Posts Tagged ‘parties’

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.

Filed: We R in Control || 20:02, October 5 || No Comments »

Structure and cosmetics

Matt Yglesias has a solid post summing up something he’s been harping on quite a bit lately — the strange obsession of Washington elites with a fantasy, “centrist” president. The main point he makes — that we already have a decidedly centrist president, and that a “non-partisan” replacement for Obama wouldn’t change anything in terms of policy — is the most salient one on this particular topic. All of the pining for Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chaffee or whomever the third-party flavor of the month is rests on the fervent and mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s agenda is that of a socialist revolutionary.

But the secondary point that Yglesias makes is actually the more broadly interesting one:

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy.

It’s boring, and it’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s true that most of the structural-institutional problems with the federal government can be traced back to the Senate, either in its existence or its design. This is just one example — the president has to go to the Senate, hat in hand, to get a significant portion of his administration staffed. Add the filibuster to the mix, and you’re left with a situation in which 41 senators can decide that they don’t like an executive agency and that it can’t have a director, no matter what. The routine deployment of filibuster threats and anonymous holds also means that standard-issue legislation requires a supermajority in the Senate to pass, and the Constitutional design of the upper house drastically overrepresents small states in both Congress and the electoral college.

Many of the problems caused by the Senate are things that the public dislikes — it increases horsetrading and bickering, and makes it more difficult to pass even minor legislation. But would it be possible to get rid of the Senate? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you could get 67 senators to vote for a Senate-abolishing Constitutional amendment and that the biggest hurdle came from the general public. I doubt anyone’s ever polled support for abolishing the Senate, but in the wake of the 2000 election, there was never a time when abolishing the electoral college even enjoyed support at the level of Al Gore’s popular vote total — that is, at the time when such a move should’ve been at its most popular, even some of the voters who got screwed by this institutional anachronism still didn’t want to get rid of it. I wonder whether this reaches back to the way civic education works here, with an emphasis in both formal schooling and informal norms on reverence for the Constitution. Even though it’s totally stupid in 2011, the Senate is a central part of how American government operates, and it appears that the public is much more likely to see and judge individual political actors than the largely invisible institutions that restrict them.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 16:29, July 31 || 2 Comments »

Blogger, read thyself

Every once in a while you’ll read a bit of commentary about an opinion columnist or editorialist making some claim that flatly contradicts facts in reporting by that columnist’s own news organization (see, e.g., the disconnect between editorial and reporting in the Washington Post). There are all sorts of potential reasons for this happening, and it provides a lot of fodder for eager media critics in the blogosphere.

But I was really surprised to see this coming from a blogger, and particularly one who is generally quite insightful. Steve Benen, the blogger behind the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal, has an op-ed in the New York Daily News today suggesting that Barack Obama could be successful in the upcoming legislative session by co-opting Republican ideas that he largely agrees with and supports. The two examples he gives are presenting John McCain’s 2008 cap and trade system and George W. Bush’s immigration reform plan as his own bipartisan proposals. How could Republicans suddenly oppose things they’d so recently supported? Put aside the fact that Republicans, en masse, were never fans of either of those proposals. Republicans just did this! The health care bill that almost every congressional Republican voted against was nearly identical to the Clinton-era Republican counter-proposal and the system signed into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. In 2009, that market-driven, Republican-approved plan became a socialist plan to pull the plug on grandma.

The point of this, though, is not to make a counter-argument to Benen’s op-ed. It’s to point out that he spelled out why this can’t work just yesterday in a post called “When (and Why) Bipartisanship Is Impossible.” In it, he notes exactly the health care process that played out last year, and quotes Ezra Klein noting that Democratic moves toward (then through and past) the center are always met with Republican moves to the right. So it was very surprising to read this from Benen, and it’s hard not to wonder if the venue — a daily metro newspaper, as opposed to a blog hosted by a monthly opinion journal — influenced his argument and the conclusion he reached.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 11:47, November 14 || No Comments »