This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.

The Left-Right Divide in America
and the Problem of Voting for People Rather Than Ideas
Rick Garlikov

It is safe to say, I think, that national politics in America is polarized.  I want to suggest three general kinds of causes that contribute to the problem instead of helping minimize or eliminate it.  Two of them are purely formal, logical, mathematical structural problems with the way issues are decided and the mistaken meanings attached to those decisions.  The third cause is the inability in general of people not knowing how to find, or even reasonably seek, optimal resolutions to disagreements, particularly ones which might actually meet the needs of both sides and be satisfactory to almost all concerned or at least to all reasonable people on both sides.

Generally when there is a broad disagreement about policies and programs, both sides have some parts of the truth the other is missing (which usually include the flaws and inadequacies in the other sides' ideas, but not the flaws and inadequacies in their own ideas), and both sides view all proposed or existing programs from their own narrow perspectives and through their own tinted lenses.  And both sides treat politics and policy/program formation as some sort of all or nothing, winner take all, zero-sum game, when in fact, what is needed are policies and programs that incorporate the best of what each side has to offer and minimizes or prevents the problems each side tends to ignore or foster. 

And the answer is not the typical notion of "compromise" of the sort that pleases no one and creates or maintains programs that do little or insufficient good for anyone and which waste resources.  Compromise in the sense of taking the middle road (or 'splitting the difference' or taking arbitrary portions of each position) between two contentious alternatives is like deciding to drive over a washed out bridge high above rapids and sharp rocks when people in your car disagree about whether the safe detour to the left or the safe one to the right will be faster to your destination.  That sort of compromise is not a good one, and whenever people say they must be doing the right thing because they have upset both parties they are trying to adjudicate, often as not, it is that sort of terrible compromise which is not really a compromise at all but a choice of a cobbled together alternative which is inferior to both original alternatives just to prevent one of them from dominating.  Upsetting both parties is generally more of a sign of doing the totally worthless wrong thing that meets the needs of neither, than a sign one has successfully found a worthwhile accommodation for both.  It not only doesn't give either all of what they want, it gives both sides none of which either wants.

There are two broad purely structural (or formal) mathematical kinds of problems which create, maintain, or even exacerbate political and governmental impasses in America when different factions, such as conservatives and liberals, or just simply two different groups of people who are divided along whatever lines, become polarized and combative more than they are cooperative.  And there is also the substantive problem of lack of understanding about optimal ways of solving or resolving ethical issues, which political issues basically are -- more or less the ethics of group governance.  The structural, formal, mathematical ones are 1) determining policies and laws by elections for officials who gets to decide them, especially all of them, instead of by trying to determine what the best policies or laws individually might be through elections or other sort of votes to determine the preferences for each specific issue itself, and 2) voting for issues on the basis of elections by districts.  For the explanation of the latter, see "The Logic and Fairness/Unfairness of Gerrymandering" though it is about the mathematical logic of all district voting, not just those areas where districts are contrived or 'rigged' to optimize the results for one party.  The lack of understanding about how to decide ethical issues makes it more difficult than necessary, even if well-intentioned, intelligent people, whether the voters themselves or the representatives they choose, decide which laws and policies are to be in place.

Structural or Formal Problems
1) The first structural or mathematical problem is that of the supposed "mandate", whereby someone voted into elected office, whether narrowly or even if overwhelmingly, invalidly believes that the victory authorizes him/her to try to enact every campaign proposal.  It doesn't.  And in fact it is likely that no one who voted for him or her thinks all of his or her ideas are desirable.  It is always possible that one or two issues were key or litmus test issues that made voters choose him/her while holding their nose because of other ideas.  In elections there may be what are called 'single-issue' voters -- those who vote on just one issue that is so important to them, that it overrides all other preferences for other issues they might have.  Or typically in elections it is the candidates stated or implied position on just a couple of issues that attract votes; and these are not always the same issues or positions for other of his/her supporters. 

It certainly often does happen that a candidate is elected few of whose ideas the majority accept.  In fact, it is mathematically possible that a majority of voters will elect someone none of whose ideas a majority of them accept.  Suppose, just for simplicity, there are two candidates and 100 voters (designated by numbers 1 - 100), and that the following eight broad policy issues are the determining factors for the voters listed, and that 60 of the 100 voters vote for Candidate A, and the other 40 vote for candidate B in the following ways:

Policy Issue

Candidate A

voted for by the
 following voters
based on his/her
stated position on
the issues to the left

Candidate B

voted for by the
 following voters
based on his/her
stated position on
the issues to the left

gun control(voters #1-30)
(voters #61-100)
(voters #31-60) (voters #61-100)
defense (voters #1-30) (voters #61-100)
free trade (voters #31-60) (voters #61-100)
tax policy (voters #1-30) (voters #61-100)
climate change business regulations (voters #31-60) (voters #61-100)
unions (voters #1-30) (voters #61-100)
government monetary
assistance programs
(health care, retirement,
education, etc.)
(voters #31-60) (voters #61-100)

Total Votes
(from the 100 voters)


(Voters 1 - 60)

(Voters 61-100)

In the above chart, voters #1 - #30 voted for candidate A on the basis of A's position on gun control, defense, tax policy, and unions.  Those voters did not care enough about A's position on abortion, free trade, climate change regulations, or government monetary assistance programs to vote for or against A, and they may even have opposed A's positions on them, but not sufficiently to override their voting for A on the basis of those issues for which they did choose him or her.  Voters #31 - #60 also voted for candidate A, but because of A's position on abortion, free trade, climate change regulations, and government monetary assistance programs.  They did not care enough about A's positions on gun control, defense, tax policy, or unions to vote for or against A, and they may even have opposed A's positions on them, but not sufficiently to override their voting for A on the basis of thos issues for which they did choose him or her.

That means 30%  of voters voted for candidate A because of 50% of A's positions and another 30% voted for candidate A because of a different 50% of A's positions.  That gave candidate A 60% of the vote; i.e., voters #1 - 60 voted for Candidate A.  40% of voters did not like any of candidate A's positions and they voted for candidate B.  What this means in this scenario is that if candidate A takes his/her election as a mandate to enact all his/her policies, and is able to enact them, then none of those policies will have been particularly desired by more than 30% of the voters, and all of them may even have been opposed to some degree by 70% of the voters.  The more issues that each determine the choice by fewer voters, the fewer voters may approve of any policy that is actually enacted.  While there are other factors involved, such as lobbying influence, the scenario given here can explain how Congress failed to pass stronger background check legislation even though supposedly 92% of the citizenry says they want that.  If citizens above voted on legislation, rather than on candidates, then the positions taken by losing candidate B above would be the ones enacted, not the ones actually enacted by the winning candidate, A.

Of course, this illustration is based on an arbitrarily made up independence of the positions voters take on the different issues, other than as coinciding by chance in the magenta group or the light blue group.  But voters do often vary in their views about different issues even though they may support the same candidate and have some general philosophies of government in common that make them more apt to vote Republican or Democratic apart from any special circumstances.  Or they may vote for a candidate for qualities other than policy positions.  E.g., in the Trump/Clinton Presidential contest of 2016, many voters wanted drastic change in Washington, regardless of what it led to and thought that Trump was more likely to bring it about, even though they didn't particularly care for his character otherwise and didn't really know what his policies might be other than most generally.  But a number of voters also did not like Clinton's (perceived) character, even if they preferred at least some of her policies.  And in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders made an excellent showing against Clinton based on the issues of income inequality and college tuition costs, and on his seeming passion for them and willingness to buck the establishment.  In terms of speaking passionately and sincerely what they believed, and in terms of wanting drastic change in Washington, Trump and Sanders seemed to draw voters for the same kinds of reasons.  And, in fact, there was a classic rock, paper, scissors scenario if polls during the primaries were correct, that Sanders could beat Trump, Trump could beat Clinton, but in the primary the way it was going, Clinton would beat Sanders.  Given the way it turned out, and given that many voters did not vote for either Clinton or Trump for President, often leaving that spot on the ballot blank but filling in the rest, it seems safe to say that had Sanders won the Democratic nomination, Clinton supporters would have voted for him over Trump in much higher numbers than Sanders' supporters voted for her in the general election, making the polls correct that Sanders would have defeated Trump.  But at any rate, there were personality and character issues, along with general voter alienation and frustration with the status quo in Washington that determined an outcome that may or may not give voters legislation they want on a variety of issues.

One way around this, and it happens sometimes, is for issue polls to influence elected officials to honestly change their positions on particular legislation, especially if that lines up with the positions of lobbyists and campaign benefactors at the time.  But that is relatively infrequent.  Secretary Clinton, for example, changed her position and adopted that of Senator Sanders' on the Trans-Pacific  Partnership trade agreement because he was winning or scoring heavily in primaries based on his argument that it would be bad for American workers.  And of course, we don't know whether that was a real or a false or misleading campaign promise.  Promises are not the same thing as results of specific legislation, or even the same thing as serious attempts to achieve results.

2) The other structural or mathematical problem that can prevent the passing of policies which are desired by even majorities, let alone large minorities is that of district voting.  The article mentioned above about the fairness and unfairness of gerrymandering explains the math of district voting for candidates, but it applies just as equally to voting for issues by candidates who actually reflect the majority of the voters in their districts on every given issue in question.  Depending on how voters are grouped into districts, even a majority of voters for one side of an issue can be strongly outweighed by the minority voters.  It is just an inherent, unavoidable feature and fact of district voting, and it does not have to involve gaming or intentionally thwarting the system by contriving or rigging the districts through gerrymandering, though gerrymandering cases, particularly outlandish ones, are the most noticeable to, and lamented by, the losing side.  'Gaming the system' can happen in any rule-governed, enterprise where meeting the 'letters' of the rules/laws do not necessarily conform to meeting their spirit. Gerrymandering is just one example of gaming such a system.  But, as explained in that article, there is an inherent problem (whether gaming or not) in all voting based on districts, even when districts are not intentionally gerrymandered.

Substantive Problems of Ethical Understanding
Too many people, including government officials, tend to consider the needs and desires (as measured by the votes or likely votes) of the majority to be the sole important element and criteria for devising laws and regulations in order, they believe, to be doing what is best for the most people.  They think that is the morally right way to govern.  But there are three problems with that: 1) voters may be selecting the best of bad options offered them, not what they would really prefer if they had a more open-ended choice, 2) what voters believe is in their best interest may not actually be in their best interest or what they really desire, and 3) doing what is best for the most people is not always right, because it incorrectly ignores other equally important elements of what determines morally right and wrong acts, such as:
  • deservingness of people benefiting from or burdened or harmed by the act (i.e., legislation might benefit people who do not really deserve such benefit, or it can harm people who do not deserve that harm)
    • fair and reasonable distribution of burdens and benefits.  For example, while it might benefit a community or organization more to collect taxes, dues, or rent to achieve some particular purpose, those fees might not be fair to some people in the community.
    • fairness and reasonableness to the agent who would have to do the act.  For example, you cannot require self-sacrificing good Samaritanism that would essentially be martyrdom.  It is better for people to be saintly than not to be, and to do what is normally considered to be 'over and above' the call of duty, but it is not right to require that or make it be a duty.  Some acts of risk or sacrifice have to be voluntary to be fair. (Some risk-taking is both a duty and voluntary in that it is part of a job that was voluntarily taken.  It is thus a special incurred obligation.  But even in a high risk job such as police, firefighters, and military, there are still potential risks that are above and beyond the call of duty.)
  • incurred obligations.  Generally promises and agreements should be honored even if more good would be achieved by violating them.
  • violations of rights.  The United States Constitution recognizes rights that cannot justifiably be violated just for the benefit of the country as a whole.  While there are some disagreements about how far they should extend or what might legitimately override them, the point is that they cannot be violated simply for just any sort of benefit.
  • risk of unnecessary harm, particularly in a in a reckless, negligent, heedless, or irresponsible manner  (whether the harm happens or not).  It can be wrong to put some members of the community (or even the whole community) at unnecessary risk even if it were to turn out to work out in favor of the community.
  • important differences between intrinsic and extrinsic consequences (e.g., you don't want his unfair threats of harm to you make it morally right to turn over your lunch money to a bully; and the punishment for violating bad laws doesn't make those laws be good ones or the right things to do).

So in contrast to fostering candidates seeking to do what is right (or sometimes even best), campaigning for office (or for referendum votes) fosters their pandering to the perceived self-interest and needs of whatever majority one might think will help one win.  E.g., at a local town hall meeting last night, the new mayor said his goal was to do what was best for the city overall, not what might be most desired or even be necessarily best for a given resident, street, neighborhood, or even larger section of the city.  But that might mean sacrificing the deserved needs of current residents for the believed needs of population and economic growth.  That would not be fair to people already living in the city, some long time residents.  And people at the meeting raised issues they faced which seemed to demonstrate the problem with his philosophy -- issues which he could not address satisfactorily because his moral philosophy of governance was wrong.  Whenever what would have been fair to them conflicted with some interest, particularly a business one that would bring in revenue to the city, the resident was sacrificed for 'the greater good of the whole city.'  And there seemed to be no effort to accommodate the needs of both or to see that could be worth pursuing to try to achieve. 

Ideally, on most issues, initially opposing sides can both be accommodated, though not always in the way they initially sought, so in campaigning there should not even have to be pandering to try to achieve majority vote.  One group's needs or desires should not have to be played against another where reasonable solutions could be available which can satisfy both. Theoretically in elections candidates should be able to campaign everywhere the same and just give the same optimal messages if they are trying to unite the electorate, particularly a divided or polarized one, and secure the deepest and broadest support and appeal.  Their proposed policies should try to help everyone fairly and most reasonably in accord with the above moral elements, and do no unfair, unreasonable, or undue harm to anyone undeserving of it.  The art of politics should be being able to find discover such optimal solutions.

There should be better and more acceptable, still democratic ways to determine policy and laws than the ways we do it now.  1) A way of overcoming the problems of district voting is explained in the gerrymandering article.  2) Formal ways to try to overcome 'tyranny of the majority' -- many of them instituted in the Constitution already -- are explained in "Constitutional Safeguards For Majority Rule". 3) More voting on issues than on candidates would prevent the problem explained here.  And in general 4) a better sense of how to seek ethically optimal solutions to disagreements would go a long way to improving campaigning and overcoming the problems of district voting, and thus relegate many of the formal mechanisms to serving as attempted safeguards for when creative insight is unable to find satisfactory solutions, or when decency and understanding fail. 

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.