Michael Barone has an excellent if inconclusive summary of the big picture concerning the present political situation that goes beyond who’s winning and who’s losing. Ultimately, the point is simple: in the present day politics, parties are not position to “decide” much of anything by force of insider consensus imposing its will on the outsiders. This begs the question, though: why not, especially if it has been able to do so for decades?
There are two dimensions that undergird the power of the party insiders: one is subtle, but much more important, the other is rather more obvious, but relatively inconsequential. The obvious but relatively inconsequential is their control over the institutions and their ability to set the agenda through them. The trouble with the institutional control is that, while it allows the insiders to exclude from the “menu,” if you will, the potentially popular alternatives that they do not want, its continuation depends on the willingness of the masses to continue playing within the framework of the institutions that they dominate. If you will, the attitude of the insiders would be: “they may not like our food, but if they want to eat out, they have no choice.” But the reason that the voters, most of whom are political outsiders, are willing to play along is a combination of ignorance, disinterest, and trust, which together comprise the more important even if subtle reason why parties get to decide. The masses don’t know what other possibilities exist off the menu, they are not sufficiently dissatisfied with what is on the menu so as to actively seek outside options, and they are sufficiently trusting of the restaurateurs to believe that they are being given reasonable, even if less than ideal options. If they can be sure that what the restaurateurs offer is indeed bad for them, and that a better alternative exists outside somehow, they will jump the ship not only with certainty but with alacrity.
The second aspect of how parties can maintain power explains the paradox of parties that Keith Krehbiel has kept raising for almost two decades now: under a majority rule and a unidimensional policy space, there is nothing that stops the floor median from becoming the winning alternative. Why doesn’t the floor median always win? The answer is that the spatial model is a poor depiction of the real life politics. (yes, if you know me in real life, you’d also know that I’d been saying a version of this for a decade also) Within the spatial framework, all voters know exactly what they want, relative to each and every policy alternative. There is a clear majority consensus that they want the floor median, relative to every possible alternative, and no institutional manipulation (in a unidimensional space, at least) can steer them away from what they know that they want. In other words, if a restaurant refuses to offer what a majority of its customers actually want and if the latter know where to find it, there is no good reason to expect that the restaurant would be able to keep those customers.
Now, there is no guarantee that these customers would necessarily be lost to a competitor, but there is no requirement that they should keep eating out. This has, of course, happened before–when the turnout was in decline between mid-1970s and 1990s, when all attention was focused on what’s wrong with the customers who stopped eating out. Perhaps the problem was the restaurants that changed their recipes, rather than the customers? In a sense, this offers a slightly different explanation of why and how politics polarized over that exact time period (although with a bit of the chicken and the egg causality in play): the restaurants polarized, because they decided to offer sharply contrasting recipes. The customers who did not like the new combination dropped out, while those who did began to pay more. This has a perfect analogue in the evolution of the beer industry since 1990s (which I had blogged about in the past, but can’t seem to find), where the industry began to shift towards craft beer that can be sold to s relatively small set of consumers at a high markup and began to de-emphasize mass produced swill that may be hated by no one but not especially beloved by many and could only be sold at low markup if to large audiences, like Bud Lights. Unlike the politics industry, the beer producers are not constrained to offering just one brand: Bud Light remains, despite its shrinking market size, remains the best selling beer in United States. Anheuser-Busch recognizes that not everyone will pay a premium for a beer that they like–either because they don’t really like a certain taste, they don’t care for spending too much money on beer, they had an odd taste, or because they don’t know (or any other reason). They need an outlet and A-B can money off of that outlet.
In principle, there is no good reason that a political party cannot offer a craft beer and Bud Light at the same time. Anheuser-Busch is not a “beer” company. It is a profit-making company, and beer is simply how it makes money. E.E. Schattschneider said, and I paraphrase, that the Democratic Party is not a “liberal” party. It is a coalition that seeks to win elections. “Liberalism” is simply how the Democrats win elections, much the way Anheuser-Busch makes money through the selection of craft beers that it offers. But the idea of a “craft beer” being sold by Anheuser-Busch, the seller of the Bud Light, generates backlash. The idea of “liberalism” (or any other concretely defined set of policy or a collective reputation, narrative, or such) being brought by the party of Jim Crow generates a far bigger backlash. Popular control, or more accurately, disproportionate influence from the more active parts of the elecrotate, exerted through the primary process, multiplies the impact of this backlash. A homogeneous, exclusionary menu for the entire chain is necessarily the result, with the due consequences in less competitive markets.
The bigger consequences of the polarization are felt among the consumers/voters, however. With the Bud Light taken off the market, a large segment of the consumers who may not necessarily fit neatly into the resulting spectrum of beer tastes (i.e. who have “no taste”), who may be cheap and underinformed, but are nevertheless justifiably discontented, is the consequence. One might even say that, without meaning to be contemptuous, that these are alcoholics, who ARE in fact dependent beer to survive. (This is meant in all due seriousness: beer may be a luxury good that people might be able to do without. Government policy is not. For all libertarian wet dream, huge segments of society are crucially dependent on a set of functioning government policy that appropriately meets their needs at the reasonable price, and this is literally a matter of life and death for the needy populations, as many of these political Bud Light drinkers are.) In the end, both Republicans and Democrats alike are shrugging their collectively shoulders saying “let them drink craft brew,” when they cannot afford either of their brands. (I note with some irony that the localities that gave rise to Trump voters were also the hotbed of the Whiskey Rebellion, back in the days of the Washington administration. Some things don’t change.)
The real problem for the parties is not simply that the Bud Light drinkers are not merely rejecting the beers that they offer, however. They may not necessarily know what their taste in beer “really” is, but they do not, with justification, trust that the beer companies would even try to meet their needs. When the consumers trust the corporation, they might be willing to be led, to gamble on what the corporation offers, even at a price. Thus the insiders can set the agenda and profit on the margins because the masses, even if not perfectly happy, will not rise against them: hey, let’s try this slightly expensive new beer from A-B, instead of Bud Light. Without this trust, the customers are lost–they will not tolerate your agenda-setting: the bastards at A-B got rid of Bud Light! I’ll never drink their crap again, even if they bring back Bud Light.
Does this change signal a fundamental transformation of the beer industry, eh, parties? I don’t know. It may be true that having the Bud-Light consumers provides the big breweries with a bit of fallback position, a cash cow: there are many, if heterogeneous Bud Light drinkers who will drink their swill as long as it is cheap, which will generate revenue with which A-B can buy out craft breweries, one at a time. But there seems no logical reason that there cannot be a coalition of craft breweries that don’t cater to the Bud Light consumers, who can even garner additional profit from their lack of association with the cheap swill (which seems to underlie the present HRC campaign’s strategy of assembling only “respectable” voters, while abandoning the working class whites, including many of the Sanders voters.) Indeed, if true, this direction of the Democratic Party would imply a simple continuation of the present trend, not a transformation. Trump as the Republican nominee is indeed representing a change, but not necessarily a profitable one: there is a good reason why A-B is de-emphasizing Bud Lights–because it is not as profitable. Working class whites, like Bud Light drinkers, are “cheap.” They don’t vote too often, and as such, don’t yield profit the way “ideological” voters do. Like Bud Light ads with bikini-clad women, Trump might generate a bit of PR magic, but it can only go so far. If the price of this shift, as it seems at the moment, is a backlash against the craft brews currently offered by the GOP, it can only demolish its electoral profits.