Tuesday, March 30, 2010


John Holbo (via Ezra) has a theoretical post asserting that a unified party will have two advantages over a less-unified party.  First, they will, all things equal, obviously win more often, since they will have fewer people defecting (he's talking about parties in the legislative sphere, but of course the same logic holds at the voting booth).  True enough.  He also says that the less-unified, or "Bipartisan" party:
...will have an ongoing optics problem. All the proposals of the Partisan Party will be bipartisan. That is, a few members of the other party will, predictably, peel off and cross the aisle to stands with the Partisans. None of the proposals of the Bipartisan Party, on the other hand, will ever be bipartisan...Result: the Partisan party, thanks to its unremitting opposition to bipartisanship, will be able to present itself as the party of bipartisanship, and be able to critique the Bipartisan Party, with considerable force and conviction, as the hypocritically hyperpartisan party of pure partisanship.
Again, I'd say -- true enough.  I'd add yet another problem for the less-unified party; they will constantly be facing stories about how disorganized they are.  But both parties will have to fight hard to keep their marginal voters in line (it's just a different set of marginals; the unified party will be dealing with the last one or two potential dissenters, while the less-unified party will be dealing with).

But wait!  Did you notice that little "all things equal" I stuck in above?  All things, it will readily be apparent, are not equal.  Parties cannot be simply "unified" in the abstract.  Parties are going to behave more unified, over the long run, if they actually are more unified -- that is, if they fundamentally agree on things.  In the short run, of course, a particularly effective leader might make a bit of difference, but over time, a more diverse party is going to act as if it was more diverse.  But that doesn't mean it is destined to lose.  In fact, the unified party is, and again all things equal, destined to be the smaller of the two parties.  After all, the diverse party can fight for practically any constituency, while the unified party -- in order to stay unified -- must surrender any constituencies who oppose the principles or issues around which it unites.

You might ask, then: can't that yield a death spiral in which the unified party constantly narrows itself, purging those who were formerly considered loyal but now are on the fringes of the (ever-shrinking) party mainstream?  Ah, here we're on ground that I've covered before, but it's worth going over again because it's potentially very important.  It shouldn't, because of the electoral incentive.  Normal parties want to win.  In fact, one way of looking at democracy is that its an ingenious system for coordinating incentives of self-interested individuals for the public good through the electoral incentive.  See, in a normal situation, everyone within a party wants to win elections.  Politicians and those who want to serve on their staffs want to win because their careers depend on it directly: they need to win to be employed.  Electioneering professionals want to win because it helps their reputations, which means more and more lucrative future clients.  Party-associated interest groups want to win in order for their policy demands to be satisfied.  Even "purist" activists, who may choose pure stances on issues of public policy over victory, still prefer winning to losing, even if it might not be their highest priority.  As long as winning is more important than party unity, then, there's no real danger of a death spiral.  A party at risk of losing elections will give up unity as a strategy if it is costing them seats.

The problem for the GOP right now, as I and others have said, is that it's not clear that the electoral incentive applies.  Important portions of the Republican network appear to have an incentive to be in the minority, because it's good for book sales, TV and radio ratings, and page views.  Others may find that its just as lucrative, if not more so, to organize Tea Party protesters than it is to organize winning electoral campaigns.  Even candidates may not be fully dedicated to winning if they know there's a very soft landing available to them as lobbyists, or as Fox News contributors.

OK, back to the effects of unity, and moving into more speculative material.  Interest groups, one would think, still have an incentive for their party to win.  That's why I've been so interested in the defection of doctors and groups during the health care fight.  If Republicans would prefer symbolic victories over actually affecting policy, it seems to me that their associated interest groups may well defect to the Democrats; better to fight for policy as a minority faction in the majority party than to control the issue positions of the minority party if it is truly a minority party, not just the (temporary) out-party.  But at the same time, the "unity" party may well gravitate anyway to purely symbolic issues over substantive issues, since its easier to unite against flag burning or for a balanced budget (in the abstract, as in a balanced budget amendment) than it is to unite over complex policy, which tends to have winners and losers.  It certainly is my impression that Republicans are relatively more interested in symbolic issues than are the Democrats, but that's really just a guess -- one could, however, go through party platforms or some such exercise to check on it, but I'm not going to, at least this week.

Last thing: what all this suggests is that "unity" might well be best seen in the abstract not as a potentially good strategy, but as an effect of a party that is shrinking, especially a party that is shrinking because it has become dangerously divorced from normal electoral incentives.  Is that what's actually happening to the Republicans right now?  I don't know!  I do think, however, that it's rapidly becoming probably the biggest current question worth exploring in the empirical or theoretical study of American political parties.  I am sure, however, that against that possibility, the "optics" (man I hate that word) of partisanship and bipartisanship is not at all important.

(Update: small edit for a collapsed sentence.  Gotta stop posting while sleepy!).


  1. "In the short run, of course, a particularly effective leader might make a bit of difference, but over time, a more diverse party is going to act as if it was more diverse."

    There are a couple other things that operate like the 'particularly effective leader', right? For example, whether your procedures for appointing Senators to leadership positions favor those who stick to party orthodoxy or those who are most senior. (I've heard that's one of the differences between Senate Democrats and Republicans, and it's something I'd like to see our people change.)

    One reason I'm interested in changing this kind of thing is that it would have immediate effects, while getting Democrats to agree about more stuff is going to be a long term project.

  2. I agree with your analysis, but in the short-term it makes much more sense for the Republicans to pursue a partisan strategy, particularly because of the strength of the white vote. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but suspect that if the Republican can capture 60 or 65 percent of the white vote, and ignore the non-white vote, they can do pretty well, particularly in the Senate where whites are overrepresented. Given that they've pretty much exhausted their issue agenda in the past decade, at this point it's more important for them to be able to stop the Democratic agenda than to push a Republican one.

    Now, eventually, the Republicans will run out of white voters, but that moment is probably three or four decades away (if whites continue to vote at higher rates than non-whites). At that point, the Republicans will probably have to do a Tory-like major rebranding effort.

    I think we'll see this scenario play out in Florida and Texas first, and it will be interesting to see what the Republicans do the first time a Democrat wins with less than 35/30 percent of the white vote.

  3. From the '50s to the end of the last century, the fundamentalist conservatives wanted a divorce from the pragmatists in the Republican Party. Up until 1980, their preferred means was a conservative third party. However, the brighter elements among the fundamentalists realized that they would be consigned to a permanent minority role as a third party, whatever their claims about America being inherently a conservative nation. So instead they purged the pragmatists and took over the GOP.

    I don't think your analysis quite captures the present reality. The fundamentalists who now own the GOP would like to win, but they are less concerned with legislative or electoral success than they are with maintaining their control within the party. Their assumption is that if they can make enough people dissatisfied with the Democrats, then power will return by default (in a two-party system) to the Republicans whether a majority of the populace believes in their brand of conservatism or not. They see themselves as a minority party, in other words, but not a permanent minority. Once in power, though, they have to resort to expedients like the K Street Project to prolong their majority and get the interest groups to go along.

    Incidentally, the last sentence of your second para seems incomplete.

  4. Neil,

    I'm pretty skeptical of getting much if any effect from changing the way committee chairs are chosen in the Senate. It can make some difference on the margins, but basically Senate committees, and their chairs, just aren't that powerful. Committees make far more of a difference in the House. On health care, for example, the reason the final bill looked more like the Finance Committee bill than the HELP bill is because there's where the Dems needed to go to get to 60; if the whole bill had come out of the (more liberal) help committee, it still would have disappeared into negotiations in which Holy Joe and the Benator got to rewrite it into something that they (and the less conservative moderates) could vote for.

  5. Anon 1:59,

    I don't know that I'd agree with you that "fundamentalists...now own the GOP," assuming you mean Christian conservatives. To the extent that they act as a party faction, I think they're a pretty normal party faction, as far as I can tell. The GOP can be hurt if they force the platform to emphasize unpopular issues, but that's a normal danger for all parties with all factions. And as with all party factions, the Christian conservatives must balance purity and pragmatism, and I don't see any reason to believe that they're especially prone to purity. The thing I'm talking about is the preference for purity at the cost of winning, but an actual incentive to lose. As a casual observer, I can see such incentives, but some serious research, in my opinion, is needed to assess both the actual balance of incentives and then the behavior that flows from that.

    (And thanks for the catch on the sentence, which is now fixed).

    See also my brother the reporter, who writes about this stuff quite a bit:


  6. Sounds great to me. The Republican party gets smaller and smaller, and they get rich making money from the sidelines. And serious people can continue the business of running our country, only with less obstruction and distraction.

  7. That can be true, Jonathan, and changing the chair situation will still have an effect if Senators want to chair committees. It's about changing the incentives. Ezra was reporting a while back that part of the reason that Baucus couldn't get Grassley to cooperate was that Grassley wanted to be the top Republican on some committee or other and he knew the Republicans wouldn't let him if he cut a deal with Baucus.

    By the way, I did a big post on your representation stuff and I just wanted to make sure you saw it. (This is probably the closest I get in my day job to what you do in yours.)

  8. "the Republican network" is Fox News ?

    I think the use of the word "network" for affiliates of a party which has found out that it is working for a TV network (which it thought was working for the party) is either a Freudian slip or brilliant snark or both.

  9. The GOP is the anti-government party. That means that they really don't have an agenda of things they want government to do. They want to block government from doing things that might tax the wealthy special interests.

    Tom Delay and Grover Norquist shackled the GOP to the wealthy special interests with the K Street project. They are one and the same. Because policy supported by the GOP is equivalent to policy supported by a narrow set of wealthy special interests, the policy is by nature going to be less diverse. The GOP strategy relies on getting enough special interest groups under the same tent.

    It is not the same as the Democratic Party strategy which is to make improvements that benefit very large numbers of people. When you are trying to maximize policy for very large numbers, there are a lot more trade offs than maximizing for a small select group of wealthy special interests.

    Book sales and TV are money losers for the wealthy special interests that support them. They often buy enough copies of favorable screeds to get them on a best seller list. They have value to their special interest sponsors who reap more benefits from favorable crony contracts than they spend on the books and TV to get the political support they need to get their sweetheart deals. -bakho

  10. Neil,

    First of all -- I did see your representation post, and thought it was great (and I recommend it to everyone).

    Second...I'm pretty skeptical that it was the chair position -- or the ranking member position -- that pushed Grassley. I think there are a lot of other levers that the GOP has that are a lot more meaningful (primary threat, cutting off campaign funds, lack of cooperation with his pet projects. Perhaps it was a factor, but I'm convinced its probably a minor one -- and IIRC it was less reporting than speculation that fixed on the committee post.


    I don't know that I'd call it a Freudian slip, but it certainly wasn't deliberate on my part. Good call!

    Anon 7:55,

    Perhaps. My reporter brother over at the Boston Phoenix does a lot of work on this stuff...it's true that a handful of major donors does put a lot of money into, say, conservative think tanks -- but it's also true that conservatives buy a lot of books, and keep Fox News ratings (relatively) high, and do things like pay for the recent for-profit Tea Party convention. That's why I say: more research is needed!


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