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.


I’m not much of a golfer. Indeed, despite playing golf occasionally for more than 60 years and having had a few lessons, I am a lousy golfer.  My diagnosis of this disability is that the slow pace of the game allows too much time for thinking, and my head swells with thoughts of all the things I should be doing or should not be doing, thus overwhelming whatever intuitive knowledge resides in muscle memory. Consequently, I have never played competitive golf, other than the biannual gathering of my high school buddies when those who attended Wilson (my junior high) drub Roosevelt (the other junior high).  These Wilson v. Roosevelt matches do not really count as competitive golf, since we play a version of “best ball” enabling my worst shots—an assortment of duffs, slices, hooks, powder-puff drives, and shots that land in deep roughs, sand traps, creeks, and ponds—to be ignored by using the better shots of my teammates.  Still, the rules by which we play mandate that Wilson must use one of my drives on each nine, but even in these situations, I might use my allotted mulligan, giving me a second chance to put my drive somewhere in play so that it does not hurt my team too much.

If you are not a golfer, you might not know that a mulligan is a “do-over,” a second chance to correct one’s initial mistake.  Serious golfers do not allow mulligans, but I am not a serious golfer. To prepare for an upcoming Wilson-Roosevelt match, I usually go by myself to McCauslin Brook, the easy links about five miles from our cabin in northern Wisconsin, where I proceed to play mulligans on every shot.  Even if my first shot is pretty good (by my low standards), I hit another for practice; after all, I haven’t kept score in years and so taking such liberties does not matter.

But other sports have rules regarding mulligans that do matter.  One thing I like about tennis is that players are always granted a second serve. Perhaps giving baseball batters three strikes amounts to granting hitters two mulligans, but that is not really like giving tennis players a second serve. In the case of baseball, granting both pitchers and hitters multiple balls and strikes is part of the rules and strategy of the game. Perhaps the same can be said for granting tennis players a second serve, but the second serve in tennis is much more a rule of forgiveness intended to ensure that rallies can commence and the fun of running down shots and winning points can take place.

Second serves—the do-overs that are part of the rules of tennis—are pretty unique in sports.  In pickleball, players have only one chance to get their serve in. Quarterbacks in football are not allowed a second chance to nullify an interception or to not overthrow their targets.  Basketball players are only given a second chance for a “put back” if they earn it, by rebounding their own missed shots. While there are a few (field) events in track where athletes are given multiple chances to throw the shot put or the discus as far as they can or to jump as high and far as they can, races do not grant runners a second chance if they stumble out of the starting blocks, trip over a hurdle, or even are interfered with by another competitor.  Tennis is the sport where mulligans are a big part of the rules.

During my lifetime, taking and allowing mulligans has become much more prominent outside of sports. Divorces and second (or third or fourth) marriages are now much more common and accepted than in the past. Students who mess up their exams or assignments are now much more likely to expect—and receive—second chances than in my school days.  People are now  much more likely than in the past to send back what they initially ordered at a restaurant when they find their initial choice less appealing than those of others at their table.

Mulligans have long had a place in politics.  Many states and localities have granted citizens the right to mulligans by allowing them to collect recall petitions that, if they meet certain requirements, provide for a new election. The U.S. Constitution provides no opportunities for such do-overs when we elect our presidents, but instead provides for impeachment as a  quasi-mulligan.  Since impeachment is left to representatives rather than to voters, it is not a complete do-over, but insofar as impeachment, as conceived by the framers of the Constitution, is more a political than a legal process, it can give those subject to a corrupt and poor ruler the opportunity to correct their initial  mistake. The next election may be too long to wait to undo our choosing initially an incompetent leader, a dangerous demagogue, or a corrupt tyrant. But in our current highly polarized and partisan environment, too many Congressmembers charged with the responsibilities of acting as representatives of the people and safeguarding our democratic institutions will ignore those responsibilities. When two parties are pitted in an enduring struggle for power, the members of that party aligned with the president think their interests are better served by looking past the dangers that lurk by retaining a poor leader than by admitting that the president has transgressed or ignored long-standing Constitutional, legal, and democratic norms.

In Federalist 85, Alexander Hamilton admitted that impeachment was not a procedure that was likely to fix initial electoral mistakes. The requirement of attaining a supermajority in the Senate enables a minority of partisans aligned with a bad president to keep him in office, so that political mulligans can only be effectively had through reelections.  But do provisions for reelections provide for the political mulligans that the citizens of a republic require?  Unfortunately, the Constitutional rules and the various practices that have evolved over the past 230 years have stacked the deck against removing dangerous demagogues from office even by electoral means.

For the past year, I have been working on a book, The Twenty-Eighth Amendment? Beyond Abolishing the Electoral College.  Its major premise is that it’s time for a Constitutional mulligan.  We need a Constitutional amendment that revises the structures and processes of presidential elections, making it less likely that they will result in the need for do-overs and making reelections less likely to result in repetitions of earlier mistakes.

I thought writing this book would be simple and not take much time, but that has not been the case.  I have had to take a lot of mulligans in writing this book, not just to fix writing shortcomings but to correct political and even Constitutional misinterpretations that I’ve made along the way. Now with the book set to be launched, I recognize some aspects of the book that would be improved by yet further mulligans. But at some point, one simply has to play the ball where it lies.  I regard the version of The Twenty-Eight Amendment? that will soon be available on Amazon (and other such sites) as the “best shot” that I can currently make. It does not lie in the deep rough. It’s playable. But the question mark in the title indicates my sensibility that perfect shots are no more likely in politics than in golf.  My hope is that some of you will read my book and have some suggestions for how my lie can be improved.

While that way of putting my feelings about my book coincides nicely with my golf metaphor, it can, of course, be regarded  as an unfortunate choice of words, if it suggests that my book has the same misrepresentations and lies that have become all too familiar in our current presidential practices and contests.  So, let me try a different phrasing:  I hope that others will partner with me, providing better shots.  Perhaps through a series of “best balls,” we—meaning all those who believe that the game of politics should be  played under democratic rules having widespread public consent—can score pars or better as we play (and replay) the treacherous course we are on.


Please join me in a rollicking rendition of “Home on the Range.”

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day….

What prompts this strange exuberance?

Today marks the 50th annual Octoginta,  an outing sponsored by the local bike club.  Though I am little more than a dues-paying member of this organization, I have ridden in about half of their annual outings, and have done the full enchilada on all previous occasions, not because I had prepared for the event, but to measure the passing of years.

This year promised to be different.  I had reconciled myself to being satisfied with half the enchilada, pedaling for a mere 40 miles. When I surveyed the folks who I thought might be interested in being my side-kick, some said that they were determined to do the whole thing, but most said that they were too out-of-shape to do anything.  I realized this would be a solo ride.

So, I awoke to a beautiful Kansas day.  The skies were clear – not a cloud in sight – and there was no wind.  The only problematic condition was that the temperature was 32 degrees at the scheduled start time, but was expected to rise to the mid-60s by the projected finish.  I got my bike out and realized that it was uncomfortably cold.  At the start, I would need not just the new jersey that my lovely wife, Lynn, had given me for the occasion, but my down sleeveless jacket. But what would I do with that jacket as the temperatures rose into the upper-50’s and 60’s?

It occurred to me that there was really little reason to freeze my fanny during the early morning.  Having not committed to riding with anyone, I could ride solo, at a time of my own choosing.  I went back inside our home, drank some more coffee, and began another read of the book I have been working on for months, correcting a few more errors, and updating some matters pertaining to Donald Trump’s “self-impeachment” – events related to ancillary material in my book on the Electoral College.

Finally, after a few hours, I saw that the temperature had risen above 50, high enough that I could begin my trek without the jacket.  So off I went.  I had the road to myself.  The route was clearly marked by the club and signs were posted to make drivers of SUV’s and pick-up trucks aware of bikers, enhancing my sense of security.  There still was not a cloud in the sky.  There still was no wind to buck.  The trees were starting to show signs of fall colors.  The rolling hills of Kansas, at this time of year and under these conditions, are lovely.

More than two-thirds of the way through my scheduled 40-mile route, I noticed that I was at the turn-around point when I had run a marathon in my distant past; that meant I only had about 13 miles to go.  And I was still feeling energetic.  Why not go for 50 miles? I asked myself.  So, I made some mental calculations and came up with an alternative route (to complement my alternative schedule) that would result in a 50-mile ride – more miles than I had done in a few years.

That alternate route took me through the lovely Baker wetlands, and as I got on that bike path, I noticed a stream of bikers coming at me – those who had begun their ride at the schedule time and had stuck to the scheduled route.  As I passed these bikers, many noticed that I was wearing the special jersey for the event and looked at me quizzically.  Some asked, “Is this the right way to the finish?”  I assured them it was, but I had no time to explain that this was, for me, a solo experience on an alternative route.

By then, it was early afternoon, and I was ready to get home. I wanted to see how the Chiefs were doing, and if losing, I wondered if I might see Patrick Mahone pull out another Chiefs’ victory when I parked myself in front of the TV for the fourth quarter. I also wanted to tell Lynn that the $50 I saved by missing the registration for this event – making me ineligible for breakfast at the 12-mile marker, for lunch at the finish, and for refreshments at the various SAG stops – was available to take her out to dinner.

But when I arrived home, now exhausted (as well as thirsty and hungry) from my 51-mile ride, she was already in the kitchen.  Anticipating my arrival, she had made a salad, cooked some sweet potatoes, and was grilling a steak.  She accepted a rain check on being taking out for dinner (which she can redeem tomorrow), asking only that I pour some wine to accompany her meal.  I was starved, and the meal she had prepared was far better (I am sure) than the normal soup and sandwiches offered by the bike club at the finish of the Octoginta.  Watching the Chiefs lose hardly qualified as a disappointment in my otherwise most satisfying day riding through my home on the range and arriving to the home I share with my sweet wife.