Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Demise of the Health Care Bill Shows That Policy Still Matters

Over the past few years, it's become fashionable among many political experts to deny that policy substance plays much of a role in motivating the electoral choices of the American public. The dominant picture of citizen behavior in contemporary accounts is that of a crude tribalism, in which individuals' salient social or cultural identities motivate them to develop a simplistic but powerful affinity for a favored party—and an even stronger antipathy for the opposition—that subsequently determines their normative, and even factual, political beliefs. A number of my fellow political scientists are fond of quipping on Twitter that "all politics are identity politics" and that "negative partisanship rules everything" whenever evidence arises of such phenomena at work.

Like any pithy aphorism, these observations contain substantial, but not total, truth. Today's electorate is indeed strongly partisan in its candidate preferences, and much of this party loyalty is driven by an increasingly bitter feeling toward the other side (rather than a more positive view of one's own party). Many Americans do perceive political conflict as involving competition among social groups, and their own group identity often plays a powerful role in determining which partisan team they join and which they scorn.

But a theory of voting behavior that stops there cannot account for every important development in politics today, and the apparent demise of Mitch McConnell's health care bill in the Senate late Monday is one key example. There will no doubt be numerous inside-baseball reports and analyses about how and why the legislation has failed (at least so far) to attract the necessary support. But it's also worth stepping back and looking at the big picture. The largest single obstacle that the Republican Party has faced in repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the policy preferences of the American people.

While the ACA itself proved to be a divisive measure, most of its specific provisions have consistently enjoyed strong popular support. Moreover, repeal faced the same problem any other attempt at welfare state retrenchment creates: how does a political party revoke benefits from sympathetic current beneficiaries without provoking a serious popular backlash? Prior to Trump's election, Republicans—including Trump himself—could sidestep these dilemmas by keeping their alternative health care proposals vague and implausibly attractive. Once the GOP was compelled to write an actual bill, however, it unenthusiastically produced a set of policies that were almost historic in their unpopularity. Even Republican voters reported lukewarm-at-best attitudes towards the positions of their own party leaders—demonstrating that tribal loyalty still has its limits despite our unusually polarized climate.

If Republican members of Congress thought that mere group solidarity ruled the electorate, they would have resurrected the repeal bill that passed the House and Senate in 2015 (only to be vetoed, as expected, by Obama), quickly enacted it on a party-line vote last January, and moved on to other business—secure in the belief that any supporters who subsequently lost health insurance access could be easily convinced that their favored party was not to blame. Instead, the GOP embarked on a protracted, and so far unfulfilled, struggle to reconcile its ideological predispositions with the substantive demands and anticipated responses of the broader electorate. Donald Trump's bully pulpit and Mitch McConnell's tactical acumen have not yet proven able to overcome the suspicion among a critical mass of officeholders that politicians who defy the will of the public on important national policy issues risk popular retribution at the next round of balloting, regardless of the party label next to their name.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Want to Influence the Democratic Party? Try Joining the Democratic Party

While I was on vacation last week, my friend and colleague Sarah Reckhow sent me this story about a new website and self-described "political network" called Win the Future. Win the Future (WTF for short) is co-founded by two Silicon Valley moguls (Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Pincus of Zynga, the parent company of the online games Farmville and Words with Friends). Frustrated with the Democratic Party for imperfectly representing their political preferences, Hoffman and Pincus are attempting to build a mass membership (or at least mass participation) organization via the Internet that will be devoted to "empower[ing] all of us to choose our leaders and set our agenda." Reading between the lines of their rhetoric, they want to push Democratic officials to shift further leftward on immigration and social issues while talking more about impeaching Donald Trump, but they are simultaneously rather less sympathetic than the current party leadership to the interests and power of labor unions and free-trade skeptics.

Two weeks out of town left me less attentive than usual to day-to-day social media trends, so I missed whatever reaction the unveiling of WTF provoked among expert observers of the political world. But I think I can guess. Starting with the name itself, the WTF initiative is marinated in tech-hype buzzword-speak. It trades mostly in overfamiliar platitudes (Up with giving a voice to the people! Down with career politicians!). The mechanisms by which its influence is to be amassed and deployed are described in a vague manner, with the following exception: it is clear that the organization will solicit direct cash contributions, which it will then use to rent advertising space on billboards (?!?). The political judgment on display is appropriately summarized by the revelation that one of the ideas for achieving a national party "revolution" involves encouraging the singer of a '90s-era power-pop band to mount an electoral challenge to popular California senator Dianne Feinstein.

In all likelihood, WTF will eventually pass into the same obscurity that has befallen most awkward mashups between politics and the tech sector. But its supposed purpose rests on an assumption that is much more widespread and longer-lived, and that promises to endure whether or not Hoffman and Pincus realize their particular organizational vision. This perspective views political parties in their current form as controlled by unaccountable politicians and other elites to such an extent that they are virtually impermeable to the influence of interested citizens—thus necessitating fundamental and even "revolutionary" measures in order to restore their democratic legitimacy.

Yet there are plenty of ways that parties are open to mass participation. Any eligible voter is able to take part in the process of selecting a major party's nominees for nearly all elected offices, including the presidency. Regular Americans can, and often do, work on behalf of favored candidates' campaigns and provide them with financial contributions. City, town, or county Democratic and Republican committees and clubs are usually quite welcoming to citizens who wish to commit themselves to becoming active in party affairs. Within the broader networks of both major parties sit a number of well-established interest groups—NARAL, the NRA, the League of Conservation Voters—that themselves solicit public membership and support, and that exert considerable power over the politicians of the party with which they are aligned.

Contrary to myth, politicians are quite sensitive to the wishes of party members, and there are plenty of historical examples of elected officials changing their policy positions in response to pressure from active factions and interest groups within their party. The success of the modern conservative movement in gaining control of the Republican Party is a textbook case—conservatives sought to dominate the organizational apparatus and nomination process of the GOP, compelling ambitious Republican politicians to satisfy the preferences of these activists in order to advance their own careers.

It takes a certain degree of credulity to believe that the parties' policy adoption process is currently walled off from the interested citizen by the machinations of self-dealing operators but could be cracked wide open with a dot-com address, some Twitter polls, and a few strategically-located billboards. Aside from the obvious superficial appeal of a pitch that taking over a major national institution is something that could be done from the comfort of a lunch-hour smartphone session, this thinking draws on a tendency that is more common on the American left than on the right: a certain ambivalence about partisan politics and a reluctance to engage with the electoral process from within a major party, even as one holds strong opinions about what that party should, or should not, stand for.

One example of this mentality dates from the 2016 presidential nomination contest, when some Bernie Sanders supporters argued that voters who refused to officially register as Democrats should still be granted the right to participate in Democratic primaries (a few even went so far as to assert that state primaries that excluded independents amounted to a form of "voter suppression"). Whether or not it's presumptuous to claim the right to influence party affairs without actually belonging to the party, it's—more importantly—fatally flawed tactical thinking. As conservatives have historically understood better than the American left, no idiosyncratic quirk exempts political parties from the general rule within human institutions that demands are more likely to be addressed when they come from inside the tent.

This isn't the first time that Silicon Valley types have demonstrated that success and smarts in other fields doesn't necessarily translate into a high political IQ. But taking the time and effort to gain an understanding of the actual operation of party organizations isn't only valuable for learning how best to achieve one's own political goals. It also reveals that party leaders who aren't already doing what you want are not necessarily being "unrepresentative," but may instead be doing a perfectly good job of representing the preferences of others who are more invested in the party cause.