Is it a contradiction that some ideas could be “beyond the mainstream” yet shared by a majority of the public? It may seem so, but political reality is a good deal more complex than that, for at least two reasons.
First, what is “mainstream” in terms of accepted political debate within and in the context of election campaigns for our “representative” institutions may be much narrower than the real range of ideas shared within the electorate. That was the essence of the point I was making yesterday about the narrowness of political debate offered by realistic candidates for the US presidency. And, as I noted, the range of options offered to voters in legislative elections is narrower still, even if most views are in fact represented by “the chance opinions of individual members” in districts where it is “safe” to articulate what the rest of the body politic considers beyond-the-mainstream views (quote from Droop).
The second reason that it may not be contradictory that some views might be from beyond the mainstream of regular discourse and yet held by a majority is that the public is generally not highly ideological. Some ideas that are not well represented by the established political parties may, in fact, be quite popular and practical. The key is getting them aired and then represented in the legislature, thereby broadening the debate and facilitating the adoption of practical solutions that might otherwise be easily dismissed as “fringe.”
The context of this planting is a comment given over at PoliBlog to a previous comment of mine. My comment was essentially a rough draft of yesterday’s planting on From Beyond the Mainstream. The follow-up comment claimed that I was wrong to characterize Tom Tancredo’s views on immigration as beyond the mainstream because, according to the commentator, “Tancredoâ€™s views on illegal immigration are … shared by 75% or so of the country.”
Now, I am no expert on public opinion on immigration, or on immigration policy. And my intention is not to debate with someone who runs a blog called The Lonewacko Blog whether his own or Tancredo’s views are beyond the mainstream. However, I would argue that on this issue, as on many others, our immigration policy would be something more sustainable than the mess it currently is if the legislature were elected with some form of proportional representation.
Under PR, the broader spectrum of views among the electorate on the issue would be represented, and the balance of that representation in congress would shift with shifting public opinion as to which issues are most important and what proposed solutions to them are most resonating with the electorate. Rather than festering because the narrow range of mainstream interests is deadlocked on the issue or prefers not even to open it up for long periods of time, the agenda would be more open and the proposals more diverse.
Personally, I abhor the views of someone like Tancredo. But I would welcome a political party articulating his views having a block of seats in congress that would shift in size depending on the size of the electorate that chose to endorse a hypothetical party led by Tancredo.
No, it is not a contradiction that views on a policy may come from beyond the fringe yet be consonant with a majority of the public: We can’t know where the median is on an issue if voters across the country do not have the opportunity to cast an effective vote for their preference among the widest feasible range of views, including those from beyond the mainstream. On that score, our current system of “representative” institutions fails us badly.