issues were ever considered; as Steve suggested, the electoral systems were developed through trial-and-error and horsetrading.

As for people thinking we have a"peachy-keen" system, this is pretty much of a strawman argument. I don't think anyone thinks that the system is peachy-keen. Everyone knows it's not particularly fair in many cases. The point is, though, that the perfect is the enemy of the good. As Steve notes, it's pretty much impossible to design a system that's entirely fair and/or efficient.

Finally, I think it's good to question assumptions behind various institutions. But it can also be dangerous as Socrates himself acknowledged. What would happen if you truly started examining the bases of the electoral systems in the US? The result might be better but it might also be worse. People have suggested a Constitutional Convention to try to update various aspects of the Constitution, but that, IMO, raises great dangers, as flawed as the Constitution might be. In other words, be careful about opening Pandora's Box.
3:20 PM Mar 13th
Steven Goldleaf
This is probably a whole article unto itself, except no one cares enough to trudge through it, so I'll put it here where no one will read it:

My theory is that everyone owns up to two or three things that they screw up in regard to the English language, but everything else they screw up they attribute to those pedantic knowitall rules-nazis who can go fuck themselves. "I speak English just fine, it's my native language, for Chrissake." But since everybody, all the way up the food chain, holds this attitude, it can't be universally applied to every rule, just every person.

I, for example, have contempt for people who can't get their pronouns to agree with their nouns (singular noun takes plural pronoun, usually "they") or can't get their nouns to agree with their verbs (this is often a typo so I cut a little more slack here) or those who can't get cases straight ("Mom sent my brother and I to the grocery store"). I was confused by some of this stuff at some early point, i decided it made me sound like a slob, so I got those simple rules straight. To those who haven't got it straight, though, I'm a grammar nazi. (Luckily I get paid quite well to be a grammar nazi.) But there are a few things I can't (or won't ) master: "will" and "shall" always confuse me, and a few other things. It's a personal call, but everyone looks down his nose at someone who expresses himself in an illiterate and inept manner. It's just a question of what your own standards are.​
2:10 PM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
There's a limit on how far you want to take that principle. Language is just agreed-upon conventions, and obviously different people agree on different standards. In some crowds you're considered a buffoon for misusing cases in English (at least that's what me have heard); in other crowds, not so much. You're proposing doing away with the concept of "absolutes" in English because you find them ungainly, but others would say that the comparative form of "unusual" does what you're trying to use "unique" to do. "Babe Ruth is the most unusual batter in baseball history" would express your thought, but to some people "Babe Ruth is the most unique batter in baseball history" just reveals a paucity of vocabulary on your part, or else they give you credit for approximating what you really mean to say. (That's my choice, except when I'm getting paid to be a grammar nazi.) Gouveneur Morris was just being poetic in writing "more perfect" which I prefer to thinking he was deliberately using an ellipsis. The problem is that the U.S. Constitution is a legal document in which I would prefer accuracy over poetry, clarity over color. I don't mind if a binding legal document about my rights is a little dry.
4:53 PM Mar 11th
I take your point, Steven, nor do I dispute the logical holes in phrases like 'most unique'. But human languages are not Fortran. They are not static, they evolve in response to the needs of speakers. If the rules don't serve the ultimate goal of expression, they will be cast aside and people will split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. And if speakers find that using a solecism allows them to say something they otherwise couldn't, they'll use it and to hell with the rules.

What does 'more unique' connote that 'unique' does not? Pretty obviously, that the subject stands out among his fellows even more than other subjects. If I say that Babe Ruth is the 'most unique' player in the history of sport, everybody will know what I mean: not only that he is the best, but that he is less like his peers than Jordan, Gretzky, Pele or any other 'greatest' player is like his.

If the language will not allow me to convey this without breaking the rules, the flaw is in the language.
7:19 AM Mar 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Here's a very funny graphic bit about Foucault, Chomsky and Fanon on the underlying political structure of Middle Earth:

Well, funny to me, anyway.
6:16 AM Mar 11th
Democracy quiets the angry urge for violent rebellion. You don't like the government? Organize, educate and change it.

That's the argument, and it is a good one. In the US two party system, there is a heartbeat of change, whether every four or every eight or, rarely, more, the sweeping out of the bureaucrats and the return toward the center -- on whatever the issue -- is good.

Very good. Brilliant, in fact.
10:50 PM Mar 10th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for the kind words, Terry--always glad to feel appreciated.

steve161--how does your rationale for "most unique" go? Same thing? I can cite you stuff from Shakespeare that's ungrammatical, illogical, and confusing as hell--you can rationalize those solecisms, too.
9:53 AM Mar 10th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, Don, for some reason the U.S. started state by state to go to secret ballot in 1888 and by 1891 every state had adopted the secret ballot. Must be a story there. Now, it takes us three years to agree on a U.S. basketball team.
12:37 PM Mar 8th
For what it's worth, "secret ballot" voting did not become standard practice until well into the 19th century. So there's even precedent in the US for making voting public.
11:34 AM Mar 8th
Thanks, Steve - I feel like this piece made me a little smarter.
10:33 AM Mar 8th
'More perfect' is an ellipsis for 'more nearly perfect'. Languages are full of cases like these, which is why they resist the application of rigid rules. This nit doesn't need to be picked.

Meanwhile, not knowing the geography of Pace University, I find myself wondering how you wandered from the English Department over into Political Science. Kenneth Arrow's demonstration of the impossibility of perfection surprised no one who was familiar with centuries of political theory, though the mathematical foundation does convey a nice illusion of finality.

An electoral system rests on the political system in which it resides. One's preferences for the former derive from one's philosophy of the latter. Debates over the former are incoherent unless the assumptions inherent in the latter are made plain.

To expect perfection is folly. It's useful, I suppose, to be reminded of that every now and again.
8:42 AM Mar 8th
I liked this piece, and agree with a lot of it. The US voting system(s) and the HOF are alike in that they more happened than were designed, and that's led to many, many results that we take to be inevitable but were actually idiosyncratic outcomes of a cobbled-together system.

Trump is one of those idiosyncratic outcomes. He won our open plurality of a primary system by gaining momentum based on winning 15% of the vote in early primaries. While I understand the problems inherent in getting party elders together to draft candidates in smoky backrooms at conventions, I'm not sure that's any worse than letting a tiny fraction of people from Iowa and New Hampshire pick who gets to be finalist for President, nearly a year before the actual election.
8:34 AM Mar 8th
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