The Coronavirus Crisis, the Biden Miracle, and their Implications for Populist vs. Communitarian Democracy

The headline events of the past two weeks focusing on the coronavirus emergency and the emergence of Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee suggest our need to rethink the qualities we look for in our political leaders and how Americans choose them.

The COVID-19 emergency makes clear the importance of having strong and effective national institutions that have effective authority to deal with national emergencies (both immediate ones as in the case of the coronavirus crisis and emerging ones as in the cases of climate change and growing economic inequality). The leaders having institutional authority must be widely trusted, recognized for putting national needs ahead of individual, partisan, and ideological goals, and for being truth-tellers who avoid falsehoods and misleading statements. Trust in governmental institutions and their leaders is needed to secure citizen willingness to pay taxes for programs that government enact and to comply with the restrictions that authorities impose to reduce pressing collective problems.

The other major recent news event is that Democrats seem to have rallied behind Joe Biden to be their presidential nominee. The political psychology behind Biden’s momentum is much like that required to deal with our public health crisis. Compared to his rivals, Biden has been widely viewed as a person whom Americans can trust.  Indeed, his endorsement by most of his former Democratic rivals rests on their believing that he, more than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, has the experience and temperament to be trustworthy. In short, “the Biden miracle” seems grounded in the widespread realization that we need to reorient our politics in a way that results in political leaders who are widely accepted and trusted rather than those whose appeal is limited to a small ideological base.

The coronavirus emergency and the Biden emergence strongly suggest that many Americans may be ready to abandon the sort of populist democracy that has become prominent during the past half century. The core but often unexpressed idea of populist democracy is that politics should be concerned with responding to what most people want. While that formulation of democracy sounds attractive, it contains two highly problematic elements.

First, what people want is often at odds with what they need.  We want our freedom.  We want to enjoy March Madness, travel widely, and engage in a host of other experiences that satisfy our personal desires.  The coronavirus emergency reminds us that sometimes Americans must put what we as a community need ahead of what we as individuals want.

Second, populist democracy must  deal with the question of what is the criterion to be used in deciding what most people in a community want or need. Does “most” mean having some sort of community-wide consensus (say, a supra-majority of 75 percent wanting the same outcome)?  Or does it mean satisfying a “majority” (50 percent plus one)?  Or does it mean satisfying a mere “plurality” (i.e., adopting the most preferred outcome when people have a wide variety of first choices)?

In a free society, people almost always want different outcomes. Before Super Tuesday, Democrats had many options among candidates, and polls and early primary results indicated that neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders was the first-choice of most.

It is hard to point to something that Biden did that prompted Democratic voters to suddenly cast their ballots for Joe instead of his earlier rivals. It is more likely that people changed their political psychology. Before Super Tuesday, they voted as populists:  they asked themselves “who do I most prefer?” leading them to spread their votes widely among the many candidate. But as Super Tuesday approached, many Democrats began to realize that while Biden was not their first choice, he was more acceptable than Trump, Sanders, or others in the race.

In short, as Super Tuesday approached both Democratic leaders and voters began to abandon the underlying and dysfunctional logic of populist democracy and began to think in terms of another form of democracy, which might be called “communitarian democracy.”  The key question for citizens in such a democracy is not “who do I want as our leader?”  Instead, the question is “which candidate is most acceptable to most of us?”

Our current voting procedures prompt both politicians and citizens to think and act according to what they as individuals want rather than what is acceptable to most voters and what is most needed by the community as a whole. Since populism often delivers what is wanted by only a slim minority of citizens, our politics is now characterized by appeals to narrow bases of support, excessive partisanship, and high polarization. Such populism has resulted in public trust in government becoming dangerously low.

There is much current discussion about eliminating the Electoral College.  Having the president elected by a popular-plurality system would likely encourage independent and third-party candidates to compete with the nominees of the major parties, and while having more choices would perhaps be desirable, such reform would likely make our democracy more populist and less communitarian. Highly ideological demagogues, distrusted and unacceptable to most citizens could win having the support of only a small base.

If we want to eliminate the Electoral College and choose our president by a national popular vote, we need to have ballots that urge people to think less about “who is my first choice?” and more about the question “who is most acceptable to most of us?”  Approval and rank-order voting balloting seem better than ballots that simply allow voters to indicate their top choice.

Replacing the current highly problematic primary system with a national preliminary election using approval ballots would give voters everywhere the opportunity to indicate their approval or disapproval of each of a substantial list of candidates, to eliminate those candidates having more disapproval than approval, and to identify the most approved possibilities to be considered on a subsequent rank-order ballot.

During the final election employing rank-order ballots, voters would only rank those they approved of. No candidate disapproved of by most voters could win if such ballots were used. While the winner might not be the candidate who is the first choice of most voters, the winner would necessarily be approved by most voters, perhaps by a strong majority.  In short, such a system would vastly increase our chances of having a president who is widely accepted and trusted.  Such leaders would have greater public support to use the authority of our national institutions to deal with both current and emerging crises.

There is no better time than the present for both leaders and citizens to begin  conversations about how we might acquire less populist and more communitarian orientations about politics and how our electoral institutions could both encourage and reflect such a politics.