Our Undemocracy

Let us consider how it is that Benjamin Quayle, son of the former vice president, opposed by a majority of Arizona's Republican voters, will soon be a member of Congress, their opposition notwithstanding.

There is a reassuring myth in American politics that the nation's policies are set, and its laws written, by men and women who have been selected for those important tasks by majority vote of the citizens they are to represent in Congress.

This is no small matter: unlike the British system, which America's founders rejected, our Constitution requires that members of Congress -- House and Senate -- be residents of the states from which they are chosen. The intent is that legislators will be an indirect means of citizen control, a system by which constituents' interests will be protected and their preferences adhered to. It is clearly not a system that works perfectly -- many citizens do not vote and a dutiful legislator will not follow even the most ardent wish of his or her constituents if thought to be contrary to the national interest, but by and large the fundamental idea -- legislators are the voice of participating citizens -- is generally accepted to be true.

It isn't.

With the exception of several states, mainly in the South and Southwest, majority support is usually not a factor in elections. In those states -- often, amazingly, dismissed as "unsophisticated" -- nobody can win an office of public trust absent that all-important ingredient: the support of the majority of those voters who took part in the elections. If no candidate wins a majority of the primary vote, a second round of voting pits the top two finishers against each other, giving the electorate a chance to compare the two without the distraction of other campaigns. It is a circumstance in which a second-place finisher often surges to the front (not surprising since, by definition, the first-place finisher, often the presumed "favorite," will have been opposed by a majority of the voters). The problem with proposed "instant runoffs," which would allow the reassigning of votes that had been given to "other" candidates, is that voters would be denied that opportunity to directly compare the policies and personas of the two remaining choices.

Back to Ben Quayle.

I served in Congress with Dan Quayle and have no quarrel with his son, but I do have a quarrel with a system that allows for the election of members of Congress (or governors or other officeholders) to whom most voters are opposed. Ben Quayle received 22.7 percent of the votes cast in his congressional primary; more than 77 percent of the Republicans who voted in that primary wanted somebody else to be their congressman. Quayle received just over 14,000 votes; more than 48,000 voted for somebody else, despite the fact that Quayle was the best known and most visible of the candidates. Running in a heavily Republican district, he will almost certainly become a member of Congress in January, representing a community that did not want him in that job.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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