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The “Intensity” Problem and Democratic Theory*

  • Willmoore Kendall (a1) and George W. Carey (a2)


Dinner is over. Mr. and Mrs. Jones and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are having coffee. The question arises: What shall we do this evening? Play bridge? Go to the movies? Listen to some chamber music from the local FM station? Sit and chat? Each, in due course, expresses a “preference” among these four alternatives but with this difference: Mr. and Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith, though each has a preference, “don't much care.” Their preferences are “mild” or “marginal.” Not so Mr. Smith. His preference is “strong.” He is tired, couldn't possibly get his mind on bridge, or muster the energies for going out to a movie. He has listened to chamber music all afternoon while working on an architectural problem, and couldn't bear any more. If the group does anything other than sit and chat, he at least will do it grudgingly. He “cares enormously” which alternative is chosen.

Now: which is the “correct” choice among the four alternatives? Which, “distributive justice” to one side, is the choice most likely to preserve good relations among the members of the group? Some theorists, it would seem, find these two questions easy to answer. Mr. Smith ought to have his way, and good relations are likely to be endangered if he does not; and these answers are equally valid whether the other three all prefer the same thing or prefer different things. Since, for the latter, the choice is a matter of indifference, it is both “more fair” and “more expedient” (less likely to lead to a quarrel) for the group to do what Mr. Smith prefers to do.



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Editor's note: After this article had been accepted for publication, Willmoore Kendall died in June, 1967. I am grateful to his co-author, Professor Carey, for having assumed the entire burden of preparing this final draft. As Professor Kendall's friend and sometime collaborator, I am proud that his last published scholarly article should appear in this Review.



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1 The senior author of this article first became aware of it in the course of a conversation with Charles Hyneman, in 1937 or 1938.

2 Dahl, Robert A., A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), whose reasoning we have attempted to reproduce in our two “situations.” See, in particular, Ch. 4.

3 Dahl, op. cit. See, also, Ch. 2.

4 Kendall, Willmoore, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1941). See also: Ranney, Austin and Kendall, Willmoore, Democracy and the American Party System (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1956), Chs. 14.

5 For the most part we will discuss the problem in the context of the populistic model of democracy. However, most of what we have to say is also applicable to other “models” of democracy.

6 See Mayo, Henry, Introduction to Democratic Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960). Mayo writes: “It is often objected … that to count each person … equally is absurd: some people feel more strongly about certain issues than others. Would it not fly in the face of common sense and elemental fair play to argue that 50% plus one of the lukewarm should overrule 50 percent minus one consisting of passionate dissenters? In such artificial terms the answer is yes” (p. 178). Mayo offers no justification for this stance except that such a condition would not arise save possibly in the case of “alienated or permanent” minorities.

Dahl writes: “Even an individual who finds the Rule reasonable in cases where he believes the intensity of desire is about the same among the individuals in the minority and majority might find it intolerable in the type of cases cited above, where x is only slightly preferred by a bare majority and y is very strongly preferred by a bare minority. Indeed, probably no one would advocate the Rule for every situation”: op. cit., p. 49. Dahl offers no justification for the switch on ethical grounds but does introduce the value of stability. See our comments below.

7 Such a conception of intensity has been fostered by polls which measure direction of opinion (agree-disagree) and also attempt to measure depth by asking the respondent “how much” (i.e., to what extent) he agrees or disagrees—e.g., strongly, mildly, etc. For reasons we will note below it is highly doubtful that such polls measure intensity in terms that are meaningful for a political system designed to handle the intensity problem.

8 This job remains for our present day “behaviorists.” Though apparently determined to remain ethically neutral, they are still forced back upon stability or “system persistence” for justification of their enterprises.

9 We need hardly document the fact that one of the major preoccupations of many political scientists, since at least the turn of the century, has been advocacy of reforms calculated to bring our institutional fabric more in line with the seeming requirements of populistic principles. Proposals for the reform of Congress, of the party system, and of the electoral college, as also the current reapportionment movement, reflect this.

10 A Disquisition on Government. Cralle, R. K. (ed.), The Works of John C. Calhoun, Volume 1.

11 Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. Adams, Charles Francis (ed.), The Works of John Adams, Volume IV.

12 Considerations on Representative Government (London, 1861), passim.

13 The Politics of Aristotle, Baker, Ernest (trans.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

14 Virtually all of the survey studies to date testify to the fact that the American people are “apathetic,” at least in the sense that they do not know or care about the major issues of public policy. Our conception of the political process runs along these lines: The proponents of change and the resistors of change have to plead their cases before what may aptly be termed a “jury” of persons non-involved in or non-affected by the “issue” at stake.

15 The point we are making both here and above is, we believe, similar to that made by Almond and Verba in accounting for the success of “civic culture.” “In general,” they write, “[the] management of cleavage is accomplished by subordinating conflicts on the political level to some higher, overarching attitudes of solidarity, whether these attitudes to be the norms associated with the ‘rules of the democratic game’ or the belief that there exists within the society a supraparty solidarity based on non-partisan criteria.”

“This balance, furthermore, must be maintained on the elite as well as the citizen level. Though our data are not relevant here, it is quite likely that similar mechanisms operate on the elite level as well. The elaborate formal and informal rules of etiquette in the legislatures of Britain and the United States, for example, foster and indeed require friendly relations…. And this tempers the intensity of partisanship”: Almond, Gabriel and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), pp. 359360.

16 See Bradley, F. H., “My Station and its Duties,” in Ethical Studies (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1937). A, a paycheck in hand at the end of the month, may wish above everything to chuck it all, disappear, and start all over again, yet still go home to his tawdry and sullen wife and the five sons and daughters who drive him to despair—out of a sense of duty. Those whose idiom excludes such a distinction, and will have it that in going home to the wife and kids he “prefers” to do so, have, in our view, become so “scientific” as to cut themselves off from all possible communication with persons who “prefer” to preserve the traditional relationship between language and common sense.

17 While many have contended that the Civil War was the great failure of the American political system, there is, within the framework we suggest here, reason to dispute this. Calhoun's last speech to the Senate in 1850 certainly reflected an awareness of things to come.

“I have … believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion. Entertaining this opinion, I have, on all proper occasions, endeavored to call the attention of both the two great parties which divide the country, to adopt some measure to prevent so great a disaster, but without success. The agitation has been permitted to proceed, with almost no attempt to resist it, until it has reached a period when it can no longer be disguised or denied that the Union is in danger. You have thus forced upon you the greatest and the gravest question that ever can come under your consideration: How can the Union be preserved?” We repeat: All that a well constructed political system can possibly do is to provide the means for correct reciprocal anticipations, and with respect to the Civil War the American system probably rates an A+ on this score.

18 Dahl, op. cit., pp. 99–100.

19 See on this point Jouvenel, Bertrand de, Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), Ch. 8. He makes a similar point when he writes: “The wider and more developed a society is, the less can the climate of trustfulness (such as should always prevail among its members if they are to confer on each other all the benefits possible) be the fruit of a spirit of community; the widening of the circle and the growing diversity of personalities tend to destroy that spirit. For that reason the climate of trustfulness comes more and more to rest on the guarantees provided by Law. I know nothing of Primus and am emotionally neutral in regard to him. No element of personal sympathy, no feeling of our belonging to each other will induce in him a certain course of conduct as regards me—only the abstract feeling of obligation as such” (p. 132).

That Madison was fully aware of this principle is beyond dispute. “Those who contend for a simple Democracy, or a pure republic, actuated by the sense of the majority, and operating within narrow limits, assume or suppose a case which is altogether fictitious. They found their reasoning on the idea, that they have all precisely the same interests and the same feelings in every respect. Were this in reality the case, their reasoning would be conclusive. The interest of the majority would be that of that of the minority also; the decision could only turn on mere opinion concerning the good of the whole, of which the major voice would be the safest criterion; and within a small sphere, this voice could be most easily collected, and the public affairs most accurately managed. We know however, that no society ever did or can consist of so homogeneous a mass of Citizens. In the savage state indeed, an approach is made toward it; but in that state little or no Government is necessary”: Madison's letter to Jefferson, Hunt, Gaillard, The Writings of James Madison, Volume IV, pp. 222224.

20 The Federalist, Cooke, Jacob E. (ed.) (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1961), Federalist 51, pp. 352–353. Incidentally, this view is not so much at odds with Rousseau's as one might imagine. Rousseau does indeed teach that there should be no subsidiary groups in the true democracy. But he hastens to add that where that condition does not obtain, i.e., everywhere, “they should be made numerous and prevented from being unequal in size…. [Only in this way can you make sure] that the general will shall always be enlightened and the people never misinformed”: Jean-Jaques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated with an introduction by Kendall, Will-moore (Chicago: The Henry Regnery Company, 1954), p. 29.

21 The Deadlock of Democracy (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

22 By doing so, it both renders itself inherently unstable (an “empirical” judgment) and lays itself open to the charge (a “normative” or “ethical” judgment) that, by failing to elicit the maximum of cooperation available to it for the achievement of its objectives (which, arguendo, we assume to be “good”), it is self-defeating and therefore “bad.” We hope to have dissociated ourselves sufficiently from the view that intense preferences should get the green light just because they are intense.

23 Subject to correction by Professor Dahl, “polyarchy,” on our reading of the Preface, is a variant of the model of “populistic democracy.”

24 Whose author was not, of course, Madison, but a creature with three heads who answered to the name “Publius.”

25 Professor Dahl is well aware of the difficulties involved in midwifing a “mandate” out of the electorate, as he indicates in the last chapter of his Preface.

26 In this connection a comparison of the writings of Clinton Rossiter and James Burnham is instructive, as concretely illustrating how the differences in the two models manifest themselves with respect to American institutions.

Rossiter writes of the Presidency in the follow-terms: “… he is … the Voice of the People, the leading formulator and expounder of public opinion in the United States. While he acts as political leader of some, he serves as moral spokesman for all.” Or: “Throughout our history there have been moments of triumph or dedication or frustration or even shame when the will of the people—the General Will, I suppose we could call it—demanded to be heard clearly and unmistakably…. No effective President has doubted his prerogative to speak the people's mind on the great issues of his time, to act, again in Wilson's words, as the spokesman for the sentiment and purpose of the century”: The American Presidency, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960), pp. 32–33.

Contrast this with Burnham's description of Congressional operations. “Many who complain about congressional slowness and inefficiency have not stopped to reflect that many of the ways in which Congressmen ‘waste their time’ are apt methods for accomplishing the tasks of a representative legislature in a democratic republic: by the chats and correspondence with constituents, the encounters with the press, the lunches with experts from the bureaucracy and even the cocktails with the lobbyists, the informal hours with each other and the staff professionals, the lecture trips to cities and universities, the travel junkets at home and abroad, the members are not merely helping to get themselves re-elected … but getting to know—or, better, to feel—the myriad problems and interests, the competing needs and desires, complaints and demands, that the legislature, if it performs its function, must try to weave into some sort of working resolution”: Congress and the American Tradition (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1959), pp. 264–65.

27 Our voting and public opinion studies have shown, over and over again, that the rank-and-file voters are incapable of expressing, through an election, even their own “real” preferences. To impose upon them the further obligation to anticipate the impact of their mandates upon the cooperativeness of persons with different preferences is, clearly, to overburden them.

28 An exception would perhaps have to be made here for situations, such as that in the bosom of the Supreme Court, where the participants really regard each other as pretty much equals. But we have yet to see a national democratic system in which that condition is fulfilled.

29 Again, not necessarily in the heads of the participants. Such understanding and commitment can, in Lincoln Steffen's phrase, lodge itself in the “hips”—and not merely the hips of isolated individuals, but those of the generality of men in a democratic society. The American people, who up to now have turned a cold shoulder to most reform proposals of the kind here in question, despite the pleadings of the most knowledgeable writers on such topics, certainly do not do so out of an intellectual understanding of Publius; but they do so, all the same.

* Editor's note: After this article had been accepted for publication, Willmoore Kendall died in June, 1967. I am grateful to his co-author, Professor Carey, for having assumed the entire burden of preparing this final draft. As Professor Kendall's friend and sometime collaborator, I am proud that his last published scholarly article should appear in this Review.

The “Intensity” Problem and Democratic Theory*

  • Willmoore Kendall (a1) and George W. Carey (a2)


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