Sacred illusions

datePosted on 11:03, March 22nd, 2010 by Lew

one man one votePita Sharples has severely undermined his own and his party’s credibility with his Race Relations Day speech criticising “one person, one vote”. As a minister in a democratic government, he has taken aim at one of democracy’s fundamental symbolic virtues, in such a way as to give the impression he (and his party) are anti-democracy. After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.

Let’s just be clear: “one person, one vote” is no sort of actual democracy, it is an illusory ideal which persists only in hearts and minds, placed there by bold principles and the stirring oratories brought by democratic leaders of old looking to appeal to something bigger than they were. Even our present democracy, which is a very great deal closer to the ideal than the original American system, is pretty far from “one person, one vote” at a functional level. For a start, we have two votes. Even if you had one, what sort of vote would it be: first-past-the-post, where you’re at the mercy of geography; or single-transferable, where you’re not sure until after it’s all over who your vote actually got counted for; or what? For another thing, you can be a person and not have a vote — people under 18 don’t, prisoners convicted of serious offences don’t (and that could soon include all prisoners). There are more, but I won’t go on — the point is that “one person, one vote” is symbolic, not literal.

But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also). Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes. But when it’s framed in the way he has framed it, this sort of discussion is political poison, because it attacks the heart of our political culture. This “race-based” framing of mana whenua political representation has been expressly developed in order to make those things seem indefensible in a liberal democratic context. Sharples has swallowed the hook, and instead of continuing to defend the Māori Seats and mana whenua representation on the existing and well-proven grounds (that it’s necessary for the establishment and maintenance of tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by the Treaty) he has made a declaration which amounts to “yeah, they’re anti-democratic: so?” The most ridiculous aspect of it is that the existing mechanism which is so reviled complies with the principle of “one person, one vote”: electors on the Māori roll get get the same vote as anyone else, the only difference is in how they cast it. There is equality of input to the democratic process by Māori at the electoral level — it’s elsewhere in the process which is the problem.

I’ve argued before that the core symbolic and philosophical stuff of modern democracy is liberalism of one brand or another. No mainstream political concern can hope to win a democratic mandate without founding a lot of its agenda in liberalism. The symbolism of “one person, one vote” is crucial to this orthodoxy. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols presented a typology of political symbols in the American context, organised into “political community” symbols which express political values at the highest level (“America”, “The Flag”, “The Constitution”); through “regime” symbols which express the political values of the current orthodoxy (in this case, American democracy, not a specific administration — the examples given are “The Presidency”, “Congress”, and “One Person, One Vote”); and three classes of “situational” symbols which express particular policy or administrational preferences of lesser affect (“The Reagan Administration; “gun control”, etc.) The higher up Elder and Cobb’s typology you go, the greater the degree of political consensus on the values imbued in a particular symbol. Nobody in American politics gets anywhere if they stand against “America”: the task of politics in that context is to convince people that what you stand for is “America”. “One person, one vote” is pretty high up that symbolic ladder. It is an illusion, but it’s a sacred illusion.

Every party in New Zealand’s parliament at present, except one, lays claim to this broad liberal tradition in one way or another. That one party which does not is the māori party. That is not to say that their agenda isn’t broadly liberal in function, but that it’s largely that way for non-Western-liberal philosophic reasons. This is the māori party’s great electoral purpose: to normalise an indigenous political-philosophical tradition. But they can’t do so this way, by attacking the liberal orthodoxy’s sacred illusions, the bedrock values held even by those who would never dream of calling themselves liberals. The māori party, more than any other, must recognise the value of “one person, one vote” as part of the history of democracy working for downtrodden minorities rather than against them, and adopt this as part of its own political basis.

As libertarians have discovered, if you don’t really believe in democracy it’s best not to bother with it — then you get to maintain whatever you claim as high moral ground and leave the actual business of governing to those who lack your unshakeable principles. But that’s not what the māori party is about. They do believe in democracy; they do recognise the importance of engagement and compromise and consensus, and they do plenty of work toward it, and a misguided outburst like this one puts it all in jeopardy. “Race-based” is National’s catch-cry from just a few short years ago, and they will take any encouragement given them to reach out to New Zealand’s conservatives, who are already distrustful of the māori party. It will force Labour further down the path of attacking the māori party to try to recapture the centre ground, rather than encouraging cooperation and the mending of fences. Most critically, it could create a backlash against the very mechanism Sharples seeks to save, generating opposition to the Māori seats his party needs for its survival, and which exist only by the pleasure of the Pākehā majority whose sacred illusions he has slighted.

While it should have been underway already, the māori party must now redouble its efforts to appeal to voters outside the Māori electorates, and prepare to live in a world without them.

L

12 Responses to “Sacred illusions”

  1. StephenR on March 22nd, 2010 at 11:52

    That first link is broken.

  2. Lew on March 22nd, 2010 at 12:01

    SR, ta — fixed.

    L

  3. Stuart Mackey on March 22nd, 2010 at 19:18

    After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.

    Extreme right? So whats the extreme lefts view , one person, no vote? If thats your view of peacefully removing an unpopular government, give me a funny mustache and call me Adolf.
    I would contend that the vast bulk of the public rather like the idea of one person one vote (or is it one vote used as two?)

  4. Lew on March 22nd, 2010 at 20:03

    Stuart, read it again — the post is in support of the principle behind “one person, one vote”, taking cognisance of the fact that the electoral system we have is no such thing in actual implementation.

    My reference to the ‘extreme right’ is with regard to the framing of the Māori electoral seats (and mana whenua representation in general) as antithetical to democracy, and abridging that principle. It doesn’t in theory and hasn’t in fact — but after years of hearing that it does, Sharples seems to have internalised it.

    And I’m at a loss to see where you get the reference to removing an unpopular government from. There’s nothing in here about the Clark government, and I think you’d struggle to make a case that they were removed for being too cozy with the natives.

    L

  5. Stuart Mackey on March 22nd, 2010 at 20:15

    Stuart, read it again — the post is in support of the principle behind “one person, one vote”, taking cognisance of the fact that the electoral system we have is no such thing in actual implementation.

    I think it can be read both ways, looks like the hedging of bets all round.

    My reference to the ‘extreme right’ is with regard to the framing of the Māori electoral seats (and mana whenua representation in general) as antithetical to democracy, and abridging that principle. It doesn’t in theory and hasn’t in fact — but after years of hearing that it does, Sharples seems to have internalised it.

    I think the Maori seats do violate the democratic principle if not in fact and defiantly in the principle
    of the colloquial modern meaning of democracy.

    And I’m at a loss to see where you get the reference to removing an unpopular government from. There’s nothing in here about the Clark government, and I think you’d struggle to make a case that they were removed for being too cozy with the natives.

    I did not mention Clark at all, I don’t know where you got that from. Elections, properly run, are a peaceful way of removing unpopular governments, I would have thought that was self evident.

  6. Lew on March 22nd, 2010 at 20:34

    Stuart, because I address the idea that “one person, one vote” is an actual factual reality, there’s no cause to think I’m somehow opposed to the principle of equal electoral input which underlies it.

    Māori electoral representation would violate the principle if the seats conferred some meaningful additional representation to each vote — but it remains one (or in our case two) vote per person, with those elected by this means having no greater or lesser powers than any other elected representative. As it stands, the disparity in electorate size and population is the main distortive factor, and that’s one which exists in the general seats also.

    I apologise for the assumption regarding Clark. A little too much reading-in on both our parts, I fear. I completely agree that democracy’s great advantage over other systems is the ability to chuck out a government without resorting to violence. I still haven’t the faintest idea how you might think otherwise from my post — especially given that it’s a virtue I’ve written about many times here and elsewhere.

    L

  7. Stuart Mackey on March 22nd, 2010 at 20:58

    Stuart, because I address the idea that “one person, one vote” is an actual factual reality, there’s no cause to think I’m somehow opposed to the principle of equal electoral input which underlies it.

    As you say perhaps too much reading in perhaps.

    Māori electoral representation would violate the principle if the seats conferred some meaningful additional representation to each vote — but it remains one (or in our case two) vote per person, with those elected by this means having no greater or lesser powers than any other elected representative. As it stands, the disparity in electorate size and population is the main distortive factor, and that’s one which exists in the general seats also.

    I don’t think that that is in any way right, morally or with respect to actual power.
    It is wrong morally because a person is in parliament on the basis of their ethnicity/culture, not upon the free debate of all New Zealanders on the merits of their argument.
    It is also wrong on the basis of actual power, be that by by the holding of office or by influence upon the formation of government and the inevitable tradoff’s that occur under the MMP electoral system.

    When we allow race to determine the nature of representation or the makeup of governemtents we, by definition, move away from the modern definitions of democracy.

  8. Ag on March 22nd, 2010 at 21:08

    We need to brush away all the overgrowth and look at the very simple distinction that underlies Sharples’ position. Anything else is just window dressing.

    But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also).

    We should be clear that this is only a requirement for a deontological justification for democracy. In other words, the Kantian principle that all persons are to be treated as ends in themselves can only be satisfied by a political system based on “universal” consent (and not merely hypothetical consent, but real consent).

    I think everyone who supports democracy holds this as a core value, and this, as Lew said, is what makes democracy essentially liberal at its core. Let’s call it Principle (A).

    Now the other side.

    Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes.

    This is the consequentialist justification for democracy. The favoured consequences don’t have to be egalitarian, they could be maxmin or something else, but that doesn’t really matter. Let’s call a generic version of this Principle (B).

    The core of the problem as I see it is that it is an article of faith that (1), (A) and (B) are compatible, and moreover, (2) that enforcing (A) is the only reliable method of promoting (B). If we were honest about it, we would admit that both are articles of faith. Sharples appears to be attacking (2), and I would be more inclined to attack (1).

    My problem with responses to Sharples is that all they don’t address the possibility that underlies both (1) and (2), which is that the deontological conception of democracy (A) may fail to promote (B). All we get are faith based assertions that it will.

    But this is to ignore the broad social trends of the last 40 years. Our country has steadily increased its commitment to (A) in many areas by a general “democratizing” of institutions (school boards, MMP, etc.). However, the outcomes of these institutions have become less egalitarian and even less maximining (this is simply a fact, and is generally accepted by those who don’t have a specific axe to grind).

    The broad trend appears to count against the popular connection between (A) and (B). It appears that you can have a democracy that maximally promotes consent and equality in the process, or you can have one that maximally promotes a favoured outcome such as equality or maximin. It appears that you cannot have both.

    Sharples is probably right.

  9. Lew on March 23rd, 2010 at 10:29

    Stuart, what I’m saying it that while there’s an argument to be made that having the Māori seats is a bad thing in general, it doesn’t break the “one person, one vote” principle because the Māori seats’ electors still get the same vote as anyone else. That’s the framing which is false — that the Māori seats are inequal or additional to the general seats — when in fact they’re just the same, only in parallel. This is an artifact of history, and was implemented in order to prevent Māori from taking command of the colony, not to provide them some additional advantage.

    Ag, thanks for an excellent summation. Sharples might well be right — but it’s irrelevant whether or not he is, because the only outcome from his holding or expressing the position is to hasten his political failure. In essence, he works against his own agenda of steady, gradual progress and compromise within an imperfect system by criticising the fundamental symbolic laws of that system.

    In addition, I return to my common argument that where there’s a stark choice between discrete outcomes and the integrity of the systems which produce those outcomes, the systems must win. But this isn’t such a stark choice — it’s a matter of emphasis. Sharples needs to hold his nerve and keep working within — and being seen to believe in — the system which is serving him pretty well, because the alternative systems are far worse.

    L

  10. Ag on March 24th, 2010 at 20:07

    Ag, thanks for an excellent summation. Sharples might well be right — but it’s irrelevant whether or not he is, because the only outcome from his holding or expressing the position is to hasten his political failure. In essence, he works against his own agenda of steady, gradual progress and compromise within an imperfect system by criticising the fundamental symbolic laws of that system.

    Perhaps he conceives of non-democratic means of moving his political agenda forward. There are various options open to him.

    More to the point, if society refuses to answer Sharples’ criticism, then what legitimacy does democracy have other than the power of compulsion?

    In addition, I return to my common argument that where there’s a stark choice between discrete outcomes and the integrity of the systems which produce those outcomes, the systems must win. But this isn’t such a stark choice — it’s a matter of emphasis. Sharples needs to hold his nerve and keep working within — and being seen to believe in — the system which is serving him pretty well, because the alternative systems are far worse.

    I think that cannot work. Compromise isn’t really possible since they are pulling in opposite directions and preserving the integrity of the democratic system is not a realistic option (it would be nice if it were, but it should be patently obvious that this is untrue after the events of the last decade or so). What the voting public want doesn’t really matter, since they want what they cannot have.

    For me, Democrats don’t really have anything interesting to say these days. All they do is repeat the same old slogans. It’s nice to see a politician prepared to think in public for a change.

  11. Tom Semmens on March 25th, 2010 at 09:32

    I’ve always supported the Maori seats, on the basis of the treaty and because Maori got such a raw deal from the whole colonisation process that they needed a voice in parliament to be sure they would be heard. Lets face it – without the Maori seats, Maori would have roughly the same visibility and political power as the Pasifika community – i.e. not much at all! The PI community is basically an invisible, semi-third world underclass largely confined to certain near ghettoes. Our white, middle class corporate media treats reports from this twilight third world as if the events they are reporting on are occurring in another country we seldom hear from, which probably an accurate reflection on how much these people impinge on the conciousness of Pakeha New Zealand.

    Nowadays though I am questioning the relevance of the Maori seats. The willing capitulation of Maori Party to the reactionary corporate iwi elite means the Maori seats are no longer fufilling any meaningful role in representating a disadvantaged indigenous minority. The thriving Maori cultural renaissance means they are no longer required to protect and nurture a fragile and endangered culture.

    Maybe it is time to consider instead allocating some of the Maori seats instead to the Pasifika community, to raise their profile and let them push for significant economic change for their people? As long as equality of representation is maintained I don’t have a problem with that in the medium term.

    As for Sharples – I’ve never rated him. I’ve always thought him politically as an emotive, easily manipulated fool who tends to agree with whoever he last spoke to. When his foolishness is exposed he retreats to an unattractive bluster and a default grievance mode. He may have been a good and useful activist and academic, but as a politician he is an utter, ineffective, failure. His unhelpful comments on the “one man, one vote” thing are typical of his failure as a politician.

  12. [...] that the initial purpose of the māori party wasn’t to effect sweeping policy change, but to create cultural and political space for kaupapa Māori politics, and to establish the credibility of same. For all their policy [...]

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