The Agenda

The Parable of the Shepherds, Clergy, Teachers, Coffee Growers, and Saloon Keepers

At the recommendation of David Schleicher, I had the great pleasure of reading a September 2011* version of “A Theory of Political Parties,” by the political scientists Kathleen Bawn, Martin Cohen, David Karol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. Towards the beginning, the authors offer a stylized tale of a democratic polity with no parties — and then they describe how parties emerge. Basically, a small collection of interest groups demand certain policies and they join together in an electoral coalition. On implementing a given set of policies, conflicts emerge — splits within the coalition, new constituencies opposed to the reigning policy mix are activated, etc. Because naked appeals to self-interest aren’t likely to go down all that well with the less intensely engaged majority, the interest groups in question (the “policy demanders”) soon form into rival coalitions that make increasingly vague ideological appeals that shape the political landscape. 

As the Freedom and Heritage Parties compete over many elections, political discourse is dominated by conflict between them. Soon the party programs are widely accepted as natural manifestations of competing worldviews: a “conservative” one that seeks to protect and restore the traditions of a religious society of herders, and a “liberal” one oriented toward cultivating human capital and infrastructure to compete in the global economy. The more attention a voter pays to politics, the more she associates public works projects with secularism and free trade, and the more she accepts one party’s programs in its entirely. Voters initially attracted by candidate charisma, sometimes develop an habitual party identification. Many other voters, however, remain uncommitted, voting for whichever party seems better on the issue of the moment The conservative and liberal ideologies help the groups define the terms of their cooperation, and help coalition stay together, but close observers note that electoral competition is not perfectly one-dimensional. With their highway complete, religious coffee growers sometimes vote Heritage because of the party’s temperance plank. Even the saloonkeepers, despite continuing conflicts with the clergy over business hours, sometimes defect to Heritage in protest of the humanistic ideas teachers push on their children.

The parties manage these potential cross-cutting cleavages with sharper rhetorical appeals to Freedom and Heritage, saying less about specific programs, and continuing to nominate candidates committed to the party’s agenda. This confuses many voters, who then end up voting on the basis of the performance of the economy. The groups are happy enough with this outcome. Each coalition controls government about half the time, an outcome much better than the numerically small policy-demanders could achieve without parties.

The point of this extended myth has been to highlight our key claims. Parties form when groups with intense policy demands organize to control nominations and contest elections. Voter inattentiveness creates the opportunity for intense minorities to pursue particularistic goals. In the next two sections we bring legislatures into the argument and develop our main claims more systematically.

The authors offer a useful way to think about the political landscape of any democracy: Who are the most organized and powerful policy demanders? What are their demands? How are the different groups of policy demanders aligned and do these alignments make sense? Are there other potential alliances and cleavages that might emerge over time? 

In conversations with friends who don’t share my political views, I have, unbeknownst to me, been using this policy demanders framework to explain the larger political landscape. In choosing to affiliate with and to identify with one of the main political coalitions in the U.S., I have essentially thought about the most influential policy demanders in each coalition and I’ve thrown in my lot with the mix of policy demanders I consider best aligned with what I take to be the right mix of policies for the country’s future. This is despite the fact that there are many policy demanders on my team, so to speak, that I’d just as soon do without.

One interesting aspects of these coalitions of policy demanders is that there occasionally these kaleidoscope moments where some normative shift (which can take decades) or some exogenous disruption (like a mass-casualty terror attack) or some policy breakthrough (like the establishment of universal health coverage as a policy lodestar) that can shake up the political order and jumble policy demanders, i.e., policy demanders, or some breakaway faction of a group of policy demanders, might switch sides, or new policy demanders might be activated, etc. That is part of why I find the issues surrounding the advent of disruptive technologies so interesting — the Internet-driven transformation of various sectors creates the potential for kaleidoscope moments, e.g., the transformation of the education and health sectors, etc.  

* I had originally assumed that the paper I had read was the latest version, but it was not. Seth Masket kindly wrote in to let me know.


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