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April 24, 2014 2:14 PM Why Neither Party Has a Political Edge

By Jonathan Bernstein

What Jonathan Chait says seems to be becoming conventional wisdom. That doesn’t make it true:

We appear to have entered a period in which Democrats command a normal advantage in presidential elections. That doesn’t mean Democrats will dominate Congress — both the House and Senate maps geographically favor Republicans, and Democratic constituents reliably fail to turn out during midterm elections. It also doesn’t mean Democrats will always win a national election. Republicans probably held such an advantage from 1968 through at least 1988, but right in the midst of that period, the Watergate scandal created a massive Democratic wave in 1974 and a narrow Democratic win two years later. A major scandal or a recession would almost surely hand Republicans the White House. Still, it seems to be the case that the Republican coalition in its present form cannot win a presidential election without a major tailwind. There’s no solid evidence for this. At best, it’s the other way around: There may be a very mild Democratic edge in presidential elections, but the circumstances of each cycle almost certainly will overwhelm it. The same was true in the earlier era of Republican presidential victories, when local circumstances, not structural advantage, played the decisive role.

There probably is no election in the postwar era that is attributable to an underlying partisan majority. And starting in 1980, there’s nothing in the margins of victory that suggests a partisan majority explanation. Just think of the recent ones. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 after a recession, and won re-election when the economy was good and the nation was at peace. Democrats won in 2008 after Iraq and a deep recession; and Barack Obama held the White House after the economy began a recovery. But that doesn’t imply any kind of solid Democratic majority, as Al Gore discovered in 2000 (when, if anything, the fundamentals slightly favored him) and John Kerry found out in 2004.

In which of the elections from 1992 through 2012 did the Democratic candidate do better than one would expect for a 50/50 electorate? None.

There’s no clear evidence of a significant partisan advantage in subnational elections, either . Even simple indicators don’t behave the way they would if there was a real Democratic edge. For example, nothing in Obama’s approval ratings suggests a solid Democratic majority.

This could change, mainly if demographic change combines with self-destructive Republican policies. But for now, the most likely answer is that the U.S. became a 50/50 nation around 1980, after the Democrats’ New Deal majority faded, and it’s still a 50/50 nation today.

(For more along these lines, see John Sides here and here; for the alternative view, see Alan Abramowitz here.)


[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

April 24, 2014 10:38 AM Bundy’s Racist Rant and the Partisan Asymmetry in Motivated Cognition

By Mark Kleiman

Cliven Bundy, right-wing hero, is a howling racist.

Good to watch Rand Paul and Greg Abbott backpedaling now. But wasn’t it enough that Bundy denied the jurisdiction of the government of the United States and organized an armed mob to threaten federal officials carrying out lawful court orders? It should have been.

This just illustrates the point of Ezra Klein’s sophisticated take on Dan Kahan’s work about motivated cognition. Yes, human beings divided into feuding factions tend to act less intelligently than those same human beings would in a less polarized context. But all factions are not alike on this crucial dimension. Some track reality – and encourage their followers to track reality – pretty well, some not so well, and some abominably. The Red faction, where the fringe has become the base and where no adult supervision is allowed to interfere with the dissemination of pure lunacy, is radically more detached from reality than the Blue faction. Of course there are Blue lunatics, but they aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of debate. (When you hear a Blue thinker accused of “hippie-bashing,” that often means he or she is doing the job of keeping the team tethered to consensus reality by calling out fringiness. And yes, there’s a hyperactive form of this where perfectly sensible proposals and statements supported by good evidence but that don’t yet have widespread public support get dismissed as “loony left.”)

Tracking reality maps, albeit imperfectly, into acting with decency: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” It’s not by accident that the party of global-warming denial and poll unskewing is also the party of torture.

No patriotic American should be pleased that our republic no longer has two political parties either of which can be safely entrusted with the task of governing. But wishing that fact away will not make it disappear. What the republic needs right now is a public awareness of how sick and twisted the Red team actually is, leading a series of devastating electoral defeats for the Republicans sufficient to shock them back into contact with consensus reality.

Footnote Since I’m claiming that there’s a factional difference, let me illustrate by criticizing Harry Reid’s rhetoric in the Bundy case. If you want to call his followers seditious, the dictionary is on your side. If you want to call them unpatriotic, by my guest. If you want to say that they are advocates of lawless violence and therefore enemies of the project of free government, I’ll join the chorus. But “domestic terrorist” is not only inflammatory but simply wrong.

Abortion-clinic bombers are terrorists. So are some of the animal-rights and eco-fringe groups. The Klan was a terrorist organization.

Militas, by contrast, are rebels, or at least cowardly rebel-wannabes. There’s a difference. Even the assassination of officials – which of course is deplorable in a republic – isn’t terrorism. Neither is simple crazy violence, even if the person carrying out the crazed violence embraces some crazy ideology as well. Terrorism is an organized effort to use violence to spread fear in the general population for political purposes.

Right now, the U.S. suffers from the threat, and sometimes the actuality, of right-wing violence, but to my knowledge there is no right-wing terrorist activity, or even any lively threat of such activity. So let’s call Bundy’s armed mob what it is – which is plenty bad enough – and not what it is not.

In criticizing a politician I generally support for making a statement that I think isn’t factually or logically sound, I’m acting like … a liberal. No doubt other liberals will disagree with me on the substance or think that, with Reid standing almost alone against Bundyism, it’s impolitic to criticize him. But all of that is perfectly normal, on my side of the great divide. On the other side – with, of course, honorable exceptions – not so much.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 23, 2014 9:37 PM Vice President Rand Paul?

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Senator Rand Paul’s libertarianism (support for drastically smaller government and suspicion of foreign entanglements and the security state) sets him apart from the rest of the potential Republican candidates for president.

That difference is almost certainly a net negative for his chances of winning the presidential race. But it also means he has a better shot than any of the other candidates for getting picked for the No. 2 slot.

Let’s say the Kentucky legislator makes a strong run — winning some states and coming close in others — but doesn’t win the nomination, a scenario that seems more likely than not. He has something going for him in the veepstakes that other Republican also-rans would not: a constituency that might well defect in large numbers from the party in November.

Assuming Paul loses, the Libertarian Party will have an easier task than usual: It will be able to concentrate its organizing among the people who voted for Paul in the primaries. That could easily amount to enough voters to deny Republicans a victory in the general election. (In other words, the libertarian candidate in this situation would be Ralph Nader in reverse.)

The winning Republican nominee would need Paul to campaign actively for him to prevent this scenario. But why wouldn’t Paul just go home to Kentucky to campaign for his own re-election? His Senate seat will be up in 2016.

Paul would then be the unusual politician who could actually secure some voters as the vice presidential nominee. That wouldn’t be the case for any of the other Republican candidates so far mentioned. There are plenty of viable conservative politicians in the party whose effect on a ballot would be more or less interchangeable. But there’s nobody else who would have a natural claim on Paul’s supporters.

That doesn’t mean Paul would get picked, of course. Among other things, the presidential nominee would have to worry that Paul would complicate efforts to portray Republicans as more pro-Israel than Democrats.

Because Paul has a distinctive constituency, though, he still has a pretty good shot of being on the ticket — even if he doesn’t make it to the top spot.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

April 23, 2014 1:37 PM Was Paul Ryan A New Kind of V.P. Candidate?

By Julia Azari

The Ryan budget is in the news once again, attracting questions about the issues that will shape the 2014 midterms. Worth mentioning, however, is that only in the last 20 years – since the Contract with America in 1994 - have Congressional campaigns consistently focused on national party agendas.  Because of this nationalization of campaigns, Ryan, the chair of the House Budget committee, can establish the terms by which voters will evaluate Republican candidates in November.

Others have suggested that his place on the losing presidential ticket in 2012 has boosted Ryan’s stature nationally and within the Republican Party. By itself, this isn’t remarkable. Other losing veep candidates, from the formerly obscure Sarah Palin to Joe Lieberman (who was running for his third Senate term when he was nominated) have probably enjoyed a higher national profile than they otherwise would have.

In contrast with most other modern VP picks, Ryan joined the ticket in the middle of his Congressional career, and returned to Congress as the chair of a prominent committee. The typical model for modern running mates has been to choose someone with little or no national experience - Palin, Spiro Agnew, Geraldine Ferraro, John Edwards - or someone closer to the end of his career. Among modern Republicans, running mates who have retired from Congress have made several appearances – George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp.

In 2012, there was little doubt that if the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, the Wisconsin Republican would return to Congress (his district has typically returned him to Washington with comfortable margins).

Appearing in the second slot is a risky proposition for a mid-career politician. A loss could derail a career, especially if the running mate is perceived to have contributed to the loss. Winning could be even worse for a politician with his or her own presidential aspirations - only one sitting VP has been elected president since Martin Van Buren (Bush). As a result, research on the “veepstakes”  suggests that it’s not uncommon for those who are asked to say no. We’ve progressed past Daniel Webster’s declaration that, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.” A few unsuccessful vp candidates, like Edmund Muskie and Bob Dole, went on to have strong careers - though neither became president.

It’s possible that the current focus on national messaging in the Republican Party – building a brand around deficit and budget politics as well as opposition to the ACA – has changed this calculus somewhat. After his appearance on the presidential ticket, Ryan is even better poised to be the face of the party and to shape its national message. If appearing on an unsuccessful ticket can boost a political profile, then we may start to see more ambitious, mid-career politicians in the second slot.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

April 23, 2014 12:57 PM Piketty’s Tax Hikes Won’t Help the Middle Class

By Megan McArdle

I apologize in advance, because I am going to talk about a book that I have not yet read. To be clear, I intend to read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” It is sitting on my (virtual) bedside with a big stack of other (digital) books that I intend to read. But it’s far down in the queue, and I’m afraid that I can’t wait to weigh in — not on the book itself, but on its topic. How much does inequality actually matter?

According to many of the book’s reviews, inequality is about the most important thing that is happening in the world, and thus, Piketty’s book is one of the most important publishing events of this year, or any year. Our own Clive Crook rounds up some of the glowing reviews:

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times calls it “extraordinarily important.” Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Review of Books, says it’s “truly superb” and “awesome.” Branko Milanovic, a noted authority on global income disparities, calls it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking.” Even John Cassidy, in a relatively balanced appraisal for the New Yorker, says “Piketty has written a book that nobody interested in a defining issue of our era can afford to ignore.”

For a somewhat more skeptical take on the book, I suggest you read Clive, and Tyler Cowen, and Scott Winship. What I want to quarrel with is not the book’s methods or conclusion, but with the general idea that income inequality is the most important thing going on in the world. In terms of how it matters to lived human experience, I doubt it even makes the top 20.

I am not disputing that something unhappy is going on in the global economy. Nor am I disputing that this unhappiness is unequally distributed. But the proportion of this unhappiness due to income inequality is actually relatively small — and moreover, concentrated not among the poor, but among the upper middle class, which competes with the very rich for status goods and elite opportunities.

If we look at the middle three quintiles, very few of their worst problems come from the gap between their income and the incomes of some random Facebook squillionaire. Here, in a nutshell, are their biggest problems:

1. Finding a job that allows them to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not abruptly terminate them.
2. Finding a partner who is also able to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not be abruptly terminated.
3. Maintaining a satisfying relationship with that partner over a period of years.
4. Having children who are able to enjoy more stuff and economic security than they have.
5. Finding a community of friends, family and activities that will provide enjoyment and support over the decades.

This is where things are breaking down — where things have actually, and fairly indisputably, gotten worse since the 1970s. Crime is better, lifespans are longer, our material conditions have greatly improved — yes, even among the lower middle class. What hasn’t improved is the sense that you can plan for a decent life filled with love and joy and friendship, then send your children on to a life at least as secure and well-provisioned as your own.

How much of that could be fixed by Piketty’s proposal to tax away some huge fraction of national income from rich people? Some, to be sure. But writing checks to the bottom 70 percent would not fix the social breakdown among those without a college diploma — the pattern of marital breakdown showed up early, and strong, among welfare mothers.

Writing checks to the bottom 70 percent would probably alleviate some of the worst stresses of being a single mother — but even in Scandinavia, the children of single parents still don’t do as well as children raised in intact households. Similarly, an unemployment check eases the financial stress of joblessness, but not the psychological pain of being out of work. To the extent that it helps people to stay on the dole and look for a perfect job that doesn’t exist, it may make people less happy, not more so.

Writing checks to the bottom 70 percent will not prevent a factory from moving to China or find meaningful replacement work for the 50-year-old accountant who has been there for 20 years. It will not bring back the feeling that you can expect each year to be better than the last in tangible ways.

We hear a lot about minimum-wage workers and their problems, which are all too real. But the problem for minimum-wage workers is not that fast food and retail jobs don’t pay well; they never paid well. The problem for these workers is that they can’t get a regular schedule or full-time hours, because owners now use advanced software to minimize their labor costs at maximum inconvenience to low-wage workers. The problem is that owners can get away with this, demanding that workers make 60 hours available in order to pick up 25, because there are fewer and fewer better jobs that you can move on to with minimal education. And that in this dreadful job market, many of them are trying to support a few kids and maybe a laid-off sibling with what one person can make selling ultracheap food. This was never remotely feasible. But the breakdown of families and the low-skilled labor market mean that an increasing number of people are trying to pull off this impossible feat.

Writing a check will let a high-school dropout sit at home with her three children, but it will not make her employable at something better than McDonald’s. It will not create a more hopeful future for those children.

The government can spend a lot more money on social programs, and that might or might not make people somewhat happier. But when you look at places where a large percentage of the people are completely dependent on government benefits, you don’t really see a great explosion of human flourishing. Nor do I think we would see it if only the checks were larger. Checks do not fix the psychological pain of unemployment or the emotional deprivation of single parenthood. They do not increase social cohesion. They don’t even necessarily cut down on crime; while you’d think there would be an obvious connection between economic conditions and crime, apparently there isn’t.

Writing checks certainly won’t offer a more hopeful future to the middle class. Middle-class parents aren’t worried that their kids will starve or freeze to death. They’re terrified that their children will not enjoy the security that their parents had. I’m not making light here: That’s a real terror. You used to be able to feel that when you had gotten your kid through high school or college without a major substance-abuse problem, you’d done much of what was needed to launch a successful adult. Now that seems like barely a start.

But how much better would parents feel if a technocrat came along and said, “Your child will never have a real job that conveys status and belonging and some feeling of contributing to society. He will, however, have an annual check for $20,000 a year and government-sponsored health insurance”? Your kid would have to be a very deep screwup indeed for that to be much consolation. A check fixes deep deprivation that middle-class parents aren’t really worried about. It doesn’t do a thing to make sure that your kid has a respectable job and a solid community to raise her kids in.

We could, I suppose, take these huge taxes Piketty wants to levy and put them into government make-work programs from which you cannot be fired. But as Cowen points out, doing so might slow productivity growth still further. Or even take it backward. And how much satisfaction will people derive from going to the office to fill a job that isn’t really needed? I’m sincerely asking; I have no idea. I would, however, want a pretty good answer before I’d start with the massive wealth taxes.

I suspect that Piketty’s plan would actually work best for the pretty well off. It would knock the consumption of the ultrawealthy down to the consumption of a professional near the top of his field, who earns a large income but has comparatively little wealth. Because those people are being priced out of top schools and delightful real estate by people who can afford to have a nice apartment in five different world cities, they would strongly benefit from this plan.

But a recently-laid-off accountant in Duluth probably still wouldn’t have the same shot at Harvard for the kids or a nice apartment on Riverside Avenue as a Columbia professor does. Nor would a food-service worker in East New York. I can imagine any number of policy changes that might help those people. But very few of them would start, much less end, with a check.

April 23, 2014 10:19 AM Why We Struggle to Accept the Dual Nature of Addicted Criminal Offenders

By Keith Humphreys

An elderly man is found unconscious at the wheel of his idling car in the median strip of a busy interstate. Miraculously, he struck no other vehicle when he careered off the highway. When roused by the police, he blows a blood alcohol level of .18, leading to his third DUI arrest.

A young meth-addicted woman thinks her reflection in a store window is watching her, so she hurls a brick at it. A terrified customer calls the police, who arrest her for shattering the window and spraying the store’s customers with glass shards.

In some people’s eyes, the millions of people like the above examples who come into contact with the criminal justice system each year are dangerous monsters who should be sent away for long prison terms. Others view these same people as helpless and hapless, innocent victims both of a disease and a cruel criminal justice system. From this it follows that the legal system should back off entirely and let health care professionals offer needed treatment.

These two camps argue with each other endlessly, usually in debates about whether society should respond to addicted offenders with punishment OR treatment, whether intoxicated violence should result in accountability and monitoring OR immediate forgiveness and therapeutic support, and whether substance dependence is a public health OR a public safety issue. My own view is that both sides lose every one of these debates, because they have framed the question is a way that makes both permissible answers wrong. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs do indeed suffer terribly; they also do physical and emotional harm to millions of other people each year. Trying to decide whether this population needs help OR whether the rest of us need protection from them is as sensible as trying to decide whether to provide your child love OR limits.

I have long wondered why many intelligent people — even people who have seen the population of interest up close — are so strongly committed to seeing addicted offenders either as villains or victims rather than as a mélange of both. Cognitive psychology research suggests that it may have something to do with the impact of emotion on perception and reasoning.

Remarkable research by Professor Paul Slovic shows that human beings have a preference for affective consistency. Uncomplicated emotions towards people and things we observe are more comfortable than conflicted ones, and human beings will do various cognitive gymnastics to preserve that peaceful simplicity. For example, if a car excites us because it looks fun to drive, but then we find out the scary fact that it has a poor safety record, we will tend to persuade ourselves either that it’s not really that fun to drive after all, or, that the safety data are wrong. There is nothing logically impossible about a car being both fun to drive and high-risk, but emotionally, we don’t want to deal with that complexity so we edit out the facts that generate it, making it hands down a “good” or “bad” car in our minds.

People have a range of strong feelings about addicted offenders: rage, fear, pity, compassion and disgust. Those emotions may drive stereotyped, over-simplified views of this population and what to do about them. If you are scared and angry, addicted criminal offenders may seem like thoroughgoing monsters who belong in prison. If you feel pity and compassion, the same individuals may seem like misunderstood martyrs who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to anyone. If you feel both such feelings, you may be driven to edit out the subset of facts that complicate your emotions.

I understand the desire for emotional simplicity because I have struggled with it myself. In interacting with addicted people, I have at times felt angry at them, disappointed in them, caring of them and sorry for them at the same moment. It’s a challenging emotional swirl that even after many years in the addiction field, I have never come to enjoy. I try hard to help my students accept the emotional contradictions, rather than seeing addicted people either as sociopathic blackguards or innocent lost lambs. But I recognize that I am asking a lot of my mentees, as I am advising them to voluntarily maintain an unpleasant emotional state when a simpler view would be more satisfying (if inaccurate).

Emotional complexity is a hard sell for emotionally charged issues in any event, even moreso perhaps in our soundbite-oriented political culture and the “make a snap judgement and then click away” world of the Internet. But without some ability to tolerate the dual nature of addicted offenders and the emotional complexity that brings, we will keep lurching back and forth between destructively draconian and laughably lax responses to this troubled and troubling population.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 22, 2014 3:29 PM Happy Krauthammer Day

By Henry Farrell

The day has rolled around again when we celebrate Charles Krauthammer’s linking of his, and his administration friends’ credibility to a confident prediction about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

We’ve had over twenty five five month periods since then. There have been lots, and lots of words from Charles Krauthammer in the interim (most recently – pushing against disclosure of political funding because people might be mean to rich donees). Discoveries of Iraqi nuclear weapons? Not so much.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

April 22, 2014 12:48 PM Max Weber’s Birthday

By Henry Farrell

Max Weber was born 150 years ago today. People should read his two seminal essays, Science as a Vocation, and Politics as a Vocation (PDFs), if they haven’t already. Both are rambling, but with nuggets of genuine genius. To mark the occasion, the famous closing paragraphs of Science as a Vocation (these words carry a very different resonance after Nazism and the Holocaust than before)

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’—that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.


[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

April 22, 2014 10:40 AM Why Voters Won’t Turn Out for ObamaCare

By Jonathan Bernstein

Dean Baker’s good point about the Affordable Care Act is one that I’ve tended to play down: Everyone currently holding insurance, at least outside of Medicare, wins from the added security under the reform.

Baker is an excellent economist. I am less convinced by his political analysis:

This is a huge benefit that is being extended to tens of millions of people who will be voting in November. Due to poor coverage of the impact of the law, it is likely that most of these people do not recognize the extent to which the ACA provides them with security in their insurance coverage.

This lack of information probably isn’t due to “poor coverage of the impact of the law.” It’s more likely a consequence of the nature of the problem and of this particular solution.

The insecurity that Baker describes was real, and some people will realize that the ACA means they no longer have that worry, or at least not to the same extent. Still, there are several barriers to it being a voting issue. For one, people tend to be optimists about their own prospects, and no candidate wants to campaign by telling voters they are more likely to lose their jobs (and their insurance) than they realize. Also, the ACA only provides access, not a seamless guarantee of constant coverage, making it harder for the press (and politicians) to easily describe how it gives people more security.

And then there’s the gap between recognizing a benefit and vote choice. Baker isn’t the first to conflate the two; the article in the Sunday New York Times Baker is reacting to asserted that Obamacare is different from Social Security and Medicare because it won’t deliver votes to Democrats. But it’s not clear that either of those reforms, though they were perceived as successful, delivered votes. After Medicare passed in 1965, voters “rewarded” Democrats for Medicare with big midterm losses in 1966 and then by putting Republicans in the White House in five of the next six presidential elections.

Successful programs guarantee their own success, regardless of subsequent elections. That’s very likely to be the case with health-care reform, no matter how people feel about “Obamacare.” It’s hard for politicians to take away benefits people like. What successful programs almost never do — especially those that are targeted widely and don’t put pressure on specific groups to realign — is win elections. And Obamacare, with its largely invisible and abstract benefits, is particularly poorly designed to achieve that particular goal.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

April 21, 2014 10:41 AM Emergent Insurgents, and Why the New RNC Rules Matter

By Julia Azari

If the Republican National Committee has its way, we will see a different – shortened and streamlined - nomination process in 2016. The GOP will shorten its primary season, move its convention up, and hold fewer debates. A fourth rule change caught a few eyes in the media recently. According to Forbes, the RNC has changed its rules about what it takes for candidates to be considered at the convention at all. In 2012, the rule was that candidate had to have a plurality of the delegates from five states in order to be put forth for nomination. Depending on whom you ask, Ron Paul either met this threshold or came close to it in 2012.

In 2016, the minimum requirements for a candidate to be considered at the convention will be higher. Instead of a plurality of delegates from five states, a candidate will need to have a majority of the delegates from eight states in order to have his or her name put before the convention. <br/>

It’s certainly possible that alteration in the rules will have little or no immediate practical impact on the party’s 2016 nomination. But the impact of changes like these can go beyond a single nomination season. First, they send a signal about what elites in the party organization think about the challenges they face. Someone thought it was important enough to make the change. Access to the convention floor has symbolic importance, and symbols matter in politics, even if their effects are difficult to measure. Furthermore, rules have the capacity to shape political conflict.

Party leaders change the rules in order to mediate among the party’s factions. This might make plenty of sense if we think of factions as fixed and based on fairly simple ideological labels, or as candidate-centered and ephemeral. Instead party factions are malleable, yet rooted in durable political ideas.

Right now, the different factions within the Republican Party are somewhat unclear. For example, Ron Paul was tried to position himself the Tea Party “favorite” in 2012 (with mixed success) and also identifies as a libertarian. But libertarians and Tea Partiers aren’t the same, although there appears to be some overlap. Nor are Tea Partiers necessarily the same as the party’s evangelical “base.” And what does “establishment” mean anyway?

Factions and alliances can shift in a party, based on perceptions of shared goals, identities, and interests. Labels like “establishment” and “insurgent” may not have intrinsic, fixed meaning, but they carry symbolic importance and have the potential to mobilize people based on their own conceptions about their needs and identities.

Based on what’s happened during their years out of (presidential and Senate) power, the Republican Party appears to have the ingredients for a major divide into insurgent and establishment factions. This isn’t the same thing as moderates vs. conservatives or social vs. economic conservatives. The moderate-conservative division probably accurately captures what was happening in 1952 or 1980, but the politics of the twenty-first century suggest something new. The elections of 2006 and 2008 were devastating for moderate and liberal New England Republican types, many of whom were replaced by Democrats. As the party has become more uniformly conservative, the infighting hasn’t necessarily declined.

Going back to the 2012 convention, it seems intuitively clear that the difference between Tea Party affiliated libertarian Ron Paul and Mitt Romney is one of kind, not degree. More broadly, political scientists also find evidence for a difference between Tea Party supporters and non-Tea Party conservatives. These differences have historical and philosophical roots. There are three basic tenets of conservatism: a preference for limited government; the idea that civilized societies have “moral orders” or social hierarchies; and a more process-based preference for slower change and elite-driven leadership. Modern conservative parties have mixed and matched these in different ways, leading to a variety of interpretations about what it means to be conservative. The moral order and limited government tenets inform the goals and views of the Tea Party/insurgent faction. But you won’t find much about incremental change and elite-driven governance.

The result is that there are qualitatively different ideas within the Republican Party that reflect not just different views on taxes or abortion, but on how America politics should work. The conflict over Ron Paul delegates at the 2012 convention illustrates how the insurgent faction operates under a different set of informal rules. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (in 2008) were both arguably more conservative than their party’s eventually nominees (certainly, socially). But both bowed to party pressure to drop out of the race and step back at the convention, (eventually) throwing support behind the party ticket. The insurgent faction does not appear to be bound by these rules. The choice to defy party leaders wasn’t incidental; it reflects the group’s ideas about politics. These ideas date back to ideological traditions that were historically part of the Democratic Party – populism, suspicion of elites and institutions, and a desire to be left alone. In contrast, establishment Republicans draw their core ideology from traditions within their own party – neo-liberal economic policies, a strong pro-business orientation, and, historically, an orientation towards elites.

Insurgent movements in American parties are nothing new. Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign to wrestle the nomination away from William Howard Taft in 1912 used the newly instituted primary contests to challenge the power of party elites. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberal insurgents employed similar tactics, contesting the power of elites to control the party’s nomination processes and its policy positions. In both movements, the seeds of contemporary insurgent politics are apparent. Both staked their claims on the division between party elites and the will of the people.

But there’s an important difference. Although there were certainly policy motivations, the TR/Bull Moose movement was ultimately a personalistic one, unable to outlast Roosevelt’s candidacy. The liberal insurgency was about policy and ideology - specifically, the Democratic Party establishment’s support for the Vietnam War. Insurgency was a means to another kind of political end. Among Tea Party conservatives, insurgency itself appears to be a core value. In other words, this faction within the party seeks to challenge established power (as seen in efforts to “primary” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and places a high value on ideological purity rather than compromise. A higher bar for inclusion in the nomination process could rally others within the party to their cause.

For adherents to this brand of conservative politics, the new rules send a signal that the party leadership isn’t very interested in their voices or concerns. It also has the potential to crystallize the insurgent-establishment division within the party, with implications for other dimensions of conflict – social issues, foreign policy, economics. While the RNC was likely trying to avoid major, visible conflict within the party in 2016, the rule may have the opposite effect. Both anti-establishment insurgents and establishment types have resonant claims about what it means to be conservative. A rule designed to shut one faction out could become a rallying point instead of a restriction.

What might the core issue positions of a such a faction look like? That’s a post for another day…

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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