Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Does Gridlock Foster Extremism?

This post is an attempt to explain the attraction of "anti-establishment" candidates in this year's primaries.  My theory is admittedly incomplete.  It is more of a starting point than a fully fleshed-out idea.  In short, I think that the gridlock conditions that characterize our current political stalemate have encouraged people to focus on the payoffs that would accrue in conditions of single-party control of government, since those are the only conditions in which meaningful legislation can happen.  Therefore people favor extreme candidates who are promising to make fundamental changes when they are elected.  By analogy, if you are down by 4 points late in the game, you would rather have a slightly better quarterback than a vastly better kicker, because a field goal accomplishes nothing.

Here is what I take to be the factual background.  First, the federal government basically doesn't pass laws, because the Republicans control Congress and the Democrats control the White House.  The government still functions (most of the time), but it is almost like a caretaker government.  The taxes come in, the checks go out, but the laws stay the same.  In "normal" times you might criticize a politician for proposing a plan that is too unpopular to become law.  In our environment, it seems wildly naïve or ambitious to suggest that you can accomplish anything at all.

Second, this stasis is punctuated by occasional fits of legislative hyperactivity.  In the Obama era, the results were the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.  These bills brought seismic changes in the legal and economic structure of our country, and they were written with little or no input from Republicans.  (It is not clear whether Republicans would have been given a real chance to affect the legislation if they had tried.  I don't believe any did so, although some did vote for Dodd-Frank.)  Both bills were passed at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and (of course) the White House.

Third, ideological sorting (with essentially every major politician in the Democratic Party to the left of every major politician in the Republican Party) has resulted in a very high degree of partisan polarization relative to the second half of the twentieth century.  (I realize this is somewhat tautological, but I mean polarization to include not just ideological self-identification but also a high degree of partisanship and rancor.)  This often amounts to sheer antipathy for the other party and its leaders.  Meanwhile the weakening of the party system has basically eliminated the viability of the old-fashioned "pragmatic" role—anyone who compromises with the other side risks facing a primary challenger, even when this might flip the district to the other side.  (Some of these dynamics are more readily observed on the Republican side than on the Democratic side, and I don't mean to strike a false equivalence between the parties.  However, this is also not my subject at the moment, so please just take this as the broad, impressionistic sketch it is meant to be.)

In this environment, change is intermittent and sweeping, rather than frequent and incremental.  So almost all the payoffs are concentrated in rare states of the world.  Let's say you believe Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Bernie Sanders in the face of a Republican Congress, but that if Sanders had a Democratic Congress (including a filibuster-proof Senate), he would accomplish more.  Ordinarily you might still prefer Clinton, because a Republican (or divided) Congress is far more likely, but in our current situation maybe it doesn't matter because nothing happens in that situation anyway.  Maybe you assign a value of "nothing changes" to all situations involving divided government and focus entirely on states of the world when something can actually change.

I should note at this point that I don't think Sanders would actually be better than Clinton in those circumstances, so it's not a hard choice for me.  Moreover, there are plenty of factors to consider beyond legislation—there is the Supreme Court, there is foreign policy, there is the administrative state.  And of course, there is also a role for voting defensively to prevent the other side from being in a position to enact a sweeping agenda.  So in other words, there are a lot of caveats.

Still, relative to other times, our current situation seems to invite extremism and long shot strategies, and so maybe it explains some of what we are observing in the presidential primaries.


Blogger Zed said...

Quick factual point. In the case of the ACA, yes, Max Baucus solicited input from Grassley, Snowe, Collins, and others in the summer and fall of 2009. They ended up voting against it as part of a deliberate strategy to deny Obama a bipartisan achievement (after stalling the bill for long enough that Kennedy died and was replaced by Scott Brown). A lot of red-state Democratic senators were v unwilling to back anything with zero Republican support.

5:53 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yes, and I believe that Baucus's offer was made in good faith, but it's very hard to make that judgment from a distance. (In fact the administration was very frustrated with Baucus's insistence on giving Republicans time to join the debate, so I suspect he genuinely wanted Republican buy-in. But you can see why Republicans would sense a trap.)

6:22 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

I don't know what a "trap" would even mean in this context...

7:14 PM  
Blogger James said...

There are any number of ways to trap someone in this context. If Republicans make a counter-offer, you can accept it, and immediately it's a bipartisan bill. Or if the counter-offer isn't good enough, you state (accurately) that Republicans have accepted most of the principles of the bill and are haggling over subsidies to the poor (or whatever it is). If the Republican version would have bad consequences for some people, then you hang them with that. If a purple- or blue-state Republican signs on to the bill, maybe he/she will get primaried and you will pick up a seat.

6:57 PM  
Blogger James said...

In this connection, recall that Bush's Social Security privatization plan was met with universal Democratic silence. This is generally considered to have been politically astute, because without any bipartisan cover, the bill went nowhere. You may say it would have failed anyway, but would you really advise the Democrats to negotiate if they had it to do over again?

7:15 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

Partisan political advantage is zero-sum whereas policy can be positive-sum. This means that "bipartisan" policies have a number of possible rationales for the politically "losing" side: 1. key constituencies of the losing side stand to benefit; 2. even though the party as a whole loses, particular individuals within the party stand to gain and can be peeled off; 3. the policy is good for key constituencies on both sides and the political fallout is small or indeterminate.

In the SS case, the Dems did not stand to gain anything on policy that was an improvement on the status quo. They also stood to gain politically from the GOP blowing capital on SS privatization (which would have been a good example of 1. above). Nor were there associated goodies that could've been targeted to specific Democratic senators. The only circs. under which the Democrats could rationally have gone along is if they thought the alternative was a *certain* GOP privatization bill, which they could have made less bad by signing onto it but were unlikely to defeat outright.

The ACA seems different. At least outwardly the GOP had policy objectives associated with healthcare (tort reform, drug pricing, Cadillac-like taxes) that they could have achieved by tacking them onto the bill. Also the GOP was not outwardly prepared to defend the 2008 status quo on healthcare the way most Democrats were willing to defend the 2005 status quo on Social Security. And as I said a lot of centrist Dems wanted to decrease their political exposure and would have been willing to adopt policies closer to GOP preferences in exchange.

You say that a GOP counter-offer might have been accepted and would have been a bipartisan bill. I think a functional political party would call that a victory.

10:20 PM  

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