Tuesday, July 26, 2011

America Needs a Declaration of Independents...

There is so much to love in Jeffrey Sachs all out attack on the colossal failings of America's two major political parties.

Every part of the budget debate in the U.S. is built on a tissue of willful deceit. Consider the Republican Party's double-mantra that the deficit results from "runaway spending" and that more tax cuts are the key to economic growth. Republicans claim that the budget deficit, around 10 percent of GDP, has been caused only by a rise in outlays. This is blatantly untrue. The deficit results roughly equally from a fall of tax revenues as a share of GDP and a rise of spending as a share of GDP... The Democrats of the White House and much of Congress have been less crude, but no less insidious, in their duplicity... at every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class. He refused to tax the banks and hedge funds properly on their outlandish profits; he refused to limit in a serious way the bankers' mega-bonuses even when the bonuses were financed by taxpayer bailouts; and he even refused to stand up against extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich last December, though 60 percent of the electorate repeatedly and consistently demanded that the Bush tax cuts at the top should be ended. It's not hard to understand why. Obama and Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions the same way that the Republicans rely on oil and coal. In America today, only the rich have political power.
Sachs concludes "America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites. Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline."

I do not disagree with Sachs' assessment. I for one am tired of hearing partisans defend their party while proclaiming that "the other side" is the unreasonable party. A review of recent columns by leading opinion leaders on the Left and the Right reveals little more than an exercise in finger pointing and self righteous indignation. From the Left you'll hear that the Republicans are "hostage takers" willing to risk fiscal ruin to protect America's wealthy. On the Right you'll hear that President Obama and Congressional Democrats refuse to accept significant spending cuts because to do so would be to admit that the modern progressive era is over, and failed.

The truth is America is being ill-served by both parties as they seek to appeal to ever more partisan and polarized bases.

Some, argue that the American electorate is polarized as the two parties simply reflect that polarization. But there is little to no evidence that the general public is polarized - at least any more polarized now than at any point in the last 30 years. Rather we live in a two party system and the parties have become ever more polarized and controlled by partisan fringes. Polarized parties create the illusion of a polarized public. Problem is, a winner-take-all, plurality rule, two-party system is supposed to promote the creation of two moderate parties.

In his seminal work, Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs wrote when the electorate is polarized "regardless of which party is in office, half the electorate always feels that the other half is imposing policies upon it that are strongly repugnant to it... In this situation, if one party keeps getting reelected, the disgruntled supporters of the other party will probably revolt; whereas if he two parties alternate in office, social chaos occurs, because government policy keeps changing from one extreme to the other."

One could look to that passage as prophetic, but what if Downs had it backward? What if polarized parties led to the polarized electorate? Extensive research by Fiorina shows us that the mass public has not become more polarized even as the members of the two parties have - especially the most engaged members.

A recent study by Daniel Coffey (in PS: Political Science and Politics) determined that there is a direct and positive correlation between party competition and party ideology. As a state becomes more competitive between Republicans and Democrats the respective parties become ever more conservative and liberal.

So as politics became more competitive through the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s the parties responded by becoming ever more ideological. V. O. Key argued that competition would force parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice.

As competition increased the parties came to rely more heavily not on the median voter in a unimodal distribution, but rather on the more committed and active voters on the left and right of the distribution.

As the agendas of the political parties became ever more divergent Americans began to "sort" more neatly into one party or the other - and more Americans began to identify as either pure Independents or only loosely associated with a party. As the agenda of the Democratic Party became more liberal and the Republican Party more conservative, liberal Republicans left the party and became Democrats or Independents and conservative Democrats became Republicans or Independents.

The parties polarized, the public did not. There has been precious little change in the last 30 years with regard to the share of Americans who identify as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal. Rather conservatives no longer feel comfortable in the Democratic Party and Liberals are no longer comfortable in the Republican Party - Moderates appear to be less comfortable with both parties.

The electorate is no more polarized now than in 1970, 1980, or 1990 - but the parties are. So of course 90% of Republicans vote Republican and 90% of Democrats vote Democrat. Of course Presidential approval correlates to party affiliation, it's the natural byproduct of party sorting, but party sorting is not the same as polarization. Moderate voters tend to split their support and vote at lower levels.

So what we have is a modification to Downs. The distribution of the American electorate (in the broadest sense) is unimodal which should promote more moderate parties, but the distribution of the most engaged and activist elements of the electorate is bimodal which has resulted in two polarized parties.

Steven Hill (author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of Winner Take All Elections) writes "one of the defining characteristics of a winner-take-all system is that it promotes adversarial politics so that on a whole host of issues it is painfully obvious that the overriding agenda for both major parties is... to stake out positions vis-a-vis the other side."

In the 1960s Republicans exploited several emerging schisms in the ranks of the Democratic Party's coalition in order to become competitive - schisms revolving around national security, welfare spending, and policies with regard to race relations. The party defined itself by being what the Democratic Party was not. Over time the parties increasingly defined themselves by being the antithesis of the other party.

This led to party sorting, internal partisan homogeneity, and the bimodal distribution of the engaged voters and the system now feeds off of that bimodal distribution even as the broader mass electorate's distribution remains unimodal.

And such a system can be maintained so long as the respective bases maintain intensity and the strategies used to motivate base voters do not alienate more moderate voters who are often needed to swing an election given the near parity of each party's base.

But what happens when the strategies, rhetoric, and policies required to maintain base allegiance begin to alienate more moderate voters? If those voters simply stop voting it may not matter, but if they continue to vote it could be very disruptive as they seek an electoral outlet.

It would be reasonable for one party to moderate and absorb those moderate voters, but doing so risks losing their base. So instead both parties engage in what Jacobs and Shapiro (Politicians Dont' Pander) describe as "crafted talk" in which they use words that suggest moderation even as they pursue very partisan policies. But the pursuit of those policies will push the moderate voters away - and they only have one other choice, the opposition party.
It's possible, that as the base strategy accelerates one would expect to see more see-saw elections like 2006 and 2010. Such oscillations in partisan control of government contributes to the present era's dysfunction, but so long as the parties remain committed to a polarized, partisan base strategy it will remain a feature of the present era.

And that brings us back to Sachs. America does not need a third party; rather America needs two new parties. In recent years we have seen an increase in the number of voter instigated ballot initiatives, rising levels of voter discontent, see-saw election results like the 2006 and 2010 midterms.

The evidence suggest that the broader electorate is beginning to resist and push back against the current political system. Perhaps disaffected voters in the broader electorate are nearing a critical mass and may soon be able to break the hold on the system by the two parties.

Only time will tell, but the current political system which emerged from the turmoil and tumult of the 1960s, has not lasted longer than any recognized political era in American history. Of course, our two major parties control campaign fundraising laws, ballot access, voter registration laws, the drawing of Congressional districts, the manner in which electoral votes are awarded, and access to the public airways. It's a duopoly more damaging than any monopoly in American history.

The only way to break their hold is to mobilize the growing number of folks who feel alienated from both parties, the 40% of folks who don't vote and in presidential elections, and the 60% who don't vote in Congressional elections. It's time for a revolution... not like 1776, but rather the electoral revolutions of 1800, or 1828, or 1860, or 1932.... we need systemic transformation from below and we need it soon.

America needs a Declaration of Independents... a declaration that we will no longer allow America's future and prosperity to be held hostage to the narrow ideological pursuits of the Democratic and Republican parties and the ideologues who fund them.