Signaling Loyalty

Politics is an interesting world. We all have strong opinions about how the world should operate, but in general, most of us don’t have much deep knowledge about any particular issue. We might understand the arguments about charter schools, about abortions, or about taxes, but very few of us have really studied any of these areas in considerable depth. Anyone with a career in a specific industry understands that there is a public perception of the industry and the deeper and more complex inner workings of the actual industry. But when we think about political decisions regarding any given industry and topic, we suddenly adopt easy surface level answers that barely skim the surface of these deep and complex inner dynamics.

 

If we all have strong opinions about politics without having strong knowledge about any of it, then we must ask ourselves if politics is really about policy at all? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that politics is generally about something other than policy. In The Elephant in the Brain they write, “Our hypothesis is that the political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to our side (whatever side that happens to be in a particular situation), rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.” 

 

If the main driver of politics was doing good in the world and reaching good outcomes for society, then we would likely be a much more hands-off, technocratic society. Instead, we have elected a president who doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of any major issues, but who does know how to stoke outrage and draw lines in the sand to differentiate each side. We generally look around and figure out which team we belong to based on our identity and self-interest, and separate into our camps with our distinct talking points. We don’t understand issues beyond these talking points, but we understand how they make our side look more virtuous.

 

I believe that people who are deeply religious are drawn toward the Republican Party which currently denies climate change partly because a society that has less emphasis on science is likely to be more favorable toward religious beliefs. The veracity of climate change and the complex science behind it is less important than simply being on a side that praises people for religious beliefs. Similarly, I believe that people with higher education degrees are more likely to align with the Democrat Party because, at the moment, it is a party that encourages scientific and technical thought. It is a party that socially rewards the appearance of critical thinking and praises people who have gone to school. Without needing to actually know anything specific, people with degrees who appear to think in a scientific method framework are elevated in the party where people with religious beliefs are disregarded. Both parties are operating in ways that signal who is valuable and who belongs on a particular side. Issues map onto these signals, but the issues and policies are not the main factors in choosing a side.

Stabilization Machines

When thinking about political machines in the United States, it is easy to return to black and white video of campaign marches, party conventions, and visions of hotel room shoe boxes full of bribe money. Machines have been viewed as corrupt political forces where who you know and rub elbows with is more important than what you know and what you believe about the world. Machines were impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice and for this reason Americans reacted in a way that injected the system with more power and more direct democratic structures.

 

Unfortunately, our system is now missing some of the benefits of political machines. In changing laws and the way our system works, little thought was given to the benefits of machines. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at machines from a different vantage point and explores the benefits they bring to a political system. They stabilize thought and actors, reduce polarization, and push populations and political actors toward moderation. Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine politics and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift toward ungovernable extremism.”

 

When we do not have machines in politics, we have more political amateur participation. On the surface this seems like a good thing. It seems like we would want more “average Joes” involved in government. Those who do end up running also tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which also seems like a plus. The downside however, is that these individuals often lack the ability to build coalitions and support for their policies and ideas. They tend to be more extreme, especially on their pet issue, and less likely to compromise. Additionally, political amateurs lack historical knowledge of programs and policies that have been tried in the past, leading to policies that ignore historical successes or failures. For all these reasons, political amateurs make the process of governing and the quality of legislation a little worse.

 

Ruach writes, “Machines tend to be a force for moderation,” describing the ways in which machines favor policies that are acceptable and within the ideals of a majority of people. They put forward and advance candidates who are more mainstream and less likely to advance policy that only a minority favor. Rauch also writes, “States in which a larger share of political money flows through parties have less polarized legislatures, because the parties, desiring to win, press legislators and candidates toward the center.” Most American’s are actually pretty moderate and are not well defined by the terms liberal or conservative. But we understand the zero-sum game taking place in politics and know what special words to say and what beliefs to hold when we play for our team. Political parties and machines however, try to cut across these teams and put forward candidates who can gain broad support from most people, as opposed to candidates who intentionally stoke the flames of passion from one side. A legislature that is less polarized in this way is more likely to be able to work together and advance real legislation that most people in society can support.

Machines Versus Partisianship

Political parties seem to have a problem today. Voters dislike being part of a political party and have choosen to register or refer to themselves as non-partisan in greater numbers today than in the past. Political parties have also lost control of their candidate nominations, and when a party makes a big push toward their preferred candidate, cries of corruption and system rigging erupt from the public.

However, at the same time, voters more consistently vote for a single party today than they did in the past. When we look at voters who register non-partisan and ask if they lean toward a particular party, we see that they overwhelmingly vote for members of that party in each election. Non-partisan voters who lean toward a party often end up voting along party lines at the same or higher rates as voters who are registered with a party. So while our parties seem to be loosing steam, partisanship seems to be growing.

Jonathan Rauch looks at this phenomenon from another perspective in his book Political Realism. He specifically looks at votes within congress and how congressional members seem to align within parties. Rauch writes,

“It’s often said that parties are stronger than ever because votes on Capitol Hill are so consistently partisan. But that can be (and usually is) because the majority party is allowing votes only when its factions agree, whereas machines facilitate decision-making when fellow partisans don’t agree. Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intra-party cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.”

What Rauch argues is that our parties need to find ways to create cohesion beyond ideology. Rather than relying on individual voter or policy maker issue stances to align, parties need to be able to bring different groups together within the political process. Parties which are only able to attract loosely committed voters fail to create a community of thoughtful and considerate political participants. The perspectives, views, and alternatives available to the party shrink, and in the public we see a fixation on a single issue from a single point of view, while in legislative bodies we see a limited number of votes on a limited number of partisan issues. This does not strengthen democracy, and easily breaks down, leading to the cynicism, criticism, and frustration that we see surrounding the American political system today.

I also think there is another phenomenon surrounding the abandonment of political parties and the staunch partisan voting pattern in the United States. Political identity is a powerful signal, indicating which group you are a part of and often influenced by both overt and hidden factors. In The Elephant and the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at our hidden agendas and our group signaling in politics. We often don’t want to admin when we align with a party out of self interest or out of group identification. We hide behind a veil claiming that it is specific issues that drive our political alignment, but studies frequently show that almost no one has a real grasp of any given issue or any given legislator’s stance on an issue. What we are really displaying today, at least in part, is an institutional distrust driving us away from the parties that we complain about, but an identity stronghold in the claimed political philosophy that we back. Simler and Hanson may better explain why we see this pattern and if Rauch is right, then we must hope that machines can be built to activate local public action before dangerous demagogues use this identity and signaling undercurrent to divide rather than unite local communities.

Formal Power Structures

In the United States, and every democracy, political parties play an important role in organizing and structuring the political process. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways that parties have shaped American politics and examines recent trends that have taken power away from parties. Rauch is concerned because political parties establish formal power structures, and when they are removed, the functions they performed do not disappear, but instead shift to other actors, who are often uncontrolled and anonymous.

 

Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson who wrote a book in 1962 titled The Amateur Democrat which looked at the Democratic Party in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. All three cities had their own form of machine politics which Wilson examines in depth at a local level. Even at that time, Wilson noticed the tension between political parties, traditional candidates, activists, and amateur political candidates. Rauch quotes Wilson’s findings writing, “despite being nominally on the same side (all Democrats)…a keen antipathy inevitably develops between the new and the conventional politicians.” Activists are more radical and are focused on getting a win on their particular issue right now, where as professional politicians focus on a long-term game, understanding that decisions need to be made today, tomorrow, one year from now, ten years from now, and a hundred years from now. The process for making decisions over such a time span is important, and it is parties, not enthused activists, that create a structure to allow such decisions to be made over the long run.

 

Wilson describes other essential functions of parties and Rauch describes them in his book, “They recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government. … If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great.”

 

We do not always like our political parties, often because their decisions are not tough enough on the things we don’t like and don’t go as far as we want on the things we do like. Our parties may seem to be too willing to compromise or may appear to be too influenced by other interests than our own, but parties are importantly balancing power and influence in a structured system. If you take parties away or limit their control and influence, you end up in a system where money is finding alternative ways to influence the public and where hidden actors or zealous activists and political junkies shape the direction of politics.

 

While parties are not always positive forces, they tend to be more stable forces. Their slowness to adapt to important issues and their long-term posturing that does not reflect the wishes of citizens today is frustrating and feels undemocratic, but they are a chaos buffer, stabilizing the system, normalizing behavior, and creating political structures that posture politicians and opposing political forces for the long-run. We should recognize that taking power from the party will not necessarily give us the positive outcomes we want. Reducing the influence of parties simply shifts the who and how of political influence, and opening the system to ever more participation by political amateurs and activists can turn governance into chaos.