Last week, Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s policy wonk who is rapidly becoming their most valuable journalist, brought to our attention a fascinating paper by six political scientists. It’s called A Theory of Parties. I am going to take a little time here to summarize what it says:
“Parties no longer compete to win elections by giving voters the policies voters want,” they write. “Rather, as coalitions of intense policy demanders, they have their own agendas and aim to get voters to go along.”
In the United States, at least, parties are not politicians of a similar mind banding together to win elections, but “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands” that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the broader public. They “only strive to please voters when necessary to win elections.” But this constraint often doesn’t amount to much “due to voters’ lack of information about politics.” The goal, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is to “cede as little [influence] to voters as possible.” The need to win elections occasionally requires “genuine responsiveness,” but parties mainly push their own agendas and try to get voters to acquiesce.
Interest groups pushing policy demands at odds with the interests of most voters have an especially large advantage at the nomination stage of elections, the authors write. “Most citizens pay little enough attention to general elections and even less to nominations. The few who vote in primaries lack the anchoring cue of candidate partisanship, rendering them open to persuasion. Media coverage of primaries is also generally less than in general elections, further increasing the expected impact of small amounts of paid communication.”
Here is the part that intrigued me as the author of PressThink: “To explain the substantial autonomy we believe parties enjoy, we posit an ‘electoral blind spot’ within which voters do not monitor party behavior.” Through various institutional devices, like complex party rules and procedural votes that no one understands, the major parties “seek to exploit lapses in voter attentiveness” and “keep the electoral blind spot as large as possible.”
To be sure, parties must tread carefully. As V.O. Key famously argued, voters are not fools. Even the poorly informed find cues and heuristics that allow them to make sense of politics and respond with a degree of rationality. A candidate with a reputation for extremism will fare poorly among voters who lack a coherent ideology but still know they don’t like extremism. Candidates who attack popular programs like social security, or promote unpopular ones like busing to achieve racial integration of schools may likewise arouse the ire of voters not usually attentive to politics.”
“Yet, while voters can recognize and resist some kinds of extremism, our main point here is that voters, especially those who swing between parties, know dramatically little about politics. In the competitive world of elections, this makes a difference. We try to capture this difference as an “electoral blind spot” — a policy region within which aggregate electorates do not enforce preferences even when they have stakes.”
So the blind spot is where voters get screwed because they don’t know what’s going on. Far from being a problem for the two major parties, it’s actually their goal to find these spots and enlarge them. The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for the interest groups who know how the system works.
As long as parties stay within the electoral blind spot, they are effectively free to nominate any candidate they want. They have nothing to gain from further compromise, nothing to lose from sticking to their guns. In reality, however, the blind spot is neither clearly demarcated nor fixed for all time. What voters notice, or fail to notice, depends on media coverage, campaign dynamics, suddenly salient events, and how candidates express themselves. In the face of this uncertainty, parties continually test the limits of the blind spot…
This isn’t what political science normally teaches:
√ “A reader who went from our above discussion to leading textbooks on parties and elections would experience a severe disconnect. She would find no hint that parties seek, consciously or otherwise, to exploit voter inattentiveness. Her main impression from the textbook account would be that parties work very hard to win elections…”
√ “In sum, the textbook party puts office-seekers and professional staff at the center and policy demanders at the periphery. This is a much different animal than the one we have theorized, which puts the coalition of policy demanders at the center…”
√ “To posit that American politics is mainly organized by election-minded politicians, as the dominant school of American politics does, is to miss its essence. Organized combat among groups who aim to get more than their fair share of government policy is closer to the heart of the matter.”
√ “We would also agree that business groups, which pour huge amounts of cash into politics, get more than their fair share of government policy. How could it be otherwise? But numerous other groups, from Christian fundamentalists to gun advocates to environmentalists to civil rights activists, behave similarly. They differ from business in the type of resource they pour into politics: more manpower, less cash. But they are trying to do exactly what business groups try to do – pursue their policy demands, which they regard as just and fair, whether most voters agree or not.”
So that’s the theory. What if it’s right? (And I think it is right in the sense of being descriptive; so does Ezra Klein.) This would permit us to say with greater precision what the job of the political press should be: To shrink the electoral blind spot as much as it can. To prevent politicians from exploiting voter inattentiveness by paying closer attention than the voters normally do and sounding the alarm. To point out who’s trying to get “more than their fair share of government policy” and alert the electorate in watchdog fashion. To raise the costs for political actors trying to operate within the blind spot and perhaps restore some accountability to the system.
But. What if those who operate the political press don’t think they need a theory of parties in order to cover partisan politics? (After all these are intensely practical people, right?) What if “the press,” a loosely organized and fairly mindless institution to begin with, barely an institution at all, is simply unable to recognize that it already has an implicit theory of parties that is badly in need of revision?
Or, switching problems, what if political journalists sense that their work never reaches those “low information voters” whose inattentiveness is presently being exploited? What if down deep they don’t actually believe in their power to correct for the blind spot? What if they somehow sense that the voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their own ability to do anything about it? What if they have long ago accepted that the watchdog role is a myth and they’re only talking to “political junkies,” the highly informed and attentive pubic, anyway?
In all of those cases, we might expect them to retreat to something they can do. Something I have tried to give a name to: cultivating their savviness and tutoring the attentive public in that sensibility.
Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that (how will this play with the voters?) haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.
In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.
The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. But we could also define it as they point at which the press reverts to savviness because engaging the broader electorate is beyond its means or intention. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for players who know how the system works.