Thursday, October 18, 2012

Polarization: The Conundrum

Jennifer Victor wrote a nice post yesterday describing some of the history and consequences of polarization in Congress. But I wanted to comment on part of this and, in two places, disagree with her.

First, Jennifer writes about the demise of the traditional party bosses and machines and then adds:
Today, we don’t have such strong party bosses, our district lines are more distinct from local political boundaries, and the party-cartel-like corruption is mostly absent in our politics. Candidates today are free to distance themselves from their party and its platform and many don’t even use a party ID in their campaign pitches. The modern party organizations encourage this behavior, because to maintain (or obtain) a majority of seats, they’ll take a winner however they can get it—even if it means nearly disavowing the party brand.

The increased focus on candidate independence has contributed to partisan polarization in Congress.
There's a conundrum in there. Why would more independent candidates be more likely to vote along party lines? If politicians are free to distance themselves from their parties, shouldn't we be seeing a less polarized Congress?

The answer, as I discussed in my book, is that politicians really aren't free to vote their minds. The old style machines in the model of Daley's Chicago organization or Tammany Hall don't exist anymore, but party elites have figured out ways of achieving the same results. The groups and individuals that are active in primaries (including interest groups, longstanding party organizers, major donors, some media figures, etc.) tend to be deeply ideologically committed and seek candidates who share those ideological commitments. Candidate running for office have to demonstrate sufficient commitments to those ideals to win the support of these elites; it's very hard to win a primary without their support. And they generally have to keep faithful to those ideals once in office, or at least demonstrate a serious commitment to acting upon them.

Party elites aren't blind to the importance of electability -- they're constantly trying to balance electability with their ideological agenda -- but they will punish candidates and officeholders who stray too far into moderate territory, even if it occasionally costs them a seat. See Olympia Snowe or the late Arlen Specter for recent examples.

So basically party elites are coordinating to recruit and nominate candidates who will be faithful to their agenda (so they won't have to punish them later) and to punish the ones who go squishy on them, despite their best efforts. In a way, the party machines are still with us, just in a different form. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past parties aren't dead; they're not even past.

Oh, the second place in which I disagree with Jennifer is in her description of the "brandy soaked cigar." I'm fairly sure such a cigar would burst into flames when lit, but I intend to conduct some research along these lines shortly.

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