December 16, 2004

The Problem of Faction

Michael Totten points to one bad Republican example, and Mark Lindsay points to another. These are a great illustration of why politics produces strange bedfellows.

The Republicans basically kicked the most egregious religious nutters to the sidelines during the 1990s, which is the only reason they were able to gain such broad support among the electorate. Similarly, the Democrats now need to kick the MoveOn/Michael Moore anti-US wing of the party off to the side if they are going to come back to broader-based support. But even so, you can't kick those wings of the parties completely out, because you need their votes. So Michael Moore and Jimmy Carter sit together at the Democrat Convention, and President Bush meets with people who want to ban books they don't like.

But where does this arise? Consider this contrived example: you have an electorate of 11 people, and there are 10 issues on which they each have political opinions. These opinions are either 'yes' or 'no', where 'yes' indicates that they favor one opinion on that issue, 'no' indicates they disfavor that same opinion. This system has no compromisers, which complicate things but do not change the essence of the analysis. (For example, if the issue is "abortion should be legal up to the time of birth for any reason whatsoever", yes would agree, no would be the antithesis (abortion should never be legal) and eh would favor some kind of conditions under which abortion should be legal and others where it should not. We don't allow 'eh'.) Here's a chart of opinions on issues for this 11-person electorate:

issue 1issue 2issue 3issue 4issue 5issue 6issue 7issue 8issue 9issue 10
person 1yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 2noyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 3nonoyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 4nononoyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 5nonononoyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 6nononononoyesyesyesyesyes
person 7nonononononoyesyesyesyes
person 8nononononononoyesyesyes
person 9nonononononononoyesyes
person 10nonononononononoyesyes
person 11nononononononononono

Let's start with simple politics. Person 4 and person 8 start political parties based around their views. In order to get their views enacted into law or policy, they have to win elections. So how do they form their parties?

For person 4, person 3 and person 5 are natural allies, differing on only one issue. And if person 4's issues of primary interest are on the right, then the disagreements are on less important issues at that. Person 1 and person 2 are somewhat more extreme, but their votes could probably be counted on. They'd have to be thrown the occasional distasteful bone, but they would otherwise be useful. Since person 4 is further to the left than they are, person 4 would be the lesser of two evils for person 1 and person 2. Person 4 would want to get person 6's or person 7's vote at least, then, in order to win, but those people will be somewhat suspicious of person 4's views, which are further to the right than theirs.

For person 8, there is the mirror image problem, just reversing left and right and altering the people in support or opposition to them on various issues. So we get two parties, the Top Party of person 1 to person 5, and the Bottom Party of person 7 to person 11. In the center is person 6, and persons 5 and 7 will sometimes shift away from their party depending on circumstances.

But how you hold together these parties depends upon the issues, too. If the populace can be largely convinced that issues to the right are more important, and if they only voted on their issues, the Top Party would win handily and consistently. The reverse holds for the Bottom Party with issues on the left. If the big issue is issue 3, Bottom would win with 8 of 11 votes. If the big issue is issue 8, Top would win with 8 of 11 votes. Each party will therefore endeavor to make their issues be perceived as the most important issues on which to vote.

But you can't just take that at face value, because once the parties form, there is a party loyalty issue as well. For example, person 7 doesn't agree with person 8 on issue 7, but they feel that issue 6 is very important to them. As such, they cannot agree with Top party, who are universally opposite person 7's stance on that issue. So they have to accept disagreement with the rest of their party on issue 7 to get their way on issue 6. And this happens across all issues, so it tends to drive the perception of difference to higher levels than the actual differences suggest.

The key disagreement, the political battleground consuming all attention, will be around issues 5 and 6 for the votes of persons 5, 6 and 7. And that is why we have purple states with very small differences of aggregate opinion, but a lot of people seem to feel we're on the verge of civil war. It's also why right-wing nutjobs meet with Republican presidents and left-wing nutjobs meet with Democrat presidents.

Posted by Jeff at December 16, 2004 12:55 PM | Link Cosmos

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's okay to have crazy people in the family; just don't set 'em out on the front porch.

And, Jeff, there are other reasons to belong to political parties than your table example might reflect. In my neighborhood for example a Democrat is an independent who wants to get his trash picked up.

Posted by: Dave Schuler on December 17, 2004 01:28 PM
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