Parties, Government Capture, and Poverty

Nancy Rosenblum’s apology for partisanship put me in mind of some thoughts on the perils of strong party identification in the section on inequality and democracy in my forthcoming Cato paper. 

[T]he danger of “capture” in democratic politics is not primarily a matter of systemic conflicts of economic interest between those occupying different strata of the income distribution. Rather, the problem is that political power in democracies flows to those able to put together winning electoral coalitions, and this ability necessarily involves maintaining the loyalties of special interests whose demands may not be in the public interest. 


[W]e’re unlikely to make real progress in improving the quality of public policy if otherwise sophisticated minds continue to be surprised by the fact that the party promising security may leave us less secure, or that the party promising to lift up the poor may leave them stranded. Strong partisan identification is dangerous because it can pressure even the best and brightest into accepting that the policies best for the electoral success of their favorite party — a fragile and contingent consortium of often conflicting interests — will somehow turn out best for the country. 


It is not enough for the privileged and the powerful to wish with their whole hearts to make ours a society in which all people have a real chance to make the most of their liberties and lives. Our democracy has to deliver the policies that can actually make this happen. But just as special interests can capture democratic coalitions, our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics. What the poor need is not party faith, but good faith in the effort to find policies that really deliver. 

That “our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics” is my main concern about partisanship. Party ID can become a powerful social signal of moral rectitude. But electoral dynamics provide strong reasons to believe that each major party must rule out of bounds some policies that would be best for the poor. Perversely, the more strongly a particular party ID signals care for the poor, the more protected will be large factions within the party whose interests oppose the poor. This is how our coalitional minds reason: Because the success of the party is so important to the welfare of poor, and these factions are so important to the successes of the party, their interests are ipso facto important to the welfare of the poor. And so their actual antagonism to policies in the interests of the poor becomes most invisible to those most eager to communicate their solidarity with the poor through party identification. Our need to signal care can produce viciously careless results.