Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Median Hyper-Partisan

So, we still have a Republican House (a bit more so), a Democratic Senate (a bit more so), and Obama as President (a bit more so?). Things are as they have been, except that the fiscal cliff (more detail here) is closer and both sides' tendency to refuse to negotiate has been reinforced. (update: by this I meant simply that each can say "I won the election; my voters want me to go on with what I was doing.")

I'm wondering about the incentives that have created this situation, and there's an interesting theory expressed at Barack Obama's re-election: A country divided | The Economist. Basically the columnist here is saying that there are two forces involved.

1. The Median Voter Theorem -- if parties A and B want to catch the median voters, they should move towards the center. The incentives are strong, and that should bring the parties together -- and in real policy terms, it does: "Realistic arguments over policy take place on relatively narrow terrain: they are arguments over a top marginal tax rate of 35% or 39.6%, over a health-insurance system with guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions but with or without a mandate, and so forth." Actual radical solutions are simply not part of the discussion, even if academically preferred (e.g., forget the income tax altogether, it's a bad idea: tax consumption instead.)

The Republicans and Democrats are, in practical policy terms, much much closer to each other than either would ever consider being to someone like me. They've come together towards the median voter. Yes, but we also see

2. Media promotion of exciting stories. "...both mass-media analysts and private social-media contributors are rewarded for sharply divisive characterisations." I would generalize this: the effective politician is an entertainer, and he and his team (or she and hers) are also rewarded for generating exciting stories. The most basic story to be told is about Good v. Evil, and even while you're adjusting policies to capture the median voter, you want to be generating stories about Our Friends and Our Enemies; these work just as well on high IQs as low. The divisions here have something to do with policy, but not a great deal... I recently saw a Youtube video of someone going around asking Obama supporters for their comments on "Romney" policies such as the drone strikes, and naturally getting "That's EEEVIL" as the usual response -- but these were actually Obama policies. Interestingly, some of the respondents said they'd have to rethink their Obama support -- but I predict it won't make a lot of difference. And I'm sure it would work just as well in reverse, on Romney supporters.

Of course this means that my own obviously sensible policies have no chance of being enacted. What worries me more than that, though, is that I think the emotional manipulation by both sets of manipulators is increasingly successful. I see intelligent good people on both sides who do not want to know why intelligent good people would be on the other side. That's scary.

As the Economist says,
...Over the next four years, legislative battles are going to continue to be savage and hard-fought. Neither conservatives nor liberals are going to change their minds en masse about fundamental issues of political philosophy. The top priority is for Americans to figure out a way to keep these divisions from dividing the country into two hostile armed camps that are incapable of talking to each other.

Or then again, maybe not.

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