Monday, March 14, 2011

How To Improve the GOP

If you're a sane conservative and you've been despondent about the choices available to you in the American political system -- you're certainly not interested in supporting liberal Democrats, but you also don't want to support a party that too often denies reality -- there's finally something you can do about it.

I see that Nikki Haley, the Tea Party friendly brand new governor of South Carolina, is writing a book. Senator Rand Paul just wrote a book. Senator Scott Brown just wrote a book. I haven't looked it up, but this seems highly unusual; normally, people don't publish books at the beginning of their time in office, before they've actually accomplished anything.

If you're a sane conservative and want a reasonable, conservative Republican Party...

Buy those books.

But wait, you ask -- Nikkie Haley and Rand Paul? They're probably not the GOP a sane conservative wants (and Scott Brown, to be sure, may not really be very conservative at all).

Yes, but there's a point here. As I look around the American political system, the thing that really worries me the most isn't money in politics after Citizens United, or the dysfunctional Senate, or partisan jockeying over redistricting. No, the thing that really worries me is that I believe that the Republican Party now has stumbled into a situation in which there are strong incentives to lose elections. When Democrats win, as they did in 1992 and 2008, apparently the first reaction of a lot of people is to become very, very easy marks for "conservative" scam artists. So ratings for talk shows skyrocket, and the best-seller lists fill up with anti-Obama and anti-Clinton and anti-liberal books. There's a lot of money to be made! At least, there's a lot of money to be made if you're willing to traffic in wild rumors, apocalyptic comparisons, and extremism of all varieties. But extremism (yes, including in 1994 and 2010) doesn't help politicians get elected.

The problem, of course, is that to the extent that politicians are self-interested, they face a major incentive to join in the gravy train and cash in by appealing to those easy marks rather than try to appeal to a majority of the electorate. That breaks, or at least threatens to break, the fundamental logic that makes representative democracy work: politicians try hard to govern well because their careers depend on election. When, instead, the road to career success involves making a lot of noise, pleasing the fringe, and retiring to a comfortable gig on Fox News, then financial self-interest is going to work against satisfying constituents.

So I'm happy to see winning politicians testing the market, and I think it would be good for the GOP if they succeed (I'm assuming that they stand to pocket some money from these deals; I haven't checked). Granted, I'd rather see actual accomplishments in office rewarded; I'd rather Dick Lugar could sell a book about passing New Start than have Haley, Rand Paul, and Brown rewarded for just getting elected. Still, it's a start.


  1. This isn't a conservative thing. I used to work for a political radio show, and the pitchmen were absolutely lousy with anti-Bush screeds.

    I suppose you can make a decent case that conservatives are more likely to consume such media, but there are reasons for that that I think have to do more with demographics and the size of each political constituency than anything inherent in conservatism.

    When any part loses, people need catharsis. This can come in the form of "Obama is a Marxist" books, or "Bush is a lying liar who lies."

  2. I think the problem is broader than that. I would state the problem as "How to fix our broken electoral system".

    The current system effectively gives voters a choice between (a) one Democratic candidate who was chosen only by Democrats, and (b) one Republican candidate who was chosen only by Republicans. If we want to get better elected officials, we need to broaden the choices.

    My solution would be to do any with the partisan primary system, and have one non-partisan primary where five candidates are chosen to advance to the general election using a ranked choice voting system. In ranked choice voting, a voter would simply order the candidates first, second, third, etc., down as far as they want to go. Using a process of successive elimination (the same process that is used in Instant Runoff Voting or IRV), the top five candidates would advance to the general election. In the general election, voters would again be able to rank the candidates from first to fifth and the winner would be selected again using IRV. Obviously, such a system would require the ballots to be redesigned to make it easy for voters to rank the candidates, but it is certainly doable. The reason for the IRV process is that is removes incentives to "game" the system. For example, there is no incentive under this system for a candidate to try to put "third party" candidates on the ballot to split another candidates vote. There is also no incentive to try to overwhelm the primary with canidates from a single party, to try to force another party off the general election ballot.

    The big advantage of this system is that general election voters would be able to choose from multiple viable candidates--for example, they might have two Democrats and two Republicans to choose from--not just the canidates chosen only by that party's voters. In addition, voting for one candidate does not result in "throwing your vote away" if that candidate does not win--instead, using IRV, your vote will automatically be cast for your second choice if your first choice is eliminated, and so on. The net result is that the winning candidate will have to appeal to all voters, instead of just the 10% to 30% of the total voters that is takes to win a major party primary. We will end up with more elected officials who reflect the mainstream and are willing to work together, instead of just relecting and appealing to partisan interests.

  3. A royalist party in a republic's parliament has no real interest in increasing its share of votes in that body, or cooperating with the small-r republican parties in governing. Their sole purpose for being is to shut the republic down, and usher in the Restoration.

    When the king comes into his own again, the legislature can once again become a warm place for courtiers to wait for place and preferment, monopolies and governorships, to be distributed from the throne, in exchange for which they provide the monarch with flattery, encomia, and money for his wars.

    The Congressional GOP's present position is analogous to the royalists and Bonapartists in the French assemblies of the 19th century. They were much happier with their king, and Mr. Cheney his First Minister.

    The weirdest transformation of political terminology hasn't been what happened to the word 'liberal' since John Stuart Mill -- it's what happened to the word 'republican'.

  4. @Alan - High profile races - prez and Senate - are one thing, but how would this work out in practice for House races (let alone state lege, etc.)?

    My experience with 'nonpartisan' multi-candidate races (in CA) is none too positive. Candidates present themselves as strong supporters of God, motherhood, and apple pie, and independent information on what they really stand for is minimal.

    If party endorsements are permitted, I'll vote first preference for the endorsed Dem. I have minimal incentive to pick any second preference at all, but if I do, it is more likely to be a lame sounding fringe-right candidate - in hope of crowding out some more credible rightie - rather than a 'moderate' Republican, who if elected will still tend to vote Republican.

    I have NO incentive to pick any other progressive as second choice - if I live in a district where a Green is more likely to win than a Dem, I'll simply vote first choice Green, and waste no time on obscure Dems.

    If there are no party endorsements it pretty much becomes a crap shoot.

    The whole IRV thing strikes me as great for single-cause activists or third-party types, who can pick Green first, Dem second (or Libertarian first, GOP second, etc.), but for most other voters it just makes for a confusing muddle.

  5. This is another consequence of a continent-sized nation. The American market is huge, and a little ripple of controversy can make a person a lot of money. One can alienate the majority but still stimulate the id of a small market slice. In a country of 300 million people, that id-stimulated slice is still big enough to ka-ching!

    Could the same thing happen in, say, Sweden? How many books could a Swedish Sarah Palin sell in a country of only 7 million people? Not enough to make her rich--so the incentives do not tempt the same way. A 300 million-person country creates a lot of power, and a lot of dangerous temptations.

    More and more, I've come to the conclusion that democracy in a country this big is just hard.

  6. Lack of strong parties. If you are a political worker it is easier to cash in by pushing crazy ideas rather than being part of political organization.

    Obama is a direct product of this. He only got his start via his novel writing. He was smart enough, and could hire smart people, to take that to the next level -- something Palin, for instance, couldn't.

    People want narrative, and we're not giving it to them.

  7. @Rick: Your current strategies is basically to vote for the Democrat. That is a strategy tailored toward the current voting system, and if you wanted to use it under an IRV system, you could, with a slight tweek. For starters, if you were a primary voter, you would probably start by getting to know the Democratic candidates, and forming some sort of preferences. Then when it came time to vote in the non-partisan primary, you might rank 2 to 3 Democratic candidates 1, 2 and 3, then rank all of the rest of the Democratic canidates as 4 (tied rankings would be allowed), and then not rank any of the other candidates. If enough of the other primary voters also voted for the same candidates as you, then one or more Democratic candidates would make it to the general election. In the general election, you would then rank the Democratic candidates 1, 2, etc., based on your preferences, and if a third party candidate such as a Green made it in and you like them, you might rank them 3. Finally, while you could rank the Republican candidates (if any where on the ballot), you would not have to--you could simply leave them unranked. Again, if a majority of voters ranked the Democratic candidates near the top, then one of them would win. Highly significant to this determination would be rankings from less partisan voters. In the process of IRV elimination, your ranking of a particular candidate only matters if all of your higher choices have been eliminated. For example, if in the process of elimination, all of the Democratic candidates were eliminated and there were only two Republicans left, then your ranking of those two Republicans would matter (if you had taken they time to rank them). Similarly, if a number of independents ranked the "moderates" higher on their ballots than the extremes, then it would be likely that the final two candidates in the elmination process would be two moderates, not two extremes, and the end result would be either a Republican moderate or a Democratic moderate, depending on which was prefered by more independant voters. It all comes down to the overall voting by all voters, not just you, and especially how they are willing to rank across the ballot, not just within a single party. The highly partisan voters would only carry the day if a majority (> 50%) of all voters were similarly partisan, including all of the independents. This is unlikely to happen except in the most homogeneous districts.

  8. Under this same logic, shouldn't folks have bought Sarah "Sane" Palin's book "Going Rogue" because she had actually been elected? Or does the fact that she resigned a few months before its publication invalidate that?

    I get your overall point, I think, that "sane conservatives" should support those who actually win an election and commit themselves to governance, rather than giving their money to the Glenn Becks (and now Sarah Palins) of the world. But do you really think such behavior would make any difference, i.e that Rand Paul and Nikki Haley selling a lot of books would incentivize conservative pols and pundits to lay off the extremism? That doesn't really make any sense to me at all in real-world terms, and I feel like your larger point does not actually link well to the specific "buy Nikki Haley's book" suggestion.

    Finally I'm a firm believer that "money in politics" both before and after Citizens United is, without question, the thing that should worry you the most. The dysfunctional, not-sane nature of the GOP actually has as much or more to do with who their main financial backers are as it does with their extremist, base voter supporters. The ability of the wealthy and corporations to buy the public policies they want (from both the GOP and the Dems) has for some time been, and remains, the central problem of our political system--Glenn Beck selling lots of books (though thankfully less so of late) is small potatoes in comparison.

  9. I must admit to not following your argument.

    Suppose I wanted a return to sanity amongst the GOP. How does financially rewarding a bunch of fringies who happen to be elected help? Are you saying that this helps because we're adding value to the value of winning the election, therefore making a currently elected official value winning again slightly more?

    I don't think it follows. Buying Nikkie Haley's book REALLY incentivizes her to go the Faux News route. Think about it. Assume her book sells well. She then has two options:
    1) govern in a way to win the next election. If she does that, she'll be governor, which is a lot of work, and maybe be able to sell another book.
    2) go the Faux News route. In the end, its MUCH more lucrative. And, it's also more likely if her book has sold well.

    Now, if her book doesn't sell well, she also has the same two options:
    1) govern to be governor
    2) try to go to Faux News and the punditocracy. But, in this scenario, her phone calls to Faux News won't get answered as often as they did above, and publishers will also say "you don't move product."

    I think you're only thinking of increasing the incentives for being elected, as if the book sales have no effect on the pundit route. I think the opposite is true: the politician that can sell books has a much more lucrative career open to them with MANY fewer restrictions on getting paid for doing comparatively little.

    It's conditional expected values. Yes, they go up for the freshman pol that sells a book, but I think they go up MORE for the non-book route. The relevant comparison is between the COMPARISONS between pol and media whore with book sale and without book sale. I think that comparison leans more towards media whore if they know they already can sell books.

  10. "...but you also don't want to support a party that too often denies reality..."

    Not to quibble, but liberals also deny reality. Today's liberals are not at all "liberal" in the classical sense. They frequently hold an ideological commitment to government action that is doomed to failure... just as conservatives do.

    But your main point is a very good one.

  11. "to the extent that politicians are self-interested, they face a major incentive to join in the gravy train and cash in by appealing to those easy marks rather than try to appeal to a majority of the electorate."

    If someone's main goal is to make money running for office is not a good move. Running for office is a better way to spend money then earn money.

    People who held office and want to cash in become lobbyists not media celebrities. Unless someone has been president or is named Palin they will make more in lobbying then selling books.

  12. Sorry to do all these at once...

    I think The Caretaker's comment above is the one not to miss. Is it correct? I'm not sure, but it's certainly plausible, and very interesting.

    A couple of people said "Dems, too." Well, I suppose, but the market just isn't there on the liberal side, for whatever reason.

    Interesting discussion about parties & electoral systems; as regular readers know, I'm for strong, but highly permeable and (therefore?) not necessarily ideologically coherent, parties.

    As for those (Matt, Mercer, Geoff)...I do see the points that y'all are making, and I'll plead guilty to straining a bit to be contrarian here. But I'll stick to my guns. Sure, there are better ways of making money than running for office, but people don't do it just for altruism, either, at least in many (most?) cases. So financial self-interest still applies, at least to some extent. So I'm going to stick with the idea that the incentives can be changed to encourage an interest in re-election, and that any pol interested in re-election is going to, all else equal, going to be a better pol.

    (Yes, I agree that the lobbying thing is a problem, too).

  13. "When Democrats win...the first reaction of a lot of people is to become very, very easy marks for "conservative" scam artists".

    As Chris "points" out, there is always a certain amount of paranoia on the losing side after an election.
    But much of the Left's paranoia after Bush was "won" as largely justified given the way he got into the White House to begin with, along with his overt religiousity, apparent exaggerations of the threat posed to the US by Iraq, and numerous other legitimate concerns about Bush's leadership style and even his fitness to govern.
    Given the magnitude of the enormous economic and political mess Bush left after only eight years most of those concerns turned out to be quite valid indeed.

    Obama on the other hand has not deviatied substantially from many of the worst of Bushes policies, and has done little, if anything that I would have been surprised to see come out of a McCain administration.
    But the reaction to Obama's election goes way beyond paranoia into the realm of mental illness.
    "Obama is Muslim and wants to impose Sharia law"
    "Obama is a Marxist"
    "Obama was born in Kenya'
    "Obama wants to take away our guns"
    "Obama is bankrupting the country"
    Etc, etc, infinitum.
    I mean honestly, Obama is as far right as any Democratic president in the past century. He's as close as you can get to being a Republican without actually joining the party.
    Yet the right-wing Chicken Littles are convinced the sky is falling and it's all Obama's fault.

    What ingrained psycological defect is it that causes so-called "conservatives" to become so completely hysterical every time a so-called "Democrat" gets elected.


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