Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead, Part V (Purity of Essence)

Political observers, including my fellow political scientists, seem to be finally accepting that Trump is winning.  What they still don't want to accept is that we were wrong because our models were wrong, and denying that is what I have been calling Type B Trump denialism.  This is the fourth part in a series on the models that have steered us wrong (and the fifth in the denialism series).   I have already ranted about The Party Decides, The Gamble, and basic spatial models.  This time, a twist, and a newer model.

One of the more vexing problems for political scientists right now is explaining why the Republicans have moved further from the center than Democrats.  Analysis of roll call votes in Congress, by Poole & Rosenthal, shows quite clearly that Republicans are more ideologically extreme than Democrats right now.  Why?  One of the more interesting explanations floating around comes from Matt Grossman and David Hopkins.  In new line of research, Grossman & Hopkins argue that the parties are basically responding to their voters' wishes.  Democrats, according to this argument, are basically a coalition of groups seeking policy, engaged in a big log-roll.  Unions, low-wage workers, minorities, etc. have different but compatible goals, so they band together in a party to achieve policy.  Since they are outcome-oriented, they are more pragmatic and accept compromise.  Republicans, on the other hand, are ideologically motivated.  They prefer purity to compromise, and seek out policies out of a desire for some abstract idea of conservatism.

We can see this at work all over the place, and some commentators, like Jonathan Chait, have fully embraced Grossman & Hopkins' argument.  Consider, for example, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.  In 2001, then-President George W. Bush pushed for a set of tax cuts.  He didn't have enough support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, though.  So, the Republicans used "one weird trick" to break a filibuster.  They used a procedure called "budget reconciliation."  When a bill is brought to the floor of the Senate under reconciliation rules, it can't be filibustered.  So, Republicans only needed 51 votes, not 60.  The catch is that you can't use reconciliation to increase the deficit for more than 10 years.  This is part of "the Byrd rule," named after long-time Senator and former KKK member Robert Byrd (D-WV).  So, the Republicans gave the tax cuts an expiration date-- ten years.  In 2011, they were extended for two more years, but in 2013, everyone stopped kicking the can on that one.  A deal between President Obama and House Republicans extended the tax cuts permanently for everyone under a $450,000 per year threshold, and let everyone above that return to the top marginal rate from the Clinton administration.

This put purity-seeking Republicans in a bind.  If they vote "yes," they are effectively giving lots of people a tax cut.  But, they are also conceding to tax increases for the top bracket.  If your goal is policy, you vote yes.  If your goal is purity, you vote no.  Many of the most conservative Republicans in Congress voted no.  In so doing, they positioned themselves as pure conservatives, appealing to voters looking for that sort of thing.  This is the Ted Cruz way.  That sounds like Grossman & Hopkins, right?  It certainly does to me.  Democrats want policy, Republicans want purity, right?

Problem:  what does this suggest about 2016?  Grossman & Hopkins weren't really writing about nomination politics, but we can apply the concepts.  If Republican primary voters really want ideological purity, whom would they have supported?  Trump?  Hell, no.  There is nobody in the field more ideologically impure than Trump.  He used to advocate single-payer healthcare, higher taxes, and legal abortion.  He has stated positions that are now conservative, but anyone applying any scrutiny at all would have to see through this act.  Would Trump govern as a conservative?  We have no idea.  That's why the National Review and so many others are terrified of Trump.  He is anything but ideologically pure, and if the party wants purity, he should be toast.

Of course, then there's Mitt Romney.  The architect of Obamacare and former moderate Massachusetts Governor won the 2012 nomination even though he had to do similar contortions.  Perhaps, then, Republican voters don't really care about sincerity.  They just want candidates to say the right things.

On Babylon 5, the eventual Centauri Emperor, Londo Mollari was controlled by the evil Drakh, who placed a "keeper" on him.  The keeper made sure that Londo said and did what the Drakh wanted.  But, as Londo observed while intoxicated, the keeper didn't care about what Londo thought.  He just had to perform the actions, which allowed him to trick the keeper.  Perhaps the electorate here is basically just a Drakh keeper.  Trump, like Romney, isn't sincere in his embrace of conservatism, but as long as he says the right things, it doesn't matter.  The thought isn't what counts (there's another Babylon 5 reference for you).

Then again, we have a long line of research in public opinion that should call this into question.  Our basic understanding of ideology comes from a 1964 article by Phillip Converse called "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Converse describes ideology as "constraint."  To be liberal is to be constrained to take liberal positions on a wide range of issues, and to be conservative is to be constrained to take conservative positions on a wide range of issues.  However, not all constraints are logical.  Ideology also includes psychological associations and social pressures.

Relevance?  Consider how self-identified conservatives describe conservatism.  They describe it as a preference for small government and individual liberty.  But, that's not conservatism.  That's libertarianism, which is a logically-constrained belief system.  Conservatism combines a preference for lack of economic regulation with a high degree of regulation in the social realm, prohibiting abortion, gay marriage, narcotics, etc.  The ideological principle that conservatives claim to believe is not, in fact, what they believe.  If it were, they'd be libertarians, not conservatives.

What does it mean to strive for some sort of ideological purity, then, in an ideology that is not logically constrained?  I have no idea.  And neither does Trump.  And neither do Republican primary voters.  The basic problem is that if Republican voters wanted some sort of ideological purity, they wouldn't be voting for Trump.  But Trump is winning anyway.

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