This evening will display American political parties in full sway. After (or during!) the State of the Union speech and the Republican rebuttal, legislators and party spokespersons will rush to the media and provide their reaction to the speeches.
In theory, this could be a fascinating night: hundreds of smart people talking about the direction of the country in one night. They might talk about dozens of different issues, make passionate pitches for their own legislation, or candidly acknowledge their concerns with their own party’s stances and identify areas of agreement with the other party.
In practice, as we all know, the members of each party will sound almost exactly alike thanks to the miracle of “talking points”—a previously determined set of ideas to express. And we know why: a large group of actors voicing their individual ideas sounds like this:
Loud, but just noise. The casual listener might learn a bit about the thoughts of whichever politicians s/he sees on TV, but no sense of the collective party vision for 2014. Instead, politicians work like an Occupy Wall Street meeting:
When everybody says the same thing, a message reaches much further. Sometimes the politicos, deny it, claiming “we are all individuals!” But the verbiage is often so identical that it lends itself to easy mockery by the Daily Show/Colbert Report.
The academic term for this is that parties solve a “coordination problem” for politicians with similar interests and policy views. By agreeing ahead of time on a set of arguments, their message is more likely to break through the filters of independent media and citizen apathy and actually reach some of us.
A simple coordination game between two Republicans can be thought of this way: each Republican chooses whether to talk about immigration or taxes, and they get a payoff of 2 points (dollars, utiles) each if they choose the same subject. This is a pure case of coordination in that it doesn’t matter which issue they focus on as long as they are on the same page.
Game #1: Simple Coordination
The trick of coordinating in the real world is that different people want to emphasize different things.
Game #2: Asymmetric Coordination
We love women!
We love women!
(also known as the “battle of the sexes”)
Republican 1 gets the first payoff in each pair, so she prefers to rebut the notion that her party wages a “war on women.” Republican 2 would rather emphasizes the party’s pro-life stance. They would still rather coordinate, but there’s some intra-party politics over which talking points get chosen.
This is an example of a general point about parties: even when it looks like they are not “forcing” politicians to do and say things they don’t want to do, parties play an essential role in deciding which candidate will be the party’s nominee, which bills will come up in each chamber of Congress (and in which order), and which talking points they will all be repeating tonight.
[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.