Democracy for Realists, Part VIII

This entry will serve to wrap up the text of Democracy for Realists, though I plan on looking at events like the 2016 election through this lens in the future.

I want to dig a little deeper into the issues of interest groups, parties, and policy outcomes. Under the group theory of democracy, the types of policies that are proposed and implemented will result from the complex interaction of groups and parties. Groups provide motivation, parties provide structure.

Individuals in society are members of many groups simultaneously. Some attachments are strong, some are weak. Some change over time, some remain the same. A party is a coalition of groups that also has its own group identity.

Different societies have different kinds of groups, depending on the economic system, social organization, the contingency of history, etc. For example (since I just started reading Eric Foner’s classic history Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men), on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, the North and South had very different economies and societal groups. The South was obviously dominated by plantation owners and slaves, a very hierarchical society with no mobility between classes. The North was more egalitarian (though not as much as they thought), and the Republicans of the time saw little distinction between the wage labor class and the business owner class, because today’s wage earner was tomorrow’s capitalist. In the large Eastern cities, the masses of new immigrants were a crucial component of the Democratic party, not out of any ideology, but because political machines like Tammany Hall served as proto-welfare systems and integration institutions. There was little overlap between the kinds of groups in the North and South, no large constituency bridging the gap between the two regions that could serve as a political force to hold the Union together.

Understanding just how and why certain groups ally with each other is one of the key questions Achen and Bartels leave us with. For instance, the modern Democratic coalition contains minorities, teachers, and younger urban professionals; the Republican coalition contains rural voters, evangelical Christians, and business interests. Why? If history had gone a little differently, could we imagine a coalition of business owners and minorities vs teachers and rural voters? Or are there underlying factors that make certain groups more likely to ally with each other? (Keep in mind that Achen and Bartels stress the degree to which parties can advance an ideology from the top down). For example, business friendly Republicans tended to be pro-immigration, because it was a source of cheaper labor, whereas union friendly Democrats were opposed to immigration. Now this is a source of tension within both parties as their broader positions on immigration have changed.

Something to keep in mind with all this is that even within party coalitions, not everyone has an equal say in policy:

“Descriptions of the actual policy making process return repeatedly to the same concepts – power and influence. Some officials, groups, and organizations are powerful; others are not, as classic studies of the policy-making process have emphasized…The resulting differences between them in getting their way are enormous. Sheer group size helps, but wealth, social prestige, and access to media of communication and persuasion often bring greater power, both in their own right and as resources facilitating organization. Thus, it is hardly surprising that, as E. E. Schattschneider…famously put it, ‘The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.’ Similarly, contemporary political scientists…have provided detailed analyses of the dramatic socioeconomic biases in group politics.

[I]n more recent years, and especially in democratic theory, the topic [of power] is too often neglected. In the folk theory and retrospective voting models, every citizen is equal by assumption. Voting is supposed to equalize power: The rich and the poor all have one vote apiece, and they can listen to arguments and vote their interests equally well. But as we have shown, that naive view flies in the face of a great deal of social-scientific evidence.” (pp. 320-321)

Beyond the question of relative status of groups in society is the question of party organization. If it were possible to hold all else constant, and give two identical societies different party structures, we would expect this to lead to differing outcomes as well:

“In systems where parliamentary representation is allocated in proportion to party strength, small parties representing isolated social groups may hold outsize power in the making or breaking of governments, as has sometimes been the case with ultra conservative religious parties in Israel. On the other hand, political leaders in majoritarian systems may organize party coalitions and partisan conflict in ways that, for better or worse, effectively submerge certain group interests. At its best, the process of interest aggregation in majoritarian systems may involve shearing off the more self-interested or damaging or wicked demands of component groups, resulting in a stronger and more coherent electoral coalition” (p. 323)

It seems to me that Democrats and Republicans did just this for decades, submerging a white populist nationalist movement that is now rearing its head. It was somewhat of a question why nationalism had reemerged in Europe while not in America. European countries typically used parliamentary systems, unlike the US. In this way, both parties were able to benefit from a group while not taking the actions it wanted. (As another example, it has been cynically suggested that Republicans would never actually ban abortion, despite vigorous campaigning on the issue, because to do so would lead to a large demobilization of their base).

Compounding the difficulty of understanding the dynamics at play is the fact that group identity can be fluid. Even race, something we might expect to be static, can be dynamic in the long run. The Irish, Italian, and German immigrants to America were once thought to be fundamentally incompatible with the rest of ‘white’ America. But over time, they too were absorbed into the fabric of ‘normal’ America. When there are very clear visual signals of difference (e.g. skin color), the ability to bypass our normal psychological outgroup mechanisms may be more difficult. But many Asian communities seem to be being absorbed into ‘white’ America, and the same may begin to happen with some Latino communities as well.

(As an aside, this is why I’m a bit skeptical of all the takes that claim that Democrats have a clear demographic advantage as the relative proportion of minorities in society increases. That seems like Democrats taking those members’ votes for granted, waving away the fact that on a number of social issues, minorities and immigrants tend to be more conservative than the educated whites that make up the liberal core. If the social identity of Catholic Latinos were to shift to be more strongly identified with the evangelical anti-abortion coalition, then they might start voting for Republicans.)

One last question is why some groups are able to form more formalized interest groups. Think the NRA, Sierra Club, etc. These are more than just a smattering of people who agree on gun rights or environmental protections; they are formal entities who are able to raise money and exert pressure on politicians. Why should some interests be more likely to organize than others? Cue this Onion article.

I can see four possibilities. One is just randomness; through the contingency of history, some interests groups have managed to survive and become powerful. The second is that the nature of the issue matters: gun rights are very important to a significant number of people, so interest groups will naturally form around the issue. The flipside of this is that the organization itself is most important; it doesn’t matter the issue if the interest group is run by good people. Finally, it could just be a manifestation of Olson’s law where a small concentrated interest can get benefits with diffuse costs to the rest of society.

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Democracy for Realists, Part VII: Not Against Democracy

Today’s post is a bit of an aside. I still want to go over in more detail what a group identity understanding of democracy might mean, as well as look at the 2016 election through this lens. But I just found new blog, Liberal Currents, that has a piece that is very relevant to the discussion here.

The title of the piece, ‘Not Against Democracy‘, is a reaction to the recent book by Jason Brennan, Against Democracy. The opening of the post summarizes some arguments against democracy, similar to those we have seen in Democracy for Realists; mostly the focus is on the failure of the folk theory.

What I found interesting was the author’s prime argument for democracy, which expands on Achen and Bartels’ defense of elections as the main good of democracy (as we saw last time).

To review, the great thing about elections is that they result in shared agreement about who rules.  But there are other systems that can do that as well. Hereditary monarchies, for example, have clear lines of succession that leave little ambiguity about who will rule. So, why is democracy better than a monarchy?

If we take as a given that any system of government will result in bad leaders some of the time, better to have a system that has a built in, peaceful method of transition than one that requires extralegal methods (assassinations, coups, etc) to remove a bad leader (or suffer a lifetime of poor governance).

He main thrust is that we should view elections as rituals of intensification:

Anthropologically speaking, voting is a ritual of intensification. Such rituals are undertaken during times of stress for the community—as when the political leadership might change—and they signal collective loyalty to the system so that all may see it and be comforted by it. We may demur that our preferred candidate did not win, or even that our preferred candidate never wins (and mine never does), but winning or losing is not the deeper point here. Rather, the exercise of democracy reaffirms the public commitment to a constant and orderly pattern of social life, and it does so in a way that inherently delegitimizes violence. Democracy may be of the state, but properly understood it is also a rebuke to the state, at least in the worst of its aspects.

Democracy does its good work—the work of keeping civil peace in a presumptive time of stress and danger—without depending at all on voters’ knowledge. Rituals of intensification don’t require a respectable scientific basis, or even a respectable metaphysics. Rituals of intensification work among peoples whom we might otherwise dismiss as superstitious, and they work among us, too, and they work for all of us because of our common evolutionary psychology. We are signaling creatures, and as such sometimes we find it necessary to signal to one another. And what better thing to signal than “Our social life, and our justice, must continue”?

On this view, one might object that democracy represents merely a psychological trick that we play on ourselves, like eating a full meal before we go grocery shopping. But look at the results: democracies are indeed more stable than other forms of government. They are more prosperous. They wage fewer wars against one another. They enjoy more liberty. And all of this begins, plausibly, with the social stability that democracies achieve at the dangerous moment when power changes hands.

There’s something rather gloomy in all this. Is the best we can really hope for a system that can only partially limit the effects of bad regimes, but not fully prevent them? That may be the central question we must grapple with in the near future.