Wednesday, October 11, 2006

MInd Bending With Language -- George F. Will

I have never understood the attraction people have for George F. Will. He has a reputation for being very smart. I'm not quite sure why. It could be the big words he uses and his penchant for putting people who disagree down. Here is a classic case:
With his state and the nation paying no attention to an anti-constitutional campaign to alter how presidents are chosen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that, had it become law, would have imparted dangerous momentum to a recurring simplemindedness.
"A recurring simplemindedness." What a concept! What is this recurring simplemindedness? It is the idea that the President of the USA should be directly elected by the people. It is a simple idea but it is not a simpleminded idea. Will, like other conservatives, doesn't like it because he is afraid of how the great unwashed might vote if they ever all got around to it.

Will's op-ed piece concerns a bill that would force the casting of all of California's electoral votes for the candidate for the Presidency who receives the most votes nationally. I side with Will in defending Schwarzenegger's veto. The idea that the electors of a state should vote for the candidate people everywhere prefer rather than the candiate Californians prefer is inconsistent with the most fundamental principle of our representative form of government and this is that anyone the people choose to represent their interests should vote in ways not inimical to their interests.

It is logically possible (a) that the state of California go 52% Democratic, (b) that the majority of voters across the country give a majority to the Republican candidate, but (c) that the Democrat would get a bare majority of the electoral votes assuming that he got California's electoral college votes. This bill would force the California electors to cast their votes for the Republican candidate even though that would entail voting in a way inimical to their desires. This is a lunatic result but according to Will that hasn't stopped Colorado's Senate from passing such a bill and it hasn't stoped six other states including California from considering such a bill.

What might have led to such lunacy? Will claims that one of the reasons for this sort of proposal is a concern in uncontested states that they are ignored -- that candidates that know they will win states like California (blue state) and Colorado (red state) won't visit them and won't advertise in them. They actually don't know how lucky they are. I live in Ohio and it is as contested a state as there is. During the current election cycle and during the last Presidential election we were exposed to outrageious television commercials from both sides, the Democrats and their supporters having learned (but still imperfectly since Kerry didn't learn it) that the dirty politics that Republicans are in the habit of practicing works and so they have decided to use this method as well. Beleive me, the people in California and Colorado don't know how lucky they are.

Will's argument against the bill as a remedy for states being ignored is:
But it is disproportionate to traduce, by simplification, sophisticated constitutional arrangements just to make campaigns more stimulating for some states.
This is an example of what I shall call "mind bending with language," the idea being that if you actually try to understand what is written or said, it may bend your mind totally out of shape. Before I try to parse this prose (which takes some bravery since the shape of my mind will be at risk), let me first note Will's use of a word he knows you don't know, namely, "traduce." This is an elitist trying to show you that he is your better because he knows words you don't know. That doesn't make him smarter. It takes no great intelligence to learn the word "traduce."

The phrase "traduce by simplification" in fact doesn't mean a damn thing. Here is my parcing or translation of Will's full sentence: the bill attempts to undermine the electoral college by making a mockery of [traduce] it and that this is an extreme [disproportionate] remedy that is also simplistic [simplification] in nature. Somehow, my mind made it out the other end of Will's verbal worm hole undamaged. Notice that what I said is comprehensible. However it isn't much of an argument.

The second reason Will says Californians want to pass this bill is:
The possibility of the winner of the popular vote losing the electoral vote contest violates the value that trumps all others — majoritarianism.
Notice that he uses the word "majoritannism" where "majority rules" would work as well. What he is doing, I believe, is trying to turn the principle of majority rules into some sort of evil political principle along with others that end in "ism" such as facism, communism, etc., but I could be wrong. Later on he uses the phrase "simplistic majoritarianism." What in the hell is simplistic majoritarianism? The principle that the majority rules is what it is. It doesn't come in such varieties as "sophisticated majoritariansim," "ordinary majoritariansm," and "simplistic majoritariansm." Since "simplistic majoritariansm" doesn't contrast with anything, his only purpose for using the word "simplistic" here must be to disparage the principle that the majority should rule itself. This is the "recurring simplemindedness" he dislikes so much. Again, we have a Republican who really doesn't like the idea that people are voting so he supports institutions like the electoral college that undermine the will of the people.

Will's disdain for the people is shown by his use of "sophisticated constitutional arrangements" as code for our use of the electoral college. I think he is telling you and me that we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads over these questions because they involve sophisticated constitutional arrangements we couldn't possibly understand.

Will clearly doesn't want the electoral college to be replaced by direct elections. His best argument for the electoral college is that in close elections, the Electoral College tends to isolate questions as to the fairness or legality of an election to just a few places. Direct election of the President could lead to legal challenges in every precinct in the country. In the 1960 election, as Will notes, the popular vote difference was smaller than the number of voting precincts in the country. Another close election like that could lead to challenges in every single precinct since changes anywhere due to a recount could change the outcome. That is truly scary. Anyone who supports the direct election of the President needs to find a way around that.

Another of Will's arguments against those who would get rid of the electoral college is that it normally gives the same result that a direct election of the President would give. The problem with this argument is that if how the people vote is the gold standard by which the electoral college is measured, then there is no need for the electoral college.

Another reason Will objects to the bill is that he likes the way the current system makes third parties difficult to establish. The "winner take all" principle that applies everywhere but Maine and Nebraska makes it difficult for third party candidates to be competitive since it is hard for them to get a majority or even a plurality.

Why would Will want to make third parties noncompetitive? It is people like me who should hate the idea, for the candidacy of the egomaniac, Ralph Nader, kept Gore from being elected. Gore did a lot of damage to himself but without Nader, there would not have been a Bush. I will not disparage the people who voted for Nader by saying what I really think of them and their capacity to think clearly.

In fact, there is a solution to all our problems. We should change over to the system the Brits use. When I was quite young the French, having a system similar to the Brits, kept changing governments more frequently than the weather changed. This was cited as a very good reason not to employ that sort of system. However, the frequent changes reflected the dislocations of the society due to World War II more than any imperfection in the system. France no longer has that problem.

It is important that the people be able to change its leaders when they, like Bush, take the wrong path. The British system allows for that. Interestingly, what reading I have done in connection with the establishment of a new government for Iraq has led me to believe that the consensus of experts in the formation of governments is that new governments should use a system like the British system rather than ours. Right now, it may appear that the British system is not being responsive to the people for they don't approve of Blair and his alliance with Bush, yet Blair is still the Prime Minister. However, he has said he will resign some day soon and I gather that the people are okay with continued rule by the Labour Party.

So, Will gives us "traduce by simplification," "recurring simplemindedness," "majoritarianism," "simplistic majoritariansm," and "sophisticated constitutional arrangements." That is quite a verbal stew he has cooked up for us. But we don't have to eat it. The great Harvard psychologist, William James, brother of the novelist, Henry James, once wrote that if a sentence or utterance seems grammatical we will tend to think it makes sense. I read that way back when I was in graduate school so you can see that it made a big impression on me. I suggest you think of Will's writing in the light of James' observation.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

For once, I actually read the same article as you did. For the most part, I think you're on point. But what do you expect from an opinion article writer other than mere rhetoric?

I don't think that his article necessarily shows a "disdain for the people." It could, on the other hand, be a belief in more of a states' rights kind of view, one which I would share.

"Another reason Will objects to the bill is that he likes the way the current system makes third parties difficult to establish."

This is a point on which I will wholeheartedly agree with you. I can't stand the two-party system However, I think a system that narrows down the candidates for the office to 2 people is necessary--we just need a different way to do that (perhaps a primary system that invites all parties to run and to vote).

Could you explain the British system in the Cliff's Notes version? I'm curious.

3:11 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

The British system is fairly simple- each part of the country is split into a constituency, where one MP is elected by members of that constituency. Anyone can stand, but one must pay a deposit which one does not get back unless one gets a certain proportion of votes. On the whole, the major parties will have a candidate in each constituency, which will normally be selected by the local party (although in some cases a candidate may be imposed). Voting is simply done by marking a ballot- the same as American voting.

Seats are counted up, and the party with the most seats is asked to form a government by the Queen. In the occasional cases in which no party has an absolute majority, they will need to form a coalition to do so, and if they refuse to, I believe in that case the choice to form a coalition goes to the party with the second most votes (I'm not sure this ever happens).

Anyway, this means the people do not actually directly choose their leader. Certainly before the election the party itself will choose a leader who shall choose the remaining positions for his cabinet.

This system can suffer from similar problems as the American system, and has led to a party with less votes than another party having more seats in parliament twice in this century.

I actually don't like it all- the problem is that the prime minister, as he/she has not actually been voted in directly, should not exercise too much power, but unlike America we have much less power to prevent them from assuming this, leading to the "electoral dictatorship" Tony Blair is conducting.

I don't think this is really the best way to choose a leader- it leads to strong governments for the most part, but without the slow downs in the US, laws get inroduced and changed far more rapidly. While I think the US's electoral college is incredibly silly, I mostly admire the seperattion of legislation, executive and... the other one from each other, none of which exists in the UK.

Oh, we also have the house of lords, peers who are nominated (or inherited in some cases) to join the house, then have a positin for life, scrutinising law.....

9:42 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, I would expect Will to use quality arguments just as I would expect anyone expressing an opinion to do. The rhetorical flourishes are okay unless they become argument surrogates.

Mr. K. I would agree that the UK system is imperfect. What I like is the ability to change governments when they lose the confidence of the people. I think the current situation, looking from afar of course, exists because the Labour Party still enjoys support even if Blair doesn't. Normally, I suspect when the leader loses the confidence of the people it coincides with the people losing confidence in the party as well. Ergo, a "no confidence" vote occurs and a new election is held. Is that not true?

The one argument Will gives for the electoral college that worries me is that getting rid of it could lead to legal challenges like those that occurred in a couple of S. Florida areas happening all over the country. I am not sure how that can be dealt with. A margin of victory threshold for legal challenges would open up the possibiliy that people would cheat even more than they already do, assuming that they currently do so as to get over the threshold value.

I am less concerned about direct election than rational selection (the British system seems more rational) of the leader and relatively easy changing of leadership when a cricis like we have here now occurs.

10:05 AM

Blogger adoarns said...

I might give it a try:

Will wants you to think that the electoral college is a well-thought-out system for electing the president in a federal system such as ours. That's why it's a "sophisticated...arrangement" that should not be "traduced." It's really more of a compromise arranged to give disproportionate, but not too disproportionate, power to smaller states. The very argument Language Guy looses to justify direct election--that smaller states could become more interesting to candidates--has at various times also been made in favor of the electoral college, which gives a state like Wyoming, with fewer people than most middle-size cities, as much voting power as the District of Columbia, with some several millions.

In any case, one could have made a similar case for the sophisticated arrangements for the election of Senators that existed before the 17th Amendment. Although as a committed little-d democrat and little-r republican I see great value in direct election of senators, just as I do in direct election of the president.

Of course, I also see great value in voting systems other than the simplistic "first-past-the-post" system employed in many elections, including those in the UK, but that's beyond the scope of the discussion.

In any case, I'll agree with all that the California measure is silly, though the motive admirable. Even if all the states adopted this system, though, something in my tidy intellect revolts at the thought of such a "hack" to the dysfunctional system; ideally, direct election should be dealt with by constitutional amendment, just as direct election of senators was.

Of course, this is another difference between the UK and the US; our having a written constitution, and a statutory method of amending it, contrasts with the largely unwritten and much more labile British constitution, which for the sake of the Bill of Rights I am thankful for.

12:24 AM

Blogger Mr K said...

To be fair, the British constitution IS written... just not in one place. It ranges from the magna carta to various legal rulings spread across centuries... it's pretty silly, but it sort of works.

A vote of no confidence CAN happen, although in the event of a leader losing leadership of his party, said party simply elects a new leader- there is no national election, so only party members have a say. A government can collapse, and has done in the past, when they have a very thin majority, to the point that it is made thinner by byelections (which happen if an MP dies or goes to prison), and they can no longer pass laws. I'm not entirely sure what the procedure is in those cases, although generally any party that can no longer govern will have to call an election anyway.

11:12 AM


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