Thursday, July 7, 2011

Not a Normal Party

Nate Silver says that the GOP reluctance to compromise is driven by voter alignments. John Sides has a good post up responding, in which he points to the strong conservativism of GOP activists and politicians as the driving force.

I tend to agree with John, but with a major caveat: I think that only looking at ideology misses a significant piece of the puzzle here. Yes, Republican politicians and activists are very conservative. But they are also, and perhaps more importantly, highly partisan. That's why they can flip positions overnight when the situation calls for it; their positions are informed by the partisan context as much, if not more than, some sort of principles.

But neither of those things is sufficient to explain a party that in many cases appears to do things that undermine its own goals. After all, no matter how conservative Republicans may be, it's still the case that in any situation there's a best (that is, most conservative) deal that can be made, and whether it's partisanship or ideology driving them, they should be trying to make that deal. I'm convinced that the problem is that on top of everything else, the money to be made from conservative extremism introduces perverse incentives that color everything that the GOP does. That, and not ideology or simple partisan polarization, is what I think may be actually scary about politics as it has been practiced for the last several years.  Everything about Madisonian politics is based on an assumption that ambition will drive politicians and everyone else in the system to aspire to winning elections. If there are serious incentives to be in the minority, it's not clear that the system will work.

(And I've said it before, so I don't know that I'll write a post about it, but that's part of my answer to Matt Yglesias's argument against the US Constitutional system and in favor of parliamentary government. If the problem with the current system is perverse incentives created by a consumer market exploited by conservative rejectionists, then I'm not sure why parliamentary systems would be the cure. Beyond that, as usual, I'd just point out that the US doesn't have a "presidential" system -- it has a system of separated institutions sharing powers).


  1. I'm going to argue that, at least for certain ideologies, being highly ideological and highly partisan go hand in hand. Marxism and the various flavors of fascism are classic examples of this. Marxists and the multi-flavored fascists did not want the most Marxist or fascist deal they could get, they wanted all or nothing. What I think is happening with the Republicans, and Amanda Marcotte has written a lot about this, is that they have embraced such a highly ideological form of conservatism that they want all or nothing.

  2. I'm so appreciative of the way this blog is able to add value to the debate about the merits of our madisonian system vs. those of a more parliamentary one. As someone who reads a lot of Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein and broadly shares their policy goals, I've heard a lot about how our political institutions are largely to blame for our failure to face fully many of the challenges before us. This blog has encouraged me to think more carefully through that critique, and to consider how our system, whatever it's flaws, promotes "more politics, not less," and that this disposition is worth protecting.

    At the same time, while parliamentary democracy may not be the cure, I think myself and many others share a growing sense that our institutions are unable to meet the demands of the moment. Perhaps this is typical "Congress bashing" but it strikes me that some sort of institutional reform is necessary to encourage our Congress to act responsibly and once more engage the President on constitutional grounds, instead of being supine and satisfied with sniping from the sidelines while allowing the President to push the limits of his constitutional authority in order to meet the challenges for which he is accountable at the ballot box. I think your explanation of perverse incentives provided by conservative rejectionist opportunism goes a long way to explaining some of the hiccups we're currently experiencing with our system. What is a "more politics" way of correcting for that new reality? Are there any reforms that will retain our Madisonian character while enabling the government not to be held hostage by a movement incentivized to be as purist as possible?

    I know this is a topic you've written extensively about, and I especially liked your point earlier about permeable parties and the ability of civic engagement to shape priorities within the party. I guess I'm asking this bc I want to promote institutional reform that encourages Congress to be the transformative legislature I read about in The Federalist Papers, but I'm unsure what those reforms would be.

    Apologies for the much too long comment.

  3. I think there’s a genuine belief on the right that our country has lost it’s way. With a Democrat in the White House, that has now been married with the powerful Madisonian incentive to “beat the other guy” in the next election.

    The same is true with Democrats -- the anti-war left seems less active now that their guy is responsible for the fighting. Presumably they’re still against the wars, including the new one in Libya, but there seems to be less of a public outcry on the left.

    Our politics is infected by an Us vs. Them partisanship. I wonder if this dynamic is any less pronounced in countries with multi-party proportional representation…

  4. If you're looking for an institution that benefits from their chosen ones being out of power, look no further than the partisan right incarnation of the Fourth Estate.

    Forgive the technical finance terminology, but its been estimated that the NPV of Clinton's victory in the 1992 election, for Rush Limbaugh, was surely well into 9 figures. More commonly, would Rush Limbaugh have become what he did if GHWB had won re-election in 1992? Easy to see he would not have.

    At a certain point it stops being about ideology or partisanship and just becomes, what are the circumstances that will make Ailes/Limbaugh/et al the most money? Given the ubiquity of partisan rejectionism in the right-wing noiseosphere, it seems like we all inevitably get taken along for their high-profit ride, and collectively, at least, its awfully difficult to get off.

  5. It is really rather remarkable that we do have a quasi-presidential system, since it was Congress that was supposed to be top dog. It can impeach and remove a president, but the US president cannot dissolve Congress and call for new elections.

  6. I'm curious what you think about Sides's contentions about turnout in the off-year election. The numbers I'm looking at tell me that yes, Democrats do not turnout in off-year elections as often as Republicans. And I don't think that Sides responded well to Silver's contention concerning this. Whether or not it is an "enthusiasm gap" or just poor strategy on the part of the Democrats in mobilizing their base in off-year elections (which is my theory), there is a difference in turnout. There has been for some time in some parts of the country. And as far as I can tell, it was a larger gap last year than in 2006. The contention that people switch allegiance, is not borne out by the evidence of a highly partisan electorate. And claims of a mandate, based on off-year election results can skew perceptions of what the electorate, as a whole, believe. Whatever the reasons for depressed Democratic turnout (and even moreso, Non-partisan turnout) in off-year elections, it's there. And it has an influence on how elected officials behave and on how people (in particular the press) perceive the priorities of the American electorate. I'm glad Silver attempted to discuss this. It doesn't get mentioned in the popular discourse often enough.

  7. Gilmour, Gilmour, Gilmour. (As in his 1995 book, Strategic Disagreement)

    What if a party prefers an issue in the next election to a law on the books? Given the absolute sheer insanity of what the GOP seems to be pushing for, I would argue that the GOP is much more interested in stupid populism than in making sane public policy.

  8. Bryan,

    I wish I had an answer for that. I don't. I guess I have a hope, which is that it winds up being a sideshow that mostly doesn't affect anything else, but that's really not much, is it?

  9. Was thinking a bit about this thread in the context of the public v. private good concept discussed on July 4th. Specifically, that the polity has a well-developed understanding about when the "public good" goes off the rail (viz, the restrictions of the totalitarian state), but we pay scant attention to hideous excess on the "private good" side.

    We are well-aware of excess on the public good side because we watched it for 50 years with the Soviets. Not just their stifling political culture, but also the comical stupidity of things like gosplan, which laughably attempted to centrally coordinate economic activity. How'd that go for ya, Soviets?

    What is the comparable excess on the private good side? Do we even talk about it? I think it is probably disengagement. Not so much libertarianism, which is just a tail iteration of the private good ideal, but full out - as on the t-shirt John Kruk used to wear after his testicular cancer surgery - "I'm gonna take my ball and go home".

    Right wing hero/anti-hero John Galt is a regrettable manifestation of exactly this disengagement, arguably its the only thing we are sure about him from Atlas Shrugged. The rejectionism of the partisan right-wing media is also a version of this disengagement.

    The right wing in America, correctly, spent a lot of effort discrediting totalitarian social and economic policies of the extreme left. Its a shame that the left-wing doesn't expend a fraction as much effort discrediting the disengaging policies of the extreme right.

  10. A parliamentary government, or any government with unified power, DOES hold up much better when (some) parties have incentives to be in the minority.

    In a unified government, the majority party does whatever they want. The minority party cannot stop them. Therefore it does not matter what the minority party wants or does. If they want to be in the minority, they will be, and that works great. The majority party will govern however it likes. I cannot imagine a situation where no party at all wants to be in the majority. Right now the Democrats want it desperately, and would make whatever Madisonian compromise necessary to get a majority, were it attainable.

    I don't really understand your thinking, because the Republicans are NOT a minority party. They have a majority in the House, which is why they are able to cause trouble. Before that, they wielded power in the Senate, because it had no effective majority. If they were a minority in both houses (even with 41 Senate seats), we would not even be talking about the debt limit.

    If we had a unified government, and particularly if we gave extra votes to the majority as the French do (and assuming a two party system), this Republican obstruction wouldn't even be an issue. The incentives toward being a major minority party would also be a lot weaker, because they would have much less power. What are the incentives to be in the Green or Libertarian parties? Not much.

  11. CSH, the left does spend a lot of time trying to discredit the disengaging tactics of the extreme right. Read any liberal or left blog and you will see plenty of examples. The problem is that the right has much more penetration in the media because they have richer backers.

  12. CSH,

    Just for the record...the US left, and certainly liberals, spend at least as much time discrediting Communism as the US right did.


    The problem is that parties are going to rotate more or less regardless of whether they're trying to achieve a majority or not, because a lot of swing voting is retrospective -- that is, in hard times people throw the incumbents out, and it only somewhat matters how well the out-party is doing at getting prepared to govern.


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