The Problem of Pendulum Politics

Another must-listen podcast (in my judgment): this one from Ezra Klein, interviewing John Sides and Lynn Vavreck about their new book, Bitter End (also co-authored with Chris Tausanovitch). I’ve starting reading the book, and so far it’s a must-read, but meanwhile I urge all ELB readers to listen to the podcast.

Here’s the central idea conveyed on the podcast: the nation’s politics have reached a precarious position that’s characterized not just by polarization, which has been developing for decades (as is well known). There are two additional features beyond polarization that put the country’s politics in a particularly difficult situation. One is the calcification of polarized views, meaning the rigidity of partisans on each side of the polarized divide (in other words, less persuadability at the level of the individual voter). The other is the knife’s edge parity of the red-blue divide, both nationally overall and in battleground states.

The consequence of calcification and parity combined is that election outcomes turn–and, more importantly, swing between extremes–on a shift from one side of the divide to the other of a relatively tiny number of persuadable voters who remain in the middle.

We can expect this kind of electoral oscillation (what some have called leapfrog representation). to continue, and even worsen as the swings of the pendulum become increasingly extreme, as long as the nation retains its prevailing electoral system. If the system of partisan primaries followed by a plurality-winner general election works as designed, the Blue and Red primaries will produce Blue and Red nominees whose views align with the median voter in each primary, and the general election winner will depend on which side of the knife’s edge parity the overall electorate’s median voter happens to come down. But as the Blue and Red median voters increasingly diverge and calcify in their divergence, then the amplitude of the oscillation between a temporary electoral victory for the median Blue position and a temporary electoral victory for the median Red position will become increasingly large.

If this electoral oscillation between extremes is problematic, then the combined phenomenon of calcification and parity would seem to require reform that aims for the kind of centripetal electoral system I mentioned in a previous ELB blog post. A centripetal electoral system would not choose between two alternatives selected by the median voter of each partisan primary, but instead would choose between two candidates positioning themselves to be more attractive to the overall electorate’s median voter, even recognizing that the center of the overall electorate has been hollowed out by the polarization-plus-calcification process.

The analysis in this blog post necessarily must remain tentative while I continue to read, and learn from, the Bitter End book. Still, I’m sure about one thing: anyone who does listen to Ezra Klein’s podcast with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck should keep listening all of the way to the very end. That’s when Lynn Vavreck expresses deep concern for the future of American politics if we don’t figure out a way to rectify the problem their research has identified.

Share this: