MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Practice Test 10

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Three basic positions have prevailed on the debate over the Voting Rights Act, distinguished largely by their different views on whether the Act should be rolled back, pushed forward, or simply maintained. Given these differences in orientation, these ideological responses to the act can be called conservative, progressive, and centrist. The conflicting claims of conservatives and progressives set the outer limits of debate, making discussion of minority representation a sharply contested and exceedingly polarized affair. In such a context of mutually exclusive assertions, the centrist attempt to strike a reasonable balance appears immediately appealing.

On the whole, while conservatives and progressives are united in their rejection of the status quo, they diverge sharply in their reasons for seeking change. Where conservatives see a politics that has been held hostage to the demands of civil rights elites, progressives describe a politics increasingly dominated by white racism and retrenchment. It is in this polarized context of claims and counterclaims that the centrists attempt to fashion a reasonable middle position. Dismissing both conservative and progressive claims as exaggerated rhetoric, centrists argue that the debate over the Voting Rights Act is actually quite narrow. While name calling and finger pointing have drawn the lion's share of attention, centrists claim that most of the disputants are actually concerned with achieving a color-blind society. Beneath the barbed polemics, controversies over minority representation amount to a disagreement over means rather than ends. Bernard Grofman and Chandler Davis suggest that the "highly abstract" mode of the current debate only breeds misunderstanding and conflict; a better approach is to be found in a "consideration of the empirical evidence of the actual consequences of the [Voting Rights Act].

In the centrist view, then, the Voting Rights Act is neither a racially balkanizing nor a broadly empowering document. In essence, the act takes limited steps to ameliorate specific and concrete inequities. The incrementalist, case-by-case nature of voting-rights policy means that remedial measures can be crafted without raising larger issues of democratic theory. Big questions such as "What is fair minority representation?" never need to be asked because judges and other federal officials are simply correcting what is obviously wrong given the specific facts at hand.

What can be made of the centrist attempt to steer a middle course between conservative and progressive claims? Centrists make the claim for a responsive political process largely by insisting that the incrementalism of voting rights policy avoids theoretical questions. The very realism and reasonableness of the Voting Rights Act inheres in its atheoretical design. Thus, the centrist argument amounts to more than a simple corrective of exaggerated views. If the centrists are right, the entire polarized debate between conservatives and progressives should be set aside as a distraction. We will do just fine if the country and the courts continue to muddle through the issue of minority representation a case at a time.

One could argue that so long as the Supreme Court is effectively constrained by its own canons of statutory construction, voting-rights reform need not plunge into any conceptual morass. The difficulty with such an argument is that the judiciary has historically employed a number of canons, many of which point interpretation in different directions. It is true that some legal commentators have spoken of the judge "worth his salt" or with the right "sense of the situation" who can negotiate among the various canons, consistently producing an accurate rendering of the statute's meaning or purpose. Despite such claims, widespread consensus on what should count as the proper "sense of the situation" has not emerged. Easy agreement has proved elusive because the choice between interpretive strategies itself depends on what Cass Sunstein calls "background principles" -principles that express particular visions of how government ought to operate and, thus, provide the baseline against which statutes should be understood.

In general, one can say that the process of statutory interpretation is critically concerned with normative disputes over how the government ought to operate. By stressing measurable facts and hard evidence, the centrist argument as a whole sidesteps the debate's key issue. The progressive and conservative views are not simply "mistakes" that can be corrected by a more accurate set of facts. Each of these camps anchors its claims in different conceptions of fair representation, which serve as guides for how the Voting Rights Act's promise of equal political opportunity ought to be realized. Thus, conservatives and progressives do not simply disagree on what the "facts" of the debate are. More importantly, they disagree on what the same "facts" mean in light of what fair minority representation is taken to be.

Material used in this particular passage has been adapted from the following source:

K. Bybee, Mistaken Identity: The Supreme Court and the Politics of Minority Representation. © 1998 by Princeton University Press.

1. Which of the following statements best expresses the main thesis of the passage?

  • A. Three positions have emerged in the debate over the Voting Rights Act, which may be labeled progressive, centrist, and conservative.
  • B. While imperfect, the centrist approach is the most reasonable, given that it avoids the ideological extremes embodied in the conservative and progressive positions and that it advocates a case-by-case evaluation of the impact of the Voting Rights Act.
  • C. The centrist position on the Voting Rights Act, while seemingly a pragmatic middle road between two extremes, fails to address the theoretical issues that underlie questions of minority representation.
  • D. While the conservative and progressive positions on the Voting Rights Act both seek significant change, the centrist position prefers a more incrementalist approach.

2. The author refers to commentators who speak of judges with the correct sense of the situation in order to:

  • A. Illustrate a way in which a common understanding of basic principles of fair representation might be reached.
  • B. Raise and then challenge a consideration that might be used to support the centrist approach.
  • C. Criticize judges for arriving at overly personal solutions to complex theoretical problems.
  • D. Support the claim that the Voting Rights Act turns on the contestable issue of equal political opportunity.

3. Suppose it were shown that progressives believe fair representation of a minority group can only by achieved through electing representatives who are members of that group, while conservatives believe that minority interests are well protected by any representative who works for the good of society as a whole. If this is true, which claim described in the passage would be most undermined?

  • A. The author's claim that background principles determine how facts are interpreted
  • B. The conservative claim that the Voting Rights Act should be rolled back
  • C. The centrist claim that application of the Voting Rights Act need not consider big abstract questions
  • D. The progressive claim that politics is dominated by white racism

4. The author's argument in paragraph 8 that the progressive and conservative camps locate their claims in different conceptions of fair representation is supported:

  • A. weakly, because no descriptions or examples of these different concepts are provided.
  • B. weakly, because this claim conflicts with the centrist argument that the Voting Rights Act is atheoretical.
  • C. strongly, because it is based on Sunstein's conception of "background principles."
  • D. strongly, because it implies that the same facts may be interpreted in different ways by different people.

5. In the context of the passage, "incrementalism" (paragraph 5) most likely refers to a policy that:

  • A. causes fundamental societal change.
  • B. considers problems on a case-by-case basis.
  • C. is concerned with achieving a color-blind society.
  • D. takes a step by step approach to reaching agreement on basic theoretical principles.

6. Which of the following would be most analogous to the centrist approach, as it is described in the passage?

  • A. A physicist who seeks to reconcile two competing theories by finding a middle ground that incorporates aspects of both
  • B. A physicist who draws on a new field of theoretical mathematics in order to address a longstanding dispute within the field
  • C. A physicist who delineates three distinct approaches to solving a problem and evaluates their relative strengths and weaknesses
  • D. A physicist who suggests that a significant experimental discrepancy can be addressed without major reworking of present theories

7. Which of the following, if true, would most support the author's evaluation of the centrist position?

  • A. Different ideas of what constitutes fair representation are inextricably bound up with differing ideas about the proper role of the state within society.
  • B. Controversy about how to delineate electoral districts in order to ensure fair representation is often based on disagreements about population statistics.
  • C. The original writers of the Voting Rights Act did not believe that the implementation of the act would require debate on abstract questions of principle.
  • D. The conflicting claims set out by progressives and conservatives differ more in terms of vocabulary than on the basic ideas intended to be expressed through the rhetoric employed by each side.