Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Republicans in the USA are "The stupid party"

1.0 Introduction

In 1865, John Stuart Mill, when he was almost 60, was elected to Parliament. He represented the radical wing of the Liberal party. He had been a public intellectual for decades, with lots of books, editorials, and articles for the Tories to draw on in attacking him. Some Tories overreached. This led to the conservative party becoming known as "The stupid party".

2.0 Adventures in Parliament

I find Mill's attitude towards being a Member of Parliament (MP) unusual, albeit consistent with his stated opinions. He was not interested in giving speeches in support of his party's view when many others were willing to do so. He "in general reserved [him]self for work which no others were likely to do." (from his Autobiography. Uncited quotes below are from this book.) He had such opportunities, for few radicals were in Parliament. (Earlier in his life, such a group was known in Britain as the Philosophical Radicals.)

Despite his radicalism, some of his advocacy was in opposition "to what then was, and probably still is, regarded as the advanced liberal opinion". For example, Mill was against abolishing capital punishment and "in favour of seizing enemies' goods in neutral vessels".

But other efforts seem more progressive, when viewed from the standpoint of later times. In a speech on Gladstone's Reform Bill, Mill argued for sufferage of the working class. He also promoted women's sufferage through his parliamentary work. He put out a pamphlet for reforming British rule in Ireland, including "for settling the land question by giving to existing tenants a permanent tenure, at a fixed rent." He joined in an organization that attempted to have British officers in Jamaica prosecuted, in a criminal case. These officers had engaged in killing, flogging, and general brutality, under the pretence of having civilians brought before court-martials.

3.0 Considerations on Representative Government

J. S. Mill had long been what we would call a public intellectual. I want to particularly focus on his book with the above title. He gives a qualitative discussion of particular voting games. Mill was for proportional representation, also known then as "personal representation". And Mill recommended Thomas Hare on the topic. Other issues he considered include:

  • Provide multiple votes (a greater weight) to more highly educated members of the electorate.
  • Giving voters multiple votes for distributing in elections for a district that had multiple members to elect to a council.
  • Working class and women's sufferage.
  • The advantages and disadvantages of a secret ballot (as opposed to an open one).
  • The advantages and disadvantages of having a two-stage election (e.g., the electoral college, Senators being elected by a state's legislature.
  • The advantages and disadvantages of an upper house (e.g., the Senate, the House of Lords), under various assumptions about its composition.
  • Whether or not the chief executive should be independently elected (e.g., the President of the United States) or by the legislature (e.g., the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom).
  • How the central government and localities should interact and what should the authority and responsibility of each be.

In short, Mill seems to write about concerns often of interest today in analytical political science, albeit in a qualitative way and grounded in concrete practices in his time.

4.0 Attention and the Aftermath

The Tories in Parliament took advantage of Mill's long paper trail. In debates, they would ask if he wanted to defend some of his previous written statements. Because of Mill's forthrightness, this strategy backfired:

"My position in the House was further improved... by an ironical reply to some Tory leaders who had quoted against me certain passages of my writings, and called me to account for others, especially for one in 'Considerations on Representative Government,' which said that the Conservative party was, by the law of its composition, the stupidest party. They gained nothing by drawing attention to the passage, which up to that time had not excited any notice, but the sobriquet of 'the stupid party' stuck to them for a considerable time afterwards."

Considerations on Representative Government contains this passage:

"...It is an essential part of democracy that minorities should be adequately represented. No real democracy, nothing but a false show of democracy, is possible without it.

Those who have seen and felt, in some degree, the force of these considerations, have proposed various expedients by which the evil may be, in greater or lesser degree, mitigated. Lord John Russell, in one of his Reform Bills, introduced a provision that certain constituencies should return three members, and that in these each elector should be allowed to vote only for two; and Mr. Disraeli, in the recent debates, revived the memory of the fact by reproaching him for it, being of opinion, apparently, that it befits a Conservative statesman to regard only means, and to disown scornfully all fellow-feeling with any one who is betrayed, even once, into thinking of ends."

And that passage has this footnote (which I read as noting the existence of negative partisanship):

"his blunder of Mr. Disraeli (from which, greatly to his credit, Sir John Pakington took an opportunity soon after of separating himself) is a speaking instance, among many, how little the Conservative leaders understand Conservative principles. Without presuming to require from political parties such an amount of virtue and discernment as they that they should comprehend, and know when to apply, the principles of their opponents, we may yet say that it would be a great improvement if each party understood and acted upon its own. Well would it be for England if Conservatives voted consistently for every thing conservative, and Liberals for every thing liberal. We should not then have to wait long for things which, like the present and many other great measures, are eminently both the one and the other. The Conservatives, as being by the law of their existence the stupidest part, have much the greatest sins of this description to answer for; and it is a melancholy truth, that if any measure were proposed on any subject truly, largely, and far-sightedly conservative, even if Liberals were willing to vote for it, the great bulk of the Conservative party would rush blindly in and present it from being carried." (emphasis added.)

I assume Mill's refers to the following statement, in parliamentary debates, as his "ironical reply":

"I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honourable Gentleman will question it."
5.0 Conclusion

And so, to this day, the more conservative party in some countries, such as the United States, is sometimes called "The stupid party".

  • J. S. Mill (1861). Considerations on Representative Government
  • J. S. Mill (1873). Autobiography of John Stuart Mill

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