Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Kaus vs. Judis, Part 1:

My post below about the median voter theorem and Mickey Kaus' 50-50 article wasn't, quite, an endorsement of Kaus' general thesis, just an analysis of some things that tend to make it so and some things that tend to make it not so. Now I'm going to start to make things more complicated. I'll take as a point of comparsion the Judis-Teixeira thesis (much beloved by Josh Marshall) of emerging Democratic dominance based on Democrat-friendly demographic and cultural trends.

This will be a political-scientist-hat-on post, but there won't be anything very technical in it. Neither rational choice theory nor voting behavior is anywhere near my areas of research, which is good for you, the reader; it means that there will be neither greek letters nor regression analyses here. But I will make some reference to the conclusions that the greek-letter-people and the r-squared-people have drawn.

Now, the Downs' formal model of parties-as-firms competing for voters-as-consumers isn't the only thing one learns in Poli Sci 101. Another is an empirical finding that psychological identification with a party is a pretty durable thing, and that it endures across generations. (The most powerful predictor of party ID-- more than race, income, or education-- is parents' party ID.) Some insights from higher-level political science and rational choice theory: First, information is costly. Becoming a genuinely informed voter is a time-consuming and annoying activity. (Next week I vote in Chicago. My irrational commitment to casting informed votes is consuming a lot of my energy-- especially because here we engage in the deeply corrupt practice of electing judges, and there are a lot of them.) It becomes even more costly the more news coverage is oriented toward polls and scandals. Figuring out which candidate is marginally closer to my political views takes research. There's therefore a lot to be said for using the informational shorthand or brand-loyalty that is a political party, even though that loyalty will certainly sometimes lead me to vote for candidates who are farther away from my preferred positions.

A difficulty with rational-choice theories of voting that draw attention to the costliness of gathering information is that voting itself is costly, too-- and lacks benefits. For nearly all voters nearly all of the time, the cost of gas used in driving to and from the polling place, the marginal risk of a car accident en route, the loss of fifteen minutes or two hours of one's day add up to a cost that is vastly greater than (the likelihood of one's vote being decisive)x(the marginal benefit of one's preferred candidate winning). Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky (I'm slightly acquainted with Brennan, friendly-acquainted with Lomasky, and enormously impressed by them both, but have no institutional ties to either) have therefore argued that voting is an expressive activity, like rooting for a sports team, more than it is a calculated attempt to bring about the policies one prefers. Voting as expressive activity, in turn, further weakens the Downsian model, since it consists very substantially of loyalty to one's team. I don't shift my baseball loyalty from the Red Sox to the White Sox even when I move to Chicago. Why would I change party-team loyalty just because one candidate in one election was slightly closer to my preferred policy position?

Now teams-- and here I think I'm departing from Brennan and Lomasky's analysis-- needn't be parties. My primary loyalty could be to my union or my ethnic group, and so I could vote according with union or communtiy leaders' endorsements as a way of rooting for my team (my group) to do well. Or I could vote against the party that seems to be allied with the team I think of as the opposition.

For any of these reasons or some combination of them-- the costliness of information-gathering, the psychological character of party identification, the expressive character of voting, or the possibility of expressive voting out of loyalty to my team-that's-not-a-party-- there could be inefficiencies in the Downsian electoral market. Voters will be slow-- sometimes very slow-- to respond to shifts in parties' or candidates' positions. So even if parties are pretty pure vote-maximizing machines, even if the Karl Roves and Terry McAuliffes of the world really do define political parties, the Downsian equilibrium at the median voter might not happen very often. Instead, we'll see cycles of one-party dominance that change, sometimes quite suddenly, when the gap between the dominant party's positions and the median voter's positions has become too great. Then new loyalty will be built to the new dominant party, that will be similarly hard to shake. Things like this happen even in consumer markets to some degree. They're a lot more likely to happen in voting markets, where the incentive of consumer-voters to constantly correct and get things just right is vanishingly low.

Coming up later: part 2-- the parties-- and part 3-- the application of all this to the Kaus vs. Judis contest. (Things don't look quite as bleak for Kaus, or Downs, as it might seem so far.)

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