Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summing Up Identity Politics

Long essay from Ezra Klein summing up what most of us have already figured out: that voting is almost entirely about identity. He starts from a recent political science blockbuster, Democracy for Realists by Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen. Bartels and Achen take on what they call the “folk theory” of democracy:
Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy.
But this clearly is not so. First, elections are swayed by national and international events much more than by arguments. This is what you might call the old political science, that people “support the Ins when things are going well, and support the Outs when they seem to be going badly.” Writing in 1925, Walter Lippmann called this “ the essence of popular government.” There is obviously something to this, since economic fundamentals predict election outcomes better than anything else. But focusing on the outcome obscures the deeper fact that even a president who wins a landslide wins only 55% of the vote. Despite the unpopular war in Iraq and the Wall Street collapse, John McCain got 46%. Events can turn elections because of that 10% in the middle who for the most part pay no attention to politics except during the month before a presidential election; the other 90% gives their own party unwavering support. And this is getting worse:
There is one overwhelming fact that structures American politics, and it is this: People who vote for Republicans vote for Republicans, and people who vote for Democrats vote for Democrats. It might sound tautological, but it isn’t. A few decades ago, people who voted for Republicans often voted for Democrats, and vice versa. Split-ticket voting was common, and even hardcore, self-described partisans were often persuadable.

Not anymore. There are a few findings that rocked my understanding of politics, and one of them came from political scientist Corwin Smidt. Looking at decades of election data, he found that self-described independent voters today are more loyal to a single party than voters who described themselves as “strong partisans” were in the 1970s. This bears repeating: The people who say they’re free from either party today are more partisan in their voting habits than the people who said they were strong loyalists of a single party in the ’70s.
And at the emotional level:
In 1964, 31 percent of Republicans had cold, negative feelings toward the Democratic Party, and 32 percent of Democrats had cold, negative feelings toward the Republican Party. By 2012, that had risen to 77 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats. Today, fully 45 percent of Republicans, and 41 percent of Democrats, believe the other party’s policies “threaten the nation’s well-being.”
I don't know what to do about this, but strikes me as very dangerous to the long-term future of the Republic. The one thing that I can imagine making a difference is to shift the conversation away from identity matters – race, religion, gender, sexual orientation – and toward more neutral ground like economic policy, making government work better, improving our infrastructure, and making our cities more livable. But Americans don't seem to care much about that boring stuff these days, when we could be shouting about the identity issues that are really close to our hearts.

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