Monday, May 6, 2013

It's Still About the Broken GOP

I have to commend Ezra Klein for push, push, pushing everyone to understand the place of the presidency in the US political system. As he says, that system "is centered around Congress rather than the White House," and he's been doing terrific and incredibly valuable work explaining to people what this means in terms of the limits of what presidents can do. I do hope everyone reads his latest essay on the topic, from his Wonkblog on Friday.

That said, I continue to dissent from what Klein, Rick Hasen, and others say about polarization. Oh, there's no question about the levels of partisan polarization: we all agree about that. The key points are well documented; it's been the case for over a decade that the most liberal Republicans in the House and in the Senate are more conservative than the most conservative Democrats. Or at least that's how they vote in Congress, which is basically the same thing. And I think there's general consensus that polarization is probably pretty stable at these levels. Other than the emergence of some new and so far unexpected new ue area of public policy which cuts in a totally different way than current issues, there's really no reason to expect significant change.

The question -- and Hasen goes over this pretty thoroughly in his paper -- is whether institutional change is needed for the political system to function with partisan polarization.

And I continue to believe that there's nothing inherent in partisan polarization that makes Madisonian politics -- separated institutions sharing powers -- a problem.

It's true that Madisonian institutions often yield gridlock; in my view, the strongest critique of the US system is that it is biased in favor of the status quo. Gridlock -- situations in which issues lie unresolved for extended periods, often despite majority public opinion appearing to favor one side of the argument, or perhaps despite the availability of what appears (to the critic) to be obvious "common sense" compromises -- is frustrating. But gridlock doesn't depend on polarization. Current gridlock, I'd say, is nowhere near the problem of the gridlock of the era of the conservative coalition, and especially the period from 1959 through the Kennedy presidency, when liberals held large majorities in Congress and eventually the presidency but often couldn't manage to get legislation out of committees in the pre-reformed Congress. Which certainly doesn't mean reform isn't needed now (after all, reform is part of what ended that era of gridlock), but does remind us that gridlock is a normal part of the system.

All that said: I agree with Hasen and Klein that we have a good deal of dysfunctional gridlock in the present system. Dysfunctional gridlock -- the kind that not only delays "common sense" solutions but also does things like leaving executive branch and judicial positions vacant, threatening to default the government of the United States, and (perhaps) encourages and then allows a party which loses an election to attempt to undermine the economy in order to secure future electoral advantage. The question is whether that sort of dysfunctional gridlock is partisan polarization or not. They both believe that it is; Klein believes that institutional reform is the solution, while Hasen believes that moderate reforms will be ineffective and that it still premature to talk radical Constitutional reform, especially since effecting radical reform is unlikely anyway.

Where I differ with them is that I do not believe that partisan polarization makes dysfunctional gridlock likely. It's not partisan polarization that's the problem; it's the broken, radical Republican Party. Essentially, party polarization isn't nearly as important as the array of problems within the GOP -- antagonism to compromise as an organizing principle; a closed information loop dominated by the Republican-aligned press; a conservative marketplace which blunts the electoral incentive for much of the party; and loss of interest in and capacity for public policy. Without those internal dysfunctions, even an extremely conservative Republican Party would be able to cut deals and allow the political system to function relatively smoothly even with divided government; with those internal dysfunctions, the current system works poorly but any other system would be equally disastrous or worse.

Again, I think that's easiest to see on budget questions. The basic budget question, after all, is basically just about reaching a compromise between two numbers. That shouldn't be difficult, and partisan polarization should actually make it easier, because it allows centralized negotiations. And yet Republicans during this and the previous Congress are stymied because, among many of their constituents, compromise -- even on Republican terms -- means that Republicans have lost, since compromise itself is seen as a disaster.

In my view, then, the real question isn't so much how to change the system to accommodate partisan polarization; the system can handle polarization between two healthy political parties just fine (other than that status quo bias and perhaps other traditionally discussed problems). Instead, what's really needed is some thought about what it would take to cure what's broken with the GOP.

Now, some will argue that it's a problem that's self-correcting: a broken party will lose elections, and we do know that ideologically extreme parties tend to moderate after extended electoral loss. I worry, however, that the current GOP isn't normal enough to follow that pattern. I worry about the conservative marketplace and the downgrading of the electoral incentive. I worry about the information loop, and the inability of even those Republicans who want to win elections to correctly diagnose what it takes to do so. I worry that those who do stay in touch with reality tend to be exiled from the party. And I worry that the electoral incentive for moderation simply isn't great enough to overcome all of that.

Mostly, however, I worry that it's not really just a question of ideological positioning. If Republicans really believe that compromise is evil, then it doesn't really matter whether the ideological gap between their position and the Democratic position is narrow or wide.

Let me put it another way. If I'm correct that the Republican Party is really broken, then "fixing" the system to allow electoral winners to get their way easily is extremely dangerous because sooner or later that broken Republican Party will win but be incapable of governing well. That's a recipe for disaster. Remember, in parliamentary systems, winning parties don't simply impose the most extreme version of their platform; there are usually important institutional constraints (such as a strong bureaucracy, for example) that moderate change. But a reformed US system might not have those constraints -- and if those constraints are system norms, the current Republican Party might simply trample over them.

If, however, the GOP can be "fixed," then the traditional reasons for opposing strict majority party rule still apply, even at the cost of some gridlock. It's still the case that democracy should be rule of the people, not just rule of majorities; it's still the case that those who want voters to choose between two programs are asking for something that voting can't really do, and at any rate something that most voters don't seem particularly interested in.

So it seems to me that the real questions here are about the Republican Party. Has it in fact become dysfunctional? If so, what can be done to restore its health? Will it be self-correcting, thanks to electoral incentives? Or do we need to devise new incentives, and if so, what?

As for reforms to accommodate the current party system, it seems to me that the job of reformers is mostly about finding fixes for those institutions which have been trampled by the dysfunctional GOP, fixes which restore, in many cases, norms which worked fine but have been lost. So Senate reform should be about finding rules to restore what was good about the Senate before it became a 60-vote Senate.

Obviously, none of that is going to happen if people are focused on fairy tales about magic presidents. So what Ezra Klein has been doing is extremely valuable. The next steps, however, are a lot trickier; political scientists really disagree about this stuff, probably because (unlike the question of whether a presidential speech can get Congress to act) it's not really something that can be determined through empirical research. Oh, I think that the questions I raise about the GOP are essentially empirical -- we could determine whether or not electoral incentives are driving them -- but not the questions of majority party rule. On that one, those of us who are with Ranney, with Madison, and with Arendt (at least as I read them) are swimming against the tide in the political culture. But if those thinkers are correct, then it would be a great tragedy indeed if the strengths of the US political system are abandoned.

42 comments:

  1. If the GOP is really broken to that extent, what can, indeed, fix it? We are at that point beyond an organizational problem, beyond even a political problem, and into the realm of a social problem. That is, we are into the realm where a very large number of people are simply in the grip of toxic and dysfunctional beliefs. The problem is that it is very difficult to deal with such a situation, and all of the solutions that historically have worked involve finding ways to exclude the toxic element from society, or at least from any effective exercise of governmental and legal power within society.

    That can be accomplished in several ways. The most benign is simply to control the problem until enough people leave the process through death, emigration, or despair. On a more draconic front, you can exclude the toxic element either through political coercion or violence. In fact, many problems get solved through a combination of those methods. Arguably racial inequality in America has been dealt with first through violence, then through political coercion, and finally through just waiting for enough out-and-out racists to get old and die. And, arguably, the toxic element is still pretty large even yet.

    I am not arguing for a course of action, I am just making an observation. If the GOP is that broken, and if this dysfunction is a social dysfunction rather than just a problem of bad organization or poor leadership, then any fixing of it is going to be very, very, very difficult, and its going to involve excluding a lot of people from effective participation in the political process through one means of the other -- in the most benign possibility, simply through the passage of time removing them from the earth.

    More happily, we can hope that the GOP isn't THAT broken, and that people like David Frum and Ross Douthat are right, it is simply a matter of grabbing the GOP leadership by the lapels, shaking them hard, and slapping their cheeks with election analyses until the come to their senses.

    All of that, however, presumes, that the process doesn't give the GOP a big win. If the economy turns south or an unpopular war breaks out, the string of bad luck the GOP has had with their leaders -- a string JB has particularly talked about -- may continue. Imagine if they win big with ANOTHER GWB, or God save us, another Richard Nixon? We have to hope not just that the GOP isn't THAT broken, but that the Democrats, for all their faults, manage to hang on long enough for the GOP to become sane again.

    And now I've made myself sad.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Actually I don't see a lot of distance between Klein's and JB's views on this. JB emphasizes the GOP extremism with respect to procedural norms, and Klein emphasizes ideological extremism. For me, they are two sides of the same coin. The GOP has adopted such ideological extremist positions that the only way to achieve their vision is through non-democratic, non-traditional means. Their goal is to repeal the safety net and egalitarian legacy of the New Deal. That doesn't poll well, so to get there they've adapted by inventing their own rules of the game.

    I suspect JB would respond to this by reiterating that if smaller government and a weaker safety net is what the GOP wants, then why don't they just cut the deals that are already on the table and move things in that direction. JB would say the GOP is irrational for not cutting these deals, and that irrationality accounts for the dysfunction at the heart of american politics. But I think whenever you're calling powerful people "dysfunctional" or "irrational," you're likely missing something. And in this case it's the following: as a thought experiment, consider two potential gambling scenarios. The first, I'm offering you a 50% chance at winning $10. The second, I'm offering you a 1% change at winning $1 million. The former has much better odds, but as any gambler knows, the latter is a much better bet. It's not irrational to refuse to bet the former and throw all your money at the latter scenario. In fact, it's irrational not to do so. This is the game the GOP is playing. Extremists have taken over the party, and they are more focused on maintaining control over the party rather than trying to become more popular than the Dems. Eventually, the GOP will regain power, and when they do, they'll be able to enact their agenda, full stop. I like that JB is drawing attention to the dysfunctional aspects and norm-violation of the GOP, but I think it all comes down to ideological extremism. If the GOP had more traditional ideological goals, they'd be more likely to adopt traditional strategies and respect existing norms.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there's a lot to this.

      Several Republican governors have implemented much more conservative agendas than their campaigns would have suggested, and may well loose re-election in the next cycle. They won't care: they enacted the draconian union-smashing, sold the bit of gov't they could to cronies, and (at least some of the time) put in the anti-democratic voting restrictions they so desired. They may get voted out, but the policies are hard to reverse, and on a personal level, they'll get a thinktank sinecure or a plum lobbying job or a few well-paid corp board seats to warm.

      The GOP is waiting for such a moment to run the table federally. If they get voted out afterwards, who cares? The smash-and-grab robbery will be done.

      Delete
    2. Yes, but: a certain class of activists would always feel that the risk was worth taking. In a normal political party, however, electoral incentives are extremely important -- politicians, governing professionals, and campaign professionals normally have strong incentives to win elections, and many party-aligned interest groups would not make the wager jcbhan talks about (in part because it's not actually true that once you win the game is over; it's just as likely that the opposition rolls things back when they win).

      Certainly what RaflW points out is a part of this: the electoral incentive for politicians appears weaker than in a normal party.

      Delete
  3. I have an alternative theory.

    The GOP has simply rediscovered something that was always true and was always a structural defect of our system-- that so long as a minority party sticks together, they can block anything they want while the majority gets blamed for allegedly incompetent governance.

    I say rediscovered because there were at least two eras where this was used in the past-- antebellum (in the form of Gag Rules and the like) and during Jim Crow (for instance, to block anti-lynching legislation).

    What I don't like about Professor Bernstein's position is he doesn't seem to accept that this is basically baked into the cake of our system. If a minority wants to do this, it can.

    And you either think that minorities should have the right to do this or you don't. If you don't, then a parliamentary system is the correct system. Yes, it might mean the Republicans get one turn in which they screw it up so bad that they never get elected again until they moderate their positions. But that's the way electoral politics is actually supposed to work.

    If you do, on the other hand, believe the minority should be able to do this, then the current system should be just fine for you.

    What there isn't, however, is a middle ground. If you insist on giving mere POLITICAL minorities (i.e., losing coalitions which should have no rights at all other than voting because they can always grow up and moderate their positions and win the next election) "rights" to stop legislation, what we have now will inevitably result SOME of the time. Not all of the time, because there will be time periods where the minority isn't able to enforce discipline. But at least some of the time. For some number of decades, we will have dysfunctional governance.

    I say Madison was full of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose JB might respond that the ability of a minority party to obstruct is an important check on prevailing whims of the majority and that removing it would be a net negative for the stability/success of a democracy. And that there is not really a way to leave it in place without maintaining the possibility that sometimes a minority party will obliterate previous norms and use that power absolutely.

      Why I think JB emphasizes the dysfunction of the GOP is that their insistence on absolute obstruction should be mediated by the demands of party-aligned interest groups to achieve desired policy outcomes. But in the weird conservative information loop/marketplace, achieving policy goals is either secondary or the means to successfully doing so has been distorted. So, it is only when things get really dysfunctional in a party that absolute obstruction by the minority becomes a viable strategy for them.

      Delete
    2. Maybe we should remember, also, that the founders did not believe their experiment would be permanent. Rather, they fully accepted that it would be an experiment that would, they hoped, succeed for some period until the inevitable problems and difficulties arising from unforseen circumstances, abuse, and sheer passage of time would necessitate more changes.

      Maybe the whole question of minority parties and norms falls into this. That is, the system was nice while it lasted. But now the norms are gone and the minority party has found out the extent of the damage it can wreak, and so we have to accept that this portion of the experiment is at the end of its useful phase.

      Delete
    3. The problem is that there have been periods of obstruction in American history prior to the advent of the modern Republican Party. What he is calling a "dysfunctional" party is just a party with a lot of discipline, and there's no reason to think those won't be recurring features of our system. So basically every time we get one of those, we get this sort of governmental paralysis.

      At any rate, I don't get the whole "prevailing whims of the majority" issue when applied to POLITICAL majorities. Political majorities should get what they want. A losing coalition isn't like a racial or ethnic or sexual orientation or religious minority. They aren't historically oppressed or excluded from the political process. All a political minority has to do is change their positions, and they can become a majority next time. It's easy.

      So "minority rights" is basically nothing more than "protecting the ability of political extremists to not have to face the truth about their positions and moderate them so they can win elections". Which is not a compelling cause.

      Delete
    4. Anas:

      This isn't a new phenomenon. The South basically engaged in this sort of behavior from the very start. The 19th Century antebellum "Gag Rules" in the House are an example of this.

      The framers had their reasons for developing the system they did. But minority obstruction isn't a new thing-- it was built into the system. They knew about it, they chose a system that permitted it (perhaps as one of the prices paid to get the South on board), and the choice was wrong.

      Delete
    5. Anastasios,

      IMO, and yeah, I know the Jefferson quote, but they were republicans to a large extent, and as such probably were ambitious that their creation would last a long time, if not forever. They loved Rome.

      Dilan,

      We've gone around about this before...I simply disagree with you. I should really spell it out in more depth in a post or so, but basically there are two ways to go about this. One is that virtually no one in regular life believes that majorities should have absolute power or acts as if they should. The second is Madison's practical conclusion that if majorities have absolute power then minorities will do what it takes to end democracy, because democracy will have nothing to offer them.

      And then there's the practical point that in a large representative democracy the winners of elections do not necessarily represent the majority on any particular issue -- or even any issue.

      Delete
    6. JB,

      I suppose it depends on which founders you are reading and what stage of their career and what circumstances they were reacting to. They were hardly in complete agreement on anything, even if by our standards they were strikingly homogeneous in a lot of ways. Also, although they were influenced by Roman and classical models they were most experienced in English constitutional and legal models as filtered through colonial experience and traditions, and were very well aware that those had changed a lot of over time.

      Of course, one could also be faithful to Jefferson in one of his more radical moods and say, "Who cares what they thought, anyway? They're dead and we're alive and therefore we are the important ones."

      The issues of majorities and minorities you bring up are real ones, and ones the founders of course wrestled with. In a nutshell it comes down to keeping everyone happy enough that they don't want to subvert or otherwise bring down the system. Majorities have to feel that actually going to the work of assembling and maintaining a majority really means something. Minorities have to be comfortable enough in the minority, or if you will feel safe enough, that they don't try to bring the system down out of panic.

      The problem is that those emotional qualities, and they are fundamentally emotional qualities, arise as much out of culture as out of political and constitutional structures. The founders, to get back to them, were well aware of human fraily, if men were angels and all that, but they also believed that people should be trained both formally and informally just not to act in certain ways or do certain things. They knew, at least some of them did some of the time, that if people departed from these norms, the system would fail. Thus another quote, a republic if you can keep it.

      And that brings us to the modern day, doesn't it? Because at least one segment of the country doesn't feel safe in the minority. And the reason they don't feel safe is cultural and ideological, not institutional. To put it another way, we have a situation where the culture that is supposed to undergird the institutions has shifted and there is a fundamental mismatch. That has happened before (think 1860, and no I'm not saying it's an exact parallel). When that happens the founders' plan, in that we should care about what they thought or planned at all, begins to come apart. Saving it requires bringing the culture back to the institutions (for instance fixing the Republican party) or ... will, or what? What if the Republican party really can't be fixed as, yes I know it's a dangerous and inexact analogy, the antebellum south could not be fixed?

      To make an even more provocative statement that malicious people could run with in every different direction, the founders proclaimed that they stood for the rights and liberties and traditions of Englishmen. What if we just ain't Englishmen anymore?

      Delete
    7. I see what you're saying at the very end there. But your comment may encourage too cultural an understanding of the issue. Besides cultural resentments and frustrated entitlement, at least some of the problem is also economic transformation and inequality leaving segments of society feeling either adrift or invulnerable. At a social level there may be no effective way to counteract that. The GOP coalition brings together those who'd prefer to deal with rapidly changing economic circumstances (a second era of globalization after the Gilded Age) by clinging all the more firmly to a past generation's economic and cultural nostrums, who prefer to see the churning of 'modernization' as a righteous social Darwinist process, even if they're relative losers, because it lends a coherence of order and just desserts to social upheaval.

      Delete
    8. Anon,

      Very true. Any real "solution" to the problem would ideally involve at the very least an economic upswing to quiet current anxieties along with real effort to build ways that displaced segments of society can get to a more secure place.

      But, of course, that's easy to say. As one commentor on another thread pointed out long ago, if anyone knew of a sure, obvious, easy way to restore prosperity to the white working class, which largely overlaps the groups we are talking about, surely they would do it because the political payoff would be a multi-generational bonanza.

      But, and here's the rub, no one does know how to do that. Conservatives and liberals both tend to dodge the issue, or at most give empty platitudes. I was at a seminar a couple of years ago with a (largely self-proclaimed) Captain of Industry who gave a very centrist, Bloombergesque take on public policy. I'll give him props for honesty, because at the small reception after his talk a student asked if he really felt that his program would help the middle class or, especially, the working class. He sighed and said, "No, probably not. We have a worldwide convergence of wages going on, and the working class in particular is going to catch it right in the rear. I know you're supposed to say something or another, but I really don't know what to tell that farmer or that factory worker. Make sure your kids get a college degree, I guess."

      So, I agree that economic recovery would, ideally, be the strong engine behind cultural and political rapproachement. But I don't know if it's truly possible.

      Delete
  4. "On a more draconic front, you can exclude the toxic element either through political coercion or violence."
    Considering that a recent poll said 44% of Republicans think armed rebellion may be politically necessary, violence is simmering near the surface. I take that poll with a shake of salt - there are plenty of recliner Rambos who say they'd take up arms, but would poop their pants if it actually arose. But we kid ourselves to think that because we haven't had major societal violence since the race riots, that we might not again.
    My sense is that if the rich continue to pull away as they have, and quite literally the other 90% keep loosing economic position, the risk of violence increases. And that violence could go towards Fascism, not a better society.
    This is another place where the incentives have become inverted. While there have been periods of winner-take-all in our society, there have usually followed periods of the economic elite realizing (or being helped to realize) that an economically stable and satisfied working and middle class provides regime stability and a society in which basic market democracy can function and the elites can build their position and wealth. The current very rich may be kidding themselves to think that this time, they'll be immune to tumbrels if they just keep getting richer. History is not so kind to that idea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you have a link to this poll? (not doubting you one bit....want to look at that data!)

      Delete
    2. Here's the poll mentioned by Anon @ 1:53:

      http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/05/armed-rebellion-poll.php

      Delete
  5. Dysfunctional gridlock... (perhaps) encourages and then allows a party which loses an election to attempt to undermine the economy in order to secure future electoral advantage.

    To an outsider, this looks like a major fault with the Madisonian system itself, not (just) the current Republican Party or dysfunctional gridlock per se.

    If we agree that presidential elections are very often referendums on the state of the economy, then the incentive for the out party to undermine the economy seems to be big.

    Here in the UK, the Labour Party, like most parties, are surely cynical enough to want the economy to be bad for the next general election. But they can't actually make it bad. Republicans can.

    Of course, it's a high-risk strategy - if voters associate them with the bad times, they may be punished. But as gcbhan argues above, high risk doesn't always mean bad bet. And I suspect the associating-the-economy-with-the-President reflex is quite robust.

    But maybe I'm wrong, and non-dysfunctional parties are never tempted to do this. I suppose it is true that even this GOP has ultimately backed off from the brink on the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff.

    ReplyDelete
  6. One other alternative is that the illness within the Republican Party is terminal. If the dysfunction is chronic to the point that extremism will accelerate, the result is inevitable. This has been our thesis for a few years.

    If this is right, then caution about future dominance by the GOP becomes moot. The objective will change to minimizing Republican damage to the nation until a new focal point is created for conservative views.

    ReplyDelete
  7. backyardfoundryMay 6, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    Progressives view committees combined with armies (governments) as the principle bringers of order and wealth in a society. So new legislation is inherently good ... because we know that there are problems, so why hasn't the government fixed them yet? NEED NEW LEGISLATION!! GIMME, GIMME!!

    So anyone in government who doesn't rush to get into a committee and use an army to force citizens to do stuff right now is an obstructionist to the Progressive mind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love it when people act like law and taxes are bizarre new innovations thunk up by Democrats.

      Democrats actually are terrible tyrants when you don't know anything about history prior to 1989.

      Delete
    2. And I guess you can dismiss modern racism because that used to be worse, too.

      Or maybe it's all bad. Maybe.

      Delete
    3. backyardfoundry: It takes a law to repeal a law. Not passing new laws doesn't shrink the size of government, or even really prevent it from growing all that much because of inertia built into the laws.

      Delete
    4. The last time I took my Mom to the doctor, I noticed that there was a soldier standing next to the doctor with a gun to her head. The soldier (although he might have been a Marine, I don't know as much about military uniforms as most of my fellow jack-booted progressive friends) explained: "Some of our doctors aren't with the program yet, but don't worry, Ma'am, you'll get your medicine, or she'll get hers." (Click) I asked him, "Why is Mom's doctor a woman? Aren't there enough real doctors to take care of the patients?" "Sir, there are no 'real' doctors any more. We took care of that." As a progressive, that heartened me to no end, as you can imagine (the reference to "real doctors" was a trap that he didn't fall into, lucky for him). "Do you have any lesbians?" "Sir, they're all lesbians, or transgendered. All the so-called 'real doctors' are practicing in countries that don't have socialized medicine, mostly doing facelifts for drug lords and their wives. They also handle a lot of bullet wounds."

      Still wishing to probe the kind soldier (or Marine) to determine his commitment to the cause, I asked: "Is this woman a trained physician?" "No sir," came his quick and politically-correct reply, "Medicine is a racket. Health care isn't supposed to make you well, it's just a way for government to control every aspect of your life. Haven't you seen the Oregon Medicaid study?" Satisfied, my Mom and I left the doctor's office, with an armload of anti-depressants and a small chip planted in her head. "Is it Katie Couric all the time?" Mom asked. "No," said I, "you get Rahm Emmanuel in the evenings and Keith Olbermann in the morning, with Chris Hayes and Ezra Klein on the weekends." "Okay then," said Mom.

      I'm beginning to think that stamp I licked was not from the Post Office.

      Delete
    5. UserGoogol,

      That's reasonable, but at least not changing laws constantly allows markets to adjust to whatever the current Looney legal structure happens to be.

      As Prof. Bernstein has pointed out, there are a lot of laws being lobbied for by bastards to screw others (like much of Obamacare) so the Progressive obsession with NEW LEGISLATION allows for more looting opportunities by bastards.

      Delete
    6. purusha,

      Dems aren't much worse than Republicans in my book. Repubs do the right things by accident more often.

      Delete
  8. The commentary that the right is fatally dysfunctional may be a variant of a widely-held misconception about corporations, namely, that "size is good". Size is good, but growth is much, much better.

    Did y'all see this article about Rush Limbaugh leaving his flagship station due to declining ad revenues? You don't need to believe his audience is coming to its senses (if that's your politics), you only need to know they're rapidly aging, and the older you get, the less advertisers are willing to pay for your attention.

    Many commenters, including our host, believe that the right is fatally flawed because of an unmovable, large corporate structure supporting this stuff. No doubt, as noted in the open, the audience is large. But it is old and dying, which is a terrible business model, regardless of the size of empire. If there were a way for Rupert Murdoch to get fair value for his right-wing assets today, I think there's little doubt he'd dump them if he could. They made him a lot of money. But its all downhill from here. And picking up speed.

    Really, the stuff that makes y'all wring your hands about the hopeless, media-manipulated right could change overnight. If Murdoch and WABC and the rest knew a way to get to more diverse media with (relatively) little cannibalization, they would do so in a heartbeat. Diversity is youth, which (unlike Rush Limbaugh's audience) is lucrative to advertisers.

    Obviously, Murdoch and those like him haven't figured out how to crack that nut. But y'all are really misreading this if you don't think those guys aren't frantically trying to solve this problem. The renegade right bugs you. Trust me, it bugs the corporations that host them far more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry - too many negatives in the third-to-last sentence. You're misreading the motives of the right-wing media if you do think they're not frantically trying to address the issues that bug you.

      Delete
    2. I largely agree with you, but I think it will take awhile for the extreme bluster to unwind, and couldn't happen "overnight." I also agree with the commenters who said that some viewpoints are (literally?) dying out with the aging demographics that hold those viewpoints.

      Delete
    3. CSH -

      Maybe, but I'm not sure. Rush doesn't actually need a very large audience to make tons of money. I mean, obviously Rush Limbaugh isn't going to be a major factor for more than another decade or two (although that's still a very long time), but part of the problem here is that it turns out you really don't need a very large audience for it to be very profitable.

      You may be correct about the audience. But I'm really not sure about that -- the main thing is not to confuse the critical mass audience for the conservative marketplace with anything about the electorate.

      Delete
    4. Thanks for the comments, guys, and just to clarify: suppose the Fox TV profit center of News Corp is forecasting a profit of 9/10 of a gajillion dollars this year, after making a cool gajillion last year. That's a disaster. Today. Any comfort that 9/10 of a gajillion is still a lot of money is overwhelmed by the fact that a full gajillion is a terrible number off which to decline by 10%.

      So, true, the audience isn't going to go away, but the vehicle could change dramatically today. I think there's little doubt that News Corp management is trying to figure out how to institute a show like "Black Voices" - with, real, legitimate, representative black voices - without cannibalizing too much. Realistically, keeping SES constant, Fox would gladly trade an angry old white viewer for a young black viewer. Today.

      Once the vehicle begins to change, the hysteria will go with it. Thinking follows language, after all. Indeed, if you believe in the Madisonian system, you have to believe that things will be back to normal when the fever breaks.

      That may be coming very very soon.

      Delete
    5. CSH,

      I don't agree that thinking follows language, but that is another discussion. More to the point, I'm also not sure a business model in completely applicable to the GOP, although you are of course right that if one looks specifically at GOP-aligned media, who are businesses, then such models are relevant.

      I think JB's point is well taken. It just doesn't take all that many viewers to sustain a media segment these days -- after all, MSNBC isn't going anywhere and it has many fewer viewers than FOXNews. Rather, the network of media, think-tanks, and the like depend on money, and there is plenty of it out there to support them and that will continue to be the case for some time. Unfortunately, the influence of these markets is disproportional to membership or viewership. We are back to the activist problem again.

      Now, it is possible that as viewership/membership declines the new possible viewers/members that join the body politic will give their support to other media, other groups, other think tanks. That probably is what it will take to really counteract the conservative marketplace, an alternate marketplace or set of marketplaces that can override, or at least ameliorate, the influence of FoxNews, Limbaugh, and the rest.

      But these things are somewhat at a remove from the political and institutional problems associted with Republican obstruction. What will really change that is when people start losing their jobs for bad behavior. We will see.

      Delete
    6. Anastasios, think of it this way: suppose you were a manager at News Corp with responsibility for the Fox tv division. That's a pretty big portfolio; probably you'd have a title of President. Your salary would be pretty big, and typically most of it would be at risk. Your variable compensation would have nothing to do with the size of your business; rather it would be a function of revenue and profit growth.

      That's the rub; its virtually impossible to grow that base. If you could easily bring in minority and young viewers, you would do so - and even though that's difficult, no doubt you try. Your career as a News Corp President depends on it!

      This is true in the publicly-traded media, but its also true in the for-profit media. How much would you pay for Rush Limbaugh's show, today? (Set aside your politics, just as a business decision). It would have to be a relatively small multiple of current revenues, since future cash flows look increasingly dismal. It doesn't matter that he makes a lot of money now. WABC won't pay him because the future looks bleak, and Limbaugh surely wants more than he's worth, which based on future cash flows is much less than he thinks. Limbaugh's umbrage is one thing, restive News Corp investors are something else entirely.

      One other on thinking following language: that's a funny thing about the soft sciences, they have a hard time getting wide attention. Psychologists can tell you something you "know" like 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' or 'out of sight, out of mind', and you feel like you know it, so you discount the research.

      Or they can do scientific research that runs against your intuition, as Derek Besner did on the thinking follows language stuff, and even publish it in journals with high impact ratings, like the Journal of Experimental Psychology (as Besner did), but if no one knows, does it matter?

      Or said differently, what does a high impact rating mean if no one outside the academy is familiar with the research?

      Delete
  9. From the perspective a dog trainer, a dog that doesn't roll over and play dead on command is "broken". But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong from the perspective of the dog.

    Similarly, from the perspective of Democrats, we have a broken Republican party. Damned thing isn't routinely caving the way it's supposed to.

    Absent is any explanation why Republicans should see this as a problem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Boom. This.

      Delete
    2. To extend the analogy - presumably the dog receives some kind of reward, like a treat for instance, for behaving as expected. The prospect of the treat incentivizes the dog to follow commands. A dog who forgoes treats that he legitimately wants in order to spite the owner sort of is broken.

      A GOP that balks at using its leverage to obtain the desired policy outcomes of those it represents (and no I dont mean voters or rank-and-file Republicans; I mean party-aligned interest groups) is also broken, or at least dysfunctional.

      Delete
    3. You may think you're the dog and the Dems are your trainer, but if/when you get spanked by enough elections, you'll learn that the electorate is the trainer. I guess it's going to take awhile, but that's OK because there are more elections on the schedule.

      Delete
    4. There isn't a reason *Republicans* should be upset about this, but there are reasons why _Conservatives_ might.

      There is more to gain in long-term spending and entitlement reform, not by rolling over on command, but by negotiating as equals with Democrats and being willing to compromise. There was room with healthcare for negotiation, Republicans decided they wanted none of it, and it worked good for Republican interests - it helped them win a lot of house and state elections in 2010 - but it didn't do anything to make the ACA any more conservative.

      Reject-everything only works until it doesn't and something gets passed. Then, you've lost out on any opportunity to have influenced policy.

      Delete
  10. Certainly the Madisonian system makes the problem of a broken Republican party much worse? There was a similarly "broken" Labour Party in Britain during the 1980s and the system responded correctly by giving that party no role whatsoever in policymakinng. There were no perverse incentives or unforced crises. Even with only one functioning party, things worked. Isn't happening here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you are precisely right. In a state with strong national and weak regional governance with a parliamentary democracy (like the UK), parties like 80's Labour must course-correct with drastic change or risk extinction.

      The Madisonian system of federalism and congressional government greatly aides dysfunctional parties in continuing their dysfunction.

      Delete
    2. I really think Professor Bernstein needs to examine WHY he might feel that minority PARTIES deserve any protection. What does that accomplish? What right does he think is being protected?

      We get a lot of handwaving about how the Madisonian system has these great advantages and that minorities should get a say, but is there anything deeper than just a queasy feeling that he gets regarding majority rule? Does he have a specific example in history of a mere POLITICAL minority whose interests he is glad the byzantine rules of Congress protected?

      Because it all seems very simple to me. The way political minorities protect their interests is by compromising and joining winning coalitions where they get some, but not all, of what they want. Why is that protection insufficient?

      Delete
    3. I think that the minority-protecting elements of the constitution have always enraged Progressives and that Seidman's views will become the norm among them:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/opinion/lets-give-up-on-the-constitution.html?_r=0

      Delete
  11. I think that, especially in a few more years, any policy-maker who fails to address in a credible, effective way that the American quality of life is being badly impacted by global economic trends lowering wages and rising the cost of living is going to have a very difficult time bringing together a winning political coalition of voters.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?