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 VI

In light of the evidence presented so far, we should be left with many questions, chiefly: Why is democracy the best form of government? Is democracy the best form of government?

Let’s return to the question that opened this series: what exactly is it we all like so much about democracy? The historical appeal of democracy has been the concept that voters should be represented, not merely governed. As the influence of the rationalist, individualist Enlightenment grew into the folk theory, the justification for democracy expanded into the idea that the power of government is located not only in the consent of the governed, but their political judgement as well. Given that we have already dispensed with this theoretical underpinning, is there anything left about democracy we can salvage?

Achen and Bartels believe that despite their shortcomings, elections are the fundamental strength of our system of government. They give the following reasons:

  1. Elections provide widely accepted agreement about who rules
  2. Regular party turnover ensures no one becomes entrenched in power
  3. 1 and 2 above give incentives for politicians to tolerate opposition
  4. Democratic political engagement has important implications for civic competence and other virtues
  5. Gives politicians incentive to avoid violating consensual ethical norms

I’ll note that I’m not so sure about 4 and 5. The authors leave unclear what 4 means; perhaps the argument is that, despite the fallacy of ‘feeling like we’re thinking’, democracy has positive spillover effects into other avenues of civic life? Regarding 5, the way the current administration has been playing out seems suggests that partisanship transcends (or shall we say…trumps) these norms. But the first three seem reasonable.

So, how do elections operate in the realist view of democracy?

First and foremost, a political campaign’s main function is to remind voters of their partisan identity; to activate and mobilize their base. The goal of a campaign is not to convince voters of the strength of their candidate’s political philosophy or policy program. As the authors write, “[A]t election time, voters choose a party validating their social and political identities, then rationalize their decisions with appropriate party-supplied reasons.” (p. 311)

“People sort out their group loyalties in ways that are meaningful to them, giving priority to some commitments while downplaying others. The result is that no group’s members belong exclusively to one party…Partisan loyalties reflect the way people understand their own lives, jobs, religious views, ancestral identities, family traditions, and personal ties. For ordinary citizens, parties make sense – if they make sense at all – in social identity terms, not as ideological frameworks.” (pp. 308-309)

(In this light, the legal structures in the United States around campaign spending and Super PACs are made all the more laughable, because issue advertising may as well be the exact same as advertising for a candidate; both are seeking to arouse the same feelings in voters. Issue ads may even be a more powerful motivator than regular candidate ads in many instances.)

The effects documented earlier in the book, like the importance of income growth in the six months before an election, and the reaction to natural disasters, still apply of course. But we should understand them as marginal effects – most voters are partisans, and only those with weaker attachments will be the swing vote. The larger the shock, the more the chance of swinging.

If we accept that elections are largely driven by group identity, with elements of randomness from external shocks, what are the implications for policy? To quote again from Achen and Bartels:

“In every society, policy-making is a job for specialists. Policies are made by political elites of one kind or another…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…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.

If voters are to have their interests represented in the policy-making process, then, interest groups and parties have to do the work. And the organizations representing different interests have to have power in the policy-making process proportional to their presence in the electorate. The rich, the well-placed, and the well-organized cannot have extra power to advance their interests. Too often…naive reformers have imagined have imagined that the pseudo-democratization bestowed by plebiscites would solve all these problems cheaply and easily. To the contrary, spelling out the simple normative perspective of equal power in the context of an honest description of the policy-making process makes it only too clear how far we have to go to become seriously democratic.” (pp. 321-322)

A fact that is little appreciated among Americans is that our political parties are actually extraordinarily weak, despite strong partisanship. Our party system is very decentralized; anyone can choose to run as whichever party they wish in a primary; no approval from any sort of party leadership is required. In most other democracies, parties have at least some control over who runs, as with closed list systems or mixed member proportional representation systems.

As with everything, there are costs and benefits to any kind of electoral system. Ours was explicitly designed for a country without parties. Obviously, that situation did not last long, yet the founding generation’s skepticism of political faction remains deep in our DNA. We have a campaign finance system where we donate to individual candidates, not parties. We have, over time, removed more and more power from our parties as organizations – the leadership of the party no longer even has any say over who their own presidential candidates are (!).

Along with the dismantling of the folk theory, this may be the most important point of the book: “[E]ffective democracy requires an appropriate balance between popular preferences and elite expertise. The point of reform should not simply be to maximize popular influence in the political process, but to facilitate more effective popular influence. We need to learn to let political parties and political leaders do their jobs, too.” (p.303, emphasis original)

Our party system needs serious reform – parties need to be stronger, not weaker, if they are to serve as a countervailing force to the most powerful actors in society. The challenge is in finding a way to do that such that parties are not captured by those same powerful forces while remaining open to popular input.

Democracy for Realists, Part V

So we’ve established that our group identities are based more on emotion than on reason. I want to expand on this notion that we get our ideology from parties, rather than vice versa, before getting to a realist theory of democracy.

The chapter in the book detailing the relevant research is titled ‘It Feels Like We’re Thinking’, and that’s about the best way to sum it up. As the authors concisely state,“Citizens’ political preferences and beliefs are constructed from emotional or cognitive commitments whose real bases lie elsewhere.” (p. 269)

A brief framework of events: parties send signals to voters to advertise their group status; voters use these signals to construct a conceptual framework about the world; voters signal the strength of their partisanship through varying intensity of views held by the party.

What’s surprising is that research shows that higher levels of political engagement actually lead to more partisan views of reality. Intuitively, we might think that people who pay more attention to politics and policy will be more informed in an objective sense, and come to similar conclusions regardless of partisanship. This is not the case. High information voters’ thinking ends up being mostly just rationalizing what is already emotionally believed to be true. (This is something I’ve come to believe we do in many, if not most, realms of life: rationalize what our emotions have already told us to do or believe.)

This is all a bit abstract, so let’s turn to an example in the book: views of the Clinton era budget by Democrats and Republicans. Those polled were asked about the status of the deficit: was it increasing or decreasing? In this instance, there is a factual answer: it was decreasing. Low information voters of both parties did about as well as chance in answering the question, as would be expected from people just guessing. But as voter information goes up, there is a remarkable divergence. Higher information Republicans answer that the deficit is increasing, while equivalent Democrats answer that it is decreasing (to a lesser extent, however). What is going on?

From the framework above, Republicans have long claimed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and decry Democrats as irresponsible spenders of public money. The lowest information voters don’t tend to pay attention to policy debates, but more engaged voters will hear this tale often. So, when asked about the Clinton budget, these voters ‘know’ that Democrats are profligate spenders, a Democrat is in the White House, and therefore the deficit must be increasing.

Rather than continue to belabor the point, I’ll just quote the key passage from the chapter:

Continue reading “Democracy for Realists, Part V”

Democracy for Realists, Part IV

Why do we vote the way we do? So far, the authors of Democracy for Realists have shown that neither the individualist framework of the folk theory nor the managerial retrospective theory can explain historical election outcomes. What is it then? Do we vote randomly, or is there a different motivating force we have neglected?

The authors argue we need to look back to the once popular realist political tradition, which was largely discarded in favor of rationalist Enlightenment liberalism. In particular, we need a group theory of politics that accounts for “the powerful tendency of people to form groups, the ensuing construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the powerful role of emotion rather than reason in directing group activity.” (p. 215)

In their view, a model of elections as being motivated by group forces will have far more explanatory power than those previously considered. Some key factors to note:

  • We are socialized into groups through family and culture; our sense of identity “serves to distinguish groups to which [we] belong that are not central to [our] self-concept from those that are a more integral part of the personality” (p. 228)
  • “Identities … are emotional attachments that transcend thinking” (p. 228), and this extends to membership in political parties. We identify with a party from an emotional level, not as the party that we agree with most on arts funding or foreign aid spending.
  • People take their views from the groups to which they belong. As such, we get our ideas on policy and ideology from political parties, not the other way around (as in the folk theory).
  • Most people “organize political thinking around social groups and their role in competing political parties. They see political and racial clashes as group conflict” (p. 221) In other words, a political fight about the marginal tax rate is not really about the appropriate level of taxation for a society; it is about Democrats versus Republicans, nothing more.

In this understanding, elections are about activating and mobilizing different parts of our identities. We all have many parts of our identity; we claim membership in many different groups simultaneously. We obtain aspects of our identity from parents, peers, regional culture, national culture, education, religion, employment, and so on.

Continue reading “Democracy for Realists, Part IV”

Democracy for Realists, Part III

There are two ways of thinking of the role of politicians in a representative democracy. The first, which was previously addressed, is a vision of the politician as an avatar: they are to ‘represent’ the majority views in their constituency, and put aside any personal views that conflict with that. This is the operative view of the folk theory of democracy, which the authors of Democracy for Realists have provided ample evidence against.

For another quick example of the flaws in this view, take the recent polls showing that Obamacare, now that it’s on the chopping block, is more popular than ever. Republicans believe they were elected with a mandate to repeal it (set aside the problem that more people actually voted for Democrats). The only thing that has changed about the ACA over the last year has been who controls political power. If we were to take the folk theory seriously, it would imply that a non trivial percent of the population has simultaneously carefully considered the evidence and come to new conclusions regarding their preferred health care system. This strains credulity. Instead, it stands as testament to the fickleness of our opinions. Which beliefs should politicians represent? The one the people held when they elected them, or the ones they have a few months later?

In the accountability model, the primary way democracy operates is by holding politicians accountable for their past performance. In contrast to the folk theory, politicians are viewed not as avatars but as as trustees of districts. Voters have the power to remove politicians if they don’t like their performance, but otherwise there is no active mandate.

The accountability model, then, views voters as exercising indirect control of policy without sophisticated knowledge by assessing politicians’ performances, rewarding success with reelection, and failure with ouster. Would I need an understanding of the mechanisms of monetary policy to know that tight money leads to recessions? No, because I need only see that I lost my job because the tight money policies of the party in power led to a shrinking economy.

Through the threat of diselection, politicians are incentivized to act in the interest of the voters – if a policy were good for a politicians but bad for voters, the accountability model would predict that politicians would not implement that policy lest they are kicked out at the next election. Elections serve as a solution the principal-agent problem between constituents and their representatives.

The accountability models faces two challenges: 1) It requires voters to accurately calculate changes in their welfare between elections, and 2) Separate out the things which the government is responsible for from those that are not. If these conditions are not met, the accountability model falls apart; when a politician’s chance of reelection is no longer tied to their performance, they are free to act in their own interest without fear of assured consequences. As you might suspect, Achen and Bartels provide considerable evidence that this is the case.

To begin, it is very well established that the state of the economy (particularly income growth) has a measurable effect on election outcomes. This makes sense; the economy is central to our lives and is responsible for a great deal of our well being. Politicians that manage an economy poorly are most certainly not acting in the general interest, and should be appropriately removed from office.

However, there’s a catch: studies show that it’s only the performance of the economy in the six months before an election that matters to voters. Our memories are too short; we overweight recent performance and underweight the past. So, an economy could be in shambles for 3+ years, but if personal income begins to grow substantially in the summer before a presidential election, the incumbent party’s chance of reelection is much higher than it ‘should’ be.

The potential consequences of this fact are worse than simple unfairness. It incentivizes incumbents to intervene and juice the economy just before an election. I’m a bit skeptical as to the role this plays in American elections, though the authors do show that personal income growth is statistically significantly higher in US presidential election years, over and above the growth rate of national GDP.

That being said, the degree of control the president has in controlling of the economy is often popularly overrated. Perhaps there is tinkering around the edges, but the timing of major economic events, like recessions, is essentially random. It follows from this that the results of elections will tend to be random also. Take the 1992 election for example. It was preceded by a mild recession in 1990-91 that still lingered into the summer of ‘92 – unemployment was still rising as late as that June. If that recession had happened just one year earlier, the effects would have largely been gone by election time and George H.W. Bush would have certainly won reelection. In this instance, the policy consequences were probably not that great; Bill Clinton’s New Democrats were not that far away from the Republicans of that era. But today, the divide between the parties is wider and growing. In an era of polarization and a powerful executive, random control of the presidency seems disastrous.

Of course, there is more to the story than the economy. Achen and Bartels also cover popular punishment for natural disasters and other events that government has no plausible control over. The main example they use are droughts. They provide convincing evidence that drought leads to more anti-incumbent votes in areas that are reliant on farming and ranching. Why is this problematic for the accountability model? If voters were punishing poor responses to such events, by definition half of the time the response will be above average. But the authors show this makes no difference in people’s voting patterns: above average, below average, incumbents are punished just the same. Again, this removes the operating mechanism through which the accountability model works, namely, actual accountability.

To close, an interesting concept the authors address is the ‘social construction of blame.’ After all, it’s not as though we hold government responsible for any bad thing that happens to us; if we get into a car wreck on the way to the polls, we aren’t going to change our vote. (Though there is some evidence that events like important sports championships may influence voting by affecting mood; the Cubs did win the World Series just before Donald Trump was elected president…).

What is necessary is a popular story linking blame to the incumbents, whether accurate or not. Two examples to illustrate: Repeated plagues of locusts in the 1870s seemingly had no effect on incumbents in sparsely populated Nebraska, despite devastating effects on farmers; without clear communication and organization, there was no shared interpretation of the plague that placed blame on the incumbent Republicans. And during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed about half a million people in the United States, there was also no punishment effect. At that time, there was no plausible popular story linking government to a public health issue.

Again, another theory of workings of democracy is shown to be inadequate. People are simply not ‘rational’ enough in aggregate for the accountability model to be plausible. So if voters do not vote in accordance with ideology, nor do they consistent elect competent managers, then why do people vote the way they do? And can the idea of democracy as producing responsive government be saved? We’ll see next time as Achen and Bartels begin to construct a realist theory of democracy.

Democracy for Realists, Part II

<Part I>

Some might argue that the disconnect between voting patterns and policy outcomes is a result of the political system. The argument might go something like, ‘It’s not the voters’ fault that politicians don’t reflect the will of the people; the corruption of political institutions is the culprit. If we could just put more power in the hands of the people and out of the hands of politicians, things would be better.’ This strain of thinking, best summed up as ‘the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,’ was a motivating force behind the Populist and Progressive movements in late 19th and early 20th century America and is fundamentally based on the folk theory of democracy. It still clings to the notion that voters have coherent and independent policy preferences.

But as the Achen and Bartels point out, the available evidence doesn’t look great here either. They look at two prominent examples of ‘more’ democracy: the progressive era reforms of the referendum, recall, and initiative; and the opening of the party primary system. We’ll begin with the latter.

Continue reading “Democracy for Realists, Part II”