Saturday, October 23, 2010

To discredit Dividism* in 2010 they are going to have to do better than this.

Yale and Berkeley Political Science Professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a thesis in The American Prospect entitled The Stalemate State, advancing an argument intended to undermine the popular preference for divided government.

Frankly I am surprised that we have not seen more of this from left-leaning academia this election cycle. The argument for divided government can be particularly effective in persuading independents and moderates of both parties, because the preference for policy moderation trumps partisan inclination for those of an independent mindset. Voting for divided government is a way for Independent voters to give themselves permission to vote for candidates that might otherwise be unpalatable.

Limited government conservatives, libertarians, and moderate independents did not vote for Democrats because they were Democrats in 2006, they were voting for divided government in order to moderate the excesses of One Party Republican Rule during the George W Bush administration. Similarly those same voters will not be voting for Republicans because the are Republicans on November 2, but they will be voting for divided government to moderate the excesses of One Party Democratic Rule under the Barack Obama administration. If independents are important to an election, the divided government argument is a proven way to sway them. For those voters, that persuasion must start with a credible intellectual foundation.

Hacker and Pierson take a crack at shooting down the divided government voting rationale in 2010, but it is too little, too late. To their credit they begin by offering a fair summary of the case for divided government:
"Former Congressman Bill Frenzel gave voice to a common sentiment when he declared in the mid-1990s, "Gridlock is a natural gift the framers of our Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition -- whether multi-branch, multilevel, or multi-house -- is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year."

Gridlock ensures that two sides reach a compromise -- or else nothing happens. According to Frenzel or, for example, the two former Justice Department officials from the George H.W. Bush era who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Gridlock in Washington is Good," the only real losers are inflexible partisans, and the only real cost is having to wait until they come to their senses and find the middle ground."
One annoyance in the article is a particular pet peeve - sloppy nomenclature that uses the term "gridlock" interchangeably with "divided government". They are not synonymous terms, but that usage is so common that I've given up fighting that battle. In any case I can't complain too much, since I've done it myself.

Hacker and Pierson also avoid the easily discredited argument that we need One Party Rule because our problems are so big and pressing that we cannot afford the luxury of compromise and moderation - we just need TO GET THINGS DONE! I suspect they avoid this line of argument because as political scientists, they are familiar with Yale Professor David Mayhew's definitive work "Divided We Govern", where he shows there is no statistical evidence to claim more or less productivity out of Congress during periods of divided or unified government in the modern era. None. No correlation. No causation. No evidence whatsoever. In reality, Mayhew found, congressional productivity "solving problems" is more closely correlated with a "pervasive public mood for change." Hence, we can see periods of extraordinary Congressional productivity during divided government, such as during the Nixon and Clinton administrations.

Instead, Hacker and Pierson make a more subtle argument. Still wrong, but a little trickier to get your arms around. The real problem with divided government/gridlock - they tell us - is "policy drift". Let us take a short syllogistic walk with the professors as they make their case:
"... stalemate in Washington leads to a slow and steady deterioration of governance -- deterioration that is at the heart of our present economic crisis. To see this requires grasping a simple truth: Even if Congress can't pass new laws, things don't stay the same. Instead, the role of government will change profoundly as major shifts in the economy and society affect how policies work. We call this process "drift," and it is anything but benign."
So... The problem with divided government is that it cannot keep up with the shifting economic and societal dynamics requiring continuous legislative and regulatory action to - you know - manage the entire economy and society. It goes without saying that managing all of US society and the entire economy to ensure that we do not drift off a preferred optimal course set by our enlightened leadership is the job of our government. And what examples do the good professors use to illustrate the kind of societal drift that requires continuous course correction from a unified One Party Rule activist government?
"The dramatic collapse of unions also stemmed from the failure of government to update its policies over a period of decades. As employment shifted from manufacturing to services and from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt, the American industrial-relations system -- which was designed in the 1930s and geared toward manufacturing employment and essentially limited to the Midwestern/Northeastern industrial heartland -- was badly outflanked. Government could have responded, but it didn't. Most dramatically, a push for industrial-relations reform in the late 1970s fell victim to vociferous Republican opposition and a then-rare legislative tactic, the filibuster."
There you have it. It is important to maintain a forward leaning activist unified government in order to reverse critical high priority issues reaching crisis proportions - such as - the decrease in union membership. Really.

Well, the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) certainly agree, and they are doing everything they can to ensure the continuation of One Party Democratic Rule to prevent any "corrosive drift" in declining membership that would be the consequence of an insufficiently activist and supportive divided government. In fact they agree so much, that they are the single largest contributors to either party in the 2010 campaign according to the Wall Street Journal:


"The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to boost Democrats that has vaulted the public-sector union ahead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and a flock of new Republican groups in campaign spending.

The 1.6 million-member AFSCME is spending a total of $87.5 million on the elections after tapping into a $16 million emergency account to help fortify the Democrats' hold on Congress. Last week, AFSCME dug deeper, taking out a $2 million loan to fund its push. The group is spending money on television advertisements, phone calls, campaign mailings and other political efforts, helped by a Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on campaign spending...

The 2010 election could be pivotal for public-sector unions, whose clout helped shield members from the worst of the economic downturn. In the 2009 stimulus and other legislation, Democratic lawmakers sent more than $160 billion in federal cash to states, aimed in large part at preventing public-sector layoffs. "
So - to review - Our taxpayer money goes to fund the salaries for public sector jobs (that pay significantly more on average with better benefits and pensions than the private sector), who then pass our money through union dues into campaign contributions for Democratic Party candidates in order to maintain One Party Democratic Rule - expecting those politicians to pass massive stimulus bills used for hiring and protecting more public sector jobs.

What a country.

But I digress. This post is about the academic case that Professor Hacker and Pierson are making against divided government. That case, in a nutshell, is this:
We need to maintain One Party Democratic Rule, in order to advance a sufficiently aggressive activist regulatory and legislative agenda to keep the country from "drifting" away from liberal Democratic policies.
Now, I don't have a PHD in Political Science from Yale, but I can recognize the smell of a big stinking pile of pure partisan hackery when it is dumped under my nose. And if their argument is not simply a tautology (We need to vote for Unified Democratic Government because we need Democratic Party policies.), then I can still say that hackery doesn't get Piled any Higher or Deeper than their article in the American Prospect.

UPDATE:
Unsurprisingly, Peter Lawlor of The Postmodern Conservative, also begs to differ with Hacker/Pierson thesis in "Contra Divided Government":
"So Democratic intellectuals are finally getting around to giving the case against the “gridlock” caused by the two “political” branches of government being controlled by different parties. Nothing will get done except through compromise! People will come to think that government can’t really address the big challenges they face these days! And the “interests” will be able to resist “the people” pushing through Big-Government regulatory reform! (Of course it all sounds good or at least better to me.)"
When the "negative consequences" of your political hypothesis turns out to be the positive preferred outcome for your political opposition, perhaps your essay should not be considered analysis, but rather a simple-minded expression of partisan preference.

UPDATE II: Added links, corrected typos.
* Yes, "Dividism" is a made-up word. Or at least I thought it was, until a google search reveals a grand total of 2,270 prior uses of the word. Still, in google terms, that is virtually zero. There are not even as many uses for "Dividism" as my other made up word "Dividist®" (which I have adopted as my moniker, cornered the domain name market, and registered as a trademark). Google finds over 7,000 prior uses of the word Dividist, which superficially looks like it is much greater use than "Dividism". Bu on closer inspection, it becomes clear that almost all of the prior uses of "Dividist" were by - um - me. I use it a lot.
Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.


4 comments:

Tully said...

Spot On. A few IMAO observations:

"Gridlock" is an appropriate usage, it's just that it's being applied to individual issues rather than to the functioning of the political branches overall. The Founders counted on a divided polity to force the choice of "compromise or inaction" in a pluralistic system. That's not a contradiction of the observation that divided government and gridlock are not synonymous, but that undivided government is not synonymous with one party rule. The Founders anticipated that there would be divisions even within the parties that would also be a somewhat moderating force even when one party held the Congress and presidency. Of course, their faith in that was sufficiently weak that they also ended up with a Bill of Rights ...

"Process drift" is exactly the thing that should guide partisan competition! The error is the assumption (that you pounded home with a sledgehammer) that ONLY one particular party's policies are the cure, when the intent of the Constitution was to force policy changes back to a pluralistic concensus.

The Founders were big fans of King Log. Hacker and Pierson are obviously big fans of King Stork, but only when it's THEIR King Stork, whom they naively assume will only eat the other party's frogs.

Tully said...

Oh yeah, here's a few more charts on the explosive results of that "sufficiently aggressive activist regulatory and legislative agenda ", as noted by Deroy Murdock.

mw said...

Tully,
thanks for the comments and links. I've embedded a couple of them in the post to support the argument.

Before x-posting I think I'll need to tone it down a bit so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the Donk commentariat.

Ricketson said...

You'll probably want to check out the Monkey Cage: What Divided Government Does: Deficit Edition

"This is the first in a series of posts on what political science can tell us about divided government."