Thursday, 27 June 2013

Representative democracy and the filibuster

This post is in response to a couple of tweets by Martin Robb. He was commenting on this week’s political drama in the Texas Senate where Wendy Davis blocked passage of a bill to introduce new regulations for abortion clinics. She achieved this by delivering a filibuster speech over ten hours long, resulting in the subsequent vote missing a midnight deadline.

Martin Robb’s tweets deal with wider principles of democratic government, and it’s these that I’m addressing here rather than the issue of abortion.

Martin tweeted ‘Not sure why liberals/democrats hailing filibuster of bill passed by both houses of legislature in Texas as victory for popular will...’

My initial reply was ‘Liberals/democrats balance popular will with individual rights - hence need for safeguards against a tyranny of the majority.’

To which he responded ‘But surely ballot box plus campaigning to change majority opinion way to do that, not undemocratic filibustering, etc?’

In a representative democracy, matters are a little more complicated than Martin’s tweets suggest. A majority opinion in the legislature or parliament is not the same as a majority opinion in the population at large, or the popular will as Martin terms it.

The function of a representative democracy is not to precisely replicate the balance of popular opinion within the legislature, nor are elected individuals required to follow the will of the majority of their constituents, or even of their supporters. The task of elected individuals is to use their own best judgement, and as long as they act within the law then the only sanction their constituents have if dissatisfied is to elect someone else the next time around.

It’s easy to see how the majority in a democratically elected body can come to power while openly holding views contrary to the views of the majority of the population, or even of the majority of the smaller number of voting public. A voter will not always find a candidate they agree with on all issues. Most likely they will have some points of disagreement with each candidate, and will therefore prioritise the issues on which they will decide their vote and find a candidate that they regard as the best compromise.

Further, a particular issue may be more important to that portion of the electorate who hold a minority view on it than to those voters with the majority view. The majority may prefer to allocate their vote based on other matters. In such a case a candidate may gain support from the minority on the particular issue while losing little support from the majority if the candidate has their trust on whichever other matters they regard as more important.

It follows that it’s perfectly possible for the majority in the legislature to pass legislation that imposes a minority popular view on the dissenting majority of the public. This is one reason why it should not be too easy to pass legislation. Procedures must be in place to allow a minority of elected representatives in the legislature to challenge and obstruct the majority. Where this occurs within established law, it is not obviously undemocratic as this minority of elected representatives are still subject to the democratic sanction of being replaced at the next election if their actions don’t have enough popular support.

To go further, it shouldn’t be thought that the only justification for a minority of elected representatives acting to frustrate the will of the majority in a legislature is if that minority of representatives are supported by a majority of the populace. Again we come back to the principle that representatives are elected to act according to their own judgement. There may be sound principles for opposing the majority will in a particular case, most obviously where the majority will infringes the rights of individuals.

Just democracies require instruments for minorities of all kinds, down to the minority of one, to have available legal means of resisting a tyranny of the majority. It’s in the interest of all in the majority to have such instruments in place as insurance against the day when even the mightiest amongst them might find themselves in a threatened minority. These necessary instruments include some often regarded as liberal, such as basic human rights; they also include parliamentary procedures that limit the power of majorities to pass legislation, procedures that might in effect be regarded as conservative. They can even include powers for un-elected courts to overturn the effects of direct democracy as seen in a separate American political drama this week.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Kayak and Canoe

My son Bo is off on a canoeing and camping adventure this weekend. He knows a little of canoeing but is more experienced with kayaking. Here’s something he wrote about it last year for school:

Entering the flow, my boat suddenly tipped over; what had I forgotten? I was tipped over many more times and was only able to save myself with a few support strokes, the spray from the rooster tails was getting through my spray deck, and then I realised, I wasn’t edging! It was the most basic rule of white water kayaking and I had forgotten it! Just before I hit the Rooster tails I managed to put on an edge. It was the closest shave I’d had for a long time.

When you finish reading the last paragraph you may be wondering, who is this person, where are they and what on earth do rooster tails have to do with white water kayaking? Well, my name is Bo Jacobs Strøm, and I am spending part of the summer, before starting secondary school, white water kayaking at Shepperton Weir in Surrey. The most confusing thing in this piece will probably be all the kayaking words I’ll be using so here is what they mean: an edge is when you tilt your boat one way while keeping your balance (this can save you from capsizing by making the water go under your boat instead of hitting the top and capsizing you), a support stroke is a stroke from the paddle which stops you capsizing, a spray deck is a flexible cover which is fitted to the top of a kayak keeping the users bottom half dry (and stopping water getting into your boat), an eddy which is a pocket of flat water caused by a rock in the white water, and finally a rooster tail is white water which hits a rock and goes spurting up in the air.

For the past three days I had been experiencing coldness, wetness, and a lot of fun at Shepperton Weir where I had gone with the Pirate Club, a kayaking and canoeing club based in Camden. I went so I could do white water kayaking and have fun, and that was exactly what I did do.

White water kayaking was something I hadn’t done for a long time so I was a little bit worried about capsizing and so on but, although I sometimes I had a close shave, I got on well in fact the only thing I was still worried about on the second day was the swimming in white water practice...

I was standing on a rock in the middle of the white water about to jump into the flow, I was terrified, but everyone else had managed to get into the eddy so I knew it could be done. I jumped. It was just as fun as kayaking in the white water and I actually managed to get into the eddy pretty quickly. As I hit the water shut my eyes and the next thing I knew was that I was being swept down stream. I quickly made sure my feet would not snag on a rock, aimed my head at the eddy, turned over onto my front and swam for all I was worth into the eddy, now thoroughly convinced that white water kayaking would be my sport from now on.

So that’s my experience of Shepperton Weir, a great place to go if you're beginning to learn white water kayaking and for any kayaking the Pirate Club (where I spent a lot of the rest of my holiday) is a great place, especially as one of the instructors might compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic games.

Image source: Library and Archives Canada.