Seeing Like a Party

September 7, 2011

There’s a long and well-known literature in political science that say Members of Congress have three goals: re-election, increasing their internal power within their chamber, and making good public policy for your constituents (For example, see Fenno). In general, the re-election goals takes primacy, because without it, the other two become unattainable. And contrary to what your cynical uncle says, that’s probably a good thing: if Members did not concern themselves with getting re-elected, both the theoretical and practical underpinings of republican representation tend to fall apart.

This is not the kind of political science that is much up for debate; at this point it’s more or less self-evident to everyone. So what becomes interesting in public choice situations is when the three goals come into conflict: when increasing your power in the chamber means casting votes that hurt your re-election chances; when making good public policy for your constituents goes against their own perception of their interests (and thus your re-election chances); and when increasing your power in the chamber necessitates accepting bad public policy. How Members make decisions when these goals come into conflict is perhaps the most interesting aspect of congressional behavior.

One expansion of this line of thinking is to consider the goals of political parties, which are in essence aggregate collections of Members. There are differences, however. Political parties can lose elections and carry on, usually with the expectation that at some future point they will regain power. This is not true for most individual Members of the House. Therefore, political parties can sometimes make trade-offs that Members would be less inclined to do: they can enact policies that are good for their base with the expectation that it will cost them power in the short-term, but that eventually they will be back in power.

Another difference, of course, is that parties don’t “think” the way individuals do. They are aggregate collections of a variety of individual preferences, and therefore not inherently coherent or of one mind. Furthermore, they are not simply collections of elected officials, at least not for all purposes. The House Democrats exist as a party for many internal purposes of the House, but it’s silly to think that those 190 Members aren’t intricately interwoven into a larger Democratic Party that includes many other people, groups, and preferences. Voters, campaign donors, interest groups, think tanks, and others may think of themselves as part of the Democratic Party. This creates even more voices and potentially less coherence.

So now to the meat of this post: there seems to be a strange and increasing trend among Washington journalists and others to seriously discount the “good public policy” component of party goals. Part of this is a traditional media frame: it’s much easier to cover the horse-race electoral aspect of politics than the substantive policy side of things, and it also allows for an easy neutral story line that is less readily available when policy comes into play. But part of it is something quite new; there seems to be an increasing belief that the only measure of party success is electoral victory. I keep reading story after story talking about how the Democrats failed in the 111th Congress because they lost so many seats in 2010, and how they are continuing to fail in the 112th because they are likely to lose seats in the 2012 election. It’s pervasive.

This is what, in political science, would be called a Downsian view of parties: they exist only to win elections, and their platforms are formed only with that goal in mind, the resulting public policy utterly incidental to the goal of winning the next election. It’s not a bad view of politics; in fact, it’s quite instructive for thinking about (small d) democratic politics, but it’s obviously a model. It’s not intended to suggest that becoming singularly concerned with winning elections is a good prescriptive frame for a party or for partisans.

So what’s the problem with this outlook? I think the main problem is that it misplaces the long-term policy goals of parties. As I’ve discussed before (here and here and here), one of the weaknesses of democracy as a form of government is its inability to undertake long-term planning. Here we have a related problem: parties and partisans tend to undervalue long-term policy successes. The increasing belief that success is equal to seat maximization in the House adds to this problem. Health care serves as a good example. The Democratic Party has been seeking to federalize some form of universal health care for the better part of a century. All of a sudden they are faced with the prospect of being able to do so, but at the expense of losing a pile of seats in Congress and their majority in the House. It’s easy to see why that would freak out any individual Member — would you want to give up your job to pass a policy that might not even be your top priority? — but it’s less easy to see why it should bother the party. Trading 65 House seats to enact a policy that it has been chasing for 70+ years seems like no big deal, so long as a few conditions hold:

1) The party thinks the policy is good long-term policy and politics

2) The party things they will be back in power in a reasonable length of time

3) The party thinks the policy will not be reversed when they are out of power

It’s undoubtedly true that the Democrats believe number 1, and all historical precedents show that number 2 is true (if they survived the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democratic Party can survive anything).  The third tenet is more problematic. From an individual perspective it’s probably decisive. It’s one thing to give up your job for a public policy outcome; it’s entirely another to give up your job for a public policy outcome that is repealed immediately following your election defeat. (Of course, all of these things are probabilistic; you will lose re-election at probability X and your policy will be repealed at probability Y and those are both numbers you can estimate and base decisions upon). The same logic probably holds from the perspective of the party.

Think this through for a few moments. If you’re a liberal, ask yourself: how many years would I give up control of Congress and/or the Presidency in order to get the health care bill I like? Likewise, if you’re a conservative, ask yourself: how many years would I give up control in order to achieve substantial Medicare reform, or social security privatization. It seems to me that these partisan goals are easily worth giving up power for two or three Congresses (conditional, of course, on not being repealed). And once such actions are taken, it strikes me as silly to bemoan one’s electoral condition subsequent to the policy. Example: President Obama’s two signature initiatives of the 111th Congress were the stimulus bill and health care reform. Both were controversial at the time, both passed, and now you have many liberals bemoaning the President’s electoral circumstances. But why? This is a fine example of a party campaigning on a platform, enacting the program, and standing for re-election. Would you rather not have the policies? That seems (from a liberal perspective) silly.

One argument I will hear counter to this from liberals is that they are paying the price for a stimulus plan that (a) was necessary as a response to circumstance; and (b) staved off a depression but didn’t reduce unemployment, and thus looks like a failure to the median voter. In effect, they feel wronged because they enacted a policy to clean up someone else’s mess, and then when the marginal effects weren’t visible in the absolute indicators, the someone else blamed them for bad policy. That may be so. But I pose the question to liberals on their own terms: take your own counterfactual — global depression — and ask what your electoral fate would have been under those circumstances. I see exactly no possibility that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi would be in power come January 2013 under the condition of 25% unemployment beginning in 2009. Governments do not survive depressions that set in on their watch.

There are institutional factors that mediate all of this. In a strict parliamentary system, reversal of policy is much more cut and dry than in a Presidential system, especially when the election in question is a mid-term. There’s also a stickiness to public policy that makes reversal much less likely as time goes on. If a policy is not immediately reversed, there is a strong chance that it’s implementation, if even moderately successful, will reshape the issue space such that future adjustments to the policy will be just that, adjustments. This hold across a wide variety of policies — entitlements, taxes, social policies — that are often subject to strong proposals for radical adjustment, but rarely attacked fundamentally for repeal.

Another mediating factor is the lack of counterfactual knowledge implicit in these decisions. Health care reform provides an example again. Just about everybody knew by the end that the Democrats were going to lose seats in the House. And there was good circumstantial evidence that those losses were at least partial attributable to the health care debate in ’09 and ’10. But there were a fair number of liberal voices arguing by Spring ’10 that not passing the bill at that point was going to cost more seats than passing it. Similarly, polling evidence seems to suggest that Republican House Members might pay some electoral penalty by voting for the debt limit increase. But the counterfactual — how much of a penalty would they pay by not voting for it, given the unknown consequences of doing that — is unclear. And therefore determining the marginal effect of these sorts of decisions is very difficult, even at the individual level. At the party level, it’s immensely complicated.

And so all of this tends to interact with the various thesis you hear from your friendly academics, journalists, and crazy uncles, regarding polarization and partisanship and all of that. It seems to me that one of the axioms of modern intellectual centrism is that policies which tend to hurt a party’s electoral chances are inherently bad policies. I think this is wrong, and probably disingenuous. For one, it collapses the idea of representation into a pure delegate model of Member behavior. That seems normatively wronng. But it also comes off as very self-serving, as the delegate model is often the strategy picked by the centrists, as they tend to come from swing districts and their incentives are strongly aligned with very carefully reflecting their constituents and often avoiding difficult choices.

Parties which take strong positions and stick with them may lose election. But they also have the ability to enact significant policy. While these two things always require a balancing act, I think it would be wise for parties to seek institutional structures and procedures which fight against the tendency to equate electoral seat increases with good policy choices. So many forces in a democracy inherently  tend toward this line of reasoning, and it would well serve programmatic-oriented parties to be cognizant of, and institutionally resistant, to such tendencies.


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