The Rage Driven Pendulum Part II — Bad Incentives

It can feel good to hate individual politicians, but for the most part they’re acting in sensible ways given the incentives presented to them. Politics is Darwinian after all; if we were in an environment that selected for bipartisanship and collegiality those outcomes would dominate. With strong incentives to keep their seats (being a congressperson comes with a salary, staff, and sense of importance that few of them would be capable of finding elsewhere) and the repeated failure of high minded appeals it is clear that if we want better behavior from the federal government we need to tweak the rules of that are generating such bad outcomes.

As I touched on in the first post, our primaries and widespread gerrymandering result in a system where the only challenge of consequence many congresspeople will ever face will come from the extreme of their own party rather than the center of the electorate. As a result politicians in “safe seats” spend their time in government positioning themselves as an opponent of compromise in the hopes of boxing out hardline primary challengers. Of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, only 58 were competitive in the 2020 cycle. This means that during a closely contested election in a country of 330 million people only 41 million people lived in a district with a realistic opportunity to influence the composition of the House. The remaining 87% percent of the US population in 289 districts had their representative to the 117th congress decided by the primary election of one party or another.

Beyond the bad incentives for individual politicians our system discourages compromise at the party level in ways that multiparty systems do not. After all our system has the parties locked in a zero-sum competition. The loss of two Democratic seats means a two seat gain for Republicans, and visa-versa. In today’s polarized environment where Republicans and Democrats are well sorted ideologically (i.e. virtually every elected democrat is to the left of almost every republican across most issues) there is little incentive to collaborate across the aisle. The more of them you can unseat the more ideological allies you will have to help accomplish your goals next session.

Overlaid on this zero-sum structure is the tendency of the electorate to attribute all their dissatisfactions, regardless of their origin, to the President and by association the down ballot members of their party. With little ideological overlap, and all the pressure on the president’s party there is little incentive for cooperation or compromise from elected officials whose party doesn’t hold the presidency. Mitch McConnell clearly understood this in 2010, when he said, “Our top political priority is to deny President Obama a second term”. While Obama was re-elected, his tenure saw unprecedented Republican obstruction that tanked the approval ratings of everyone involved, saw three different standoffs played with federal debt (one of which brought the government to a grinding halt), the eventual loss of the Senate to Republicans in 2014, and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president. Since then the US government has been shut down for lack of funding twice more including a record breaking 35 day shutdown over the winter of 2018–2019. Mitch McConnell’s blanket obstruction wasn’t a new tactic. Antagonism as an electoral strategy was pioneered by Newt Gingrich in the 90s:

The way he saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself. “His idea,” says Norm Ornstein, a political scientist who knew Gingrich at the time, “was to build toward a national election where people were so disgusted by Washington and the way it was operating that they would throw the ins out and bring the outs in”.

Pulling this off obviously takes an incredible level of personal cynicism, but as the two dominant parties move further apart it becomes easier and easier to rationalize. In contrast, under a multi-party system a strategy of total obstruction would offer few advantages. With more than two viable parties a scorched earth strategy of inducing government dysfunction to damage the party holding the presidency regardless of the cost to your own reputation could easily lead to a third party benefiting from the damage you inflict on yourself and your main opposition. This dynamic was visible in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary where each campaign functioned like a miniature political party: fundraising, putting out policy proposals, buying ads, and jockeying for endorsements. In this miniaturized multi-party election lagging candidates needed to peel support away from the leaders, but directly attacking an opponent was risky. The benefits of a successful line of attack were diffuse as primary voters jarred loose from a leader had multiple candidates to choose from. While the costs of acrimonious behavior would be borne only by the candidates involved. This effect is demonstrated perfectly by Julian Castro’s polling before and after the September 12th primary debate where Castro alleged Biden was forgetting the specifics of his own healthcare plan. This line of criticism garnered significant media attention and was widely viewed as unfair. The aftermath is clearly visible in a plot of the difference between Castro’s favorable and unfavorable ratings. In the weeks leading up to the debate Castro’s favorability differential hovered around -5 (e.g. roughly 36 percent of respondents thought unfavorably of him while 31 percent thought favorably). In the week after the debate Castro saw his approve/disapprove differential drop to -24; after that cataclysmic drop his differential rebounded significantly, but never fully recovered.

Julian Castro’s net favorability rating sank an astonishing 20 points in the aftermath of his allegation that Joe Biden couldn’t remember the details of his health care plan. Based on data from Real Clear Politics.

This isn’t to suggest that under a multi-party system no disagreement can be successfully exploited for political gain, only that the fights must be more carefully chosen. A close look at the polling before and after the first Democratic debate of the 2020 primary appears to show that Kamala Harris’s decision to pointedly contrast her childhood experience being bussed to a newly integrated school with Biden’s recent comment extolling his work with segregationist senators paid off handsomely for the Harris campaign.

Kamal Harris’ rise in the polling after the first debate appears to have come at the expense of Biden. Adapted from Real Clear Politics’ Poll Tracker.

In the 10 days after that June 27th debate Biden’s polling average fell about 6 points, while Harris’s polling average more than doubled moving her into three way tie for second place with Sanders and Warren. Somewhat further afield but in an actual multiparty system, the Brexit Party was created In January 2019 and four months later won a majority of the United Kingdom’s seats in European Parliamentary elections. No doubt the overnight success of the Brexit party is an extreme example as Brexit would soon eliminate the U.K.’s representation in the E.U. parliament, but it does underscore the potential responsiveness of multiparty systems to the will of the electorate.

The thing to recognize is that when more than one party can benefit from the reputational loss of another, a paralyzing siege on all policy fronts is no longer a guaranteed path to electoral success for the party out of power. Imagine for a second that in George Bush’s 2nd term the U.S. transitioned to a multiparty system. At the beginning of the Obama Era, Republicans and Democrats would be the largest parties, but there would also be a variety of relevant third parties: Libertarians (Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, and Rand Paul), Greens (Ralph Nader, possibly Al Gore), emergent conservative nationalists (Donald Trump and the Tea Party), and Social Democrats (Bernie Sanders) could all have grown their coalitions if voters rejected the both large parties. Under these conditions Mitch McConnell has to pick and choose his fights more tactically. If he had opted for total obstruction there is a real chance that voters angry at the direction of the country could hand Republicans and Democrats simultaneous electoral losses. If he is perceived as rolling over for a left wing agenda the nascent Tea Party may have done significant damage to Republican incumbents. These new incentives would suggest loud opposition on the unpopular portions of the Democratic platform, while also behaving in a way that presented the Republican party as the most effective of several alternatives to Democratic party control. Whether or not McConnell would be savvy enough to lead the Republican party in this more complicated political landscape I do not know, but through trial and error party leaders would emerge who could.

Hopefully, you agree that under our two-party system there are strong disincentives for inter-party cooperation when polarization is high, but in a country where more than half of all people believe a third party is needed, why do we have two dominant parties to begin with? The simplest explanation is that one thing both parties can agree on is the need to exclude third parties from the process. On a deeper level the number of parties competing in an election is, at least partially, a function of the electoral system in which they exist. More than 60 years ago, a political scientist named Maurice Duverger wrote that plurality voting systems will tend to coalesce around two dominant parties. This seminal work is now called “Duverger’s Law”. This name is misleading for two reasons. First, it is not a law in the scientific sense; even Duverger himself would only say that of his observations this one “most approached a sociological law”. Second, similar observations go back more than a century before Duverger. Nevertheless, Duverger’s law can be informally stated this way: When voters can only express their preference for a single candidate, and when only the candidate with the most votes is rewarded the result will be two large parties vying for control. The election system described is most often called “plurality” or “first past the post”, and Duverger identified two basic forces that would move these this type of election towards two-party dominance. The first, is the tendency of smaller parties to unite in the hopes of achieving power together. The second, is the tendency of parties who do not gain power to wither as their voters move to the parties that can. Duverger’s work has spawned significant debate, and counter examples include: India, the United Kingdom, and Canada all of which use plurality voting while remaining multiparty systems. I suspect that their use of the Westminster system has a lot to do with this, but in the American system where we elect a president independent of congress and there are only two nationally relevant parties the spoiler effect is either instinctually obvious or warnings that voting 3rd party elect the enemy are ingrained enough in the culture that Duverger’s Law remains quite predictive. Seth Ackerman, the editor of Jacobin who desperately wants to build a left-wing third party in the United States, has a long piece that does two things very well: it lays out America’s history of 3rd party exclusion stretching back to the 1800s, and describes the struggle of a home grown Labor Party to positively influence elections without tipping otherwise Democratic seats to Republican candidates who they had even less in common with. Unfortunately, in its proscriptive section it fails to grapple with the spoiler effect it describes so well earlier in the article. So we’re in a sticky situation. We need third parties to emerge to make politics less zero sum, but under our current electoral system there is no viable path for third parties. To improve our politics we need to improve the rules of our elections. This means creating rules can get us out from under Duverger’s heavy thumb. I’ll outline the general reforms in the next section, but finally a warning: time is short! The rage driven pendulum gains momentum with every election cycle.

Airing of Grievances

Objection 1: Does it worry you that Duverger’s law isn’t actually predictive in bunch of other countries? If we were going to make changes to our elections shouldn’t the underlying theory be sound?

Response 1: Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up Duverger’s law, and just discussed the spoiler effect, but I think Duverger’s law is a useful framework for the US. We have two giant parties that contain a lot of different interest groups that have to make common cause to gain power. As Seth Ackerman lays out in his Jacobin piece parties really do wither when they can’t win elections. On the second point, I can’t guarantee that that voting reforms will create viable third parties, but at the very least they shouldn’t make things worse.

Objection 2: Why does Duverger’s law fail in a bunch of other English speaking countries that use single vote and single winner elections?

Response 2: I think it must be a knock on effect of the United States electing our executive independently of our legislature. Citizens in all the counter examples (England, Canada, and India) only vote for members of parliament. Here are two ways this may be happening (I have no idea if political scientists think they’re valid or if they’ve even been suggested). They both stem from the fact that that in the parliamentary system a single vote is giving input on both who the local representative should be and by extension who the national leader should be. Cross pressured voters in the U.S. can vote for a Republican President, a Democratic Senator, and (if they a want to throw away their vote) a Green Party Representative on the same ballot (though increasing polarization means fewer people are doing this in every cycle). Because the parliamentary countries they are asking a combined question (which of these local people should represent go to parliament and which of these national people should be Prime Minister) they are getting somewhat scattered answers. People may reasonably place different levels of importance on each of the two questions. A voter may not care very much who the their member of Parliament is and cast their vote strictly strictly on the basis of Prime Minister, after all there is a non-zero chance you’re part of an unexpected wave that could flip the seat (this appear to be how most Canadians make their decisions). Second, I suspect civic ignorance interacts with parliamentary elections in a way it doesn’t in presidential elections. As we covered in the Part I Americans know who the leader of their country is and the leader’s party affiliation, but American civic knowledge drops off very quickly when people people are asked which party controls the House or Senate or who their Senators and Representatives are. Though polling on this is hard to find, my guess is that this basic pattern holds in every country. The added ingredient in parliamentary systems is that 3rd parties and their leaders remain relevant to the political process and their voters via coalition forming. The result is smaller parties stay relevant nationally, and because people make decisions based on what they’re retained from the news (mostly national politics) and not by looking up the total votes from their district in the last election 3rd parties keep getting votes.

Objection 3: We already have third parties, and they don’t do anything to stop our politics from getting angrier each election cycle. Look at Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin.

Response 3: Those folks aren’t really the result of parties (except for Jill Stein) those are people independently famous enough to run for President. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson both were elected to office as Republicans and then ran unsuccessful campaigns as for President as Libertarians. Ralph Nader was esteemed as a lawyer who willing to take on powerful interests in defense of the environmental causes and the common man. He is now primarily remembered as the paradigmatic example of the spoiler effect for capturing 97,000 votes in Florida’s Presidential election while George Bush (a Texas Oil man) beat Al Gore (the guy who helped negotiate the Kyoto protocol) by about 500 votes. Jill Stein, did better than Nader in that she avoided the ignominy of being a decisive spoiler in 2016, but has never been elected to any office higher than Town Councilor despite running a lot of campaigns. McMullin has also never been elected to anything, but did snag 21 percent of the vote in Utah in 2016. If we had an electoral system allowed third parties to emerge McMullin would probably be in elected office of one kind or another.

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