A Real-World Map for Understanding the Irascible Pandemonium of US Politics
Democracy is like a puzzle: you have to fit all the pieces together to see the Big Picture
US politics can be pretty confounding. Earlier this year, analysts and crystal ball gazers were predicting a GOP takeover of Congress. Then, after the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and a woman’s bodily autonomy, coupled with a few Biden administration legislative victories, the crystal balls’ hue turned a brighter blue. Now, New York Times columnist David Brooks says the seesaw has tilted and a Republican wave is surging.
How does an everyday person — shuffling off to work, eyeing gas prices, trying to avoid COVID (for the second time), calling their 90 year old mother with dementia, wondering if they should take their savings out of the stock market — make sense of all this madness?
And thinking even more deeply, in the middle of a sleepless night, dreading the sound of the impending alarm clock: Why is the US teetering on the cliff of minority rule and post-democracy? Why are politics and campaigns so negative? Why do certain voters seem to vote against their own self-interest?
Hoo boy, hoo girl. Many voters as well as seasoned pros and conniving politicians are scratching their heads over the many conundrums and crises of American democracy.
So I thought I would sketch out a map, a kind of Harry Potter’s “marauder’s map” of US politics, that shows the secret passages and hallways, and who lurks in them. Below are the nine pieces of this puzzling map that generally explain the ups and downs of American democracy. All nine pieces need to be seen together to grasp the whole picture. Virtually any issue that arises in American politics can be understood by filtering it through this political-electoral map.
Party leaders, political consultants and partisan strategists understand these dynamics like the back of their hands, and act according to this blueprint. But this important knowledge should not be only in the hands of the most self-interested partisans. It should also be understood by everyday Americans who are trying to keep faith, trying to participate – barely -- in this representative democracy.
And I don’t mean the sanitized version that you learn in high school or college civics classes, but the real-world map that is traveled every day in the hallways of state capitals and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and First St SE in Washington DC. Here are the nine pieces of the map.
Piece 1. The goal of a political party is to win elections – principle and ideology are secondary to that goal. To win, parties chase base voters who fundamentally agree with most of the party’s positions on issues; and they simultaneously also pursue undecided swing voters, whose votes will determine the winners in any close races, as well as the legislative majorities in closely divided legislatures.
Piece 2. Demographics have become destiny. In recent years, Americans have settled more and more into definable and balkanized "partisan residential patterns" -- liberals and progressives populate urban areas, conservatives populate rural areas, with the moderate suburbs more or less betwixt and between.
Piece 3. Geographic-based, winner-take-all elections = “safe seats.” Combined with the demographics in #2, electing our representatives one geographic district at a time has resulted in a stunning lack of competition, a veritable sea of safe legislative seats, both red (Republican) and blue (Democratic). Out of 435 U.S. House seats in each election, experts can reliably predict who is going to win 390 to 400 of them, about 90 percent (including in 2022). They not only can tell you who will win, but the margin of victory. This in turn leads to other perverse incentives (see number 6 below).
State legislative races are even worse. In 2020, 27% of the 7383 state seats were uncontested, including 75% in Massachusetts, 61% in Wyoming, 58% in Rhode Island, 57% in Arkansas and 51% in Georgia. It is a competition wasteland out there, all across the country because the districts are such lopsided strongholds for one party that it’s a waste of time for another party to run.
Also as we have seen in recent presidential elections, as well as in most races for the US Senate, entire states now can be categorized as safe Red or Blue. This reality of our geographic-based system is what FairVote has called Monopoly Politics.
Piece 4. Little choice for voters, resulting in low turnout. We like to think we have a two party system, but in actual fact the frame of reference for most voters where they live is that of a one-party system. Their “choice” consists of ratifying the candidate of the party that dominates their district or state. Interestingly, living within those red and blue districts are lots of people who are “orphaned voters,” those without a political home, including Democrats living in Republican districts, Republicans living in Democratic districts, as well as third-party supporters and independent voters everywhere. These inhabitants of Purple America are "geographic minorities” where they live and have no representation. Entire states have become political monocultures where debate has virtually ceased amidst a political monopoly for one side or the other.
All of these dynamics act as a significant drag on voter turnout, as orphaned voters with so little real choice where they live unsurprisingly stop voting. Consequently, the US has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world among established democracies, ranking 108th in the world for national legislative elections (and even lower in non-presidential years, sandwiched between Armenia and Bulgaria).
Piece 5. Decrease in "ticket splitting" -- voters have become extremely predictable. It used to be that many voters would vote for one party for president and another party for their local representative (i.e. Richard Nixon for president but Democrat Sam Ervin for Congress) – what’s known as "ticket splitting." Increasingly, voters have become partisanly consistent, voting for the same party for president, Senate, and the House. Though it’s often a consistency born, not of firm beliefs or ideology, but of “negative consent” – many voters today vote against a candidate or party rather than for a candidate or party they actually like. Given a choice between any Democrat or any Republican, they may not think much of the Republican candidate but they sure as heck won’t vote for the Democrat (or vice versa). Given the partisan demographics and the use of winner-take-all elections, this decrease in ticket splitting has meant that voters and elections have become extremely predictable.
Piece 6. Geographically targeted campaigns. Extreme predictability and low turnout of voters combined with a lack of competition in most races allow party leaders to precisely target resources, messaging, and campaigns to the handful of battleground House districts, as well as states for president and Senate. Party leaders and strategists approach the political map like generals in a war room: “OK, all those districts over there, we don’t have to worry about them because we know we are going to win those. And those other districts, we know we will never win them, so let’s not waste any money or resources there. We need to focus like a laser on the handful of battleground districts and states.” Consequently, they target gobs of campaign funds to a handful of undecided swing voters in swing districts and states, and ignore the vast majority of races that are lopsided for one party or another.
Piece 7. Polarization in voters’ attitudes (the twin axes of “big government” and “race”). Voters’ attitudes on a whole range of issues and topics have been remarkably consistent for decades, according to the American National Election Studies, a series of public opinion polls taken over the last seven decades by the University of Michigan -- except in two important areas, where Americans indeed have become more split since the mid-1980s. The first is over the trustworthiness of government, with more Americans today less trusting and consequently opposed to “big government”; and the second is over government aid to African-Americans and minorities, with more Americans today opposed than previously. And in the dominant public mindset these two are closely fused – “We don’t want big government wasting any of our tax dollars on those programs or on those people.” These two axes also are closely linked to issues like crime, public safety, so-called welfare queens and gun control.
Sound familiar? Remember the infamous black-baiting Willie Horton ad that the George HW Bush campaign blasted to the public in the 1988 presidential race? It caused Democrat Michael Dukakis’ double-digit lead to evaporate. GOP politicians have been copying and re-copying it ever since. Donald Trump’s entire political career is basically one long Willie Horton ad, always provoking white voters to overreact out of their fears of you-know-who. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police and subsequent nationwide protests, Black Lives Matter was used as a stand-in for Willie Horton.
One study, based on an analysis of eight ANES surveys (1992–2020), found that “white Americans’ beliefs about the trustworthiness of the federal government have become linked with their racial attitudes…racial prejudice, measured in terms of anti-Black stereotypes, informs white Americans’ beliefs about the trustworthiness of the federal government.” The study found that “the racialization of government trust…can introduce serious obstacles in the ability of government to enforce rules and regulations meant to sustain the general welfare, including the democratic process itself.”
Other cultural issues come and go (woman’s reproductive rights are particularly salient right now), but election after election for the past four decades, trust in government/”big government” spending and perceptions of race have played out in impactful ways, particularly in certain regions of the country such as undecided swing districts and battleground states.
Piece 8. Intensity vs preference. A related point involves a key concept about voter attitudes, called Intensity versus preference. You can poll voters on a whole range of issues and they will give you their preferences. But what is even more important is understanding how intensely a voter feels on a particular issue, and whether it will motivate her or his vote. As leading Republican strategist Grover Norquist has said "Will they vote on that opinion?" Will it motivate how they vote for a particular candidate or party? Republican strategists in particular have been proficient at grasping this part of the “winner take all” system. Keep this point in mind when you consider the twin planets around which American politics orbits (government trust/spending/tax cuts and race), and how those issues play out in the swing (i.e. undecided) districts and states.
Piece 9. “Polarize, not compromise” through “simulated responsiveness.” Partisan campaign strategists have become expert at using modern campaign tools and techniques (polls, focus groups, 30 second ads, social media ads) to slice and dice the electorate -- especially voters in the swing districts and states -- along the twin axes, figuring out how intensely voters hold certain views. They use these campaign tools to conjure what political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro have called "simulated responsiveness" and "crafted talk," able to simultaneously target undecided swing voters with a moderate message and their base voters with a highly partisan, motivational message. These campaign tactics allow candidates to portray themselves as being all things to many people. GOP candidates like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush presented themselves as proponents of both the 1% dominant class and a “compassionate conservative” to fool moderate or independent voters. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton portrayed themselves to liberal voters as being more progressive than they actually were while reassuring Wall Street. This clever manipulation smoothly feeds into an audacious strategy of "polarize, not compromise" instead of true bridge-building and centrism.
And the latest communication technologies are only getting more powerful and insidious – check out this “deep fake” video of President Barack Obama calling Donald Trump a dip shit. What happens when people can’t believe their own eyes and ears about what they see and hear?
If we map this ginormously complex jigsaw puzzle composed of these nine “rules of reality,” suddenly the bigger picture emerges. Virtually any issue that arises in American politics can be understood by mapping it with this model. Climate change, gun control, reproductive rights, health care, inheritance taxes and tax loopholes, labor policies, all of these policies get distorted by these “winner take all” gremlins on steroids.
Different dilemmas for Democratic and Republican strategies
While both major parties are operating according to these rules, each party handles them in very different ways.
Republicans can motivate their base with cultural and religious issues (i.e. abortion, gun rights, gay marriage, school prayer) which costs nothing in terms of government taxes or programs and therefore do not alienate the fiscally-conservative swing voters who tend to see themselves as “independents.” Some of these swing voters and independents may not agree with the right wing on cultural issues, but that disagreement is not intensely felt and does not greatly motivate their vote the way higher taxes and scary monster government does. Many of these are part of the group of Trump and Reagan Democrats, and the blue collar workers that Bill Clinton tried to woo back with his pronouncements in the early and mid-1990s that "the era of big government is over," and his disses of black leaders like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah. Joe Biden managed to attract some of them back by emphasizing his working-class roots.
But the Democratic base (i.e. racial minorities, urban dwellers, young people, recent college graduates, working class and labor union members) want the government to lend a helping hand, whether for lower tuition or forgiving educational loans, health care, pensions, climate change and more. Those state interventions can only be realized by an activist government, government spending/programs, higher taxes — at least, that’s the perception. So the Democrats’ attempts to motivate their base conflicts with their need to attract socially liberal but fiscally conservative swing voters who are not very welcoming of higher taxes or more government spending, especially for those programs.
In most elections, the most viable way for Democrats to overcome this structural disadvantage is to hyper-mobilize their diverse base, so that the loss of some swing voters is counteracted by a wave of base voters. To do that, Democrats need to run the right candidates who motivate that base. Or, Democrats can wait until Republicans in power go too far, such as extreme MAGA Trump Republicans did, alienating many independent voters and pushing the Pendulum to swing back toward the left.
The Harry Potter map of this big picture is hard to see sometimes. But now you can understand why some pundits say, “Politics is more art than science.” Remember that after the elections on November 8, when you are shaking your head over the latest choices of the American people.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except all the others that have been tried.”
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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If I've read a more accurate description of how our "representative democracy" really works - not the fairy-tale version we learn in school - it doesn't come quickly to mind; perhaps because I never have read one or maybe that one doesn't even exist. Why isn't this guy teaching high school civics classes?
And that Winston Churchill - no fool he.
"The goal of a political party is to win elections – principle and ideology are secondary to that goal. "
The Constitution Party is a good example of a party that has placed principle and ideology above winning elections. Consequently, it has won few - if any - statewide or federal offices. However, it may have resulted in changes to the Republican Party platform to attract votes from Constitution Party members. Unfortunately, major parties are not held accountable for failure to implement planks of campaign platforms.