Comparing with “A Different Democracy”

The book “A Different Democracy“, Yale 2014, 378 pages, $25, has distinguished political scientists as authors: Steven Taylor, Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijphart & Bernard Grofman. The authors clearly benefit from earlier collaborations. In the background there is the collaboration by Grofman with Rein Taagepera on disproportionality indices, and there is the fore-shadow of the important book “Votes from Seats” (not the other way around !) by Shugart & Taagepera in 2017.

A Different Democracy” (ADD) is both a study of the US constitution and US democracy and a comparative study with inclusion of 30 other democracies. ADD bridges the gap between US Government courses that somewhat provincially focus on the USA only and Comparative Political Systems courses that discuss the whole world but that apparently tend to overlook the unique character of the USA. In this respect, ADD is also a novel contribution in the search for a presentation that highlights the properties of US democracy in a much better way than in these two conventional courses. It is not quite “America First” but rather “America the Exception”.

ADD is suitable as a refresher study, while it verges on being a textbook because of its low level access, and thus it can be used at the college level in the broad spectrum of courses in art or journalism, but it is no pure textbook because of the lack of pointers and test questions, though each chapter has summary conclusions. Readers with a good memory will notice quite some repetition in the book but this might be useful for novices to the subject.

The interview by Matthijs Bogaards (2015) with Arend Lijphart would be the best introduction into the purposes and the context of ADD. Lijphart:

“Our aim was to make clear to American students that the US is a democracy, but a very different one from other democracies.”

Here I will compare parts of “A Different Democracy” with my analysis of the US Midterm of 2018. In my analysis more than a third of US voters have taxation without representation. The USA is rather an Experimental Democracy or a Proto-Democracy instead of “different”. The purpose of this comparison is to encourage the authors to think about a 2nd edition that improves on the problematic parts identified here.

This is not a discussion on typology. Much of the original work by Arend Lijphart seems to have provoked a discussion in the political science literature that focuses on typology that distracts from evidence based advice on improving democracy. Pellikaan & Doorenspleet (2013) likely provide the best summary of this state of affairs. Typology however is a distraction. There is also a serious research question on ranking democracies by their qualities, see for example the V-Dem project, with a polyarchy index that ranks the USA, UK and France higher than Holland. This however plays into the confusion by Robert A. Dahl on wanting to avoid the vague term “democracy” and rather use a new term “polyarchy” (as opposed to “monarchy” and “oligarchy”), see this critique.

An experimental democracy with huge problems

The crucial observation is that the US Founding Fathers who gathered in Independence Hall from May 25 to September 17, 1787, had only limited information, and thus embarked upon an experiment. With Monty Python they might have said “And now for something completely different …“, but the US Constitution wasn’t just something different, but an experiment with a purpose, namely general welfare. Over time, amendments have been added, often with similar purposes on general welfare. With our experience of 230 years we may take stock, and compare purpose and performance.

In US Government classes, young Americans are indoctrinated to revere the US Constitution as something sacred. Given US history, there is much to say for this reverence but we should not forget that the Founding Fathers were quite critical themselves too. With an experience of 230 years of world history and an explosion in scientific knowledge, we can tally (not mentioning all problems that caused amendments):

  • There already had been the first experiment of the Articles of Confederation of 1777. There was a willingness to learn from experience.
  • The US Constitution originally allowed for slavery.
  • The US Constitution did not prevent the Civil War.
  • There were numerous financial crashes before a federal reserve system was devised, that still is quite dubious.
  • The women’s right to vote was only introduced nationally in 1920.
  • There was the Great Depression, and David Kennedy Freedom from fear” shows that Huey Long might have set the road to fascism, had FDR not taken some wise steps.
  • While the US was victorious in WW 1 & 2, we later saw government dishonesty with wars in Vietnam and Iraq and the Iran-Contra affair. Since the 1960s there is serious concern about the imperial presidency.
  • In 2018 we see that more than a third of US voters have taxation without representation.

Obviously we can create such lists for other countries too. However, the question is how this US performance compared to the purposes of the Founding Fathers. There is a similar red line in “A Different Democracy” too, and the readers are encouraged to think about this themselves. However, ADD too much emphasises the successes (legally: “there still is a USA”) and doesn’t highlight above failures. ADD acknowledges that the Founding Fathers had limited information, but ADD does not extend on the purpose on general welfare, that would allow a comparison with above performance. ADD leaves the reader behind with the feeling “this is how it works, roughly” but not with the scientific information and advice “this is horribly bad engineering and needs repair as soon as possible”.

Science is supposed to inform, not to indoctrinate. US Government classes might have a degree of unavoidable indoctrination, to induce students to accept the rules of the game, so that they can function in society, and so that they can exercise their democratic rights because others accept those rights too. Yet in the USA there is an imbalance, and this has much to do with bias within political science apparently dominated by provincial USA. ADD has foreign influence via Lijphart but hasn’t escaped this bias.

American Homecoming

The US has lost track on the purposes on general welfare that the Founding Fathers had with the US Constitution. There can be an American Homecoming when the US rekindles those purposes, takes stock and makes repairs. (A google just now generates Sanford Levinson’s book that I did not read.) Let me proceed with my own finding.

There is a problem with the US electoral system with the presidential system with district representation (DR) for the House of Representatives. The remedy is to switch to a parliamentarian system, with equal proportional representation (EPR) for the House of Representatives. The best system of EPR seems to be the Dutch open list system, with the amendment of electoral alliances (apparentement) and the low threshold as explained in the LRL system (appendix L here).

The re-focus would remain within representative democracy and stay far removed from populism. Yet the re-focus would still be on “We, the people” and away from “We, the rulers” and “Me, the president“.

This doesn’t require a constitutional amendment, because the US president may adopt a ceremonial role, and appoint the prime minister and the cabinet that the House will elect. Presidential candidates can announce to take this ceremonial role and voters may prefer this.

There is also the analysis on an Economic Supreme Court, but I do not want to extend on that here. However, the common discussion on the US Constitution shows a similar discussion about the distinction between the popular vote (preferences) and informed judgment (science).

The major error in “A Different Democracy”

ADD uses the “principal – agent theory” (PAT) from economics. There is no reason for ADD to use it, since one might easily speak about representation and delegation without such reference. The Founding Fathers didn’t need what my fellow economists have been working on lately. However, we can thank the authors of ADD for using it, for it helps to highlight a glaring inconsistency between the use of PAT in chapters 1 and 2 and the use of PAT in the discussion of electoral systems in chapter 5.

  • The first chapters suggest that voters are principals and can choose their agents / representatives
  • but in chapter 5 it is clarified that the use of districts blocks many voters from doing so.
  • ADD only succeeds in making itself believe that this is not inconsistent by changing the definition of agent / representative, but not telling so.
  • Further see my summary discussion about this issue of definition of “agent / representative”.

US Primaries

ADD:147 must be thanked for their discussion about the role of primaries in the USA. This was important new information for me. However, in my analysis it increases the inequality / disproportionality in the USA. ADD table 5.6 presents a statistical inequality / disproportionality index number for the USA but this doesn’t properly account for the local variety in D or R candidates. Also, people cannot vote for their first preference and thus the data are highly contaminated. This discussion of the primaries caused me to include a novel statistical presentation with the difference between aggregate and disaggregate inequality / disproportionality, see here.

Like when the definition of “kilogram” still depended upon the national jurisdictions

Recently scientists convened to redefine the kilogram to a higher degree of precision. Suppose that the definition differed for each country depending upon their national juridiction ? The US “kilogram” might be 2 pounds and the French “kilogram” the one stored there, and adding such masses would generate chaos. Thus having international standards of measurement makes a lot of sense, whatever the laywers say (and then take other lawyers).

Instead, in political science it is still quite customary to say that the term “head of state” applies to the US president and the UK queen, even though their roles are entirely different. Apparently in international diplomacy, each country can designate a person who will “represent” the country “at the highest level”, and this might provide for some legal definition that works for international diplomacy. For our present purposes, this is not at issue, and we only record this flexibility in terms.

However, the situation is quite different for electoral systems, voting and “representatives”. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has article 21:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

This creates the conundrum that countries might legally agree with this “human right” by using their national jurisdiction, while science finds that the empirical meanings are quite different.

  • The US ratified it (Eleanor Roosevelt proposed it), apparently understanding that a (second preference) “district representative” would fit article 21.
  • Holland ratified it, apparently understanding that an equal proportional proper (first preference) representative would fit article 21.
  • Both countries allowed this for each other.
  • Science finds that these interpretations are in conflict, and that voters in the USA, UK and France are disinformed about their human rights.

For example, a country with a dictatorship (Super Russia) might set up an electoral system such that (i) 99% of the voters can select 1% of the “representatives” and (ii) 1% of the voters (“government party members”) can select 99% of the “representatives”, so that this national jurisdiction would fit the UN UDHR article 21, and the role of the “representative” would mostly be to applaud the dictator. If this is legally correct, then law is not worth the paper that it has been written on, and society spends fortunes on lawyers who are deceiving no-goods. Lawyers might haggle on what “the will of the people” and “the basis” and a “genuine election” are, though, inviting us to pay up even more salaries in the hope that there might be light at some point. Likely one might also refer to “the spirit of the law”, such that judges might reject extreme abuses.

My suggestion is that people in the USA, UK and France start court trials that use UDHR 21 to enforce that their governments implement a change from DR to EPR.

Science provides support that UN UDHR article 21 is taken as expression of the material human right to have EPR (and not just a legal phrase), because EPR supports the expression of first preferences (“freely chosen”) (while people remain free to vote for a regional candidate if they wish so).

It might be better though to call out a national strike till this is arranged.

The point remains that “political science on electoral systems” still is locked in the humanities and thus is no science because:

  • this branch can be observed not to have the scientific drive to develop precise definitions where they crucially matter
  • this branch can be observed to stick with words that have dramatically different meanings depending upon national jurisdictions
  • this branch can be observed to get confused and produce “statistics” based upon such words and not their empirical meanings
  • “A Different Democracy” is an example in case, by distinguished professors, published by Yale, with praise by fellow “political scientists”
  • but see the basic evidence in this paper, since ADD is an example only.

On the empirical observation that US voters like their system

ADD:142-143 and p152 state that the US has little criticism of its electoral system. When voters are disinformed and are indoctrinated by the academia that the US system is the best, then this kind of observation is Garbage In, Garbage Out. This indicates a grand failure of the academia, and ADD should say so. The field of Public Choice in economics can diagnose that professors in academia have particular incentives, and those incentives for “political science on electoral systems” apparently are still targeted at the humanities rather than science. Instead, academics should provide accurate information and inform the public that at least a third of voters have taxation without representation.

The term “should” in the above is instrumental and not moral “ought to”. If you want science then you should do so. It may be that political science doesn’t yet understand how econometrics can deal with Hume’s divide between Is and Ought, see page 6 here.

The Taiwan Journal of Democracy invited Lijphart to review his work on power sharing, and his final comment is on ADD:

“In addition to institutional variations, we look at a host of indicators of government performance, on which the United States generally does not score well. We forego explicit policy recommendations, but our implicit conclusion is that Americans should be more self-critical, more willing to consider political and constitutional reforms, and less eager to advocate American-style democracy for other countries.”

It is wise to avoid “recommendations” that fall from the blue sky indeed. The format “If you want this …. then you are advised to ….” is the proper format for science, and ADD suffers from not presenting this.

Structural failures in the US Experiment of Democracy

In 1787 the world thought in terms of Kings and Emperors and thus the US Constitution puts much weight on the role of the Head of State. A main worry was to prevent the development of dictatorship and relapse into monarchy (causing the English to pester “We told you so”). A modern view is that a Head of State has a ceremonial role, guards the rules of government, and may be some ombudsman for citizens.

The Founding Fathers however also attached great value to the separation of powers. In a parliamentarian system, the executive power resides within a cabinet of ministers, with the prime minister as a primus inter pares. The political agents are temporary visitors in their official roles. Remarkably, “A Different Democracy” informs us that the US constitutional assembly indeed tended to adopt a parliamentarian system, and that the role of President as the Chief Executive was chosen at some rather late stage. Some history can be found online here (look for “president”). Richard Beeman summarises:

“The other obvious solution—election by members of a national Congress whose perspective was likely to be continental rather than provincial—was ultimately rejected because of the problems it created with respect to the doctrine of separation of powers: the president, it was feared, would be overly beholden to, and therefore dependent upon, the Congress for his election.”

This is entirely a point of logic from the theory of the separation of powers, and not one of experience. Though Montesquieu coined the idea from reporting about practices in England, this hardly was a sound empirical base like we would require today. Given 230 years of experience on parliamentarian systems compared to the US Presidency and its evolution into an imperial presidency, the US can be advised to switch. However, it would be important to avoid the error of the UK of remaining with DR.

A Different Democracy” also highlights that the Founding Fathers did not spend much time on the electoral system. Apparently they were locked in the convention of the day, which was DR rather than EPR.

On these two issues, the US Experiment on Democracy in 1787 has structural failures. Their resolution would cause an American Homecoming: A general feeling of relief that the American Revolution actually can work as intended.

“Political science on electoral systems” is locked in humanities thus no science

In 1903 the American Political Science Association (APSA) was founded, and this was an aspiration rather than an established science. The field of electoral systems has actually remain locked in the humanities that rely upon tradition.

Only around 1900 countries started switching to EPR, e.g. Sweden 1907, Holland 1917. In the USA, UK and France, scholars on electoral systems have been generating “reasons” why DR would be better than EPR. It is amazing what fallacies have been concocted. The evidence with the deconstruction is at MPRA 84482, and see there also for aspects on indices on inequality / disproportionality. As said, a summary using the USA midterm 2018 is here. Brexit is a result of the confusion in this branch of political science, and I noticed that there is also a misrepresentation that EPR in Weimar caused the rise of the nazis, see here. This discussion is about the stability of democracy indeed, and this Godwin should not surprise, but we can be surprised at this misrepresentation. (EPR likely would have helped FDR w.r.t. Huey Long too.)

Thus, while the US Constitution can be diagnosed as such an experiment from 1787, with repairs along the historical path, the scientific world is divided on the evidence and there is confusion by a branch of scholars who claim to do science but what they do is only comparable to astrology, alchemy and homeopathy. My suggestion for a solution approach is to set up a buddy system, so that pairs of scientists and scholars can exchange and check views and data. For Dutch readers this is my proposal to the Dutch Academy of Sciences KNAW.  This is a discussion for the UK with the Royal Society (science) and the British Academy (humanities).

On two shores of the Atlantic

Coming from a country with equal proportional representation (EPR) it may be very difficult to translate what is very obvious. Living in a country with district representation (DR) it may be very difficult to understand the issue. Perhaps that my interest in didactics of mathematics helps out. I can only hope that the authors will look at the evidence too, and join that buddy system. Arend Lijphart has spoken about electoral justice but perhaps this phrase has no strong definition and thus little impact. Hopefully taxation without representation rings a bell for the descendants of the Boston Tea Party. This diagnosis clarifies the situation and brings the message home that votes are discarded and that voters are robbed from their human right, article 21, to choose their representative (obviously of first preference and not some second preference “district representative” in legal fashion only).


ADD has the storyline that the US is a Different democracy, with the suggestion of Exceptional, with the suggestion of Excellent. For a 2nd edition I would propose to present the US as an Experimental democracy, with an early start in 1776, including the confederate phase, the slavery, the Civil War, the Depression, the imperial presidency with Vietnam and Iraq, and the prospect of an American Homecoming by changing to a parliamentarian system with equal proportional representation and an Economic Supreme Court. This though is actually also a storyline for a planned book of mine.

My suggestion for a 2nd edition of “A Different Democracy” would also be that the authors consider the use of the two graphs in this summary paper with their explanation. These graphs seem innocuous, and once you have seen them perhaps obvious, but they constitute a crucial new way to present the distortion in US proto-democracy. Part of my criticism on failing electoral statistics is that these two graphs are not shown and properly discussed. Similarly for the difference between the aggregate and disaggregate inequality / disproportionality indices.

Appendix. On STV and AV

(1) ADD:142 states that Single Transferable Vote (STV) would be true EPR. However, STV is not EPR. It is one of the tragedies that the UK Electoral Reform Society claims that STV would be such, while it isn’t. They thus hinder the change to EPR by advocating a system that voters find more difficult to use. (See here.)

(2) ADD:142 mentions the UK 2011 referendum on the “Alternative Vote” system, but it helps to explain that this was an awkward system falsely presented as EPR. The selection of this system for a referendum is an example of disinformation in the UK. (here)


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