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Why the Midterm Elections Don’t Really Matter

The 2018 midterm elections are just a day away and the media is understandably in a frenzy. Will the long-speculated “Blue Wave” materialize and drown the Trump administration’s agenda? Or did the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings sour voters’ perceptions of Democrats enough that Republicans will maintain their majorities? Our public discourse is saturated with think pieces on policy, on electoral strategy, and on contingency plans should the results prove disheartening.

The problem with this is that it’s almost entirely pointless. In the frenzy over whether we’re “losing our democracy,” we’ve forgotten something far more important: a democratic society and a well-governed society are not necessarily the same thing. It is the latter that free and responsible individuals ought to pursue.

Politics in the United States has been sclerotic for some time. The symptoms are clear but the diagnosis eludes us. Yet this combination of citizen frenzy and enervated government is hardly new. It has happened before, and it has been analyzed before. All large states fall prey to it eventually. To find a cogent analysis of it, you must go searching through some old and rather strange books.

The best insights come from a group of Italian social scientists active in the early 20th century. These thinkers are sometimes known as the Italian elite theorists, both due to their nationality and their subject matter. If you’ve read James Burnham, and in particular The Managerial Revolution, you’ve encountered them before. Burnham refers to them as the Machiavellians due to their unflinching political realism. They don’t have a cure to the problems that ail us—many of their proposed remedies are either impractical or, as the verdict of history has shown, downright dangerous—but that should not stop us from appreciating their insights. There are three who deserve our attention: Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto.


If you’ve ever heard the phrase “iron law of oligarchy,” you’re drawing upon Michels. He wrote about the tendency of all states, except perhaps those that are both new and small, to develop hierarchically. Importantly, this is true even within states, or their appendant organs such as political parties, that appear committed to democracy. Hierarchy means command-and-control, and while these methods have their limits—see the failure of central planning for example—when it comes to advancing specific goals, they work quite well generally. All polities will develop, frequently informally, status hierarchies that determine who is empowered to make political decisions, as well as delineate the limits of the group that benefits from these decisions. Even in democracies, for things to “get done” politically, there needs to be some institutional durability that allows for long-term planning and coordination of policy, oftentimes of a longer span than electoral cycles. In the U.S., this explains why the state and its bureaucracies keep growing regardless of who occupies the White House or has a congressional majority.

Mosca’s pioneering contribution was the idea of the “political formula.” Because all societies in practice have a clear distinction between those who rule and those who are ruled, there needs to be something that legitimates this distinction. In democracies, this often is the electoral process itself, despite the fact that power within modern states is actually quite insulated from democratic agitation. For Mosca, the truth or falsehood of the political formula is irrelevant. Perhaps it is true; perhaps it is false; perhaps it is nonsense, which means it is so incoherent we cannot even ascribe to it a truth value. What matters is that the political formula legitimates rule, and thus helps rulers maintain the regime. While this sounds sinister, keep in mind that without a political formula, individuals could not cohere into durable institutions for political action in the first place.

Pareto is a famous economist, and because his insights are a staple of the modern economics profession, his political writings are sometimes overlooked. This is unfortunate, because Pareto highlights a crucial difference between political action and market action. For Pareto, action is always rational, because it is always in pursuit of some desired end. But action is not always logical. Logical action means action properly oriented towards its end. If you are hungry, eating a slice of pizza is logical. Action is logical in contexts where there is something approximating “experimental” feedback between choice and consequence. But in social environments where there is not a strong link between choice and consequence, action can become illogical. Politics, especially large-scale politics, is a prime candidate for illogical action to flourish. When we make political decisions, whether we are an ordinary citizen casting a ballot or a top regulator promulgating a new set of rules, the consequences of our actions do not accrue chiefly to us. Instead they fall on others. Furthermore, political outputs are necessarily “lumpy”: when we act politically we often must pursue a combination of goods at the same time, making it difficult for us to understand the consequential link between our choices and particular outcomes. This lack of clear feedback makes politics messy and fraught with inconsistencies.

From the above, we can get a pretty clear picture of what’s happening in the United States, at least with respect to the problems in the public sector. The state has evolved a network of hierarchies to take on increasingly complex governance tasks. But these hierarchies have become almost totally insular: they are not subject to any effective responsibility mechanism, and thus have become unlawful and oftentimes downright predatory. As the state apparatus has simultaneously grown in size and diminished in efficacy, democracy—interpreted as policy being directly influenced by first-past-the-post elections—became enshrined as the new political formula, at the expense of older and wiser republican ideas. The combination of these two has contributed to the political arena not only failing to punish, but actively rewarding, illogical action writ large. This has all occurred amidst a growing distance, not just physically but culturally as well, between those who rule and those who are ruled. Nobody intended this result, yet it follows predictably from the insights of the Italian elite theorists.

What does any of this have to do with good governance or the midterm elections? The latter is easier to answer: the midterms ultimately matter very little because genuine solutions to the problems in American society and government are not on the table. Whoever wins, the results will merely be different manifestations of the same phenomenon: a hierarchical and unaccountable state apparatus, legitimated on an increasingly impractical political formula, creating benefits for itself while passing the costs on to the public at large.

The public hysteria surrounding the elections is also mere sound and fury. The conversation that matters is the one we’re not having. Russell Kirk expressed the point best when he wrote, “What men really are seeking, or ought to seek, is not the right to govern, but the right to be governed well.” In their rush to seize the means of government, both the Right and Left have forgotten to consider what ought to be done with power should they get it. Furthermore, in the service of tribal politics, both sides seem more than willing to tear down the institutional safeguards that prevent ordinary men and women from being abused by their governors. This will further exacerbate the problems uncovered by Michels, Mosca, and Pareto.

It is reasonable to desire both citizen feedback and specialized skills in government. But these two are necessarily in tension, and getting the virtues of each while forestalling their vices is an incredibly difficult constitutional balancing act. We are evidently unprepared to confront this problem. Until we are willing to enshrine good government as the end, and treat both direct democracy and managerial expertise as means, we will continue to languish in political dysfunction.

Alexander William Salter is the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute. This essay is based on his scholarly paper, “A Theory of Self-Governance: De Facto Constitutions as Filters.” His writings and contact information are available at his website: www.awsalter.com [1].

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Why the Midterm Elections Don’t Really Matter"

#1 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On November 5, 2018 @ 1:39 pm


#2 Comment By One Guy On November 5, 2018 @ 1:44 pm

Just because things won’t get better if the Dems take the House, doesn’t mean things won’t get worse if the GOP keeps it. This is why midterm elections matter.

#3 Comment By TheSnark On November 5, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

A good article, but the author needs to remember that too many of the people who put themselves up for public office are those whose main goal is power, not good government.

The Founding Fathers recognized this problem and build a system of checks and balances to keep it under control (they did not pretend they could get rid of the problem, they tried to keep it under control). By and large, this worked for almost 200 years.

Similarly, the Roman Republic was extremely successful for the small city state that Rome originally was. However, as Rome grew into an empire, that form form of government didn’t work for something that large and that rich. Maybe our constitution is running into the same problem.

#4 Comment By mrscracker On November 5, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

Just to mention, I think ya’ll have one of the best college football mascots ever. I enjoyed watching Texas Tech play at the Gator Bowl several years ago. They totally beat my son’s school, too.

Losing the House to the Democrats will actually make a huge difference if the opportunity arises to pick another Supreme Court justice or two. That could affect our culture for generations to come.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 5, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

i completed my mail in ballot for drop off on Saturday. And there is not a single distinct innovative voice among the candidates, nor is there any truly unique policy shifts, save one. Improving CA water reclamation. But when I have to consider how careless the legislature is when it comes to fiscal management — given that history in this state. I voted no, even though I believe CA desperately needs to improve its reclamation system.

We instituted the lottery game here in CA for the purpose of funding education — more new buildings and contracts farmed out to contractors who as sop. hire illegal immigrants.

I think the article notes several crucial issues I take special note of:

1. government is about management. I was in my view that ideology spoke to some management basics, that has become less and less evident in today’s polity.

2. expediency over effectiveness has always been at issue for government.

3. the lack of accountability is so diffuse as to be non-existent, for poor management leadership. Instead, we get personal issues being the focus as opposed to issue governance effectiveness

4. Government nor the people have called for an organizational assessment of government performance and I think we desperately need a stop gap assessment at the national level.

I am not sure I agree with the assessment about local politics. My ballot is loaded with bond measures concerning projects, redistricting measures, even a policy change in the election process itself concerning candidate eligibility (it empowers local to be more represented – but we have such a huge illegal immigrant population here and very careless management processes – I don’t trust it, despite the fact that it makes sense.) Measures on improving child healthcare (so they say) but there are clearly local issues that matter to managing in which the voters actually matter.

I would note that our republic is still in force and while the leadership has increasing lined themselves with power against people’s interests, along with the business community — sad to say —

the public access to controlling government has not altogether disappeared.

#6 Comment By B Topp On November 5, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

Mrscracker: The Senate only not the House confirm Supreme Court justices.

#7 Comment By Stephen J. On November 5, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

Article says; “Democracy has a difficult time producing good governance, a problem our leaders aren’t willing to confront.”

I believe we are:
The Prisoners of “Democracy”

“The prisoners of the system thought they were free
After all, they lived in a “democracy?”
Every few years they were allowed to vote
Then they got punished by the winning lot”…

The winning lot was whatever political party attained power after receiving the most votes from the obedient serfs. The serfs were constantly told “if you don’t vote you don’t have any say.” (And they believed it!) So many of them voted and exercised their “democratic right.” Then they found that after placing the big X on their ballot, things were still much the same, because it did not really matter what party was in power, the serfs still got punished.

Punishing the people was “democracy” at its “finest.” Taxes and evermore taxes were heaped upon the gullible masses that still believed they lived in a “democracy.” Anybody objecting was called a “dissident” and told, “you had a free election, now suck it up.”

The suckers had to suck it up because they had given the “ruling democratic tyranny” a licence to punish them and some had even cheered the winning party that was now putting the boots to them. Or as one bigwig, also known as a marketing specialist was rumoured to have said, “First you woo them, then once elected, you screw them.”

Screwing the masses was the forte of the political establishment. It did not really matter which political party was in power, or what name it went under, they all had one ruling instinct, tax, tax, and more taxes. These rapacious politicians had an endless appetite for taxes, and also an appetite for giving themselves huge raises, pension plans, expenses, and all kinds of entitlements. In fact one of them famously said, “He was entitled to his entitlements.” Public office was a path to more, and more largesse all paid for by the compulsory taxes of the masses that were the prisoners of “democracy.”

The “rulers of democracies” knew no restraints. They voted to wage illegal wars on a number of countries, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other countries as well. This was called “bringing democracy” and “responsibility to protect” and “fighting terrorism.” These heinous hypocrites and their fancy titles” [1] were responsible for millions of deaths, millions of refugees, and countries reduced to rubble….
[read more at link below]

#8 Comment By Lord Karth On November 5, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

Dysfunction is an aspect of ALL Human governance. Its development over time is inevitable, or else one government would have taken over the entire Human race long ago.

I believe that this dysfunction is inevitable, and has its roots in the innate conflicts that arise between Human beings by the very fact of their individuality, limited knowledge/memory and fundamental irrationality.

In other words, this is a problem of basic Human design. Whether this design aspect is flaw or feature is an exercise I leave to the student.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#9 Comment By hcstromj On November 5, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

I think these midterm elections matter tremendously.

If those who believe in a constitutional return to governance and in the principles on which our country was founded, and on which we thrived for just shy of 200 years, will turn out in even better numbers than the last election, there is a real possibility of truly enacting real reform and rolling back so much of the government excess that has plagued us during the past 25-30 years.

If Republicans lose the House and / or the Senate, we will be move very much closer to civil war, I fear. All that has been accomplished thus far will be at stake and we will face increasing debt and potential stagnation of the economy.

#10 Comment By hcstromj On November 5, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

I believe, and I hope I am correct, that there is still out there a remaining, perhaps unheard from as of yet, component of a silent group of patriots who believe that we are a nation first and foremost and not a cog in a global mechanism, and who will vote to continue this desperately needed realignment begun under Trump. This may be the last chance we get to put this country back on the track given us by our ancestors. I am praying tonight.

#11 Comment By andy On November 5, 2018 @ 11:13 pm

A very thought provoking article, which left me pondering the tension between Democracy, which is accountability to the governed writ large, and “republican ideas,” which are essentially government by the wise, if you will, elite.
The institutional safeguards become the mechanism by which voting blocs and special interests steer the government in general.

#12 Comment By Bob K. On November 6, 2018 @ 12:15 am

“Democracy has a difficult time producing good governance, a problem our leaders aren’t willing to confront.”

Democracy always has a fall back position when it doesn’t work. It produces populism and populist leaders.

#13 Comment By k squared On November 6, 2018 @ 6:59 am

if the democrats take control, we’ll have a mild recession. If the republicans keep control the deficit will balloon and we’ll have a much worse recession. Trumps probably will start war with Iran which will exacerbate either (although in fairness, Clinton probably would’ve had boots on the ground in Syria already, not as bad as Iran but…).

#14 Comment By Dan Green On November 6, 2018 @ 7:58 am

Post WW 2, all western Democracies,( or those who give it lip service), have always marketed the Social Democratic Welfare State model, which is fueled by debt, and the system can’t deliver on the model. Makes a gullible electorate anxious. Today neither of our two adversaries, China nor Russia had any inclination to try Democracy as they have evaluated why we can’t make it work. Churchill taught us, Democracy is a lousy system, just has not viable replacement.

#15 Comment By mightywhig On November 6, 2018 @ 9:09 am

I liked this piece but I think Burnham discussed this in “The Machiavellians,” not “The Managerial Revolution,” which was making a different argument.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On November 6, 2018 @ 9:36 am

B Topp says:

“The Senate only not the House confirm Supreme Court justices.”

Thank you for that. I feel better already.

#17 Comment By Mark Thomason On November 6, 2018 @ 11:30 am

“What men really are seeking, or ought to seek, is not the right to govern, but the right to be governed well.”

Since voters never actually get the power to govern themselves, to be governed well is the only thing they can seek.

The point of democracy done right is to allow the voters to object with effect when they find themselves governed badly. That has been going on for some time, and bums keep getting thrown out, but we don’t get good government offered on the ballot.

That is what must change. Hold your nose for a different flavor of bad is not a real democracy.

#18 Comment By marku52 On November 6, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

Another theory regarding this is Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies”. The idea is that as civilizations respond to problems, they build increasingly complex solutions. The law of diminishing returns implies that these solutions become increasingly expensive, in energy and human effort. Eventually the costs overwhelm the capability of the society, and it falls. Tainter’s book details this for many fallen civs. We seems to be well along in ours.

#19 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On November 7, 2018 @ 12:39 am

And just what elections do or don’t matter, really?
That’s a good one, it gave me a laugh: I’m talking about those stickers that say ‘I Voted.’ Ha ha, voted for who and for what, citizens?
Lemme see, I’ve been lookin’ and observin’ politicians and the Guv’ment since ’64 with our long lost friends Goldwater and LB Johnson.
And, guess what? Why…things are worse than ever! The voters decide nothing!
Healthcare, schools (public ones-yuk) and foreign battles/wars that make misery and make a mockery of sincere American families and the sincere patriotic troops.
Things are so bad, with rich donors/lobbies that I think we really were better off before and they were the ‘good old days’ compared to now. That’s pert darn bad…today’s increasingly corrupt and degenerate politicians and at half the population.
Dig what I’m saying and, have a nice day

#20 Comment By Wizard On November 7, 2018 @ 11:31 am

although in fairness, Clinton probably would’ve had boots on the ground in Syria already, not as bad as Iran but…

Huh? Obama already (illegally) put US boots on the ground in Syria, and Trump has (illegally) kept them there. I don’t dispute Clinton’s hawkishness, but that particular horse is out of the barn and way down the road. Until Congress grows a backbone and acts to reclaim their war-making authority, whoever happens to be President will continue to commit US troops whenever and wherever s/he sees fit.