Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Divided government is in the eye of the beholder

Over the last five years your loyal blogger has opined about what divided government is, what divided government is not, the reasons for supporting divided government, why divided government works, divided government and the founder's historical intent, why you should vote for divided government, how to vote for divided government, why divided government is good, why divided government is really good and the market implications of divided government. Your blogger has also taken great pains to defend divided government, review divided government books and pretty much document everything anyone has ever said about divided government.

Yet, over the entire life of this blog, the Dividist has never, not even once, mentioned "The Aesthetic of Divided Government":
"The showdown that almost lead to a shutdown is the aesthetics of divided government. We might as well get used to it. What we have, after all, are two political parties that hold different views and represent different interests, negotiating hard and down to the wire to get the best agreement they could. It isn’t pretty or perfect by any means, but it is the natural result of the system of government our founders put in place... The results matter more than the process—and the process really wasn’t quite as unseemly and upsetting as some would have it."
And in that one short paragraph Peter Wehner nets out everything that the Dividist has expended hundreds of thousands of word to say over the life of this blog. That he could distill it down so elegantly and easily is kind of annoying really.

Blogenfreude aside, Wehner's sentiment is simply true.

While she may be an acquired taste, once you get used to her divided government looks pretty darn good.

UPDATED: 4-18-2011
In the comments, Damon Eris of Poli-Tea takes exception to the excerpted Peter Wehner comment that "it is the natural result of the system of government our founders put in place" - "It" being two parties fighting down to the wire over competing budget proposals and finding a compromise at the last minute. This prompted a spirited discussion with Tully on whether or not our effective two party duopoly is a "natural" or "inherent" or "intended" consequence of our Constitutional form or - for that matter - any democratic form of government.

Re-reading Wehner's quote, it is not clear to me that he was asserting anything about whether specifically two parties are a "natural result of the system of government our founders put in place". Instead he was making the much less controversial point that given the two parties we have, each with a share of power under a divided government, we can and should certainly expect that they will fight for the best deal they can get - right down to the political wire. This strikes me as a brilliant stroke of the patently obvious, and I don't see how it is possible to argue to the contrary.

As far as the historical basis for this outcome (again ignoring the question of a specific number of parties or factions), one must appreciate the inherent difficulty of gleaning founder intent 200+ years after the fact. Nevertheless, it strikes me as incontrovertible that exactly this kind of partisan/factional argument is exactly what the founders designed into our bicameral legislative system.

I am currently enjoying historian Joseph Ellis book "Founding Brothers." Ellis is a blog favorite, and I have quoted him here before. In particular I am enamored of a phrase he coined to describe the nature of our Constitution - the "enshrinement of argument":
"The ideological and even temperamental diversity within the elite leadership group gave the American founding a distinctly argumentative flavor that made all convictions, no matter how cherished, subject to abiding scrutiny that, like history itself, became an argument without end. And much like the doctrine of checks and balances in the Constitution, the enshrinement of argument created a permanent collision of juxtaposed ideas and interests that generated a dynamic and wholly modern version of political stability."
It is just a beautiful way to think about how and why our Constitution is designed as it is.

To return to the question of whether the founders intended or expected a two party duopoly to emerge, that seems unlikely. But the fact that it did emerge immediately with the first election after Washington, and has continued primarily as a two party contest from then until now does speak to something in the system or in human nature that makes it historically inevitable.

This from Ellis' "Founding Brothers" where Jefferson is contemplating the contest for the election of the next President after Washington's farewell address:
"In the present situation of the United States, divided as they are between two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason... this exalted station [the presidency] is surrounded with dangerous rocks, and the most eminent abilities will not be be sufficient to steer clear of them all." Whereas Washington had been able to levitate above the partisan factions, "the next president of the United States will only be the president of a party."
And so it goes.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.


d.eris said...

"it is the natural result of the system of government our founders put in place"

Actually, no it isn't. Contrary to what Wehner asserts, there is nothing "natural" about the dictatorship of the two-party state and duopoly system of government. Arguably, a government divided between the Democratic and Republican parties is not divided government at all because the Democratic and Republican parties represent the same interests, and hold the self-same views, despite their rhetoric to the contrary. The ruling parties represent the interests of the ruling political class. And those interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the people of the United States, and to the very principle of constitutional government.

See, for instance, Poli-Tea on the "Naturalization of the Two-Party State."

Tully said...

Actually it's exactly what the founders put in place, even if they didn't completely grasp the inherent duality of the resulting polity. (An arguable statement, BTW. Some of them did indeed grasp it, which is why they backstopped the Constitution with the Bill of Rights.) Pluralism isn't pretty, but was the most effective way to prevent the tyranny of the majority that they could devise.

The best way to reduce the influence (and accompanying institutionalized corruption) of the "ruling political class" is to shrink the government, and thus its inherent scope of available "opportunity" for corruption.

d.eris said...

"the inherent duality of the resulting polity"

There is no "inherent duality" at play here. Talk of "inherent duality" and "natural organic results" etc. within a political system is nothing more than metaphysical mumbojumbo, imho.

The current system is not the result of a metaphysical dyad, and it is not the result of some inherent potentiality of our constitutional form of government. There is nothing necessary or natural about the dictatorship of the Republican-Democratic party. Rather, the ruling parties have literally rigged our political and electoral system to ensure that they remain in power, and that power is continually concentrated and centralized in the hands of the ruling parties. In fact, it is not very different from a coup.

The result of this is clear as day: the outright subversion of constitutional government in the United States.

mw said...

Thanks for the comments. I am reminded that I owe you a response to your comments on the Centrist Granfalloon post. I see this discussion as a continuation of that previous post, so will first attempt to clarify my perspective on the issues you raised there, then circle back.

In your comment you challenged my assertions on the size and nature of the Independent vote to make the case that supporting 3rd party candidates is a viable and preferable strategy to achieve political/policy goals.

I said I thought the maximum "true Independent" vote pegged out at about 14%, you said you thought it is closer to 20%. We agree that it is nowhere near the 40% number that self-identifies as Indy but votes partisan. Ok - I'll go with your number - Perot maxed out at 20%, it's a reasonable number. However, it does not change the dynamic that unless true Independents organize their vote around *something* they will mostly cancel themselves out and remain an impotent long term political force at the Federal level. This is particularly true at the Presidential level, where the Independent vote (whether 5% or 14% or 20%) can only succeed as a spoiler if organized around a 3rd Party. Changing the number does not change my thesis that if a subset of "true Independents" (perhaps as few as 5% of the electorate) consciously and consistently vote for divided government at the federal level, they can have an outsized influence on moving the country toward the policy objectives I prefer and outlined in my "Voting By Objective" post.

This brings me to one difference in our respective political world views. I see the divided government voting heuristic as a tactical means to acheive the political ends I outlined, and is the easiest most predictable way to get there from here. Hence my advocacy. My impression is that your objective - your political goal - is a fundamental realignment of the political process to destroy the Rep/Dem duopoly and be more inclusive of 3rd parties. While I may be sympathetic to that view as a laudable objective or "end" goal, I cannot look at it except through the prism of a "mean"s to accomplish policy objectives I support, and as a "means" it comes up wanting. Too hard and it takes too long.

(end of part 1 - continued in next comment)

mw said...

(Continuing response to Damon Eris)

Your prior comment also points out that I focus on the national / federal level and correctly notes the percentage of Independents on a National level is not necessarily a reflection or even relevant to assessing Independent strength on a State or local level. This is certainly true, and as far as my posture on this blog is concerned I am guilty as charged. I deliberately restrict my advocacy of the divided government voting heuristic to the federal government for a simple reason. A great deal of empirical scholarship from historians, political scientist, and economists (Fiorina, Mayhew, Ethridge, Niskanen, Slivinski, etc.)is available to support the thesis that electing divided government has certain predictable policy effects. Divided government may have a similar effect on a state and local level, but the scholarship support is not available to the same degree. So I restrict my advocacy on this blog to the Federal government, even if I think it is applicable also at a state and local level.

Finally, I accept your "raise" of my divided government "call". I agree that electing Indpendent Senators and Representatives would likely be an even better form of divided government than simply splitting control of the executive/legislative branch between the R/D duopoly. I'd like to see it. I'm just saying it is not necessary to accomplish the policy objectives I support at the Federal level. There is an easier path to get to the objectives I seek. Just don't give one party all the keys to the castle. Ever.

OK. I think that closes the loop on the comment from the older post. I'll speak to your comments here as an update in the post itself. Thanks again for the comments.

Tully said...

LMAO. The inherent duality of plurality-vote democratic systems is well-established, and the historical evidence for same goes back past the founding of the U.S. and extends to other democratic nations. Even in parliamentary democracies of multiple parties, power coalesces into two opposing coalitions, even if the coalitions tend to be more transient than the parties themselves. I'd call that a very well-established inherent duality.

But if you have counter-examples from history or the modern day of plurality-vote democracies that do not strongly exhibit such duality, I'm all ears. I suspect you've not defined your concept properly. That you do not like our current partisan duality does not negate its origins and the inherent tendencies that led to them, nor the evidence of history. Regardless of your objections, duality is inherent to some extent in pretty much all democratic systems.

Your objection seems to be more to the deep entrenchment of the current two parties in the overall power structure, and I can understand that objection well enough. I'd like to kick 'em apart myself, and see a realignment of factions towards a less-idiotic polity, but it is what it is.

d.eris said...

I'm glad you had a good laugh Tully. I assume you have something like Duverger's "law" in mind, when you refer to the "well established" duality. And indeed, Diverger's "law" is widely accepted as an explanation for the prevalence of two-party systems under plurality voting. But this is a purely formal consideration. What Duverger's law cannot explain is why, in a given historical period, the two major parties would be these two specific major parties.

For instance, there is no formal reason why the two-party system in a liberal district in Massachusetts or New York shouldn't be between the Democrats and the Greens. Similarly, at this level, there is no reason why the two-party system in a conservative district in Texas or Idaho shouldn't be dominated by the Republicans and Libertarians. In each of these hypothetical districts, we would have a two-party system, but the result at the state or national level would be a multi-party system.

The simplest explanation for why conservative Texans and liberal New Yorkers are forced to choose between Republicans and Democrats, rather than more palatable options, is because Republicans and Democrats have rigged the system in their favor. They work together to ensure that they are not confronted with actual political competition. It is not very different from price fixing in a market duopoly. See my comment above (restrictive ballot access laws, double standards, discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, etc). My point is not that this process does not exist, but rather that there is nothing "natural" about it: the system is being rigged by the interested parties themselves.

And thanks for your responses, mw.

Tully said...

Duverger's "law" (he didn't call it a law, it's a hypothesis regarding an observed inherent tendency of pluralistic systems) doesn't purport to explain why specific parties come to be one of the two dominants, so that's pretty much a red herring. It simply hypothesizes that pluralistic systems tend to duality as an inherent tendency of their structure. The evidence bears that out, as it also bears out his second hyothesis that multi-party systems are much more likely to occur in proportional-representation systems.

ALL ruling parties everywhere attempt to rig the system to remain in power. That's extraneous to the inherent duality of pluralistic systems. Even where they have more-or-less successfully rigged things, though, the parties themselves still have to adapt to the voters to stay in power -- barring actual dictatorship, that is. This is reflected through their appeals to the indie middle, their attempts to peel off factions from the other party (Southern strategy, anyone?) and in the conflicts between various contesting factions within the parties themselves.

Also note that while the "simplest" explanation may carry weight, that does not even remotely make it the ONLY explanation. The idea that one and only one force is at work is simplistic at best. If one party actually manages to disenchant enough people, it will lose power. If any third party can scrape up a third or so of the voters on their side, they'll get that place at the table.

Finally, the "powers behind the throne" will support both parties, and will have no problem also supporting any third party that gains traction. Both parties and powers will always attempt to subvert constitutional government to serve their own ends. Everywhere. So I'll repeat myself:

The best way to reduce the influence (and accompanying institutionalized corruption) of the "ruling political class" is to shrink the government, and thus its inherent scope of available "opportunity" for corruption.

d.eris said...

It seems that we are not in fundamental disagreement, Tully. You write: "Duverger's law doesn't purport to explain why specific parties come to be one of the two dominants, so that's pretty much a red herring." I am well aware of this fact, and that was precisely my argument. The point is that proponents of the Democrat-Republican two-party state pretend that this "inherent dualism" explains the existence of the Democrat-Republican party dictatorship, when in fact it does not.

As for examples of multiparty govt under plurality voting, we might look to Vermont, where the Progressive Party is recognized as a major party.

If you want to "shrink the government" to marginalize the current ruling political class, there is no sense in voting for Democrats or Republicans, so we're back to the necessity of supporting third party and independent alternatives.

mw said...

There is significant empirical empirical evidence that divided government limits the growth of government at the Federal level. While this is not the same thing as shrinking government, to date nothing has shrunk our government. I am hopeful that our current iteration of divided government may actually deliver a minor miracle and achieve something that can be described as "shrinking government". TBD.

I don't consider this voting heuristic to be a long term or strategic solution. However, supporting a 3rd party to accomplish this end (shrinking/limiting government) is akin to building a hospital to save an accident victim bleeding out on the side of the road. First we've got to apply a tourniquet and stop the bleeding.

I'll help you build the hospital after we stabilize the patient.

Tully said...

I didn't think we were really in fundamental disagreeement, d. eris, which is why I suggeested you clarify. We just know that duality leads to two-major-party systems, not why any particular party should become and remain one of them.

to date nothing has shrunk our government

Um, that's not true. Using the most relevant metric (federal expenditures as %GDP) the government shrank after both Word Wars and Korea, and begand shrinking during the Reagan years, a trend that was briefly interrupted by Gulf War 1 before resuming in the Clinton years.

It can happen, and HAS happened in recent history. Leaving aside the cessation of major wars, restraining overall spending growth below the rate of economic growth automatically shrinks government as %GDP.

Now, first you need a healthy growing economy ....