October 2013


Mothership connection

So I kind of quit blogging, because it was taking me too much time to develop and refine the things I wanted to write about, which is both unproductive in general and not great blogging in practice in particular. But this week I was caught by an idea I could get figured out fairly quickly.

It stems from this New Republic post bemoaning the tendency to blame the government shutdown (and ideological extremism in general) on gerrymandering. This is basically correct. The idea behind your garden variety gerrymandering is to pack as many of your opponents voters into as few districts as you can, giving them a few very safe seats and you the bulk of the seats, but with narrow margins. If you do it right, you wind up with something like Pennsylvania, which voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and also gave 13 of its 18 House seats to Republicans. But also if you do it right, you’re winning a bunch of 52-48 districts, which means you should be incentivized to run relatively moderate candidates. So it’s not a very attractive explanation for systemic polarization or individual extremism.

But what is? Well one clear one is the willingness of far-right conservatives to mount primary challenges against Republican incumbents. This is an asymmetric strategy, as liberals are far less able or willing to mount such campaigns against incumbent Democrats. Primaries are low turnout elections, and the strongly ideological are the most likely voters. That means that Republican challengers come from the right, and challenged incumbents must move right to meet them. In theory, this should make the winner of the primary (whether the incumbent or the challenger) more vulnerable in the general election, because they’ve moved away from the median voter, and the Democratic nominee can move to the center in response. And indeed, this is essentially the dynamic that we’ve seen with the awful Senate candidates the GOP has put up in the last two cycles — they are far enough to the right to win a primary contested strictly among ultra-conservatives, but the statewide electorate wants nothing to do with them.

OK, so how does the House differ? There are a few key factors here. First, Senate campaigns get much more attention from national media and the national parties than House campaigns do, on average. So when Todd Akin talks about “legitimate rape,” it becomes national news. When Kerry Bentivolio (now the Representative from Michigan’s 11th district) is called “mentally unbalanced” by his own brother, it doesn’t. Additionally, Senators don’t have districts, they have states, which experience less change than districts do based on either demographics or map changes (the latter of which never happen for states). At the district-level, voters are gradually self-segregating along political lines, creating safer districts without necessarily gerrying the mander. This has the potential to make party ID even more salient in these elections than it is for statewide and presidential elections.

Where this all points is in the direction of low-information primaries producing nominees who appeal to extremely partisan electorates, leading into general elections where party ID trumps nearness to the median voter. This is where the idea of “safe seats” shifts from incumbents to parties — these are districts in which voters are pulling the lever for the party without knowing or caring much about who the candidate is. Once they get to Washington, fealty to the movement and service to the party become the most important thing. What’s so incredible about this is that it might be as close as the US has ever come to installing a parliamentary system. The problem is that the rest of our system isn’t designed to handle a parliament — the Senate gets in the way, the President gets in the way, the 10th Amendment gets in the way, etc. Our House has to push as hard as it can to get through all those veto points, and as long as its relatively undisciplined among its parties, that’s fine. A House that is discretely divided is going to have a tendency to break our system, and that tendency isn’t going to go away when the present crisis ends.

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