Misreading the Tea Leaves

This op-ed is a good distillation of a lot of the wishful thinking that goes on about the Tea Party. It’s overall line of argument is that Democracy is the Great Corrector, so if the Tea Party persists in being to the right of the median voter, the mehcanisms of electoral politics will prune it away.

Well, maybe. I think it’s almost certainly true that the Tea Party will have to moderate in the end, thanks to the aforementioned mechanisms of electoral politics, but reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. In particular, I think the author’s conclusion relies on the following common pundit mistakes.

(1) Voting is not a Market A lot of people like to think of voting as a market – and it is in some ways. In particular, like a mass market, it involves mass participation: no one person’s decision is decisive. But in many other ways, voting is actually anti-market.

The key to the process is a version of supply and demand. When a politician acts in a way that doesn’t serve the voters’ interests or desires, demand for that person’s services should decline. Another candidate who fills the demand will get elected.

That sounds good on paper, but in reality there are a number of salient difference between an election and a market that matter here. First and most importantly, elections are zero-sum games. There is a fixed number of votes to be had, and only one candidate can win. For this reason, elections, in contradistinction to markets, fail to capture a lot of latent Demand. In a market, if I like chocolate, but I like vanilla better, I can eat vanilla ice cream five days a week and chocolate ice cream two. Moreover, my friend who likes neither chocolate nor vanilla is not affected by my preferences – he simply buys amaretto, or whatever it is he likes, and we coexist quite peacefully. And if amaretto ice cream isn’t widely available where he lives, there are nevertheless steps he can take to get it – including starting a writing campaign that convinces the company there is a market for it. This is completely unlike an election, where you only get one decision, and if the majority doesn’t agree with you the system fails to capture your preference. If most of us like vanilla, we get vanilla, even if you want chocolate. And if you’re the guy who likes something less popular, like amaretto, it might not even have been on the ballot at all.

Another important way that elections are different from markets is that everything in an election is "preorder." There are no returns and no refunds. I have to just look at the label on the box and hope that it actually contains what it says. And as political science research has repeatedly shown, the box contains what it says only about 60% of the time (that is, politicians manage to keep about 60% of their election promises).

A final important way that elections are different from markets is that there isn’t much that’s analogous to bidding – which is to say, I can’t value/rank my preferences in most voting systems (and certainly not in the US election system). In a market, if there’s a limited supply of something and this thing is more important to me than you, I can bid up the price until it’s no longer worth it to you to purchase. But elections don’t work that way. Granted, the shutdown is maybe something like that – where a particular issue is more important to a minority constituency than to the nation as a whole, so that constituency tries to make it disproportionately difficult to pass a particular law (if you haven’t deciphered my ingenious code, I’m talking about THE TEA PARTY and OBAMACARE) – but the shutdown is not an election. In the eleciton proper, I get my one vote, and that’s pretty much it. The only methods I have to make my vote count more are indirect at best: I can try to talk other people into using their votes the way I want, which is, to put it mildly, not a very transparent or precise process, and one that for that reason bears at best a loose relationship to the value I attach to the outcome.

The reason all this matters to the author’s assertion is that it leads him to an incorrect impression about how "corrective" mechanisms work in Democracy. He seems to think that if there’s no currency for an idea, that idea will wither and die. But the way it actually works is that ideas which are quite unpopular are perfectly capable of piggy-backing on popular candidates so long as they remain below a particular prominence threshold. To put a fine point on it – Obamacare is such an issue. The majority clearly opposes it, and even its supporters don’t defend its actual implementation – and yet it’s law precisely because people who support it managed to get elected on completely unrelated issues that happened to be more prominent. Moreover, unlike in a market, where the system finds ways for everyone to get what they want, the zero-sum nature of electoral politics means that the Obamacare bill we got is something like what no one wanted. Elections just assure that things are minimally offensive to everyone. Obamacare is just inoffensive enough to all our elected representatives to slip under the radar, and as such is the kind of thing that could never have been produced by a functioning market.

(2) Parties are Chimeras Here’s another line that sounds better than it is:

It can’t sustain itself as a permanent minority party that can’t elect a president. A new, more moderate alternative to the Democrats will arise. It’s happened before.

Well, sure, but you know what else has happened before? That a party is different at different levels of representation. For example, the South voted solid Democrat at the local level until very recently even as it shifted pretty dramatically Republican on the national level. Local Southern Democrats were just not the same brand as the national party. Likewise, it’s really not that uncommon for the Congressional version of the party to be quite different from a president from that party. There were, for example, no less than 6 (count ‘em!) shutdowns during the Carter Administration, despite the fact that the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. The issue was that President Carter was considerably to the right of the Democrats in Congress – especially in the Senate, where there was an active labor left wing run by Ted Kennedy. This is pretty obviously true of modern Republicans as well. To listen to the mainstream media, you would think the Tea Party absolutely dominated the Repbulicans these days – but take a moment to consider who the last to Republican presidential candidates were. They were John McCain and Mitt Romney, arguably the two least "Tea Party" candidates on offer those two years. American political parties are perfectly capable of sorting their priorities when it comes to running for Congress and running for President.

(3) It Takes (At Least) Two to Have an Election Reading this column, you could be forgiven for thinking that elections are only referendums on the Republicans. The author seems to think that it’s entirely up to the Republicans to sort out their Tea Party mess, and that they win or lose based on nothing other than this. But in reality the Republicans run against the Democrats, and elections are as much the Democrats’ to lose as they are the Republicans’ to win. It’s obviously true that Republican poll numbers took a big hit from the most recent shutdown, for which the public squarely blames them. It’s also true that the shutdown was instigated by the Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus – so you’re certainly justified in taking those poll numbers as a rejection of the Tea Party. But have you seen the poll numbers for the Democrats? They’re higher than the numbers for the Republicans, but they’re a far cry from what anyone would call "solid." Moreover, there’s a year to go to the midterm elections, and the Democrats are sitting on a lot of time bombs. Obamacare rolls out, and Obamacare isn’t popular. More than that, the recent fiascos with the website give plenty of reason to expect that the process isn’t going to go smoothly. Then there’s the ongoing scandal with the NSA. There are any number of foreign policy issues. The IRS scandal keeps chugging along. There are Obama’s high-profile failures on gun control. There are Obama’s notoriously bad predictions about the economy. And there is, to put a fine point on it, the fact that most people are nervous – with very good reason – about the level of public debt. The shutdown may have failed as a tactic, but it wasn’t done in a vaccum: it was done in the name of issues that voters care about, and that the President hasn’t been addressing. So while the shutdown will almost certainly play a role in the next midterms, it’s not clear that it will be more than a talking point among many. There is plenty the Democrats can and probably will do to squander this opportunity before the next polling date.

(4) The Tea Party is Neither Weird nor Radical In fact, the Tea Party is a strain of ideas that have been around since the birth of the Republic and which are deeply ingrained in American culture. Here’s a typically dismissive statement from the author:

The disastrous consequence for Republicans is a self- perpetuating party-within-a-party that doesn’t care if it makes the wider party unelectable nationally. Tea party supporters think they are fighting for the Republican soul, and they are: If they win, they will drive the party so far from the median voter that a Republican president will become unimaginable.

Again, this is one of those things that’s true to the extent that Tea Party ideas only appeal to a small minority of Republicans, but it isn’t clear at all that that’s the case. Most Americans are religious, loose immigration policies are not popular, the welfare state is not popular in its current form, Obamacare is not popular, and people really are worried about the size of government spending and the national debt. The Tea Party has a marketing problem, but I’m not sure it has an ideology problem, and the author’s attempts to paint it as totally divorced from what the median voter wants just don’t ring true. There is a reason the Tea Party is still here while Occupy Wall Street is a Jon Stewart joke.

So, you know, it may be as this writer says, and it may be that the Tea Party will never be ready for prime time and that the Republican Party needs to jettison it if they want to stay relevant. But I sort of doubt it. There are plenty of assumptions here that cloud the picture, and so I think the truth is much more complicated than this writer realizes.

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