Politics of Race and the Race for Lifelines

Vox has an excellent article describing how party and electoral politics has been evolving in United States past few decades, but there are some points worth adding.

One significant factor that seems to receive little attention, but emphasized in the articles by Vance and Hochchild I had linked to earlier is the linkage between availability of “lifelines” and a sense of intergroup competition.  The states that saw large increases in foreign populations that also heavily for Romney in 2012 tend to be very ungenerous in provision of lifelines, and most likely, became even stingier from 1990s on (Granted, this is basically an explanation for why MN did not flip.)  In other words, in these states, the poor whites were facing even greater competition for the few lifelines that they had, not only in terms of government aids, but also in terms of reasonably secure jobs for low-skill, low-education workforce offering decent wages.  The population change interacted with the economic shock to produce the backlash.

In other words, I don’t think the economic and social dimensions are necessarily orthogonal.  Far from it, they interact (and mutually reinforce) each other.  As long as the economic focus remains on limiting the supply of lifelines–i.e. as long as the neoliberal consensus remains the presumed “Truth”–the racialized competition for the lifelines can only intensify.  The deadlock can be broken if the economic opportunities open up, both in terms of jobs and the lifelines for the luckless.  While it will not turn the “rednecks” to paragons of tolerance, it will certainly abate their hostility to their “otherly” competitors.

“Open Evidential Culture”

Another post I’m stealing from Andy Gelman, which, in turn, leads to another article, this one from developmental psychology.

I think the article and the perspective it presents are an important, indeed, a critical contribution to our sense of epistemology.  The truth is that we don’t know the whole truth, and we probably can’t even handle it.  An elephant is a spear, a wall, and a column, and many more–and the key to knowledge is understanding how all these can be true at the same time, not that it is one thing and not the other.  Scientists believe in many “truths” that must be true–not unlike what I had written earlier today about different people’s perceptions of the economy.  Sometimes–indeed, very often–seemingly incompatible truths are simultaneously true.  Scientific progress comes from syntheses, not by pruning branches and, in so doing, cutting off potentially fruitful courses of investigation.  This comes from the recognition that our sense of the “truth” is limited necessarily and that we have much to learn about the truth that lie outside our limited beliefs.


Poststratification, or Why Look at Crosstabs.

Andy Gelman has an excellent post that almost constitutes a direct salvo in defense of the USC polls being conducted for LA Times.  (NB:  I think USC polls are still skewed somehow, but there are also important bits of information being lost in the usual polls that it provides).

The truth about elections and parties is simple:  party id’s don’t change too much and people tend to vote party.  If a poll shows a big swing in one direction or another, accompanied by a big swing in the partisan composition of the respondents, then the poll is probably capturing a big swing in survey response bias that correlates with partisanship.  We want to know what the choice will be, conditional on all sorts of factors known to be correlated with  the vote choice–and partisanship is indeed highly correlated with the vote choice.

In context of 2016, this is especially relevant since Trump’s unpopularity is especially acute among the Republicans–at least, those voters who are reliably Republican in most elections:  wealthier white suburbanites.  He is barely tied with Clinton among this subsample, according to various polls, and trailing significantly behind among the women among them.  These are, in a sense, far more significant predictors of Trump’s defeat than how unpopular he is with the minorities, who tend to be overwhelmingly Democrats anyways.

What I’d been Reading Lately…

I just came across two articles, one interesting and thoughtful, the other trite and uninteresting.

There is an extremely thoughtful article by JD Vance, which, unfortunately, will get downplayed because it is in the National Review.  

Then there is a terrible article in the New Republic which hopefully will be similarly downplayed because it explains to “explain” something but really doesn’t beyond repeating the conventional prejudice.

The core of the Vance piece is that, in an era of economic inequality and polarization, the talk of “white privilege” becomes misleading.  The changes in the economy hit the underskilled, undersocialized, and undereducated workforce of all races hard.  Have the white subset among these folks been hit less hard than others?  It is perfectly possible, and probably even probable–and that might be construed as a form of “privilege” in a statistical sense.  However, it is disingenuous to insist that people who have been suffering grievously that they are enjoying some kind of undeserved “privilege” that they should be ashamed of and deprived of.  They are already miserable, distressed, and, in many cases, literally dying.  So they should be more miserable, more distressed, and dead, in the name of “social justice”?  It smacks of a frightening line delivered with such enthusiastic gusto by Richard Holbrooke in defense of US “humanitarian” interventions abroad:  “bombs for peace.”

Vance’s commentary is hardly unique:  a similar analysis was offered by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books about the distribution of political support for Brexit.  Both are equally right that neither Trump nor Brexit offers anything like realistic solution for the problems underlying these phenomena.  But, in a sense, both political movements are fully “rational” in the sense that they see the campaign that at least recognizes their existence as preferable to those who fail to see that they even exist.    I’m not going to reiterate Vance’s seemingly obligatory pandering to “conservatives” (he is writing in the National Review after all.)  What Trump (and Sanders) did right, and what the campaigners for Brexit did right, in the end, was simply to recognize that large swaths of voters exist who are not being served by the status quo.  This brings back the attention to the potential problems of inequities and other distributional (in both economic and statistical senses) of the current economic situation that the present status quo has been eager to ignore, which is to say that, while the average may be relatively high, the variance is enormous–many win big, while many fall through the cracks.  The solution may not be apparent immediately, and perhaps no “good” solution may exist, but the problems are big enough and those who suffer from them are aware of it and will not expect immediate and efficacious solution thereof as long as the attempt at addressing them is serious and sincere–at least in the medium term.  This, I think good politics can deliver.

What makes Anson’s piece irritating and infuriating is that it steadfastly refuses to recognize that those who see the economy differently might actually be seeing different things, rather than conjuring up different figments born largely of their imaginations (the alleged “motivated reasoning.)  One useful illustration comes from the following diagram that I just stole from a wikipedia article, specifically the skewed distribution with fat tails (the purple dotted line one):


The mean, mode, and median, are all very different for this distribution.  Which is the “right” summary of this distribution?  This is a rather stupid question, that presumes that a single simple answer exists and is sufficient to describe the distribution in full.  The correct answer is that all three are “correct” but incomplete answers.  The distribution is more complex than others, manifested by vastly different values for different measures of the central tendencies.  In order to make sense of just different this distribution is, it is necessary to see how these different measures are from each other–and what each of them really measures.

There is a reinforcing tendency from preexisting biases, of course:  you are willing to trust a measure that comes closer to the world that you can see.  We are, after all, Bayesians (in the practical sense, at least) in that we evaluate the new information on the basis of what we (think we) know already.  To those seeing a crapsack economy around them, the news that the economy in fact is not so bad might appear less than credible or worse–are they calling me a liar?  But they are (probably) perfectly willing to entertain the notion that their view of the economy is limited and myopic, if the information can be delivered in a manner that is credible and believable to them, by recognizing that they are indeed seeing a sliver of the truth–even one that happens to be just a small part, not the whole.  This, of course, repeats what I mentioned above, and the strength of variance-based, rather than mean-centric thinking:  (extreme) deviations from the mean really do exist, and sometimes, are quite common.  They too are valuable part of the data which you ignore at your peril–potentially.  But this requires seeing the whole distribution, not forcibly summarizing them to a single measure, like the mean, and declare that the median must be wrong because it is so far from the mean.

In an odd way, Vance’s and Anson’s pieces intersect.  Sometimes, an elephant is both a spear and a trunk.  The key is not to dismiss one or the other as being wrong, but to understand both answers (and a lot more) are right.

PS.  One of my friends pointed to this article that appeared in the Mother Jones, that definitely falls into thoughtful category.  The bottom line is pretty simple:  there are plenty of people who could use a lifeline in their life, whose lives are precarious enough that they could use occasionally helping hand.  But receiving help, in most cultures, is taboo in the first place (for good reasons–you don’t want free riders in any society) and that has become the subject of much anathema from the toxic alliance between the conservative free market types and the neoliberal consensus.  There is an inexplicably broad consensus that lifelines are bad and their numbers should be cut.  The “white privilege” enjoyed by the white precariates is that they had been given a readier access to the lifeline so far.  In the name of “social justice,” the “very serious people” want to reduce their access to lifelines, and it is not shocking that they should be resisting tooth and nail.

The answer should not be about who deserves the lifelines, with the presumption that there can only be so few of them.  This brings focus to whom to cut–with the inevitably bitter and ugly conflict accompanying the debate.  Rather, there should be a recognition that, in an era of great inequality, there need to be more lifelines so that the coalitions can be made more inclusive.


I have to confess that I did not know about the “cruchiness” vs. “sogginess” distinction laid out by British journalist Nico Colchester until now.   Unfortunate, since this captures my idea of variance-centric thinking quite well.

The premise behind variance centric thinking is that the world is soggier than we’d like to believe.  Consider the following scenario where we have some input into a system that generates a distribution of outcomes.

X -> [Black Box] -> Y

We want to learn how this “black box” works by working through the relationship between X and Y.  But, while we’d like to believe that a neat “functional” relationship exists between X and Y, i.e. where every value of X is associated with exactly one value of Y, this is not really true most of the time.  Every value of X is associated with a range of the values of Y, a probability distribution, if you will.  Instead of a neat and “comfortable” formulaic universe where pushing a red button will produce a can of Coke with certainty, we might get a situation where you get a can of Coke only with 75% probability, a ball of yarn with 15%, and a bowl of worms with 10%, or whatever.  Even if you do exactly same thing again, you will probably get different outcomes, and you’d be crazy only if you expect the same thing to happen each time, to turn a well-known saying upside the head.

An article in Computer Weekly from a few years ago, it seems,  arrived at a similar conclusion:  even if you have huge data piles, sometimes, the insights they offer have such large variance that you still don’t know what will happen if you push the red button.  All the that data tells you is that you don’t really know what you will get (exactly, at any rate) if you do press it.  The data about red buttons, if you will, is not sufficiently crunchy in that the relationship between the input and output is not clearly and neatly defined.  Perhaps better to seek out crunchier data where you know what you will get if you do exactly the same thing over and over again.

The problem with the search for crunchier data is that, often, crunchy data does not exist.  Even if some crunchy data might exist at some time (e.g. Christmas rallies in stock markets), human strategic behavior, e.g. arbitrage, quickly wipes them out once they become known.  Sometimes, besides, you have to deal with problems you have, not the problems you wish you had–and red buttons may be all that you have to deal with.

Or, in other words, you need to understand how crunchy or soggy your data is.  This is variance-centric thinking comes in.  Variance tells you how soggy your data is, and how to deal with it once you figure it out.  Maybe you do want to learn its mean, if the data is crunchy enough…but with the proviso that, depending on its crunchiness, the means may not be good enough.  If the data is very soggy, means may not be worth knowing.

Polls and Biases

538 offers an insightful comment on biases in polling that has drawn attention especially recently due to the oddness of the LAT/USC polls.

The bottom line is that, as long as the polls are methodologically sound, they all offer useful insights, and in absence of knowing what “the truth” is, we don’t know just how biased they really are.  The big table of the in-house biases of many different polls the web page offers is interesting but at the same time misleading:  all it means is that they are biased vs. the “average” which itself is likely to be “wrong” anyways.

I suspect that the “how did you vote in 2012” question is not introducing a bias due to voters “misremembering”:  if voters say that they voted for Romney in 2012, even if they didn’t, that indicates a useful information about their current proclivities.  The real problem might be that there are many voters (especially among the young who are very hostile to Trump–in some polls, Trump is in low 20s among the voters in their 20s) who will be systematically excluded from the sample for this reason.

Still, it will be interesting to see how different sub demographics vary in terms of their biases.  I don’t care much for the aggregate data, which reflects a lot of reweighing of the data that reflects art more than science.  I am interested in how different subdemographics change over time–which reveals, among others, that Trump’s problem is especially severe with the regular Republican voters who don’t like him much.  So who does USC poll have Trump doing better with than other polls?  Where, under the hood, does the Trump bias in their polls come from?

(Sometimes) The Noise is the Signal!

One misleading notion that use of statistics got into people’s heads is that there is some kind of “truth” that using statistics can help get at, only if we can cut through the “noise” that interferes with the search.  I think this is a very dangerous idea.

Most of the statistics concerns itself with conditional means of a population (that is represented by a sample).  If we are to say that the average Hungarian is, say, 171cm tall, this is not the “truth.”  The “truth” is the height of an individual Hungarian, whether he/she is 195cm tall or 152cm tall.  All that the summary statistics of Hungarian height data will tell us is that the “truth” consists of some distribution centered around 171, not that “the truth” is 171cm that is obscured by all the Hungarians who are not approximately 171cm tall.  In other words, we want to know if the “truth” that we seek has anything to do with the distribution (i.e. the variance and other nth order moments) or the mean. Sometimes, the mean is a reasonable approximation for the truth (i.e. what is the % of the voters who might vote HRC over Trump), but sometimes, it isn’t (i.e. what is the average Trump voter like?)

Of course, even when the mean is the meaningful given the truth that we seek, sometimes, the noise is still informative.  That 45% of the voters might support HRC over Trump is meaningful only if people don’t change their mind.  If the support from a given population subset changes wildly from poll to poll, it may be a methodological folly, a product of small sample size coupled with sampling bias in each poll, or, perhaps, something actually meaningful about the unsettled and ambiguous state of mind among a certain group of voters.  In other words, rather than something that interferes with the discernment of immutable truth, the noise can easily be a clue to how variable the truth itself is.  Which one is it?  Now, that’s where things would get interesting–and deserves much additional thought.

Politics and Curiosity.

Dan Kahan, whose work I like a lot, has a fascinating new paper out.

The great advance that Kahan and his coauthors make is to attempt systematically defining and quantifying “curiosity.”  I am not sure if what they are doing is quite right:  enjoying science documentaries, for example, does not mean one is or is not “curious.”  (I’d found some science documentaries to be so pedantic that and assertive of the filmmakers’ own views that they were nearly unwatchable, but good science documentaries point to the facts, then raise questions that follow from them without overtly giving answers, for example).  But a more useful perspective on curiosity comes from how one reacts to an unexpected observation:  a curious person reacts by wondering where the oddity came from and investigating the background thereof; an incurious person starts dismissing the oddity as irrelevant.  The third component of their instrument, the so-called “Information Search Experiment,” however, gets at this angle more directly.

Observe that curiosity is, potentially, at odds with simple scientific knowledge.  On surface of the Earth, the gravitational acceleration is approximately 9.8m/s^2.  There was a physicist  wtih web page dedicated to scientific literacy (that I cannot find!) who had a story about how his lab assistant “discovered” that, under some conditions, the measured gravitational acceleration is much smaller.  While this finding was undoubtedly wrong, there are different approaches with which this could have been dealt with:  the incurious approach is to dismiss it by saying that this simply cannot be, because the right answer is 9.8m/s^2.  The curious approach is to conjecture the consequences that would emerge were the different value of the gravitational acceleration true and investigate whether any one of them also materializes.  The usual approach taken, even by scientifically literate persons, is the former, especially since they know, with very little variance, that the gravitational acceleration has to be 9.8m/s^2.  It is rare to find people who react by taking the latter path, and to the degree that “scientific literacy” means “knowing” that the variance of 9.8m/s^2 being the correct answer is small, it is unsurprising that “scientific literacy” is often actually correlated with closed-mindedness and politically motivated reasoning.  (which Kahan had found in earlier studies)

This does make for an interesting question:  I had mused about why creationism can be a focal point, but the proposition that 1+1 = 3 cannot.  Quite simply, 1+1 = 3 is too settled a question (or rather, ruled out by too-settled consensus) to serve as a focal point, while, for many, evolution is not yet sufficiently settled a question.  To the degree that, on average, social consensus tends to converge to the truth (even if not always the case), overtly false “truisms” cannot serve as focal points indefinitely–even if they might persist far longer than one might expect, precisely because they are so useful as focal points.  But the more accepted truisms are, the more likely that contrary findings–even true ones–are to be dismissed without further question as simply being “abnormal.”  In the example above, the probability that a lab assistant simply made a mistake that led to abnormal finding is simply too high compared to there being an actual discovery.  As such, this is not worth wasting time investigating further, beyond berating the hapless  lab assistant for not knowing what he is supposed to be doing.  However, to the extent that “knowledge” is simply an awareness of the conventions, it systematically underestimates the variance in the reality and discourages curiosity as a waste of time.  This, furthermore, is not without justification as the conventions reflect “established truths” that are very nearly certainly true (i.e. with very little variance.)  When people become too sure of the received wisdom where the true variance is actually quite high, a lot more legitimate discoveries are bound to be tossed out with dismissiveness.(Underestimating variance in the name of the received wisdom is exactly how the great financial meltdowns happen:  to borrow the line from the movie The Big Short, those who defy the conventional wisdom will be ridiculed by being badgered with “are you saying you know more than Alan Greenspan?  Hank Paulson?”  Well, physics progressed because, on some things, some insignificant young man named Albert Einstein knew more than Isaac Newton–before he became the Albert Einstein.  Physicists took the chance that Einstein might actually know more than Newton, rather than dismissing him for his pretensions.  The rest is history.  (NB:  one might say that the structure of physics as a way of thinking probably made this easier:  Einstein was able to show that he might be smarter than Newton because he showed what he did without any obvious mistake using all the proper methodology of physics.  But then, physics established that it is about the right methodology and logic, not about the “results.”  This is, in turn, what bedeviled Galileo:  he might have gotten the answer more right than the contemporary conventional wisdom, in retrospect, in terms of approximating the reality–although he was still more wrong than right overall–but he could not precisely trace the steps that he took to get to his answers because the methodology to do so, quite frankly, did not yet exist–they would be invented by Newton centuries later.)

The real scientific literacy, one might say, should consist of a blend between scientific literacy and curiosity:  knowing where the lack of variance is real and where the lack of variance only reflects the reflected consensus, so to speak.  Is 1+1 =2 really true, or does it seem true because everyone says it is?  I have to confess that I do now know what the best answer to this question is.  On simple questions like 1+1, demonstrating the moving parts may be easy enough.  On more complex questions, it is far easier to simply tell people, “trust us:  X is true because that is true, and we should be trusted because of our fancy credentials that say that we know the truth.”  Perhaps, beyond some level, truth becomes so complex that a clear demonstration of the moving parts may no longer be possible.  If so, this is the only path for even partial “scientific literacy,” especially since simple broad awareness of the social conventions that are approximately right (i.e. right mean, wrong variance) might be more desirable socially than everyone wandering about looking for real answers without finding them.

Unfortunately, this turns “science” back to a question of religion and faith.  Rather than product of scientific investigation doused with suitable amount of skeptical curiosity, “science facts” simply become truisms that are true because “high priests” say so, with the real moving parts consigned to “mysteries of the faith,” with the potential for a great deal of abuse, including the persecution of the heretics, literal or figurative, most of whom may be cranks, but may also include some real insights that happen to deviate from the received wisdom more than it is expected to.  This is, of course, politically motivated reasoning revisited, with the sober implication that we may not be able to separate “politics” and “religion” from “science” easily.


Coalitions and Variances

One way to think about my last post, about electoral coalitions and how narrow or broad its support base is to think about coalitions is to think of them in terms of their variances.

Let’s imagine two normal distributions.  Both have means of 10 but one has variance of 1 and the other has variance of 10.  For a given number x, you “catch” everything in the interval (x-1, x+1) under the curve.

For the high variance distribution, getting an x closer to the mean does not help you much.  For x = 5, you get 7.4%, for x = 9, 23.6%, and for getting x exactly at the mean, 24.8%.  Getting the “right answer” helps, but not dramatically so.

For the low variance distribution, getting the “righter” answer yields much larger dividends.  For x = 5, you get essentially nothing.  For x=9, you get 47.7%–nearly twice as under the high variance distribution, and for getting the mean exactly right, you get more than 68.2%–almost three times as much as with high variance distribution.

One might consider this the distributional consequences of policy chosen by a party, abstracted (that is, not strictly limited to economic benefits only).  In other words, a high variance distribution provides some benefits to many, while a low variance distribution provides highly focused benefits to few.  The support garnered by a party, in other words, would consist of the those to whom the benefits exceed the “needs”.

I’ve stolen the following diagram from wikipedia, but it illustrates the point:  assuming that the distribution of “needs” is distributed uniformly over the interval (-π,π) and the probability density of party “policy” pdf is f(x), the party captures the votes where f(x)> 1/2π.

overlapped normal distributions

My math has gotten shaky enough that I can’t give a closed form answer to this problem off the bat, but the intuition is sufficiently captured by the diagram:  the interval (-a,a) where f(x) > 1/2π for all x ∈ (-a,a) expands as the distribution of party policy becomes fatter, i.e. its variance increases.  In a sense, this is not a surprise:  it simply another way of saying that you can spread the loot more broadly if you give less to each recipient, on average.  If the goal of politics is to build a broad electoral coalition to reliably win elections, it makes little sense to try to hoard the loot for the few.

Of course, the same high variance distribution makes it less profitable to identify the exact mean of the distribution of the party policy, or indeed, to identify where the exact mean is.  Since a widely disparate groups of people are getting something, with little regard for their exact “ideologies,” it does not matter much either way.  This is how a stable and “dominant” party, one that can win elections reliably, is born.  But those in the middle of the distribution, so to speak (or who wish to move the middle near them, more accurately, in the spirit of the previous post) do not care for attracting voters if the electoral gains are achieved by losing their share of the loot. Reduced variance generates larger subsets of voters whose needs are unmet, or where f(x) < 1/2π.   It is not difficult to conceptualize a situation where the party may move the distribution towards the “middle,” but with increasingly low variance, such that the share of the underserved voters, on BOTH ends of the distribution, increases.

In this sense, one might conceptualize the transition offered by Trump to the Republicans as creation of a high variance distribution–regardless of where his mean is.  In so doing, he is demanding that the regular Republicans accept a far smaller share of the loot than they were with the conventional Republican distribution scheme.  Clinton, in turn, is offering a smaller variance distribution that is steadily moving towards the regular Republicans–but perhaps still too far.

PS.  Obviously, this is still a thoughtstream in progress.  Suggestions are welcome.

Whither Parties?

I think Corey Robin is drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

The problem with the Republican Party is a fundamental problem affecting the root of party politics, especially the way it has evolved in the past few decades in United States, not anything related to “conservatism” or any other ideology.  It is rooted in institutions and the same problem, albeit of less extreme variety for now, is bedeviling the Democratic Party.

The so-called Tea Party in the Republican Party actually consists of two distinct movements that have gotten conflated, both by their own politics and by the outside observers.  They are, in context of 2016 elections, the Ted Cruz Tea Party and the Donald Trump Tea Party.  They share the same trait:  they are outsiders to the traditional Republican machinery.  The crucial distinction is that the Ted Cruz Tea Party has a fairly clearly defined political agenda and is interested in capturing the machinery to use it (and abuse it) to advance their own agenda, regardless of the medium to long term effect on their party or the rest of the political landscape, while the Trump Tea Party is a heterogeneous lot without a clear political aim but is characterized by deep distrust of the existing political institutions.  On the Democratic side, the history of this conflict is rather different and the conflict has been taking place much longer, but is of similar nature.

In the abstract, the power of party institutions comes in two flavors.  First, the formal powers of the institutions allow those who wield it to block adoption of the alternatives they disapprove of while accelerating and otherwise favoring the adoption of those that they do–negative and positive agenda powers, as the political science lingo labels them.  However, this power is fragile:  it can be deprived if an opposing coalition emerges with both sufficient numbers and sufficiently clearly defined aims to the contrary.  No democratic institution (and the same logic applies even to most non-democratic institutions) can force through outcomes that are actively opposed by a very large number of people, especially those with whom they share the institution–such as other members of the same party, other members of the legislature, and so forth.  The more important power of the institutions, then, is the ability of those who control it to define the conventional wisdom, or the narrative, that can serve as the focal point, to convince other participants in the political process who do not have clearly defined goals, preferences, and beliefs that they should want X, even without clear knowledge thereof, because X is the preferred alternative of “the party” or whoever.  In the much ballyhooed and now increasingly discredited (undeservingly so, in both cases) book, The Party Decides, both forces are present:  the party’s choice serves as the focal point for the many, many voters who don’t know and don’t care much, while the formal powers can be used to slap down the handfuls of troublemakers with actual dissenting agendas.

The problem for the party is that while the former, the more formal set of powers, has grown, the latter, the informal foundations on which they are built upon, has been badly degraded.  Mayhew, in 1974, already foresaw the impending crisis for the party:   rival power centers to Congress, like the president, can pursue their agenda without respect for the kind of consensus sought by the Congressional party leaders; ideological and other factions with their own agendas can publicize their aims and mobilize support for them through extralegislative/extrapolitical means; and the changes in technology was making it easier for these rivals to the traditional party politics to intrude on the leaders.  (The entire second half of the classic 1974 Mayhew book is on this topic–but no one seems to remember any of these!)

The considerable formal power of the party leadership is a draw for the factions that are not so much interested in maintaining institutions and the associated powers stable, but in using them to actively pursue their agenda.  The first serious civil war over this in the Republican Party took place in 1990s already, that pitted Newt Gingrich, who, despite the reputation he acquired as the Speaker, was actually interested in building a long term power base for the Republican Party on broad consensus (every one of the Contract with America items drew support from a majority, or at least, a very large minority, among the Democratic members of Congress, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes) against Tom DeLay, whose attitude towards the power might be summed by paraphrasing the quote attributed to Madeline Albright, “what’s the use of all the power of the party leaders if we don’t use it to aggressively advance our ideological agenda?”  Needless to say that DeLay won and this set the pattern for the rest of the GOP:  the ideological faction should actively seek to capture power, use it to advance their agenda aggressively as well as to beat down their intraparty rivals who get in their way.  The Ted Cruz Tea Party is the natural progression of this attitude:  the Republican Party is useful for them only so far as it can be used as a tool to implement their ideological view as policy.  Among the Democrats, the same civil war took place much farther into the past, in the guise of “House reforms,” where the liberal wing took power and purged the Old Guard who were interested more in maintaining internal balance within the Democratic Party.   The conventional wisdom holds that this “strengthened” the Democratic Party.  This would only be true if parties were to be viewed solely as the vehicle for making policy, in much the same manner as DeLay and, later, the Ted Cruz Tea Party conceive parties to be, with the most minimum of winning coalitions.  If the parties are to be viewed as a vehicle for maintaining balance and stability, this was a crippling blow that contributed to the poor electoral fortunes of the Democrats later.

The other Tea Party, the Donald Trump Tea Party, exists on a completely different plane.  It is not made up of ideologues who are particularly interested in implementing a particular program, assuming that they are at all interested in the program.  It consists of those who are justifiably suspicious of those who control the machinery of power, who feel that their interests, even if they cannot articulate them clearly, are not being taken into account by the powerful who are too busy with their own agendas and shutting out all their rivals by using and abusing the formal powers that they control.  Ultimately, it is a matter of trust–we don’t know what exactly we want, we don’t know what exactly they should be doing that they are not, but we know that these guys are not our friends and are looking to cheat us at every opportunity.  And they are right, for the ideologues have no interest in wasting time on those who cannot help them achieve their policy goals.  To the degree that the Ted Cruz Tea Party was mainly organized to topple the power of the incumbent leadership of the Republican Party, both “Tea Parties” made for natural allies–they shared a common enemy.  Once the Ted Cruz Tea Party, or at least its fellow travelers became powerful in Washington, they became the enemy of the Trump Tea Party, as much as the older Republican leaders.  In a sense, the increasingly narrow policy pursuits by the Ted Cruz Tea Party, made it even more blind to the discontent of the Trump Tea Party and may well have earned enmity faster.  The defeat of Eric Cantor, if not an actual member of the Ted Cruz Tea Party then certainly a close ally, by a “Tea Party-aligned” insurgent movement in the Republican primaries in 2014–supposedly a good Republican year–should have drawn everyone’s attention to the peculiar divisions within the Republican Party.   As an analogue, imagine what might happen if Anheuser Busch decided to get rid of all cheap beer in favor of expensive beer that “you want.”  Some people might pay extra for Bud Light because they like its taste, but vast majority of Bud Light drinkers who do so because it is cheap or for any number of reasons other than taste will be outraged and may never buy another A-B product again.

In a sense, Democrats already had their own version of Eric Cantor, already, in the person of Bill Clinton and the DLC.  However, unlike Cantor, the first Clinton moved the Democrats in a different direction.  By 1980s, the Democrats already had a leadership that was interested in using the Democratic Party as the means to advance a liberal agenda, and that was losing them elections–Mike Downey, a congressman from 1980s, supposedly said, “If we wanted to pass a bill that suited the tastes of the average person, we have to pass the Republican bill.”  Bill Clinton and DLC did not argue that the party should deemphasize the policy orientation in favor of maintaining stability, but that it should use its powers to pursue a different set of policy, those that, by the standards of 1980s and early 1990s, may not be so polarizing.  Or, in other words, the Republican bill that Downey was complaining about.  And, as the president, Clinton did exactly that.  For all the apparent animosity between Gingrich and the Clintons, they actually made an excellent team:  Gingrich, in his desire to build a governing party that was stable and enjoyed a broad base of support, was willing to pass legislation that suited many Democrats.  Clinton, of course, wanted to pass bills that met the taste of the average man, which Gingrich supplied.

Notwithstanding the difference in the direction of the policy, the Democratic Party today is, no less than the Republicans, a tool subservient to the pursuit of policy:  for many, the Democratic Party and the direction of the policy that it pursues are indistinguishable.  The internal struggle within the party, then, is not over whether it should be policy oriented or stability-oriented, but simply over what direction the party should pursue in terms of policy.  The folly of DLC and its legacy, for many, is that it focused on the policy that suited the taste of the “average man,” which, in 1990s, was in accord with Gingrich, not that the Democratic Party was reduced to a policymaking tool, in any direction.  The answer by the liberal critics of the current leadership is that it should pursue more liberal policy–not so much that it should stop focusing on particulars of policy questions and start listening and rethinking about how to address the unmet needs.

The catch, then, is that the direction of the policy does not matter much.  The more narrowly a party might be focused on the policy pursuits, the more likely it is to leave many of its supporters behind.  The leftward orientation of the Democratic Party in 1970s and 1980s led to the abandonment of the white working class who backed Reagan, not necessarily because these voters were “conservative” but because they could no longer trust the Democrats to be concerned over their interests.  (It is noteworthy that, vindicating Mayhew, the presidential tide turned far earlier and more decisively than the Congressional.)   The rightward turn by Bill Clinton and continued by Hillary Clinton does not change the fundamental dynamic–they simply alienate a different group of voters.  If the Democrats turn left again, the same scenario would repeat itself.  The trouble with the Democrats, then,  is exactly the same problem as that divides the Cruz Tea Party and Trump Tea Party, at least in institutional terms.  It is a divide between policy-seekers and insurance-seekers, those who want to do things and change the world in their image vs. those who need protection from the changes, including those that the former want to bring upon the world.

The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in the party machinery and its associated powers as tools for making policy.  They want to know what policy they should pursue because, other than making policy and the details thereof, they have no sense of what a party is supposed to do.  Their opponents–the rank and file Democratic supporters who were unsatisfied with the party leaders, much more than the liberal critics thereof–who found their voice in the person of Bernie Sanders in 2016, do not have a clear idea of what specific policy they want to see pursued–at least going beyond some popular ideas that do not collectively make up a coherent”ideology.”  However, like the Trump Tea Party, they also know that the single-minded pursuit of policy by the party insiders is drawing them away from paying attention to their needs and interests, even if they cannot precisely spell them out in terms that can be translated to bills.  Once again, the problem is ultimately that of trust–which has been showing up in the polls repeatedly.

However institutionally analogous they might be, the discontented Democrats do not overlap much with the Trump Tea Party.  This needs to be made clear, as it is critical in shaping the electoral landscape today.  The former are, after all, Democrats, or at least, Democratic sympathizers, while the latter are Republicans or Republican sympathizers.  The relatively few real independents in the electorate might swing between the two camps, but, again, they are relatively few.  The average Sanders voter, for all the disappointment, is a Democratic-sympathizer and he will not turn.  Who might, had things been progressing differently, is a sizable minority composed of the true independents, but the prospects that Trump might lure away many of the independents who supported Sanders seem to be dimming daily, due to his own wackiness.  If the choice is ultimately that of “trust,” Trump has not exactly shown himself to be a trustworthy person for many beyond his relatively narrow band of fans.

The likely failure of Trump, however, does not obviate the inherent problems facing the parties, both of them.  The second face of power, the trust and the associated ability to act as the focal point for the uncertain partisans, is ultimately what sustains the first power.  The overreliance on the first face of power has effectively broken the latter.  When the narrative breaks, it is not easy to put it back together, without some great big myth and a larger than life founding father–an FDR, a Reagan, or a Lincoln.  All the institutional rigging to shore up the first face will not be enough–indeed, it may even exacerbate the erosion of trust and subvert the second face of power even more.  This is the real danger that faces the American party system today that goes far beyond the problems of “ideology.”

PS.  I think a simple way of describing the problem (which, incidentally describes the variance-centric thinking vs. the means-based thinking) is that the dissenting voices in both parties want someone who listens, who recognize that the answers are still problematic, not someone who has answers, even better answers.  Answers, like the means, may be right on average, but often wrong–perhaps, even wrong for everyone (e.g. the mean prediction for the number of heads of a fair coin will ALWAYS be wrong for any single coin toss.)  The important thing, rather than getting the mean right, might be to recognize the variances exist–ie. how wrong the answers are for different peoples.  This is all the more important because, when “the answers” become a narrative, like the standards of “cuteness,” the variance is significantly underestimated.  The correct answer may be .5, rather than .6, but it will still be wrong on the next coin toss.  Blaming the coin for not producing just half a head, rather than one full head or zero head will not resolve the problem.

PPS.  The great insight that Bill Clinton and DLC had was to ask, as the Democratic Party was committed to becoming a vehicle for policy, whether pursuing the policy that was against the wishes of the average man was a good idea.  Now, three decades later, his wife faces an altogether different challenge, where the average man does not know what exactly he should want any more, but does not trust the people who are running Washington to be interested in him.  The attitude taken by both parties was to exploit the average man’s uncertainty and ignorance to their advantage, further subverting his trust.  So, now what?