Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Is Gridlock a Problem for Democracy?

To address this question we have a rough idea of what we mean when we say "democracy." Many people think that democracy is "rule of the majority." But many governments enact policies with broad even majority support without anything resembling what we would recognize as a democracy. Consider as examples the populists dictatorships of Juan Peron in Argentina or Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Even brutal dictators often may have majority support particularly during war time. Of course it is difficult to poll such dictatorships so these are just guesses on my part but I think they are reasonable guesses, at least for purposes of making the point on a blog.

If simply enacting the policies that a majority would support isn't sufficient for democracy, what things are common to all democracies that we can use to define them? Minority protection is actually the foundation of democracies. That is, people with minority opinions/preferences are protected from what the US Founding Fathers called the "tyranny of the majority." Minority protection features are found in nearly every democracy. The UK may be an exception but in practice minority views are reasonably protected most of the time.

By far the most common way to protect minority views is to establish legislative institutions that require super-majorities to pass laws. This can take the form of bicameralsim legislatures in which power is more or less balanced between the chambers as in the US, Germany or Australia. It can also take the form of establishing electoral systems that encourage the proliferation of parties as in such multi-party parliamentary systems as Belgium, Denmark, Israel or Italy. You can even see both as in Germany.

The reason bicameralism protects minority views is that it tends to be based on different electoral systems, election timing and or districts/constituencies. The result is that it is more difficult for a single party representing a narrow constituency to gain control of both chambers at the same time. It forces compromise.

The reason that adding more parties to the system protects minority views is that it makes it unlikely that a single party would win enough votes to win a majority of the seats on its own. It prevents one party from having all the power. It forces compromise.

Forcing compromise in legislative often means that some laws fail to be passed because a compromise cannot be made. Failure to make a compromise is not necessarily a failure of character. It is more likely a reflection of legitimate differences in the policy preferences of constituencies who agreement is required to pass a new law.

And that is gridlock. Is it bad for democracy? No. Indeed, it is a very common consequence of one of the fundamental concepts of democracy itself: minority protection.

19 comments:

Dr. Strangelove said...

Heavy traffic is one thing, gridlock is another. Having strong checks on the tyranny of the majority is vital for a democracy--I agree--and failure to address urgent issues can certainly arise from, "legitimate differences in the policy preferences." But when partisanship prevents any meaningful action at all, that's what we call a state of gridlock.

Our system appears to be headed that way for the long haul. The two-party system appears to focus on points of disagreement, not agreement; aggressive competition between the two parties seeks those divisions in the electorate that split the nation down the middle. (One might argue it even creates those divisions, but that's another post...) The parties focus on what distinguishes them: it's the branding thing.

When that focus on national divisions is combined with a state of persistent polarization in which any "compromise" is viewed as a "defeat," you get gridlock. When at least one of the two major parties believes its interests are better served by blocking all action rather than by compromise... we get gridlock.

And that's the problem. The last Congress in particular spent so much time on the irresolvable issues that they didn't even pass a budget. This Congress looks like it might be heading down the same path. Heavy traffic is good for a democracy; gridlock isn't.

USWest said...

To this I will reiterate my point about marketing and politics. These carefully designed systems were planned with the idea that fairness and compromise would protect both the minority and the majority. However, these systems were never designed with the idea that sophisticated techniques for studying the electorate would be employed, at least not to my knowledge. I am sure that the founders knew that cheating would take place. They understood human nature and the nature of power. They weren't naive.

However, I think these carefully planned systems get undermined when new technologies are employed in an abusive manner. By this I mean that marketing approaches are used to "fool" the electorate or to misrepresent the “candidate product” to the electorate. I have a "wag the dog" type scenario in mind.

Technology advances and advances in math and science have accelerated so quickly in the last 50 years that we are still struggling to get our hands around their effect on our lives, our economy, and our politics. And the pace is still picking up. I think that we need to look carefully on how new media, new polling techniques, new technologies in marketing and fundraising techniques, etc. are affecting not only these carefully planned systems, but the people who participate in them.

USWest said...

I have heard several long time Senators and Congresspeople talk about how uncivil the atmosphere has become in Washington. And you can see that when you get clips on C-Span of congress "booing" the Chair and viewing a simple mistake as a calculated move to undermine a vote. I think this is reflective of the general lack of civility that we see in the general public. And that is a sign of a bigger problem in our society, one that I have blogged on before: the lack of a sense of joint destiny as a nation. We are lacking cohesion as a society.

I rue the day that we went to a 24 hour news cycle. Congresspeople are now under the microscope for everything, little time to deliberate or have some method to privately work our differences. This contributes to circus-like atmosphere where every misstep, every mistake is treated like a spectacle.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I was thinking specifically of USWest's points regarding marketing and politics when I wrote about "the branding thing" above. The truly massive amounts of money raised by political campaigns shows just how effective the parties are at selling themselves even when nothing gets done. We may have 435 little markets with 435 little spokesmen but we only have two brands. However it has happened, we appear to have reached a state of:

1. ...competitive stalemate, where neither party can win enough of the vote to do anything by itself. The elections just get closer and closer.

2. ...persistent polarization, where the parties focus intensely on those issues that distinguish them and split the electorate down the middle. The parties help create and sustain these differences too.

3. ...confrontational obstructionism, where the minority prefers to block all legislation rather than compromise with the majority. We see the Republicans doing this in full force these days.

Raised By Republicans said...

I can think of any number of bills passed in the last 6 years that I would have prefered had been killed by gridlock.

The question shouldn't be "is gridlock good for democracy?" The question really is "is gridlock good for me in this case?"

What's the difference between "partisan polarization" and legitimate differences in policy preference? I see no difference at all these days. If the parties were not distinguishable in terms of policies or constituencies but still opposed each others' policies out of pure contrariness I would see a difference.

But when you have two parties and they are opposed to each others' policies because they are defending their constituents' interests that's a good thing. That's competitive democracy.

When this results in gridlock, it is also a good thing because it defends my interests from the impositions of others as often as it confounds my prefered agenda.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I am thinking of the proverbial donkey that died because it was equidistant from two bales of hay and could not figure out which one to go to. Sometimes the ability to pass any program is better than none at all. I think that's the sort of gridlock people are referring to here.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR is right that we are not experiencing gridlock yet. Some bills still get through. This is hopeful. Let me be clear that "gridlock" means virtually nothing of substance gets done at all. I accept that an inefficient, hamstrung government is acceptable--even desirable at times!--but I cannot see my way to approving of gridlock.

RbR writes, "The question shouldn't be 'is gridlock good for democracy?' The question really is 'is gridlock good for me in this case?'" This touches on a deep philosophical dispute that we've hashed out on this blog. Still, when you add it up, I think we all realize it sometimes makes sense to forgo one's short-term self-interest in favor of one's long-term self-interest. In that calculation, I feel gridlock fails us all.

RbR asks, perhaps rhetorically, "What's the difference between 'partisan polarization' and legitimate differences in policy preference?" My answer:

1. When the two parties perpetuate themselves by nurturing virtually irreconcilable differences in the population, issues like abortion where compromise is effectively impossible...
2. When the two parties focus almost exclusively on these differences rather than on the many areas where they would find agreement...
3. When on the rare occasions that a real policy issue comes up where compromise is possible, the two parties see more gain in the tactics of obstruction than in any compromise...
4. When the parties are essentially in the business manipulating their constituents rather than serving them; that is, when the parties own interests are divorced from those of their constituents, and it serves the parties better to maintain societal problems rather than to fix them...

Then we have persistent polarization that does not reflect legitimate differences in policy preference.

Raised By Republicans said...

The base assumption of all of Dr. S's 4 points is that people are sheep being manipulated by a political elite. I think this is easy to over state. People honestly believe many of those things and have done so for generations.

LTG's analogy is a little off because it assumes that policy is generated by one donkey chosing between two equivolent choice. The reality is that we've got a team of donkeys pulling together and some of them want water and some of them want hay.

What examples can you think of where any policy at all would be preferable to inaction and where inaction was purely the result of partisanship (i.e. clearly NOT a result of a preference for the SQ to the proposed policy).

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR writes, "The base assumption of all of Dr. S's 4 points is that people are sheep being manipulated by a political elite. I think this is easy to over state."

Yes, it is easy to overstate... and I think you just did. I do not believe people are sheep. I believe people are intelligent--and can also be intelligently manipulated.

Pop open a can of refreshing Coke(TM) and reflect on the amazing power of advertising to affect us all. Corporate America is not a passive servant of consumer need, but participates in the creation of our desires. Corporate America does not merely provide us with choices; they also define and limit them.

It seems obvious that the political marketplace is being manipulated by the political parties, using the same techniques as Madison Avenue uses. I oversimplify greatly here, but if you'll follow the analogy: just as Coca-Cola and Pepsico spend billions attacking each other rather than improving their product, the Democratic and Republican parties have found that a similar strategy serves their own purposes. By demonizing the other side, Democrats and Republicans protect their own jobs, even though it renders compromise and progress almost impossible. (One could say the same of Likud and Hamas...)

USWest said...

I think there is one an underlying distinction regarding motivation that needs to be clearly stated here. Parties can accumulate power in order to affect policy or they can accumulate power for the sake of power and winning some competitive game.

At times, I think the line between these two motivations gets blurred. I think individuals tend to get quite wrapped up in the game they are playing and they forget why they are playing it, or they become careerists rather than true public servants. That is when the short-term goal is sacrificed for the long term goal.

I am thinking particularly about drug coverage for seniors. Bush and the Republicans can say that he got it passed, but they won't discuss the time and money that went into implementing this over-complex, loop-hole filled bill. But then they say, "Well it has to be done in Baby steps" or "something is better than nothing" or "we'll fix it later." Will you? Will you fix it later when the composition of Congress changes just enough to make it impossible?

I am bothered more and more when I hear politicians intone that the "American people" want this or the "American people" have called for that. Do they? What poll has told you this? The 2000 people you called in Chicago between 5-9pm? The web-poll on your Facebook page? Your informal poll conducted with your fellow citizens in Second Life.

The American people may not be sheep, but they are treated like a herd by the parties. There is this nice moment in the West Wing when there is the flap over the President not liking green beans. And the press secretary is taking to the President's body man about his mistake in releasing this information. And the body man responds that the public isn't stupid. But they get treated like stupid people, especially during election season.

And flaps over Hilary's cleavage or Edwards' hair are diversion tactics meant to distract people from the real issues, and the real records of the candidates and politicians.

The Law Talking Guy said...

When would any policy be better than none at all?

Basically: any emergency situation that would otherwise get bogged down with unrelated amendments and so forth.

Raised By Republicans said...

Do parties manipulate peoples' preferences? Perhaps but there are stark limits to this and Dr. Strangelove is arguing (without my having to overstate at all) that gridlock is the result of poor behavior by self interested elites convincing people to support them despite what Dr. Strangelove has detertermined is their obvious best interests. That's where he's over stating the phenomenon.

People have views and preferences that politicians can take advantage of - often cynically - but the root of th preferences are still with the constituents.

US West is right to be frustrated by politicians claiming to know what "the American people want." At best politicians serve up what their immediate constituents want. Claiming universal support is a cheep rhetorical gimic. Such support is impossible (as has been discussed in previous threads). There is no such thing as a policy that is good for everyone equally. Some will always benefit or pay disproportionately and they can be expected to push or resist the policy accordingly.

Dr. Strangelove, what are the "real" issues? Why are you so sure that those particular issues you think are most important are universally held to be so?

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR asks a perceptive question about what I mean by the "real" issues. I admit my mistake here. I rushed ahead, talking about issues that did not interest me as though they were inherently unimportant. I know people have different priorities and opinions. And I was quite wrong, for example, when I cited abortion as a non-issue used to distract people. RbR has given me pause to try to think that through what I was trying to say more clearly. So here goes.

What I mean by "real" issues are just those that people care about. They may be substantive--they may affect my wallet or my safety, for example--or they may be symbolic. I erred before by lumping symbolic issues as not real. They are real. People care about them. Those attitudes are not manufactured.

But then there is that other category that I call fake issues. Sometimes they are invented out of whole cloth, like Edwards' hair. Sometimes they are the result of manipulating and inflaming existing passions, like the "flag-burning" amendment that crops up every election cycle. And sometimes they are issues grounded in existing passions that have both symbolism and substance, like gay marriage. But what all these have in common--what makes them "fake" in my view--is that the Democrats and Republicans are not really trying to resolve them. They keep these issues alive to divert attention away from the real issues. They keep these issues alive to keep us polarized. And they use this polarization to keep raking in the dough.

Dr. Strangelove said...

One more note here. I said before that the political parties seek out points of disagreement--issues that divide the country down the middle. I said they focus our attention on these. I believe they do so because it is almost impossible to resolve these issues while the nation (and Congress) remains evenly divided. That way they can keep these issues alive easily.

These parties magnify and inflame these issues because it serves their purposes to do so--not because it serves our purposes for them to do so. Usually they end up focusing on some symbolic piece of the issue that then becomes, in effect, a "fake" issue in the sense I was using above, that it is an issue the parties have no real intention of resolving.

Raised By Republicans said...

Here is another possibility. We never notice the dimensions on which both parties agree because the laws in that area pass without controversy.

We see nothing but conflict because in the absence of conflict there is nothing to see.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR suggests there may be a fair amount of significant legislation coming out of Congress that we do not see. Does anyone have any insights here?

USWest said...

Well, I think there is a significant amount that we do see. Let's take the new FISA legislation for example, war appropriations authorizations,the new Energy Policy bill passed by the House that would tighten CAFE standards, increase in the minimum wage, that's just off the top of my head.

Then there are all the committee hearings investigating this and that. Remember, Congress does more than legislate. OF course, there is still a lot to be done, and the process is slow and laborious.

Raised By Republicans said...

Well, of course if we look for it we see it but I mean we don't have a lot of coverage on Lou Dobbs about it.

USwest said...

The other problem is that it is hard cover what is essentially boring, procedural chaos. Congress pretty much does the same thing every day. None of it is linear. There are multiple things going on at the same time, all of it important to some degree to some part of the population. And it doesn't make for exciting or glamorous news. I don't understand half of what Congress does, and I am more educated than the average person. So when Jon Stewart pokes fun at say the Senate for spending a day discussing a slight change to a change in a Bill or a Senate rule, or voting on a resolution to honor the memory of some person none of us know, it makes Congress look like a bunch of childish time wasters. It’s all in the perception game. Governing isn’t glamorous. It’s boring most of the time. And it never seems there is progress.

Other big news stories that I have given up following for similar reasons is the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to a certain degree, Iraq. The headlines are always the same: “X Number Dead in Military Incursion”, “Security Situation Deteriorates”, etc. Occasionally something different happens, but mostly, I am find just reading a news round up a couple time a month.