Thursday, October 31, 2002

Kaus vs. Judis, Part 2: The Parties. (See Part 1, the voters, here.) Starting from the baseline of the median voter theorem, which (roughly) yields Mickey Kaus' 50-50 nation thesis (though with the complications noted here introduced by the electoral system), yesterday I looked at some reasons to doubt that voters act as the theorem requires (that is, as pure policy-preference maximizers, carefully voting for the candidate in each election who comes closest to their own policy views). Today I'll introduce doubt into the theorem's view about party behavior-- that is, that parties are free to, and wish to, act as pure vote-maximizing firms, willing to move as close to the center as necessary in order to secure the median voter's vote. Tomorrow I'll take these more complicated models and apply them to the debate between the Kaus-Downs prediction of stalemate and the Judis-Teixeira prediction of Democratic dominance. [Note to Dan Drezner: Brooks' "Patio Man" is similar in kind to the Judis theory-- demographic and cultural trends generating an advantage for one party. I won't treat it separately; it differs from Judis on questions of sociology, which I'm not competent to judge, rather than on questions of political science, which I'm currently pretending to be competent to judge!]

[Question to self: if blogging continues to lead me to write political science instead of just venting about the news of the day, why not write political science in some medium that will help get me tenure instead of on a blog? Hmm... good question...]

OK, parties. Downs recognized, way back in 1957, that parties had some constraints on their ability to lunge to the center. They have bases to appeal to, bases on which they depend for volunteer effort, money, and so on. An especially energetic and far-from-the-center base can credibly threaten to stay home or split into a third party. By doing so they will certainly hurt their preferred candidate's chance of winning right now, but they think that they may move the party back toward them in the long term. (This should all sound familiar-- Nader-Gore, Buchanan- GWB. The third parties in question are those that clearly occupy a position along the regular left-right spectrum, farther from the center than either dominant party. Third parties for which that's not true-- the Reform Party under Perot, the Libertarian Party whenever it draws left-civil libertarians and drug reformers from the Democratic base in addition to anti-tax/ pro-gun types from the Republican base-- present special complications. The whole Median Voter Theorem analysis depends on there being a single left-right dimension onto which candidates can clearly be placed in order. Analyzing those parties has to wait until we relax that assumption, which we'll do tomorrow when we look at niche voting.)

Where people engage in partisan politics for purely power-seeking purposes (you wouldn't believe me if I told you that was an accident, would you?), we should expect Downs-like behavior. But partisan politics, especially post-patronage, (stop that!) just doesn't have enough material rewards available to keep tens of thousands of activists active. Much electioneering work is pretty unpleasant. (I hated, hated, hated going door-to-door, even more than I hated collecting ballot-petition signatures.) There aren't that many politically-appointed positions to go around. For that matter, the elected positions themselves don't pay very much, relative to private sector work. We might assume that people run for office out of a taste for power, but what keeps their activist-supporters, staffers, and assorted hangers-on in the game?

There just doesn't seem to be any reason to suppose that voters have strong, fixed policy preferences, but activists don't. The reverse is surely more likely. A big share of partisan energy, in short, comes from people who want to bring the voters' preferences to them, rather than adjusting themselves to the voters' preferences; and those people often think it's possible to do so.

There could be a sort of Darwinian selection within the party to bring the Roves and Morrisses and McAuliffes to power, since they're the ones who succeed in getting people elected while those who want to bring the voters to them don't. And I think there's probably growing pressure in that direction. But that supposes that the Roves etc can indefinitely win elections with dampened enthusiasm from the activists and the base. They may think they can; but they may be wrong about that.

And even the most purely Machiavellian partisan, perceiving a stalemate at the center, may decide to invest some energy in rallying the base. Boosting union and black turnout has lately been a pretty important strategy for Democrats, arguably more important than pouring endless energy into battling over that last voter in the middle. The same was clearly true for Republicans in 1994, when Gorver Norquist's "Leave-me-alone coalition" was incredibly energized. There are tactical gains to be had from boosting morale and energy on one's own side; and in a near-stalemate nobody can afford to leave tactical gains unexploited. But in order to rally the base in that way, the party has to step back from the center. (This is the primary mechanism at work in what I'll call TNR &c's see-saw thesis-- not endless stalemate, but constant and rapid overreaching by one side, leading the opposition to come to power, leading to overreaching by the opposition-- '92, '94, '96.)

More to come...

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