Condercet, Brigham, and Succession to the Presidency

January 3, 2004 | 16 comments

Condercet was a French social theorist in the opening decades of the 19th century and is credited with first discovering a paradox of majority voting that bears his name. Here is the paradox: Imagine that you have a group of three people (A,B, and C) who are voting on three different alternatives (X, Y, and Z). A prefers X to Y and Y to Z. B prefers Y to Z and Z to X. C prefers Z to X and X to Y. If X is paired in a vote with Y, then X wins (A and C against B). If Y is paired with Z, then Y wins (A and B against C). But – and this is the kicker – if Z is paired with X, then Z wins (B and C against A). In other words, even if the individual preferences of A, B and C are transitive, the collective preferences of A, B, and C are not. Put in starker terms, if you control the order the votes are taken in, then you can get any outcome you want because any choice can be defeated by one of the others. I have often wondered if this paradox might in part account for how Brigham Young became president of the Church.

When Joseph was murdered, it was not clear to the Saints who his successor should be. There were lots of claimants, but in the months immediately after his death the biggies were Sydney Rigdon and the Quorum of the Twelve. In August of 1844 a conference was held. Both Brigham and Sydney spoke, and then Sydney put to the conference the question of whether they would prefer to be led by himself of the Quorum of the Twelve. The conference voted in favor of the Twelve and Sydney left Nauvoo to found his own church, which rapidly fell to pieces. More than three years later, a conference in Winter Quarter’s voted to make Brigham Young President of the Church.

Notice the way the votes were ultimately paired. First it was the Twelve versus Rigdon and the Twelve won. Then it was the Twelve versus Brigham and Brigham won. Condercet teaches us, however, that the mere fact that Brigham beat the alternative that beat Sydney does not necessarily mean that Brigham could have beat Sydney. In other words, the outcome might have been different had the votes been taken in a different order.

Of course, this need not necessarily have been the case. Brigham might have beaten Sydney if the vote had been put that way in 1844. I don’t think that we really know enough about the preferences of the voters to ever be certain one way or the other. Very few people voted in favor of Sydney at the 1844 conference and he probably would have lost regardless of how the votes were structured. Who knows! Still, it is an intriguing little possibility.

Democratic theorists have often been troubled by Condercet’s Paradox, and by its more rigorous theorization by Kenneth Arrow. It seems to suggest that at least under some circumstances, majority will is a fiction. There is simply the order in which the votes are taken. (Or in the absence of such agenda setting, endless cycling of alternatives.) However, if majority will is a fiction we are simply being ruled by the agenda setters.

Interestingly, there is one way of insuring that you never run into the problem of Condercet’s Paradox. In place of a majority wins rule, you substitute a super-majority or unanimity requirement. Interestingly, if what we are told is correct, the Quorum of the Twelve has adopted such a unanimity requirement. No action is taken unless everyone agrees. Obviously, this would create its own interesting dynamics, but it does insure that institutional decisions are not simply the random result of the order in which the votes are taken.

16 Responses to Condercet, Brigham, and Succession to the Presidency

  1. Clark Goble on January 3, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    Majority will is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is the issue of an informed (and interested) populace: something that seems rarely to be the case. Further there is the old problem of sophistry and the fact it seems quite easy to make a significant part of the populace vote any way you wish.

    The problem of unanimity is of course famous in Poland around the start of WWII. It definitely has its own problems and has had it in the church as well. Of course it has its benefits and I think the church rarely faces the need for rapid decisions that say the government of Poland did. Also, within the twelve there is an interesting social dynamic according to some, whereby junior members of the quorum are expected to defer on many matters to senior matters. That, combined with the role of the first presidency and a de facto deferral to the president provides some very interesting dynamics.

    The succession crisis is a very interesting topic as there is so much going on: especially in those aspects of Nauvoo not generally known by the public. (i.e. the Holy Order) There is also the somewhat controversial (among some) topic of the transfiguration of Brigham. While I doubt it was as widespread as some would suggest, it does appear to have been influential among some. More importantly it provided a cement to guarantee support after the succession crisis was over.

  2. Kristine on January 3, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    A related question: how did we get to the current state of affairs, where no one even needs to bother to manipulate votes in the Church because the vote is an entirely pro forma exercise?

  3. Kristine on January 3, 2004 at 10:01 pm

    (removing tinfoil helmet)

    Sorry–that last came out sounding more cynical than I am. I think it’s unlikely that there was ever much deliberate manipulation of sustaining votes.

  4. Clark Goble on January 3, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    I think the current system arose around the time of Wilford Woodruff.

  5. Nate Oman on January 4, 2004 at 9:57 am


    I don’t think that BY manipulated the voting at Nauvoo, especially since it was Rigdon who decided the structure of the Nauvoo vote. Your question is interesting, however. During the Nauvoo period, Joseph wanted drop Rigdon from the First Presidency (disputes over polygamy, the belief that Rigdon was embezzeling money, Rigdon going a bit nuts, etc.) At the general conference, Rigdon gave a passionate speech in his own defense and the Saints voted to keep him. Of course, even if he was in the First Presidency, by that point Joseph basically ignored him. The limits of democracy…

  6. Matt Evans on January 4, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    Another (and simpler) way of avoiding Condercet’s paradox is to use rank-order (aka instant run-off or preferential) voting. All of the candidates are on the ballot, and everyone selects the candidates in order of choice. (In the example the rank-order result would be a tie, as it should be given the voter’s preferences.)

    Rank-order voting also prevents “spoilers” like Perot or Nader. I’m a strong supporter of the system because it eliminates plurality and winners, and I’m a strong believer in doing our business by the voice of the people, not a plurality.

  7. Kristine on January 4, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    Clark: I know at least a little about the history of the system of common consent; what I’m wondering is when average members quit believing that their vote had any substantive effect. It’s a trickier historical problem and I’m wondering if anybody’s tried tracing it. There’s the famous vote to move Mt. Nebo, which shows that at least at that point people were expected to pay attention, but was it still possible that they might have voted against anything then??

  8. Nate Oman on January 4, 2004 at 9:57 pm

    Kristine: as you point out this is likely to a be a very difficult question to answer. Here is one way of approaching it. The initial version of common consent was an out growth of Puritan congregationalism. For Puritans congregational voting mattered not because of a commitment to democracy, but because the voting of the elect was a way of discerning God’s will. Democracy didn’t come until you kicked out the Calvinist soteriology. Most of the initial Mormon converts where what I think of as post-Puritans, that is they represented those who came from the Puritan tradition, but were disenchanted with orthodox, Calvinist, Massachusetts congregationalism. (Notice that they came mainly from the anti-Puritan fringe of New England — Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Upstate New York, which was essentially settled by New Englanders). Thus, their congregationalism was of an unsettled and untheorized kind (Democracy or the reflection of God’s will via the elect?), and I suspect arose largely from pure habit. That being the case, I suspect that robust common-consent-as-democracy began to wane when post-Puritans ceased to be the primary source of Mormon converts. I suspect that this began occurring in earnest with the second mission of the Twelve to Britain. By the time of Joseph’s death, a significant portion of the membership of the Church were English converts. Most of these members would have been Methodists or dissenters from Methodism (eg United Brethren). As I understand it, the congregational tradition in Methodism was much weaker. Over the course of the 19th century the number of post-Puritan Mormons would have shrunk even further with the huge infusion of Scandanavian converts (like the Omans!), most of whom (I assume) had belonged to various versions of Lutheranism, which (as I understand it) in its magestarial, established, European form lacked a congregational tradition.

    In short, tracking attitudes in the absence of reliable data sets may be difficult, but I think that you might be able to understand and track the shift by thinking about it demographically.

  9. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 12:12 am

    Kristine, my books are in progress of being moved. (i.e. in a big pile in a room while I finish nailing shelves) So I can’t answer too much.

    My memory is that things started to change in the early Utah period when Brigham Young centralized authority a little more. (Necessary, considering the problems going on) One affect of this was to tie sustaining to supporting which was rather at odds with common consent as meaning voting.

    One thing I’d add to Nate’s excellent comments was the effect of spiritualism of those early British saints. They were more or less running their own church in Britain and found things were considerably different in Utah. Spiritualism and built up among some of them and led to the Godbeit movement (and eventually the Salt Lake Tribune). There were also several other breakoffs or other movements undermining Brigham’s authority. Most were tied to charismatic leaders or claims of special revelation. The effect of these were to make questioning authority more suspicious.

    After the manifesto with Woodruff things moved that much further since you then had people openly rebelling from the church over the matter of polygamy.

    So I don’t think there is one period you can point to and say “this is when common consent changed.” Rather it slowly evolved over time, probably reaching the current form in the 1940′s or 1950′s where even people with concerns would likely voice them in private. (Although there were exceptions up through the late 70′s) Common consent became a vote that you *would* sustain a leader rather than a vote allowing a rejection of a decision.

  10. Kristine on January 5, 2004 at 9:25 am

    Clark, Nate–these are good hypotheses. I have one reservation, which is that they don’t take into account the new members’ willingness to jettison old habits. By definition, folks willing to leave their churches (and their families and homelands!) are likely to be the LEAST attached to the “traditions of their fathers,” so that the appeal to previous religious practice, while insightful, is not entirely satisfying.

    The sheer growth in numbers of church members could effect considerable change, entirely aside from those members’ predilections. As the church became socially and ecclesiastically stratified and fewer and fewer members had the experience of knowing the President and leading authorities of the church personally, they would naturally come to feel that their opinions were less important in the governance of the church. Add to that the fact that Brigham Young was Emperor of Deseret as well as the church president, and it seems clear that anything like real democracy in the church would be perceived as impossible. The exodus/expulsion of the Godbeites and polygamous dissenters, and the resulting need to reinforce group loyalty would have further weakened the practice.

    It’s remarkable (and probably owes a great deal to the traditions of the Spiritualists and Methodists) that a fairly vigorous system of common consent survived as long as it did. (And btw, if my Haglund ancestors are reliable exemplars, there were some pretty darn uppity Swedish Lutherans!)

    Of course, as Nate points out, this all has to be speculative, because there likely aren’t any good data sets.

  11. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    Kristine are you a Haglund too? My Haglunds settled up in Alberta and were primarily coal miners there. Lots of great stories including one about losing a ticket for the Titanic while gambling. (Ironically a similar story made it into the movie. I always wondered if that was based upon my GreatGrandfather)

  12. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    Regarding Brigham’s “emperor” status. I think that is a little overstated, even after reading _Kingdom in the West_. Nate would definitely be a better source for this, but I wonder if any books have been written on early Utah theories of politics (both in theory and fact). Perhaps this relates to the lack of theory in history that Nate was lamenting elsewhere.

  13. Timmy Gibson on May 15, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    I dont think a vote should hve even been the case.The fact of the matter was tht Sydney Rigdon was still 1st counselor at the time Joseph was killed..Just cause Joseph died did not take that place away from Sydney. His intention was to be a “caretaker” of the church until a successor was found. Sydneys group did not fall away, I belon to The Church Of Jesus Christ, that was instituted by Sydney, and led by William Bickerton. We have about 10-12 thousand members worldwide, with many successful missionary works happening in various countries..We use the Bible and The Book Of Mormon as our standard of faith..We are led by the quorum of 12, that including the pesident which is mearly administrative…

  14. Timmy Gibson on May 15, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    I dont think a vote should hve even been the case.The fact of the matter was tht Sydney Rigdon was still 1st counselor at the time Joseph was killed..Just cause Joseph died did not take that place away from Sydney. His intention was to be a “caretaker” of the church until a successor was found. Sydneys group did not fall away, I belon to The Church Of Jesus Christ, that was instituted by Sydney, and led by William Bickerton. We have about 10-12 thousand members worldwide, with many successful missionary works happening in various countries..We use the Bible and The Book Of Mormon as our standard of faith..We are led by the quorum of 12, that including the pesident which is mearly administrative…

  15. Mark Butler on May 16, 2004 at 12:06 am

    According to D&C 107, unanimous consent is required for a presiding quorum to have full authority. Sidney Rigdon was claiming authority as a quorum of one, which is not enough for even exigent authority under the established law of the Church (cf. D&C 107:27-28).

    Exigent actions require the consent of two members of the First Presidency, or seven of the Twelve, or thirty-six of the seventy, or 50% + 1 of the general assembly of the Saints, to be valid.

    Rigdon had no canonical authority as the single surving counselor in the First Presidency, and did not obtain the support of majority the Twelve, nor the majority of the Saints for his request to be granted custodial authority over the Church – and so had no claim to succession on canon law grounds, nor by duly authorized appointment, nor by sustaining vote.

  16. Mark Butler on May 16, 2004 at 2:16 am

    The body of the Saints in solemn assembly has authority self similar to any of the presiding quorums of the Church. It can only be exercised righteously in unanimity. The practical reason why common consent is a sustaining power, rather than a legislative power, is that it is difficult to get the body of the Saints to unanimously agree to anything. If we do unanimously agree the evidence is that the Lord will move heaven and earth to let us have our way, to our blessing or our condemnation. That is agency in spades. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”


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