Changing equilibria in American politics

by Henry Farrell on June 8, 2006

“Mark Schmitt”: has a good article in this month’s _The American Prospect_, which is now available on the New America Foundation’s website. He argues that we’re probably seeing a secular shift to a more partisan and polarized politics, with less emphasis on bipartisan coalition building, and more on party coherence. The interesting bit is his take on interest group politics.

bq. It has become an article of faith on Democratic blogs such as DailyKos that progressive interest groups betray their own causes by sometimes endorsing Republicans. The Sierra Club and NARAL endorsements of Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee have been particular points of controversy. But it’s not that NARAL and the Sierra Club are idiots. Up to now, it made perfect sense for them to endorse Chafee. You reward your friends, especially when they have stood up to pressure from within their own party. But at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan—at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation.

While I agree with Mark’s conclusions, I suspect that there’s more going on here than he mentions. Another reason why progressive interest groups might want to endorse Republicans occasionally is because this increases their bargaining leverage vis-a-vis Democrats. If you want to get Democrats to take your agenda seriously, it helps to be able to make credible threats that you’ll support the other guys unless you get your way. One way to underline the seriousness of your threats is occasionally to endorse moderate members of the opposing party. If Mark is right (I think he is), then the ability of progressive interest groups to make these threats will shrivel away as moderate Republicans lose office. Hence, such groups are likely to lose a lot of their clout. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all interest groups are going to lose out. I suspect that interest groups which draw their bargaining leverage from threats to support more ‘orthodox’ candidates in primaries, along the lines of Grover Norquist’s crowd on the Republican side, are going to do quite well under the new system. If so, then these will further weaken incentives towards bipartisanship, and help reinforce party discipline on both sides of the divide.

(Link via “Political Theory Daily Review”: )



RickD 06.08.06 at 9:25 am

I’m still not seeing any logic to NARAL endorsing Chafee, especially when the Democratic candidate is pro-choice. Chafee votes for Bill Frist to be the Senate Majority Leader, which leads to Arlen Specter, Chair of the Judiciary Committee. Republican control of the committee, and indeed the Senate as a whole, allows Bush to push through extreme anti-choice conservatives like Sam Alito. How is this better than having a pro-choice Democrat in that seat instead?

I do agree that, superficially at least, the politics are getting more partisan.


Steve LaBonne 06.08.06 at 9:35 am

Hello? The Republicans haven’t exhibited any genuine “bipartisanship” ever since they took power in the Gingrich era. (The “moderates” always were pretty much all talk, and have fallen into line just about every time when push came to shove.) It’s damn well about time that Democrats and Democratically oriented interest groups caught up with this longstanding reality and stopped self-destructively playing along with phony appeals for a “bipartisanship” that’s been non-existent for quite a while already.


Quentin Crain 06.08.06 at 9:43 am

Seems to me progressive groups could (should?) endorse a more “progressive” candidate *instead* of a Republican if they want to threaten a Democrat. Hopefully it is just as threatening (if you are into that sort of thing) AND more effective of change.


harry b 06.08.06 at 9:50 am

Or progressive groups could just refrain from making endorsements. At a pretty local level I’ve long been startled by the “we must endorse someone in every race” attitude. No — in the vast majority of races both candidates are opposed to progressive values generally, and there is no reason on earth to waste resources or even the effort of an endorsement meeting on either candidate — better to concetrate one’s resources on candidates who come close to sharing one’s outlook in a pretty comprehensive way and where one’s endorsement or resources have a chance of being decisive, and on those races where preventing a particulalrly bad candidate from winning is urgent (and the latter case can sometimes lead you to support a Republican, as some unions in Wisconsin probably would have done in the last Governor’s race had it not already been obvious that the Democrat, known to be a thuggish punisher of his opponents, was going to walk the race).


jonm 06.08.06 at 9:57 am

I think this is a good thing. The responsible party model is good for democracy and, probably, in this case good for the Democratic party. In a straight ideological battle in a post-welfare world, Democrats win (You can see that I buy Teixera’s argument). President Bush had to blur the ideological lines with “compassionate conservatism” to “win” in 2000 and the terror-driven 2004 election was an anomaly.


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.08.06 at 10:37 am

“Hopefully it is just as threatening…”

It wouldn’t be, as more progressive candidates are so unlikely to win in most races as to be a non-threat.


Steve LaBonne 06.08.06 at 10:41 am

It wouldn’t be, as more progressive candidates are so unlikely to win in most races as to be a non-threat.

But they can siphon off enough votes to defeat the Democrat if the election is sufficiently closely contested- just ask Al Gore.


John Emerson 06.08.06 at 10:47 am

Polarization? Ya think so? Why didn’t I notice that?


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.08.06 at 11:15 am

“But they can siphon off enough votes to defeat the Democrat if the election is sufficiently closely contested- just ask Al Gore.”

Sure, but that dynamic is almost completely non-existant in the smaller races. In almost all House races, most Senate races and most Gubernatorial races that isn’t going to work.


Steve LaBonne 06.08.06 at 12:05 pm

It’s essentially tautological to say that it’s hard to influence races that aren’t close. In such cases endorsements (and more importantly, campaign $$) are more in the way of attempted influence-buying (which is exactly what tempts the groups in question to endorse “moderate” Republicans when Republicans are in the majority). Of course, most House districts are so artfully gerrymandered as to make competition almost out of the question, but there actually have been quite a few very close statewide (Senate, gubernatorial) races in recent years.


Cranky Observer 06.08.06 at 12:28 pm

Interesting theory. One problem I see though is that the strategy of voting one way on cloture and the opposite way on the (now symbolic) final vote really only fools the deep base. Anyone who follows anything knows where the real votes are as opposed to the checkmark votes.



BigMacAttack 06.08.06 at 1:12 pm

I doubt senator Lincoln Chafee favors evisceration of environmental regulation. I am guessing that is why the Sierra Club endorsed him.

So if they endorse/donate him and he wins they gain a vote against evisceration of environmental regulations. A member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and Subcommittee on Fisheries Wildlife and Water.

Now admittedly in this case

not as influential as I would have guessed. But where would his opponent start?

I think you will find that often the choice is between a powerful vote for your interests and much less powerful vote for your interests. Plus you always run the risk of pissing the incumbent off and losing a vote.

If the assumption about the general direction of politics is right what I think might happen is that there will be some small incentive for broadly like minded single interest groups to pool resources and endorsements.

But I am not sure the assumption is correct. I would like to wait until after the coming elections. As the swing vote shrinks it becomes increasingly important. A resounding Democratic victory against NE/Liberal Republicans maybe sits on a very narrow perch. Admittedly the time lag is long with these things so maybe not. And knowing people probably not.

But think about it. You just won a tough close race over a NE/Liberal Republican whose party didn’t pass much ‘bi-partisan’ legislation and your lesson is lets not pass bi-partisan’ legislation?


joejoejoe 06.08.06 at 1:48 pm

If so, then these will further weaken incentives towards bipartisanship, and help reinforce party discipline on both sides of the divide.

If the GOP drops it’s maximalist approach on every issue there is still plenty of room for bipartisanship. However partisan elected federal officials may become state officials are still held responsible for governing in a pragmatic manner. The extreme incompetence of our federal government doesn’t plow roads, fight fires, or police the streets. State and local politics requires those things be done. Partisanship is a luxury at that level that gets you tossed out of office. Hopefully the local need for competence mitigates the disaster of our elected Congress.


Bruce Baugh 06.08.06 at 8:22 pm

Bigmacattack: swing votes become less significant when one party is sufficiently disciplined to impose harsh penalties on those who don’t toe the line and sufficiently dedicated to bribe those who might be vacillating. The current Republican leadership is both, which means that alleged moderates can’t be counted upon anymore, and this has been the case for half a decade now. If center, liberal, and left activist groups are actaully thinking about this and responding to the reality, so much the better for their causes.


vivian 06.08.06 at 9:21 pm

11: “Anyone who follows anything…” You see anyone in the general news media picking up on this strategy? Any lobbying groups revising their checklists accordingly? Voters relying on non-blog info do exist, and they aren’t sparsely distributed.


nick s 06.09.06 at 4:26 am

I think that the ‘bargaining’ line could be used more productively if endorsements were given vindictively. I can’t think of a better way to knock off a GOP incumbent in certain districts than to receive a Planned Parenthood endorsement.


Barry 06.09.06 at 7:29 am

Steve Labonne: “Hello? The Republicans haven’t exhibited any genuine “bipartisanship” ever since they took power in the Gingrich era. ”

Before that – remember Clinton’s first budget? 0 GOP votes. The sheer hatred expressed against him, by GOP people not fit to lick his boots, was astounding.


abb1 06.10.06 at 7:48 am

Why would you want any Republican “moderates”? That’s just silly, they are even worse. Reminds me of those death camp commandants with a passion for classical music…

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