Friday, May 22, 2015

The Man Knew His Micah

Your humble narrator recently received an invitation from alma mater (the graduate one) to say a few words about his doctoral director, Lance G. Banning (1942-2006). Unfortunately, a vicious case of stomach flu kept me from going to Kentucky to deliver my talk. Fortunately, I wasn't the main speaker at the event, and a member of the U.K. History Department, Tracy Campbell, read my remarks for me. (Thank heavens for email.) It occurred to me, though, that while I've written a memorial or two on this blog before, I haven't yet said anything on behalf of Lance, who as my chief graduate adviser played a big role in my intellectual development. To remedy, however partially, this omission, I present herewith my words from last week's event:


We have heard of Lance Banning's many accomplishments as a scholar. I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss his merits as a mentor. These merits grew out of one of Professor Banning's personal virtues: his appreciation for the blessings of private life. Lance had studied with J.G.A. Pocock and may have been one of the few people to understand that turgid Kiwi, but I think he found little appeal in Pocock's account of the ideal of the vita activa, the active political life. What Lance most appreciated, I think, was the modest but fruitful life of a gentleman scholar: time with his books, particularly the belles lettres of his heroes Jefferson and Madison; time to write, which he did so masterfully; time to exchange ideas with fellow seekers of truth, like the professors and attorneys he gathered at so many Liberty Fund conferences; and time for recreation, for a softball game or one of his morally indefensible bowls of popcorn.* Lance was fond of Richard Matthews's book The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Discussing that monograph with him I realized that Dr. Banning agreed with Matthews's Jefferson about the essence of the good life: everyone under his own vine and fig tree, free from fear and free to pursue happiness.

These genteel aspirations informed Lance's attitude toward his students. His main undertaking as a graduate instructor was to give his charges the tools to pursue their own intellectual interests. He taught us to critique methodologically diverse scholarship, to read primary sources - I spent one semester with him reading all of Madison's notes on the Philadelphia convention, along with large swaths of the Federalist - and, above all, to write clearly and effectively. Beyond that, Lance preferred to let students find their own interests and pursue them wherever they led, knowing this would reinforce the focus and drive they needed to finish a dissertation. When I discovered a bizarre story about paranoid arch-Federalist Timothy Pickering's diplomatic missions to the Iroquois, and wanted to follow it up with a research paper, Lance didn't tell me that the subject of early U.S. Indian policy had been done to death. Instead, he asked probing questions, read and edited a dozen of my drafts, and offered praise and encouragement all the way to the dissertation that grew from this project. Lance didn't see the publication of Red Gentlemen and White Savages, but in his final email to me he mentioned its progression through the editorial gauntlet, as well as Todd Estes's book (then in press) and new or forthcoming works by two more of his students. "You guys are doing me proud," he declared.

Lance had no academic axe to grind or agenda to push, other than helping create other intellectuals. The diversity of careers that his students have followed - leading Liberty Fund events, managing Congressional staff, military history, ethnohistory, ecological and local history, academic administration, writing a two-century overview of slavery and empire - demonstrates Lance's understanding that everyone pursues happiness and intellectual fulfillment in different ways. That we have done so successfully, that we have each cultivated our own vine and fig tree, is an important part of his legacy.

* I've never actually seen one of these, but apparently Lance would pop a medium-sized bowl, then pour an entire melted stick of butter on top, then cover the soggy mass with a blizzard of salt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Post-Racing and Vote-Wasting

The United Kingdom held its national elections last week, and the bad guys won. By that, I mean victory went to the pro-Tory newspapers and their multimillionaire owners. The Conservatives picked up enough seats to form a majority government, while the Labour Party lost Scotland to the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly 90 percent of their seats in Parliament and their place in the country's governing coalition. One may attribute the Tories' victory to Britain's gradual economic recovery, a poorly-run Labour campaign, or any number of other causes. But asking why Labour lost and the Conservatives won is the less interesting question. In this election, millions of Britons voted for third parties, not just the LibDems and the Scottish Nationals but the Greens and the fast-growing UKIP (U.K. Independence Party). Yet outside of Scotland, only a handful of seats in Parliament went to third-party candidates. Why?

The explanation lies in the mechanics of British elections, which use the same “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system as elections in India, the United States, and forty other countries. In FPTP, whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes in a given constituency wins the election. The political scientist Maurice Duverger has observed that FPTP almost always produces a two-party duopoly. Voters in a First-Past-the Post system, recognizing that whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes wins 100 percent of the election, prefer not to back politicians whom they think will only place or show, as this will “waste” their vote. (Second- and third-place winners get zero percent of the stakes.) Collectively they align themselves behind two parties whom they believe equally likely to win. Sometimes they pick fewer than that, when one party has overwhelming local popularity or an apparent lock on the machinery of voting – for example, in the American South during the era of Democratic-Party rule (1877-1964).

When voters do back third-party candidates, the geographic structure of FPTP elections works against them. Many third parties are insurgent movements with diffused national support, while established duopoly parties have built up limited but reliable pluralities in specific regions. In Britain, Labour and the Tories, with their reliable urban and suburban constituencies, only had to “pay” 30-40,000 votes for each Parliamentary seat they won, because they had decades to assemble pluralities in several hundred voting districts. The more diffused Greens “paid” over one million votes for each MP they elected, and UKIP paid 4,000,000 votes for its one Member of Parliament. Parties with a national, rather than a localized, focus pay a huge penalty when voting is regional and regional plurality-winners take everything. That the recent UK election represented a triumph for local over national politics becomes clear when one considers the big third-party winners: the Scottish Nationals, a regional party by definition. Ideologically, I am more on the side of the SNP than UKIP, but I recognize the basic iniquity behind the two parties' lopsided election performance: all 56 of the winning SNP candidates collectively received only half as many votes as UKIP did.

There are certainly alternatives to First-Past-the-Post. The most widespread of these, globally speaking, is proportional voting, in which each party receives a share of legislators apportioned to their share of the national vote. This would have produced a Tory plurality in the current British Parliament, but also would have given UKIP enough seats to leverage a coalition with the Conservatives. Alternative Voting, in which voters rank-order candidates, is another possibility. It is used in Australia and some American cities, and is a more practical alternate voting system for countries like Britain or the U.S. which vote by geographical districts. Britain held a referendum on AV in 2011, a Tory concession to their LibDem coalition partner, but the Conservatives gave it little support and it flopped with voters. It is unlikely that the new British government, which wants to reduce the size of Parliament – and, I suspect, redraw the constituency map in its own favor – will repeat that concession. An independent Scotland could do so in the future, however, and so too could American cities and states. AV voting won't significantly challenge party duopolies in countries that have them, but it will oblige all successful candidates for office to have majority support (even if it's composed of a mixture of first- and second-choice votes), and will make fewer voters feel that they wasted their ballots. There are few things more demoralizing to the citizens of a democratic republic than hearing, in election after election, "You wasted your vote." And surely major political parties and the wealthy interest groups who back them don't want voters demoralized and unwilling to come to the polls, do they?