The misalingment of elections and representation

Diffusion of power through representation is the main guarantor against abuses of power. A misaligned democratic operating system can lead to substantial distortions and to defeating the purpose of representation itself.

The “Business” model: representative democracy dependent on the people alone

The United States is a representative democracy. The easiest way to determine its “business” model is to go back to the origin and see why the American democracy happened. This will help deduce the rationale for it and how it can create and capture value.

The US broke off from the United Kingdom for several reasons, but mainly for the frequent abuses of power that the British Monarch perpetrated on his colony – violating, according to the writers of the Declaration of Independence, their natural “unalienable rights”. The mechanics of a democracy were for them essential to prevent future abuses of powers and align the government’s actions with the protection of rights: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed”. The US is set up as a representative democracy “dependent upon the People alone”.

The “business” model of this democracy is to diffuse power in order to protect and foster the People’s natural rights. To function, representation needs to be dependent on the People alone; any other dependence would imply a dangerous concentration of power thus short-circuiting the system.

As we will see there is a misalignment between the operating system in place and the value that a representative democracy is supposed to generate.

The “Operating” model: the cash requirements of a heightened competitive landscape

The “operating model” is defined by (a) the mechanics that allow voters to translate their preferences into policy outcomes (electing); (b) the possibility of every voter to be elected. If a person were not allowed to be elected, then that very check on power would be void.

Simplistically, there are two parallel processes: (1) the process of voting that involves information gathering, formation of preferences, decision and actual voting by the agent; (2) the process of being elected that involves selecting a constituency, gathering funds, getting the message out, and letting people decide.

Currently, funding plays a key role in both processes. After 1976, when the Supreme Court struck down limits on campaign financing, and the 1994 Congressional race, when both Houses started being contested every term, competition in the system heavily increased. This meant that the ability of raising funds for either (a) influencing public opinion and (b) being elected, played an increasingly dominant role in the operations of the American democracy.

This view is supported by the following data: “between 1974 and 2008 the average amount it took to run for reelection to the House went from $56K to $1.3MN (significantly higher than inflation). In 1974 the total spent by all candidates for Congress was $77MN. By 1982 that number was $343MN. By 2010 it was $1.8BN.”


Are the two models aligned?

Alignment can be measured by whether the current system of representation matches the original “business” model of the American representative democracy: power dependent on the people alone.

Lawrence Lessig, in his Republic, Lost describes the current need for campaign cash as distractive. Congress, in his view, is not dependent on the people alone but on those that can contribute to the re-election of that Congress. There is a fundamental distortion: “the gap between what “the People” believe about an issue and what Congress does about that issue. Call this substantive distortion”.

Substantive distortion has been measures by Magilens21rtin Gilens in his book Affluence and Influence. With a dataset composed of 1,923 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 Gilens finds that there is a “fairly strong association between policy outcomes and the preferences of the affluent” and “when less-well-off Americans hold preferences that diverge from those of the affluent, policy responsiveness to the well-off remains strong but responsiveness to the lower-income groups all but disappears”.

This distortion shows not only that the preference of voters are not mirrored in policy outcomes, but also that policy outcomes are de facto dependent on the most affluent constituencies rather than the People alone. At the same time, these distortions also imply that the likelihood of anyone being elected relies on the ability to attract campaign funding, usually not evenly distributed across the population.

This is a case of clear misalignment that results in operational under-performance of the American representative system in delivering its core “business” model. The operational system mostly depends on those that can fund campaigns, leading to the concentration of power in influencing policy outcomes in the hands of the few. In turn, this violates the requirement of power diffusion and dependence on the People alone that is fundamental to achieve the core mission: protecting people from abuse of power.



Main Sources:

  • Martin Gilens, Affluence & Influence – Economic Inequality and the Political Power in America, Princeton University Press, 2012
  • Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost, Hachette, 2011
  • US Declaration of Indipendence



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Student comments on The misalingment of elections and representation

  1. Luca,

    I was so expecting an article like this by you! It was a very interesting read. I do kind of agree that the business and the operating models for the U.S democracy are misaligned – by your definition. Although I very much appreciate the metaphorical example you undertook, my greatest cause for concern is the absence of similarity between the process by which a company and a country set their goals. To elaborate a bit further, the whole idea of democracy is to have representation for the people and by the people, whereas a company’s vision is set forth not by the vast majority of the people who work for it, but in fact the founders or the board of directors (in case of a publicly listed one). And this would bring me to my next question, how would you come about solving the misalignment of representation, in case of a country like the US?
    As well, given that you have a passion for such topics, I would like to know what you think of democracy for the emerging part of the world where the vast majority of people are illiterate and the power to vote is not well understood. Would the same business and operating model work for two completely different organizations?

  2. Interesting post Luca. However, I am not sure where the quote “dependent on the people alone” originates from. Is that our business model? Public interest groups have been involved in influencing government since the beginning of the Republic. James Madison, one of the founding fathers, felt this was healthy for the representative democracy. What separates their activities then from campaign donors today?

    While the need to raise funds distracts from the business of government, it is not clear that the Supreme Court’s decision around campaign finance was the only or even chief factor leading to a poorly-run government. In fact, you haven’t quite made the case that the government is poorly-run, although you seem to imply it. Certainly, donors don’t have a stranglehold on politicians either; just look at what is happening in the Republican nomination. Bush raised $100 million months ago, way ahead of everyone else, and has yet to break 10% on any polls. Others who have raised far less are doing much better. We could see the same with Clinton and Obama back in 2008. The campaign finance is but one issue that good governances faces in the US.

  3. Though I agree that the way you explain the operating and business models of the U.S. government are fundamentally at odds with one another, O do not believe the assumptions of the post are valid. The primary assumption which would make this post accurate is that campaign finance and lobbyist spending actually influences which policies are passed and what politicians are put into office. This assumption is at odds with the vast majority of political science literature on the two issues in the United States, especially at a non-national level.

    In Green and Gerber’s book “Get Out the Vote!”, a seminal work in the area of campaign finance, they examine the effects of campaign spending in various forms on gubernational, state legislative, national legislative, and Presidential election results. The overwhelming evidence in the book presents findings that show almost no correlation between the amount of money spent and the results of the election. Rather, the results depended primarily on previous year’s economic performance, incumbent party effects, and state level unemployment rates. The primary conclusion of these authors is that money does not actually win votes but rather gives credibility to those who can raise enough to enter races.

    Additionally, Baumgartner’s book “Lobbying and Policy Change” (Chapter 7) focuses on the results of policy decisions on lobbying efforts. While there has been an unbelievable amount of scholarly research in this area, Baumgartner’s work is the most frequently cited since it’s publication in 2009. Baumgartner examines the links between actual policy outcomes and voting patterns from Congress and the amount of lobbying dollars spent on the issue being debated. The author’s primary finding showed no effects on past, present, or future votes or favorable policy towards lobbying groups that spent money lobbying for a given issue. The author argues that anecdotal evidence typically provides some “evidence” linking lobbying and policy results, but when looking at macro trends across the entire U.S. political landscape, no relationship exists.

    While these are only the most important works in the two areas, the point holds that money does not actually effect the outcome of elections or policies. I think the dependency you imply on the U.S. democracy on money is not founded, to the detriment of what every campaign manager would like politicians to believe!

  4. Super interesting post and discussion.

    These are valid points that question the efficacy of campaign spending on electoral outcomes (and therefore the premise of the misalignment). That said, the same Green and Gerber research suggests that door-to-door canvassing can have up to a 7% increase on a person’s likelihood to vote. The more funding a candidate has, the more he is ably to deploy campaign workers to organize grassroots, get out the vote efforts. So there is some tie between campaign funding and actual outcomes (though the research here is certainly mixed).

    Beyond that, I think there are two strong arguments here. One is that elected officials are chosen by the people who paid for the campaigns. The other is that the people paying for the campaigns are influencing policy (because they are choosing which politicians can run and win). I think another overarching idea that wasn’t explicitly mentioned is that the in flux of spending on campaigns pushes candidates to adopt extreme views and makes political parties increasingly polarized. While the founders of the United States supported the formation of special interest groups and their ability to influence or sway elections, they did not anticipate how much money would be spent on them hundreds of years laters. (The Constitution was a living, breathing document so it was assumed the ideas would evolve over time.) Politicians are now so beholden to special interest groups in order to win a party’s primary and then the general election. The pressure to keep certain donors around changes a candidate’s platform and later the policies they choose to endorse. Perhaps this too is causing the misalignment between the business and operating model — regardless of whether financing influences the actual winner in an election.

  5. Thanks for an interesting approach to the TOM question! I share some of the same thoughts as mentioned above, though without as many (or any) sources at hand…! Specifically though, whether there is data that shows the specific impact of campaign financing when controlling for other external factors as was mentioned above? Beyond anecdotal examples, my hypothesis would be that factors (e.g. education, political engagement/awareness) correlated with income could also explain some of the findings in Substantive Distortion measure described above. As such I wonder whether there might not be other factors to describe any misalignment.

    In general though, the level of fundraising happening (whether effective or not) is probably detracting from higher priority issues and seems like a pretty expensive form of public education! And might the electorate be able to make an informed vote with less total campaign spend?

  6. This is a very interesting way to apply the TOM framework of “business model” and “operating model”. The underlying argument here is indeed controversial as we can tell by the different reactions. Nevertheless, I think another way to look at the issue is to think about what are the social outcomes of the policies enacted by the current “set up” of the government are. I do not have the hard numbers, but it is pretty known today that the middle class is eroding, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, citizens are allowed to fail and go bankrupt but some corporations are “too big to fail”. I am not saying that all policies are bad, but for the most part the majority of the folks are not on a good trajectory here? The bottom line is that the influence that money has on politics is not philanthropic, it expects a return on investment. The return is mostly benefiting the people who can invest, which I believe is the point that Luca is trying to make.

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