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America's form of government and its ideologies

Controversial issues of the day, at least as reflected in the local Gannett affiliate, sometimes come at you from unusual quarters in the little corner of the world known as the Shreveport metropolitan area. For the past couple of weeks, a debate has raged in that forum about just what we should call the form of government under which the United States operates, and then got extended to the meanings of ideological labels currently in use today.

As a public service to the (apparently larger than anybody anticipated) audience out there wanting clarification on this issue, and since explaining these things is what I do for a living, let me try to provide that clarity. All readers out there who were my American Government students at one time have heard this before; for the remainder, you won’t even have to pay tuition (or have the TOPS program pay it) to gain the same benefit.

The United States is a “representative democracy.” The following is not the only, but perhaps is the most widely accepted, definition within academia of the term, from Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: “an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire power to decide by the means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” It doesn’t matter what these arrangements are (for example, a unicameral parliament vs. a bicameral legislature that competes with independent executive or judicial branches) or how power-holders are selected (for example, parliamentary seats awarded by proportion of vote received by parties in a direct popular election vs. winner-take-all single-member-district contests in a direct popular election for legislative seats), as long as they fit this definition.

To refine it further, two preconditions must exist for elections themselves, they must allow equal access for participation in the electoral process and the potential for genuine competition must exist. That is, government cannot prevent otherwise qualified individuals from participating in the process, nor can it introduce systematic bias into the results of the contests for power.

Thus, bringing up considerations of institutional arrangements or selections methods are moot: as long as the above definition and preconditions exist, it is a representative democracy. And, at the same time, it also is a “republic” (the term the Framers of the Constitution actually used was “republican form of government”). A republic is defined exactly as representative democracy is. So to use a term such as “representative republic,” for example, is redundant: “republic” itself is a synonym for “representative democracy” and republics themselves by definition must have elections meeting the above preconditions.

Perhaps more interestingly, one guest columnist extended the debate into the area of the predominant ideological labels in use in America today, liberal and conservative, arguing some kind of middle ground between the two kept the democratic system operating. However, he incorrectly assigned meanings to the labels, saying the balance was struck between the “freedom” stressed in liberalism and the “order” emphasized by conservatism.

As somebody who wrote an entire doctoral dissertation on how the American public infuses meanings into the two labels, let me offer a gentle correction. First, it is essential to understand that the defining difference between the labels in America (it differs elsewhere) is a dispute over the origins of inequality in society.

Conservatives believe that, when a society features minimal interference from government, differences that appear in the resources accrued by individuals are a result of natural, desirable processes. The easiest way to conceptualize this is in economic policy since it is easily quantifiable. The marketplace (refer to the Austrian school of economics here) distributes resources in proportion to the contributions that people make to society. In other words, wealthy people become so because the enterprises they engage in or oversee provide an enormous benefit to society as a whole, and thus they are appropriately rewarded, while the efforts of poor people contribute little to society’s overall well-being and consequentially they do not receive much for their efforts. Any interference in this process, i.e. predetermining outcomes by some institution such as government, while it may make some better off, in the aggregate makes more people worse off.

Liberals, by contrast, (again, using economic policy as an example) think that very disparate levels of wealth are not a natural process related to a person’s contribution to society, but rather represent the workings of some kind of error that has crept into the fabric of society. They perceive outcomes uncorrected more as a result of a lottery rigged by a “power elite” and thus need the corrective force of government to intervene, through policies such as progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth.

Thus, it is conservatives who place great emphasis on the concept of “freedom,” defined as non-interference by government in the competition of the distribution of resources in society. By contrast, liberalism stresses “equality,” defined as having outcomes of this competition conform ultimately to some set of standards determined by government (which theoretically is answerable to a majority of the people).

Modern liberals do not desire perfect equality, as in the communist state. But they do desire to limit people’s freedoms because it interferes in the state’s ability to impose equality – thus, a kind of imposition of “order,” meaning the columnist had the definitions, in a sense, exactly reversed.

He was right about one thing, however, that a representative democracy is a balance of the two, needing a minimum of both qualities. At a certain basic level, all people have equal rights; past that, government should not interfere to aid certain parties to the exclusion of others. It’s just that, due to their differing conceptions of the origins of inequality, the two ideologies would assign very different legitimacies to different amounts of government intervention necessary in the pursuit of fulfilling equal rights, or where the balance is. Liberals try to draw it more to the side of equality, while conservatives seek to have it marked closer to freedom.

That’s the civics lesson for today; until next time, when the usual insightful analysis of state and local politics resumes.


Reject flawed property protection bill, philosophy

Everybody says they’re for the state being unable to expropriate land to turn over to private developers for the purposes of economic development, but which of the two approaches currently advancing in the Louisiana Legislature will more assuredly make this reality?

SB 1 by state Sen. Joe McPherson would write into the Louisiana Constitution a prohibition on most kinds of takings for this purpose. By contrast, state Rep. Glenn Ansardi’s HB 30 would amend the Constitution to give the state a broad power to expropriate for these purposes but allow for the state to limit this power on a general or case-by-case basis. Ansardi, however, also offers up HB 1164 which would by statute limit this power along the lines of SB 1 (and, actually, a little more restrictive in specifics although it also gives the state a power to take property it declares “blighted”).

In short, by getting a two-thirds vote in each chamber and a majority vote subsequently by the people, SB 1 would allow for only a few cases where governments could do this; expanding this power would require another constitutional amendment. HB 30 would continue to allow governments to take land for a “public purpose” which can include economic development of the sort of transferring land from one private entity to another, through the same two-thirds Legislative majority and popular simple majority. HB 1164 would duplicate largely SB 1 except it would be passed into law by a simple majority in each chamber and with the governor’s signature (or override by two-thirds vote in each chamber if vetoed) – and thus can be changed by the same combination. Obtaining these majorities and the governor’s assent for passages seem almost certain.

So, note where the better protection of property lays – SB 1. To weaken it would require a huge degree of consensus. By contrast, if HB 30 passes, it validates in the Constitution the interpretation of expropriation as set forth in last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision. While HB 1164 would undo that, its statutory base would allow for easier stripping of protections by its repeal or alteration.

This is because its author wants government to have a general power available to expropriate for economic development purposes in transfer of property from one private entity to another. This is because he believes “that economic development is a good thing. This notion that economic development is something sinister or evil has to be erased.”

But Ansardi fails to understand that with this bill he promotes economic development by government action – which is not the purpose of government nor does it optimally accomplish economic growth. He does not recognize that government does not grow economies – people and firms do, so long as government minimizes its interference in their voluntary market activities. Government’s role is to create an infrastructure to assist in the making of voluntary transactions, not to step in and force such transactions when it thinks it best.

The state’s citizens need the strongest protection possible against government transgressing its proper function. As the facts behind the U.S. Supreme Court case illustrates, politicians in search of actions by them that appear like they are making the economy grow get too tempted to stop themselves from an improper use of government to achieve those questionable ends. For that reason, SB 1 or a bill like it must be supported while HB 30 cannot continue its legislative journey.


Dishonest critics fault honest Orleans elections

From the mouths of carpetbagger idiots, we have Jesse Jackson spouting nonsense, if not outright falsehoods, about the 2006 New Orleans primary elections:

“This election was held under protest in flagrant violation of the Voting Rights Act.”
Wrong: as recently as last week a federal court upheld the bend-over-backwards approach of the state to the election as more than satisfying any legal requirements.

“Voter turnout was 20 percent lower than the mayoral election of four years ago.”
Wrong: turnout this election was only about 10 points lower, understandable given the hurricane disasters. Compare 2002 turnout to those voting this time and those registered right before the election.

“Just 106,000 out of 296,000 eligible voters voted.”
Wrong: the total was 108,348, making for a reasonably healthy 36 percent turnout.

“Inadequate and onerous absentee ballot provisions left Katrina survivors around the country on an uneven playing field.”
Wrong: check this link made available by the state and see just how little brainpower and/or education is required to be able to follow these simple instructions.

“The New Orleans election was held with secret voter rolls.”
Wrong: any group of 25 or more persons may inspect the voting rolls in any parish in the state and have access to most of the information of most of the people registered. In fact, you by yourself can even inspect the name and address of every person who asked for an absentee ballot here.

Understand that Jackson and his ilk wish to create a myth that something was wrong with the election because they want to use that as a springboard to create any legal challenges they like if results don’t match their desires. Reasonable, thinking people will realize just how ridiculous that claim is.


Nagin mayoral win not beyond realm of reality

Conventional wisdom gives Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu the edge in the general election runoff for New Orleans mayor against incumbent Ray Nagin on May 20. Months ago, I didn’t think Nagin had a chance after his subpar performance in dealing with Hurricane Katrina. But don’t count out Nagin yet.

A superficial look at the election returns points to Landrieu defeating his fellow Democrat. Even if Nagin led Landrieu by 9 points, with only 38 percent of the primary vote that usually does not bode well for an incumbent. Further, it is reasonable to assume that Landrieu is advantaged by the fact that the vast majority of Nagin’s voters appear to have been black while many whites voters probably voted for people who did not make the runoff. Observe how precincts vote proportions played out, broken down into four categories of low black population (0-25 percent), medium black population (25-70 percent), high black population (70-90 percent), and very high black population (90-100 percent):

Low: Ron Forman, 32.33 percent; Mitch Landrieu, 31.65 percent; Rob Couhig, 21.89 percent, Ray Nagin, 8.76 percent
Medium: Nagin, 33.89; Landrieu 30.62; Forman, 18.25; Couhig, 10.06
High: Nagin, 59.41; Landrieu 24.91; Forman, 7.02; Couhig, 3.20
Very high: Nagin, 69.81; Landrieu 21.67; Forman, 2.21; Couhig, 0.70

It’s logical to assume that these whites would be much more likely to Landrieu. But that may not be correct because they have another choice – not to vote at all. In the 2002 contest, while about 1 percent fewer blacks chose to vote in the general election than primary election, 2.5 percent of white rolled off. But this figure could be much higher since in 2002 Nagin was considered a tolerable vote for white conservatives given his business background and sharp contrast to other candidates, without any quality Republican running in the primary.

However, this time out, a considerable portion of people who supported Couhig may declare a pox on all houses, given their disappointment in Nagin and long-time distrust of Landrieu. In fact, when post-election statistics become available it may happen that white turnout actually was higher this year than 2002 because Couhig offered a real choice. With a candidate like him not on the runoff ballot, these voters (almost all white) may write off the whole election and not vote for, as one might first think, for Landrieu.

The other dynamic at work is another 28 days will pass while a disproportionate part of those returning to the city are black. My conjecture that the city’s population would be about 53.7 percent black in Orleans on Apr. 22 may well be within a fraction of the correct total, if we take anecdotal reports as accurate. By May 20, my projections have another registered about 1,500 white Democrats and about 1,000 Republicans returning, but also around 3,500 more black Democrats.

So, it’s possible to envision the following scenario. Let’s say Couhig’s (and marginal candidate Peggy Wilson’s) vote represent those who want a real choice in the contest and see Landrieu and Nagin as echoes of each other, so none of them vote. Let’s also assume that the rolloff difference in 2002 of 1.5 percent more for whites than blacks represents a portion of the vote for Forman, but that the remainder will vote for Landrieu. Also, let’s assume the Rev. Tom Watson’s supporters faithfully vote for Nagin while other candidates’ split and net out. Finally, let’s say that of new voters on the ground on May 20, Nagin picks up an extra 1,000 compared to Landrieu (assuming half of the Democrats returning vote, blacks for Nagin, whites for Landrieu, and the Republicans opt out entirely).

Taking the primary numbers, Nagin led Landrieu by about 10,000. Landrieu would pick up around 18,000 from Forman, minus rolloff of several hundred. Adding Watson’s votes would make Landrieu’s margin about up 6,000, and the “new” voters puts it down to 5,000. Keep in mind that almost all of Forman’s vote here is assumed to go to Nagin. Thus, if Nagin can capture just 15 percent, of Forman’s vote, he can win. That’s not impossible, given Nagin was getting some percentage of the white vote and doing well among blacks.

Change the assumption about Couhig’s and Wilson’s votes and have some of them show up and vote for Landrieu makes Nagin’s task harder. We can assume most who voted for Forman would vote for Landrieu because they wanted change from Nagin, and so that portion becomes a harder nut for Nagin to crack as more for those Republican-candidate voters slide into Landrieu columns.

Still, Nagin winning is not an unreasonable expectation. It’s going to depend on what the Couhig and Wilson voters do, and who all comes back to the city in the next month, above and beyond the mobilization efforts of the campaigns. And that proposition was hard to believe when the elections were ordered a couple of months ago.


Some surprises from New Orleans mayoral results

Let’s see how this blog’s favorite political scientist, me, did in terms of predicting yesterday’s New Orleans mayor’s race, both in terms of how many and who turned out, and who finished where.

Predicted finish: Landrieu (34.2 percent) and Nagin (34.1 percent), fairly close to each other
Actual finish: Nagin (38.36 percent) and Landrieu (29.12 percent)

In aggregate I was almost dead on, but Nagin did a bit better than the polls were predicting and Landrieu a little worse. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

Total absentee/early votes predicted: 27,834
Actual absentee/early votes cast: 21,330

Looks like it didn’t come from satellite or absentee voting – in fact, Nagin outpolled Landrieu by about the same margin as the aggregate. Looking at the next set of figures, it tells us I seriously underpredicted the number of votes cast in Orleans yesterday:

Predicted votes cast: 84,929
Total votes cast: 108,153

That’s a turnout, given the latest known figures, of 36.27 percent. (It also means that Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thenevot wins the best prediction award between us, as I had it around 29 percent and he figured it would be around 34 percent – still low, however). I had projected around 56,000 would come from the ground, but it turned out to be almost 87,000.

This tells us three possible dynamics were at work: I underprojected (1) the number of people returned to the city to be ready to vote, or (2) the get-out-the-vote effort to haul people into the city on election day, or (3) the actual participation rate of those who had returned to the city. Unfortunately, it will be a few days before I can tell for sure until the post-election statistics are released from the state. This also may tell us why Nagin did better and Landrieu worse than their polling. One hypothesis is that there were more black voters in the city than the 53.7 percent I projected.

Total percentage of votes for Democrats predicted: 75 percent
Total percentage of votes for Democrats actual: 89.47 percent

In large part, you could say that was due to shadow Republican Ron Forman’s running as a Democrat. A good chuck of his vote probably would have gone to Republican Rob Couhig if he had not run, or a good portion of his 17 percent would have stuck with him running as a Republican. Still, a couple of months ago it transpires if anything I was too cautious in explaining that Democrats would easily get a majority of votes and that at least half of the electorate would be black, even as most other analysts kept musing whether a Republican could win because they thought a majority of the electorate would be white.

Let’s wait a few days for the post-election report to see where this is going on May 20. But, to draw two interesting points from this contest, for one, Couhig probably was not a spoiler for Forman. Add their totals and Forman is still a bit short from Landrieu. Even throwing in Republican Peggy Wilson’s totals won’t get him there. And, speaking of Wilson, it’s a sign your political future is nonexistent when you can’t even outpoll Kimberly Williamson Butler.