Saturday, November 8, 2014

The politics of mean reversion

The Upshot recently had a column discussing the role that occasional voters play in tempering the more partisan policy preferences of reliable voters. While I don't have strong views about the ethics of voting or nonvoting (although clearly its possible to vote well or vote poorly), I have a very hard time seeing the macro benefits of sporadic voting.

A popular idea in US politics is that we're too polarized. That's not really accurate: the electorate isn't more polarized, rather the institutional arrangements that translate votes into policy are badly skewed towards partisanship and gridlock. A key problem is that the basic system of accountability has degraded. Parties have become more ideologically coherent, which enables increasingly rational collecting strategizing. This is especially important in the senate, where any majority lacking 60 votes can be effectively blocked by the minority. The minority wins politically when the majority loses--and the minority has the institutional power to make the majority lose. Not exactly a recipe for dynamic government capacity.

Here's where sporadic voting comes in. To get anything done in this political reality, the mechanisms of government require a party to control 60 senate seats. But sporadic voters--who tend to be more independent--hold majorities accountable. In recent years the dysfunctional gridlock in federal government has led to a vast army of unsatisfied moderate voters ping-ponging back and forth between parties. Neither Democrats or Republicans ever quite assemble a coalition sizeable enough to truly implement their policy vision before being cut down by moderate voters for their ineffectiveness.

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