Like many folks with a passion for math and a dusty collection of West Wing DVDs, I’m attracted to political systems. Not just politics, but the meta-systems in which politics unfolds.
Forget the sport; I’m interested in the arena.
Peculiarities and asymmetries fascinate me. I can’t help trying to smooth out the wrinkles, to imagine a more elegant approach, whatever it might be. Take the Electoral College, which, if you were to start from scratch, is probably not where you’d land.
Just one problem: I’m never sure how much this systems-level thinking matters. Political institutions do not reside in a Platonic, abstract realm. They are instantiated in actual nations, with their own quirks of history and culture.
A system can be great in theory, but flop in practice. Or vice versa. And the same system may work smoothly in one place yet lead to ruin in another. Is analyzing a political system in the abstract, then, like trying to describe a city without reference to its people?
Here’s an example. As the 2020 Democratic primary consumes an increasing share of my peripheral vision, I can’t help reaffirming my love of approval voting. In this system, you vote for as many candidates as you want, and the one with the most votes wins.
It seems a good fit for primaries, which are arguably about seeking a consensus candidate that excites and unifies the whole party. (It’s also a good fit for my own psychological quirks; when picking restaurants, for example, I’m happy to name a few possibilities, but I hate having to narrow it down to one. This goes extra when we’re talking not about lunch, but about entrusting a single human with the awesome and absolute power of the turkey pardon.)
But here’s the thing. Approval voting would shift the dynamics of primaries, and a systems-level approach isn’t enough to tell us how they’d shift.
Would there be more alliance-building? (“Senator Petunia and I have very similar views, so vote for both of us!”) Would such alliances become to sharper, better-defined factions within the party, thereby (paradoxically) increasing acrimony? Or would there be fewer direct attacks between candidates, letting the eventual winner enter the general election less scathed? And if so, would this leave said candidate stronger (because undamaged) or weaker (because untested by battle)?
These are not logical or systemic questions. They are particular and historical, a matter of how humans would act in the full complexity of circumstance.
Oh well. When it comes to politics, I’ll stick with what I know: groan-inducing puns.