American politics decoded and explained

For an interesting look at how political scientists analyze and explain American politics, check out this new course from UCLA: Public opinion, mass media, parties, and elections (audio feed) taught by John Zaller. (Video links are available at the course website.)

In the first two lectures, Zaller tackles some of the enduring puzzles of American political life. For example, why is American politics growing more and more polarized, so that compromise between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress seems all but impossible?

Zaller notes that it was not always this way. Up until the late 1960s, there were plenty of moderate Democrats and Republicans in Congress who could make compromises to get legislation passed. And political theory predicts that because the majority of the electorate is moderate, a majority of representatives will also be moderate. So why has this polarization happened?

Zaller admits that political scientists have yet to provide a definitive answer, but he has a few suggestions.

1) While most of the electorate is moderate, the people who work for candidates and contribute money to political campaigns (about 2% of the population) tend to be on the ideological extremes, so they tend to promote candidates with similar views.

2) The vast majority of Americans, who describe themselves as either moderate or unsure about political affiliation, do not pay attention to politics. Thus while they could have an enormous moderating influence on political zealots, they do not exercise this potential power. “The median voter ought to be able to force the parties to the center but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” he says.

3) Most voters, who describe themselves as conservative or liberal, will reliably vote for one of the two major parties in presidential elections.  But the swing voters, those who decide elections, tend to be influenced more by external circumstances such as the state of the economy, than by the issues.  Thus, party activists understand that the factors that decide elections are mostly beyond their control, and they gain no electoral advantage by offering centrist candidates.

Another puzzle, of special interest to people in California, is our never-ending state budget crisis. How is it, Zaller asks, that a rich state can have $100 billion in budget obligations and only $62 billion worth of money?

The answer, he believes, goes back to the tech bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which created a huge increase in state revenues. That allowed Republicans to do what Republicans love to do, that is cut taxes. And Democrats could do what Democrats love to do, which is increase spending. Democrats in the Legislature increased the formulas for how much would be spent on medical care, and they increased salaries for teachers and retirement benefits for government workers. All of this created new permanent spending obligations for the state. Meanwhile, as their price for going along with the spending increases, the Republicans were able to legislate tax cuts.

Then, when the economy crashed, the California state budget lost the windfall tax revenue , but now had a smaller tax base and a larger set of obligations. Voila: a budget crisis.

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