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October 29, 2002

Why the 50-50 Kaus Analysis is Bunk

Kaus is getting some play with a thesis that we have become a bitterly divided nation on the 50-yard line of politics-- not too astounding a thesis after a decade of hairline standoffs in November.

But his thesis on why this is true is laughably wrong. He lists three reasons:
(1) Ideological convergence between the parties
(2) The withering of interest groups
(3) The dimming of political memory and loyalty to each party

Thesis (1) is the conventional wisdom and, ironically, is only taken seriously because of deadlock politics. The handful of moderates in each party get to play kingmaker on most votes, so they feed a false perception of partisan convergence. But it's an illusion.

Twenty years ago, there were a whole class of "Boll Weevil" Democrats who voted more conservative than many Republicans-- just remember that Phil Gramm was once a Democrat-- and a group of "Rockefeller Republicans" who voted more liberal than many Democrats.

No more. Lack of partisanship was a condition of the mid-20th century, not of
the 21st century. A Zell Miller today still votes more with Democrats than any Republican and Lincoln Chafee votes with the GOP more than any Democrat. And in both Houses of Congress, the Democrats generally vote in a more consistently partisan manner than at almost any time in history and definitely in a more partisan manner than a generation ago. The conventional wisdom is just dead wrong.

For an indepth scholarly view on the increasing polarization of the parties, see this paper by Profs. Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthal on polarization in voting and explaining this intriguing computer generated illustration of that increasing polarization, especially in the 1990s:

I wrote years ago about how the disappearance of Boll Weevil Democrats and the Gingrich destruction of moderate GOPers had polarized the parties. And proof that it is only the existence of filibusters in the Senate restraining more partisan legislation is shown by California Where Democrats Can Be Democrats.

So forget decreasing partisanship. How about a decline in the power of interest groups? First, the partisan polarization of the parties is following the pressure by those interest groups, whether labor, feminists and civil rights activists on the left, or the Christian Coalition and anti-tax activists on the Right. On the progressive side, even party money is increasingly being directed by the partisan groups. And unions in particular are, if anything, expanding their influence at the grassroots in election turnout operations.

As for decreasing loyalty to parties, I cited a Washington Post story a couple of months ago on the Myth of the Independent Voter.

So what has happened?

Simple-- the Civil War is over. We used to have different parties in different regions, especially between the South and the North, so nominal majorities by one party did not necessarily translate into a governing majority for policy. Back in Reagan's first two years of office, we essentially had a similar 50-50 situation, where the GOP essentially ran the House with a narrow margin, despite official Democratic majorities, because the Boll Weevil's supported the Reagan agenda. And it switched narrowly back to control by Tip O'Neill and the Dem leadership by a small margin in 1982. So we've had 50-50 margins of ideological control of Congress for decades now.

Today, the difference is that ideology is dressed clearly in party dress. While some Democrats crossed over to support Bush on final passage of his tax cuts, votes on all the amendments leading up to passage were tightly partisan, as I noted in Reflections on a Partisan Year. Aside from Miller, an extraordinary number of votes in the Senate fall along strictly partisan lines, something never seen earlier last century.

It may be true that parties will subtly lean back and forth on some issues, demphasizing unpopular positions, as the GOP did with social security privatization this year, but the essentially partisan nature of the parties is unlikely to change any time soon. In many ways, shaking off the legacy of the Civil War and Jim Crow regional divisions just means that the US finally is having national party politics almost for the first time in its history. And democracy will probably be better for it.

Posted by Nathan at October 29, 2002 05:31 PM

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And, of course, party politics is not the same thing as ideology. Saying that half the country seems to be voting Republican while the other half is voting Democratic doesn't tell you a thing about where people actually stand on issues. Focusing on the electoral numbers is misleading in many, many ways. I've talked a lot at The Sideshow about how people would be far more likely to vote Democratic if they had a clearer idea of where each party/candidate stands on individual issues. And, most recently, in a comment I made at Matt Yglesias' blog here.

Posted by: Avedon at October 29, 2002 09:18 PM

I have been saying for some time that the pathe for the Dems is to find new voters among the non-voting population -- rather than to fight for the various groups of so-called "moderate" voters.

Populations to target would be new voters (including newly-naturalized), the working poor, and new parents (who suddenly get tired of hip irony).

This would involve low-tech labor-intensive get-out-the-vote outreach programs hiring mostly local neighborhood people.

On Democratic Underground I met bitter resistance to this strategy. Several times I was told that people who don't vote are just idiots, that no one knows why they don't vote, that they're called non-voters because they'll never vote, and that not all non-voters are liberals.

It's my belief that finding voters in that pool is doable and could change the balance from 50-50 to, for example, 52-48 -- ie. a relatively small number of new voters could have a disproportionate effect in the winner-take-all system.

Posted by: zizka at October 29, 2002 11:33 PM

Well, Zizka, I don't think you are an idiot. In fact, as an earnest conservative, you make me nervous, and I only take reassurance from the news that your fellow Dems are dismissing you. Oh, and as to the point (surely correct) that not all non-voters are natural Democrats, so what - don't try to mobilize them, hello, this is not rocket science.

That said, there has been a lot of talk about Dems doing as you suggest - motor-voter laws, and the controversial mass-naturalization just prior to some election under Clinton-Reno come to mind.

But I wanted to propose something else. Might it be less than a coincidence that the Watergate campaign finance reforms briefly preceded the re-configuration of the boll-weevils and the Rockefeller Republicans? Sort of tied to the rise of the partisan interst groups, who are demanding ideological purity in their party of choice. There was a time when there were pro-life Dems (I am not making this up), and we still see pro-choice Reps, although not nationally.

As I said, connected to interest groups, and campaign reform. Sort of a sidebar. Do me a favor and go back to ignoring Zizka.


Posted by: Tom Maguire at October 30, 2002 12:00 PM

I might add that the labor-intensive kind of campaign I described was the kind Wellstone ran. And some Dem source has said that the weakness of this strategy is that you have to have a candidate like Wellstone who is capable of rousing enthusiasm and affection. That was regarded as a devastating, knock-down argument, as I remember.

Posted by: zizka at October 30, 2002 12:24 PM

But a grassroots campaign does not require a passionate candidate, as shown by Davis's first primary win back in 1998 when he defeated two multi-millionaire competitors largely because labor mounted a massive member-to-member mobilization.

So if the charisma-challenged (a kind characterization) Davis can benefit from such mobilization, any candidate can. In fact, the deemphasis on media means that a candidate doesn't have to have charisma of any kind, a strong advantage.

BTW Tom is correct that the decline of Democrats was tied to voter reform and so on which forced out conservative Democrats. But it's not clear how much ideological loss that was for progressives, since those conservative Democrats were already voting against them. The more serious loss for progressives in one sense was the ideological purge of moderates in the GOP. A few drifted over to the Dems but not enough -- that was the triumph of Reaganism, not the purge of progressive Democrats but hijacking the GOP to make folks like Leach and so on warriors for conservatism.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at October 30, 2002 04:35 PM

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