Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Minority Wins

Kevin Drum looks at the polling on the modest numbers of Tea Partiers, and the mixed views on taxes of those, and is confused:
So who was driving the absolutist view in Congress over the past few months? If it was the no-compromise wing of the tea party, that's less than 10% of the country. So riddle me this: how did we manage to let 10% of the country bring us to the brink of disaster? It is a remarkable thing.
I think the answer is to see Republican issue positions as a function of elite preferences, not mass preferences. In particular, it's all about the domination of the GOP by the anti-taxers. Given that, any electoral victory by the Republicans will produce policies that reflect that domination.

Of course, the next question is why a minority preference within the GOP has won out. That's a harder question to answer. It seems to have something to do with the influence of those with intense preferences; something to do with interest-group politics within the party; something to do with the surface appeal of a simple message (it's not surprising to me that politicians are easily persuaded that no one wants higher taxes, regardless of what the polls show); and something to do with the lucrative market for certain conservative products, and the mechanisms in which exploiting that market affect actual Republican party policy preferences.

Some of these processes are completely normal within American politics, some of them are more recent but apply to both parties, and some of them -- that last one -- appears to apply to the GOP alone. And I don't think we (and in this case, the "we" means academic party scholars) have a good handle on the whole thing. We know that all of those are contributing factors, but couldn't get much beyond that.

I'll add one thing: if we restrict public opinion to real preferences, and not just whatever people are willing to say when a pollster bothers them on the phone, then it's probably the case that minorities, usually small minorities, always win -- because there are no real majorities on most issues. Or, to put it another way, the majority of Americans generally either don't know or don't care (or at least don't care very much) about most public policy issues. Sure, on the big questions, people certainly have a strong preference for a thriving economy to the one we have, and there are other big-picture things where preferences are probably real and meaningful -- and many Americans have a small set of issues on which they do have passionate views -- but most people just tune it all out most of the time. So to some extent the question is why this particular minority wins in this particular case, not how a small minority could win at all.


  1. Perhaps I'm misreading you, but you seem to be saying that anti-taxers represent "a minority preference within the GOP." It seems to me that the only principle that unites the various strands of the modern Republican party is their opposition to taxes.

  2. It may be that only 10% of the country are miltantly anti-tax, but the number willing to vote for militant anti-taxers is far higher.

  3. Let's not put the entire weight on elite pressures; a lot of this falls on the Tea Party primary victories in 2010. It's not just Bennett; in open contests, the Tea Party had significant victories. In this light, O'Donnell, Angle, and, to a lesser degree, Miller, all represent a significant threat to incumbents. In those 3 cases, the primary electorate rejected candidates who were almost sure things for these much-less-sure candidates. Indeed, it's fair to say that two of these candidates cost the GOP two seats in the Senate, so they're demonstrably losers in hindsight.

    A GOP incumbent is quite reasonably afraid of losing renomination to a tea partier, because it's clear that the argument of "I'm the better candidate in the general election" is not the argument it once was.

  4. I think that another thread that needs to be woven into this is a lack of trust in government and elected officials. As a Republican I lean toward the belief that spending cuts in the future are not going to happen. I don't believe that most of the cuts in this deal will happen in the end, just like the scheduled phase out of farm subsidies never happened. Only things like changing how COLAs are factored would impress me, or spending cuts that affect this years baseline going forward. Tax hikes I do believe will happen if scheduled. So even though in theory I could go for a grand bargain, I believe on a practical basis that it will be tax hikes today and forever delayed spending cuts in the future (i.e. the annual doc fix for medicare). For this reason I will not support a Grand Bargain and will instead push hard for massive spending cuts, because however big they look on paper 2/3 of those cuts are illusion.

    KT in Texas

  5. Take a look at Verba, Schlozman, and Brady's book on political participation and look to see how "economic views" are distorted through campaign donations (for both Democrats and Republicans). Those who fund both parties are more economically conservative than their respective parties overall.

  6. Tom,

    Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm saying. Yes, if you ask polling questions, you'll get a response -- but I don't really think it's a serious preference, just a talking point people know; and you can get at that by asking the question slightly differently, and you'll get different responses. Which is what Drum is talking about in that post.

  7. I think if you did a Venn diagram of interest group positions in the GOP, one place they would almost certainly overlap is shrinking the size of the federal government by any means necessary. The anti-tax lobby wants government out of their business, and the extremist tea partiers seem to be operating under the assumption that if you destroy the fed will have to revert to state level rule. Traditional GOP elites probably don't want things to ever get that far, but I can see why they'd be more than willing to let an extreme position hobble the government's ability to regulate.


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