January 28th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is little appreciated how much liberal democracy depends on strong parties, and a revitalized, re-understood liberalism adequate to the moment will have to overcome a traditional distaste for partisan politics.
…I suggested in my previous essay that “voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.” That normality was the strong partisanship mentioned by Azari. 89% of Democrats voted for Clinton, 90% of Republicans for Trump. Those figures are down a touch from 2012—both major parties lost more voters to third parties than in 2012—but considering the year of headlines about how unpopular both candidates were, the result is stark.
For a while in the Fall it seemed that Trump would alienate enough Republicans to suffer a sizeable loss to Clinton. But those alienated Republicans had mostly shifted their voting intentions to third parties, not to Clinton, and most of them came home again by election day. Which is to say, we should start by understanding that partisans are very, very likely to vote for their own parties’ candidates, regardless of those candidates’ personal merits or indeed the substance of their views. Republicans will even vote for an opponent of free trade and of the postwar western alliance who grossly offends against conservative Christian sexual mores, if that’s who is at the top of their ticket.
The most important political science book of 2016, Christopher Achen’s and Larry Bartel’s Democracy for Realists, shows that we should expect this. Systematic political beliefs, ideas about policies, and views about the state of the world don’t drive decisions about what party to support among most voters most of the time. It’s the other way around: the initial judgment call about which side I’m on (a judgment call that is often shaped by intergenerational habits or membership in identity groups: which party is the party for people like me?) then leads me to bring my beliefs, ideas, and views into line with those that prevail on my side.
This is in part a matter of economizing on information, which we all do, because we have to. No mind could contain the information needed for sufficiently-informed decisionmaking about the countless policies decided by a modern government, and no life contains enough hours to study it, even if the mind could contain it. But it’s not just a matter of low-information voters using parties as a substitute for judgment.
Achen and Bartels show that the adjustment of beliefs (even about factual questions) to match the party’s often increases with greater information and education; it takes some sophistication to correctly understand which side of an issue one’s party is on, after all.
All of which is to say: once Donald Trump got the nomination, there was a real chance of his being elected. (Note that this means no one should ever wish for, and they certainly shouldn’t engage in, strategic cross-party voting to help a major party to nominate a truly disastrous candidate. The other party’s candidate starts with a very large part of the electorate that’s almost sure to vote for them; and that could well put them close enough to a plurality that they’re a stock market crash, a terrorist attack, or an FBI letter away from winning. Although there is now some debate about this finding, Achen and Bartels argue that there’s strong evidence that weather or even shark attacks can jiggle the needle.) In the face of strong partisanship among voters, a lot depends on the strength and quality of the parties as institutions in shaping nomination outcomes.