Tag Archive for 'Democratic Party'


The origins of ideology

With the US Federal Government looking like it might go into a shutdown over budget negotiations (as I type, Intrade puts the chance at 40%), you can expect to see more articles around like this one from the Economist’s Democracy in America.  Here’s the gist of what they’re saying:

As Steve Benen points out, it definitely isn’t (or isn’t just) a function of Democratic legislators’ lack of determination. It’s partly a function of the fact that, as recentNBC/Wall Street JournalPew, and Gallup polls show, Democratic voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican voters don’t. Jonathan Chait argues that what we have here is a structural issue that forces Democratic politicians to be wimpy:

Most people have the default assumption that the two parties are essentially mirror images of each other. But there are a lot of asymmetries between the Democratic and Republican parties that result in non-parallel behavior. The Republicans have a fairly unified economic base consisting of business and high-income individuals, whereas Democrats balance between business, labor, and environmental groups. The Republican Party reflects the ideology of movement conservatism, while the Democratic Party is a balance between progressives and moderates.

The upshot is that the Democratic Party is far more dependent upon the votes of moderates, who think of themselves in non-ideological terms and want their leaders to compromise and act pragmatically. The reason you see greater levels of partisan discipline and simple will to power in the GOP is that it has a coherent voting base willing to supportaggressive, partisan behavior and Democrats don’t. This isn’t to say Democrats are always wimps, but wimpiness is much more of a default setting for Democrats.

The article then goes on to discuss the psychological origins of ideological allegiance.  The upshot is that certain people have certain preferences and the political parties are representations of those groups of people.  There’s an implied assumption that all of this is exogenous to the system at large; that there’s nothing you can do about it, you just need to take it as given in your deliberations.

For anybody interested in this stuff, I strongly encourage you read Steve Waldman’s opposing view:  “Endogenize Ideology“. Here is his basic point, from quotes arranged in a different order to that in which he provides them:

Many [people] treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization. Constrained optimization is a mechanical procedure. The outcome is fully determined by the objective function and the constraints.

However …

That’s the wrong approach, I think. Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices.

Ultimately, he argues, in a world of hard-nosed ideologues versus constraint-respecting policy wonks …

Rather than two optimizers, one of which has strictly less information than the other, in the real world we’ve seen two satisficers, one of which has adopted the strategy of optimizing subject to fixed constraints and the other of which has neglected pursuit of optimal present policy in favor of action intended to reshape the constraint set. A priori, we would not be able state with certainty which of the satisficers would outperform the other. If the constraint set were, in fact, strongly resistant to change Team Obama’s strategy would dominate. But if the constraint set is malleable (and constraints frequently bind), then Team Bush outperforms.

Just to really kick it home, he pulls out this quote from Karl Rove:

[Probably Karl Rove, talking to Ron Suskind] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”


Party discipline in the Republican Party

Inspired by this post by Cam Riley … Any observer of U.S. politics could not have failed to notice the incredible level of party discipline that the Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have achieved over the last year or six.  This may be something new to Americans, but it’s rather common to Britons and Australians, who generally get more excited when somebody — anybody! — breaks the party line.  The party discipline of the Australian Labor Party, in particular, is phenomenal.

I understand that the generally accepted explanation for the differences between the USA and Australia in this regard focuses on the sources of funding for campaigns.  In Australia, all campaign funds come from the party — individual candidates cannot raise money directly — where as in the US, there’s a combination of party-supplied and individually-raised funding.

That then suggests two possible reasons for the new-found Republican discipline:

  • Republican congressional candidates have started to take a larger fraction of their total campaign funding from the party itself; and/or
  • Advocacy groups that support policies we stereotypically associate with the Democratic Party have not been giving any money to Republicans.

If it is the second reason, then that is a tactical error, and a foolish one, on the part of those advocacy groups.


History of US Legislative and Executive power (again)

Ages ago, I wrote briefly about the history of US legislative and executive power.  I thought I’d update it now that the latest election has (pretty much) settled.  Between 1901 and 2010, the Democratic Party will have been in power in the House of Representatives 65.5% of the time, in the Senate 58.2% of the time and had the presidency 50% of the time.

Much more interestingly, Americans seem to prefer having the same party control all three branches of US government at the same time.  While pure chance would put such an occurrence at 25% (i.e. two out of eight possible configurations), it actually occurred over 61% of the time (33 congresses out of 54).  Of those 33, 21 were all-Democrat and 12 were all-Republican.

Click on the image below to go through to an excel spreadsheet with the details:

History of US legislative and executive power (1901-2010)


More on the shift from Republican to Democrat

Brad Delong observes that there is a clear regional exception to the idea of a broad shift in the vote from the Republicans to the Democrats (the original scatterplot comes from Andrew Gelman):

Paul Krugman takes it a bit further, emphasising this beauty of a map (I’m not sure of the source.  Probably the NY Times?):

The shifts to the Republicans in Arizona and Alaska and to the Democrats in Illinois and Delaware are clearly down to the candidates coming from those states.  I’m a little surprised at the strength of the Republican shift in southern Louisiana.  One might have thought that with the memory of Hurricane Katrina they would have moved blue.  Perhaps the administration’s management of Hurricane Gustav was seen as successful?  The Oklahoma-Arkansas-Tennessee shift is presumably McCain’s “real America.”  I’d love to see a demographic breakdown of the vote in those states.

Almost immediate update:

dbt on Brad Delong’s blog points out the obvious about Louisiana:

Don’t lump Louisiana into that. The changes there are demographic, not electoral.

Which of course must be the explanation. Southern Louisiana didn’t turn red because of the success of the handling of Gustav; it turned red because of the failure to handle Katrina – vast numbers of black Americans were forced out and haven’t come back.


Obama’s spending gives Republicans an excuse

So Barack Obama is easily outstripping John McCain both in fundraising and, therefore, in advertising.  I’m hardly unique in supporting the source of Obama’s money – a multitude of small donations.  It certainly has a more democratic flavour than exclusive fund-raising dinners at $20,000 per plate.

But if we want to look for a cloud behind all that silver lining, here it is:  If Barack Obama wins the 2008 US presidential election, Republicans will be in a position to believe (and argue) that he won primarily because of his superior fundraising and not the superiority of his ideas.  Even worse, they may be right, thanks to the presence of repetition-induced persuasion bias.

Peter DeMarzo, Dimitri Vayanos and Jeffrey Zwiebel had a paper published in the August 2003 edition of the Quarterly Journal of Economics titled “Persuasion Bias, Social Influence, and Unidimensional Opinions“.  They describe persuasion bias like this:

[C]onsider an individual who reads an article in a newspaper with a well-known political slant. Under full rationality the individual should anticipate that the arguments presented in the article will reect the newspaper’s general political views. Moreover, the individual should have a prior assessment about how strong these arguments are likely to be. Upon reading the article, the individual should update his political beliefs in line with this assessment. In particular, the individual should be swayed toward the newspaper’s views if the arguments presented in the article are stronger than expected, and away from them if the arguments are weaker than expected. On average, however, reading the article should have no effect on the individual’s beliefs.

[This] seems in contrast with casual observation. It seems, in particular, that newspapers do sway readers toward their views, even when these views are publicly known. A natural explanation of this phenomenon, that we pursue in this paper, is that individuals fail to adjust properly for repetitions of information. In the example above, repetition occurs because the article reects the newspaper’s general political views, expressed also in previous articles. An individual who fails to adjust for this repetition (by not discounting appropriately the arguments presented in the article), would be predictably swayed toward the newspaper’s views, and the more so, the more articles he reads. We refer to the failure to adjust properly for information repetitions as persuasion bias, to highlight that this bias is related to persuasive activity.

More generally, the failure to adjust for repetitions can apply not only to information coming from one source over time, but also to information coming from multiple sources connected through a social network. Suppose, for example, that two individuals speak to one another about an issue after having both spoken to a common third party on the issue. Then, if the two conferring individuals do not account for the fact that their counterpart’s opinion is based on some of the same (third party) information as their own opinion, they will double-count the third party’s opinion.

Persuasion bias yields a direct explanation for a number of important phenomena. Consider, for example, the issue of airtime in political campaigns and court trials. A political debate without equal time for both sides, or a criminal trial in which the defense was given less time to present its case than the prosecution, would generally be considered biased and unfair. This seems at odds with a rational model. Indeed, listening to a political candidate should, in expectation, have no effect on a rational individual’s opinion, and thus, the candidate’s airtime should not matter. By contrast, under persuasion bias, the repetition of arguments made possible by more airtime can have an effect. Other phenomena that can be readily understood with persuasion bias are marketing, propaganda, and censorship. In all these cases, there seems to be a common notion that repeated exposures to an idea have a greater effect on the listener than a single exposure. More generally, persuasion bias can explain why individuals’ beliefs often seem to evolve in a predictable manner toward the standard, and publicly known, views of groups with which they interact (be they professional, social, political, or geographical groups)—a phenomenon considered indisputable and foundational by most sociologists

[emphasis added]

While this is great for the Democrats in getting Obama to the White House, the charge that Obama won with money and not on his ideas will sting for any Democrat voter who believes they decided on the issues.  Worse, though, is that by having the crutch of blaming the Obama campaign’s fundraising for their loss, the Republican party may not seriously think through why they lost on any deeper level.  We need the Republicans to get out of the small-minded, socially conservative rut they’ve occupied for the last 12+ years.