Hans Noel joins us this week to share ten insights into how politics, campaigns, and political parties work.
Is there such a thing as “the will of the people?” Why do political parties act the way they do? We also discuss Duverger’s Law, campaign finance, presidential elections, special interests, and grassroots movements.
Show Notes and Further Reading
“Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t” in Volume 8, Issue 3 of The Forum.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Hans Noel, the associate professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America” from Cambridge University Press. He has also authored many articles, one of which is the subject of today’s episode, “10 Things Political Scientists Know That You Don’t”, and Hans actually informed me that he is turning that into a book, which [00:00:30] makes me very excited because I have recommended this article many times to many people because I think it is very important that people realize this, so welcome to Free Thoughts, Hans.
Hans Noel: Thanks, thanks for having me.
Trevor Burrus: What prompted you to write the “10 Things” article?
Hans Noel: I was approached by the editor of the journal that it’s in, North Forum, they were doing a special issue on things that political scientists could learn from practitioners and so forth, which is a great issue. I go, “That’s really great,” and they said, “Oh, do you want to contribute something to that?” It’s [00:01:00] really good, but I’m a political scientist, so I don’t know what we can learn from them. I know things that maybe others don’t always know that we could teach the other way, and so that led to that conversation. I said, “Let’s put this piece together,” and it has been very well received. I know a lot of people use it and assign it in classes. It’s getting a little bit older now, which is why I’d like to update it with the book, but I just sort of felt like there’s a lot that political scientists can and should learn from people who are actually doing politics, [00:01:30] but there is a lot of commentary about people doing politics from people who are doing politics that is a little bit ignorant of the things that social scientists have, at this point, figured out.
Trevor Burrus: In the interview article you write, “People would probably be better off if they knew more than they do about a lot of things. Politics might, however, be the last thing on that list.” That seems a strange thing to say. What do you mean by that?
Hans Noel: For me, and for you, and presumably for a lot of the listeners now, politics is really important because we’re really interested in it. [00:02:00] We have other things that are interesting in our lives, so I’m spending the year now in Florence, Italy, as we mentioned a minute ago, and there’s all these great arts, and architecture, and history here, none of which really has anything to do with politics. You can, and should, be able to live a very full life without being that involved in politics. As I go on to say in the piece, as much as we’d like to think you’ll be able to live a lively and happy life [00:02:30] without involvement in politics, we think that people have a responsibility to know about politics or at least to know about it if they are going to participate in politics. We may as well figure out what it is that the experts on politics has, to this point, managed to learn.
Trevor Burrus: That might be the case that people are disappointed in that, though. Some of the things that the experts know might disappoint some people.
Hans Noel: I think that’s definitely true, and unlike in most other disciplines, we think if this isn’t how it works, maybe we should be able to [00:03:00] change it. That’s probably legit in some cases, but it would be useful to have a better understanding of what we think we already know before we start going around saying, “Oh, I don’t like how our system works, and we ought to be different and it ought to be changed, it’s not common sense, those eggheads in Washington don’t know what they’re doing.”
Maybe they don’t, but if we knew better what they think that they do know, we’d be better off.
Trevor Burrus: Let’s start at the beginning of the list. The number one thing is, ” [00:03:30] It’s the fundamental, Stupid.” What is that “thing” that you know?
Hans Noel: That’s a riff on a line from the Clinton campaign in ‘92 … the Bill Clinton campaign, which their mantra for their campaign was “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” meaning let’s keep our focus on the economy because the economy is the thing that we think people are going to vote on, and that’s going to cause them to vote for Clinton, which in fact is what happened. That phenomena, that strategy that Clinton [00:04:00] had in that campaign generalizes. We think in general that the thing that drives most election results is how happy our people … in particular, how happy are they with the big things that the government is responsible for, like the state of the economy.
When the economy is doing well, incumbents tend to get re-elected. When the economy is doing poorly, incumbents tend to get booted out. Of course, when the economy is doing so-so, then you tend to get really close elections, which is what we’ve had in the last couple of presidential elections in the United States.
In that sense, you don’t need to know anything else [00:04:30] about Clinton versus Trump, or whatever else was going on in 2016. The state of the economy was that you’d expect when the incumbent party, the Democrats, who have been in power for two terms, to have a hard time winning. In fact, Clinton outperformed that expectation by a couple of points, but you sort of expect that that would be a year when the Republicans would probably win. That tends to be what happens. So, we really want to over-interpret every election and to all the different nuances of [00:05:00] what happened, and there’s nothing wrong with that because the other subject also probably matters, but a baseline is when things are going well people return the incumbent to office, and when they’re not going to so well they like to throw them out and replace them with someone else.
Trevor Burrus: Does that mean that campaigning doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t matter as much as people might think it does?
Hans Noel: Probably not. I mean, campaigning definitely matters in some ways, and there’s two broad things that campaigns are doing. One is they’re mobilizing voters and they’re getting them to the polls and so forth, and what we basically [00:05:30] have seen is that in most good elections both parties do a pretty good job of that. It’s a little like saying, “Does advertising not matter because the market share between Coke and Pepsi hasn’t changed very much.”
Well, but if one of them stopped advertising, things might be different. There’s a little bit of that that’s going on. The other thing that campaigns do is they can focus and shape the conversation around the state of the economy. Bill Clinton said, “It’s the Economy, [00:06:00] Stupid. Let’s talk about the economy, let’s talk about the fundamentals and push it in that direction.” He could have done something different, and then that might have had some other effects into the direction.
Things matter on the margins, and if elections are going to be very close, then all kinds of other things that are in the campaign probably matter. In 2016, the election came down to fewer than 100,000 votes in three or four states. Those people are going to be affected by the campaign. The magnitude of the campaign effects might be small, [00:06:30] but if the race is close, then it can still matter.
So, we really want to think campaigns don’t matter at all, but they matter in the context of a sort of baseline that is set by its fundamentals: how popular is the president, how is the economy doing, and so forth.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that if they both stop … if they agree to stop campaigning, which of course is this huge pie in sky, all these political ads. I mean political scientists say this is almost wasted money. A lot of people think they have huge effects, and people spend [00:07:00] hundreds of millions of dollars on ads, and it sometimes seems like a destructive equilibrium, which is if everyone stands up at the concert … if one person stands up at the concert, then everyone has to stand up. But, if everyone could just agree to sit down, then we can be relaxing, and then if someone brings a box and everyone else will bring a box, eventually you can have the entire crowd standing on 200 boxes because no one can agree to just, “Okay, let’s take away all the boxes and just stand on the floor.” It seems kind of destructive sometimes.
Hans Noel: [00:07:30] Maybe it is, but one thing that’s important is … empirically we find this pattern that the economy has this effect and the fundamentalists and generalists of the things like foreign policy have this affect. We only observe it in a world in which there are campaigns. It might be that if there were no campaigns at all, then things wouldn’t work out this way.
The other thing about campaigns is that we talk a lot about how there’s like all these ads that it seems annoying and destructive. Again, to people like us who pay a lot of attention to politics and maybe don’t need advertisements [00:08:00] to know what’s going on with politics, it seems like it’s a distraction. One thing that we know is that the more ad campaigns that exist, the more that whole phenomena plays out, the more informed people are about politics.
It might be that while the campaign is not necessary to someone who wins, it does actually inform people a bit about who is running and what they stand for, what direction they are, and that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Given that the cost of campaigning isn’t … it seems like a lot and we talk about [00:08:30] a lot of money, but it’s nothing like the cost of campaigning for a consumer product or something.
It may not be such a bad thing that people have a high attention to campaign. You might worry about the tone, or what if it could be more positive and all of that, but now it seems like we’re on a level of fine-tuning something, like, “Oh, if only some people would just be nicer,” while I’m sure that would be nice, I’m not necessarily … if I were work with you on reforming the [00:09:00] political system, that’s one thing in a way, which put politics as different than some other disciplines. Like, in chemistry this is how it works, but in political science and other social sciences, learning about it we can actually change what we do and we could actually see things in different directions.
If I were working on doing that, I think getting rid of campaigns wouldn’t be high on my list of reforms that I’d be interested in [00:09:23].
Trevor Burrus: Number two, “The will of the people is incredibly hard to put your finger on.”
Hans Noel: The [00:09:30] issue that I’m getting at here is that it’s … we like to think about like, “I took a poll, and the poll says this is what people believe and what they’ve said.” Most people are not that interested in politics, and therefore they don’t actually have well-defined opinions about things. It maybe makes more sense to say people just don’t have an opinion on something, rather than saying that 60% support something and 40% disapprove. If you ask people, if you call them up and say, “Hey, [00:10:00] what do you think about the death penalty? Or, do you approve of the job that the president is doing as President?,” they’re going to give you an answer, but it’s not a well thought out answer. It’s not their fault, like I said before, people have more important things to do with their lives than to know about politics. But, they will give us an answer and the reason why that’s important is because maybe a different context where an election was say, to come up, well then there would be a campaign and there would be a conversation and that might change people’s minds about things.
So, we do a survey and we say, “Oh, you know, 60% of [00:10:30] people approve of the job the president’s doing,” or, “Right now Donald Trump’s approval ratings are really low.” Okay, that something that tells us that he’s not going to win re-election. Oh, but what’s going to happen when the campaign turns around and he starts trying to sell some people on himself? Then, they might change their minds.
It’s not that you can’t ask surveys, or can’t do these things, but you want to realize that the public opinion of people are very responsive to things. Particularly responsive to partisan [00:11:00] messages, so what Republics are telling people Republican voters are going to believe, and what Democrats are telling people, Democratic voters are going to believe. Given that that’s the sort of dynamic, we shouldn’t sort of imagine that public opinion is this independent force in the world that I’ve tapped it by asking this question, and now I know what the people want. Well, they want what they’ve been told they’re supposed to want because they’re only answering the survey questions and the survey questions are asked in an information environment [00:11:30] that was shaped by partisan politicians who are trying to shape that information.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, this issue comes up … I do a lot of work on campaign and finance policy, and it comes up a lot. What I see is kind of an implicit premise that is often unstated when people criticize spending money in elections as they often say, “Oh, the Koch brothers,” or “George Soros are distorting the will of the people,” or, “They are distorting American democracy,” and it seems like the implicit premise there is that there is some sort [00:12:00] of real political opinion will of the people almost Rousseauian and when someone comes in and spends money to speak to the electorate, sometimes that’s distorting, but I don’t even know what that would mean.
Hans Noel: I think that’s right. It’s sort of nonsensical to talk about there being this pure thing that could be distorted. You could still say, “I’m concerned that too much money from these people is going to create an information environment that’s going to steer things this direction, or that direction,” and what we’d like to do is have a [00:12:30] conversation that includes … let everyone have a voice, or whatever, you can worry about that. That’s very different than saying, “We just can’t people spending money. We just need to get at their pure thing.” There is no purer thing, so then we’ve got to be thinking about are we getting a diversity of voices that are affecting the information environment? Are the facts that are in the information environment true? Those kinds of things.
It’s a very different question when, “Well, I just need to know what people really think.”
Trevor Burrus: [00:13:00] Number three … that leads into number three, which is, “The will of the people, not only is it hard to put your finger on, it may not even exist.”
Hans Noel: Yeah, this is an interesting finding that’s been known on political science for a long time, and economics for a long time, that as we tend to think about we’ll just aggregate our people’s preferences, do we want to change our immigration policy to where we make it more difficult for immigrants to enter the country, and let’s see what everyone thinks. Let’s lay aside the question that they maybe haven’t even thought [00:13:30] about the issue already. Let’s figure out what they mostly think, let’s inform them, whatever … and then they want this policy. Oh, so now we know what they think. The thing is, if the dimensions of policy that exist are in any way more complicated than just there’s one question; yes or no, which of course they are, on all issues, then it’s quite possible that a majority might prefer some Policy A to Policy B, but B is preferred to Policy [00:14:00] C, and the C is preferred to Policy A.
This can get a little technical, and I don’t want to get too deep into it here, but the idea behind this was at the era it was an economist working at Rand in the 50’s, it’s kind of interesting in the question of, so, we keep talking about our international competition, and the Cold War, and we keep thinking that’s just to understand if we’re rational and they’re rational, and everybody else understanding what happens when you kind of get things up, so you’re going to get off on this question of like, “Can we aggregate [00:14:30] up people’s preferences into something that’s sort of coherent and rational?” What they said, “Well, we don’t want it to be a democracy, so what should a democracy have?” And, a democracy, so like, one person doesn’t decide everything, that would be a dictatorship, and if everybody wants something, well they should get it. He’s laid out a handful of things that he thought you might expect a democracy to have, and in the end is, you can’t do that.
Trevor Burrus: Right.
Hans Noel: Something that we think is important for democracy is at least clausibly going to fall apart. The thing that’s most likely to fail is we think that a democracy should work [00:15:00] no matter what people want. We should have any possible set of preferences, and we just set them in to go that those preferences are all kind of mushy and they could go in all different directions. Any possible set of preferences should be acceptable, we have to be able to aggregate them up. The truth is, any aggregating system that we have, whether it be majority rule, or some other super majority … anything we do might possibility give us some sort of perverse outcome where the whole country [00:15:30] votes for Donald Trump, but in fact, somebody else the whole country would prefer, but the system didn’t allow them to make that choice and we never observed that. That’s possible. It’s a mathematical fact.
I’m sorry, go ahead.
Trevor Burrus: We saw that in 1912, right? We saw that in 1912, kind of, with Woodrow Wilson.
Hans Noel: Yeah, I think that 1912 is probably the most clear example. The Republican party in 1912 was represented by Taft, who was probably the least progressive [00:16:00] of the major counting candidates progressive, being of particular dimensions. It’s not quite the same as progressively meeting today, but at any rate, Taft. Then he was challenged by Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a Republican president in the past, and he wants to run again, and he’s probably the most progressive again, in the historical context.
So, it splits the Republican party and then they face off against Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, and Wilson wins, but it is quite possible that had Taft or Roosevelt [00:16:30] by themselves been the candidate, that either one of them would have beat Wilson. If you look at the votes across the country, in most states the Roosevelt vote and the Taft vote add up together to about what Taft had gotten previously, so we match. That’s like the Republicans literally are splitting their vote, and there were more Taft and Roosevelt votes together than there were for Wilson. So, maybe we got the wrong president.
One thing to say is, “Oh, well we got the wrong president because the Republic [00:17:00] party was split, and we shouldn’t have let them be split.” But, that’s not completely the answer because well, how do they not split? Should they have nominated Taft? Should they have nominated Roosevelt? Which one was better? Well, they faced off within the party and we got one answer, but it’s hard to know.
I think the end result is, whatever you do in a collective action, you can’t be too confident that it really is what the people wanted. It just depends on the system that you use. It depends on the rule that we had in the application, and there’s not [00:17:30] anything wrong or right about those rules, but different rules give you different outcomes. If that’s the case, if different rules give you different outcomes, then it’s very hard to be very confident about any particular outcome because a different set of rules that are just as reasonable would have given you a different one.
Trevor Burrus: Which leads nicely to number four, “There is no such thing as a mandate.” I’m sure probably Woodrow Wilson might have said something like … giving his inaugural speech in 1912, they don’t have a mandate from the people, but that seems [00:18:00] probably a stretch.
Hans Noel: Yeah, at least what we think of as a mandate is … the people have said that I should be the president, or people have said this policy platform is the one that we should implement, if given all of the squishiness about what people want, and the problems with aggregation, it’s hard to believe that is ever the case.
Instead, what happens with mandates is it becomes a rhetorical argument that politicians use to convince you that you should go along with this. I think maybe we shouldn’t trust it very much, but more, again, political scientists have studied [00:18:30] this directly and said, “What happens when people say that they have a mandate?” We found that they try to create this narrative. There’s a nice book by Julia Azari that argues that presidents use the mandate argument, in some cases, exactly when they need it the most because their political support is the weakest, and instead they don’t have an overwhelming majority, they have majority everywhere else. So, they have to use that rhetorical argument to justify what they’re trying to do. If [00:19:00] they weren’t using the word “mandate language,” that might be because they didn’t need to because their party has control of everything so they can just implement policy.
Trevor Burrus: Like Roosevelt would in the 30’s, or Reagan in ‘84. Not having to say you have a mandate because you won by such a huge amount that it wasn’t really necessary to build it up.
Hans Noel: That’s right, yeah. And, you don’t have to make an argument to the other party in congress that you should be listening to because the other party in congress is a minority already, and your party is there doing what you want.
The key there [00:19:30] is that the notion of a mandate, we should think of it as a rhetorical strategy and not as some kind of true, “Well he won, so whatever he wants to do we gotta do.” That’s a rhetorical strategy. What we do with that as a citizen, then they’re like, “Well if you like what the President wants to do, you probably want to say, ‘All right, he should do it.’ That’s how our system works, and if you don’t like it, then you’re going to be ‘Ah, there’s no mandate.’” It doesn’t really tell us what much to do, but we should be thinking about it as a rhetorical strategy rather than some sort of right of the leadership [00:20:00] because they were represented by a majority through some particular system.
Trevor Burrus: Number five … is it “Duverger [phonetic doo vurg er] or [phonetic doo verg er]?”
Hans Noel: It’s going to be [phonetic doo ver jay]. It’s French.
Trevor Burrus: Duverger, okay well that was number three. “Duverger, it’s the law.”
Hans Noel: The Duverger’s Law is the one of the few things that I think political scientists would be willing to call “a law.” It’s probably not fair to do that. We don’t have laws in the same way that we have Newton’s Laws of Physics, or anything like that. [00:20:30] We don’t have those kinds of laws in social sciences. Duverger’s Law has been called the [“addonist” inaudible 00:20:35]. In fact, it doesn’t really hold up perfectly empirically, but it’s still an important one.
The idea behind this is, “Why is it that we only have two parties in the United States?” The answer that Duverger would propose is, “In the United States we have first past the post-election rules, and so when you have, that is to say in order to win a seat in congress, you just get the most votes in the congressional district, and then you’d get it.” [00:21:00] Places that have that kind of system tend toward fewer parties, and maybe especially even to two parties.
The reason is that say you’re running for office … well, let’s talk about the presidency, which is a similar thing. Say you’re running for office for the presidency, and you’ve got Clinton running, you’ve got Trump running, and you’re like, “I don’t like them, I want a third party choice.” But, now you go to vote and you’re going to go vote between Clinton or Trump, but no, you don’t like either of them, you’d rather a third party choice. As much as you might like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, you gotta be pretty confident they’re not going to win [00:21:30] because you can see the polling and you can see that it’s unlikely that they’re going to win.
Meanwhile, you probably have an opinion between Trump and Clinton, so why vote for the third party candidate when you have an opinion over the two people who are most likely to win and you could affect the outcome in that direction. Duverger doesn’t tell you what to do, it isn’t saying that’s right or wrong, it’s saying that both people are going to think that way. If they’re going to think that way and on both politicians, therefore are going to think that way, so then really steeled politicians are not going to run as third party candidates. [00:22:00] This is the smart thing that both Trump and Sanders did, for instance. Both of them were outsiders and neither of them said, “I’m going to run as a third party independent candidate,” because that wasn’t going to work. They said, “I’m going to run and capture one of the party nominations because that’s what’s going to be a ticket to winning.”
If that’s what’s going to happen, you’re going to reduce yourself down to two parties. People who complain in the United States who say, “I wish I had a third party choice,” I think there’s a legitimate sense that maybe that would be a good thing. I won’t take a side one way or the other on that. But, people who complain about that tend to think, ” [00:22:30] We just need to let these third parties flourish, and we should stop saying nasty things about Jill Stein,” or whatever, if they’re running, “We should be nice about the third party,” in that they’ll win votes. The system is not geared toward having that. If you want to have a viable third and fourth party, as we do have in many countries around the world, you need a different system. Probably a system that is proportional in some way, a proportional representation system where instead the way that you would get [00:23:00] seats in the legislature is by what proportion of the vote you get. If you get 20% of the vote, you get 20% of the seats.
Then, you don’t lose anything and there’s no harm in voting for a minor party, because you can still help them get a little bit. It also matters that some countries have a parliamentary system rather than a presidential system. Presidential system is sort of like a single-member district on steroids, like the presidency is a single seat and you have to win it, whereas in a parliamentary system like in Great Britain or in Canada, where they [00:23:30] do have slightly more viable minor parties that still tends towards two large parties, but you tend to have more viable third parties.
Thereto, though, you can send them to parliament and they can make a coalition government and something in parliament, whereas in our system a third party would just be an appendage that would have to rely with one of the new parties, and they would not be able to succeed at trying to influence the executive, or it’s a problematic system where you’re choosing your executive, you’re choosing your Prime Minister from the legislature, [00:24:00] and the legislature is selecting them. Having a voice in the legislature is enough. Those dynamics, again, the rules that we have affect the outcome there, and if you really want a third party then we ought to be changing institutions. Until you do, the metaphor I like is … it’s a little bit like saying, “I really wish we had better public transit in my city, so let me go down to this corner where the train ought to be there, and wait for the train to come.”
Until you build the transit, there’s no point in going and waiting for the train. [00:24:30] You want to change the institution first and then you can vote for your third party.
Trevor Burrus: Occasionally third parties in America, as you said, it’s not a perfect model and a perfect law, but occasionally third parties like Ross Perot in ‘92, who a lot of people decided that they weren’t throwing their vote away with him getting 20% of the vote, and then 1860 is another example of third parties. It happens. Is there any sort of theory about why at these times [00:25:00] third parties might be more successful, because a lot of people thought it might have been this year, or this last election, with distaste for Republicans and Democrats, and it ended up not being a very big third party year.
Hans Noel: Yeah, I think when you have a clear division within an existing coalition, that’s going to happen. Again, in 1912 we talked about earlier, the Republicans basically nominated two people and so some Republicans thought this was the right person, and some thought that was the right person. Much depends in this Duverger logic. Much depends [00:25:30] on who we collectively think are the top two candidates. Trump and Clinton are the representatives of the two major parties, so they’re the two that everyone should vote for. But, if everyone believed that the race was really a Johnson versus Stein race, then everyone should switch and vote the other way. There are going to be times when the political alignments and shifts and so forth are such that the parties are torn apart a little bit, and there are some uncertainties about the direction, and then that’s [00:26:00] going to lead us to these kind of unusual places.
1860 is a perfect example of that where you’ve got slavery as a key issue in politics that both parties have been trying to avoid, and then the Republican party now has an element that is going to talk about it so you have divides within the North and the South, and meanwhile you already have the existing divisions over the tariff and other things that were divided in the parties. That kind of creates these pockets and it’s not clear at who your partner is supposed to be, [00:26:30] so then the voting plays out.
If you kept voting, if they voted and you saw the outcome and then you got to vote the next day and you kept doing that, which is a little bit like what Poland does, you might eventually get to a place where, “Oh, now we’ve all figured it out, and we’re going to vote this way.” It may take a while to get to that new equilibrium with its clear two parties. There is always a pressure towards two parties in the system, but there is also a pressure towards tearing this apart, because we all want what we think is right. [00:27:00] My policy preferences, they do not match up with any party. I disagree with this party on this thing, and I disagree with that party on that thing.
That’s what politics is about. It’s about coordinating with people, but we don’t like that. We want to be able to say, “I want my own choice.” The metaphor that I like here is about going to buy ice cream. You know, you go for ice cream in the United States and you’ve got your 31 flavors and there’s a million flavors, different things, and sometimes people say things like, “If I have 31 choices of ice cream, why can’t I have [00:27:30] at least three choices for politics?” I can see why people might think that. The difference is, if we go to the ice cream place and I want chocolate and you want vanilla, and someone else wants rocky road, well, that’s what we’ll get. Each of us gets what we want, and we get to take it home.
Politics isn’t like that because we only get to have one president, and we all have to share. So, it’d be a little bit like at the end of the day after everyone’s gone to buy ice cream, we tally it up and we found out which ice cream sold the most, and then we all have to eat the same ice cream. It’d be a terrible business [00:28:00] model, right? That’s why we don’t do that for businesses, but politics is literally … in some ways politics is that set of things that we don’t get to be that way about. We all have to have one immigration policy. We all have to have one tax policy. Even to the extent that we would say, “Well, different states can do different things.” Right? That solves that problem.
We all have to either live in a world where every state can set its taxes, or they can’t. And then each state gets to do what it does. So, [00:28:30] you have to agree on and you’ll have to coordinate in some way. That changes your logic completely. Now it’s not which ice cream flavor is the one that I want the most, it’s of the ice cream flavors that lots of people want, which one do I want the most? That changes your thinking about it, and therefore drives you to different logic when you’re voting and building parties and everything.
Trevor Burrus: You put it very clearly in the essay, “Perhaps the most important to draw from Duverger’s Law is that voting is not about expressing your opinion, [00:29:00] it is about coordinating with other voters, and your institutions determine how you must coordinate.” That says it all right there.
Hans Noel: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: That gets us into parties, which is number six, where you attack the fantasy of it seems every election, especially presidential elections that someone is going to come into Washington and just sit down and put aside partisanship, and just make good decisions for the country. Candidates like to say [00:29:30] they’ll do this, they like to be outsider candidates that say that they will do this. Why don’t they do that?
Hans Noel: We saw that just this week. There’s this conversation about whether or not Donald Trump is an independent or not. It eventually came around to, “Oh, I see this potential for a third party in Donald Trump,” and journalists love this, they really do. But, it’s a little bit of a strange idea that what matters … just do good policy. The reason is, we [00:30:00] disagree on stuff, we really do. Those disagreements would be easier to set aside … if we are talking about ice cream, something where we all can just go our own way, but on a set of things that involve politics, we don’t agree about those things.
Even on the question of let’s let people decide. So, should we have a minimum wage? Or, should we let businesses go their own way? … and sort of buy their own ice cream in terms [00:30:30] of that. That’s a policy decision about they want to live in a world with minimum wage or not, or if you want to let people define what they think marriage is on their own? Or, are we going to impose that as a system?
Different people have different census about this is something we have to impose to have a social sective order, and these are things that we don’t. I don’t think that anybody thinks there should be literally nothing that we have. Okay, we all at the very least follow the traffic laws, and drive on the right side and not be able to rob, and steal, [00:31:00] and harm one another. So, what are the things that we have to … and we disagree. If we’re going to disagree, we may as well disagree in a way that’s sort of about systematic, the thing that parties do is that they encourage people to set aside internal disagreements.
Again, the ice cream metaphor is a question of … there’s your fruit-based ice creams, and then there’s your chocolate-directioned ice creams, and maybe you don’t like either of those, and you’re really frustrated. At the very [00:31:30] least, you could say, “I’m going to go in this direction, and maybe I really would rather have Oreo something, and instead I’m going to end up with a double chocolate fudge, but at least they’re both in the chocolate direction, and I can sort out that compromise there.”
What parties do is they force groups to form compromises in smaller levels, and then they go together and say, “Set aside some of our disagreements for the goal of trying to capture government and implement the things that [00:32:00] we do agree on.” That’s how the system is going to work. Both as a normative thing, it’s okay fine, so let’s accept parties and expect them to do that. Even independent of that, that’s what people are going to do. So, you need to get rid of parties and get rid of this stuff, people are going to coordinate like that. The nice thing about parties is it makes it very transparent, and you know which coalition you’re buying yourself into and which one you’re supporting and which one you’re opposing.
Trevor Burrus: You have a quote from Schattschneider from the 40’s, “Democracy is unthinkable.” [00:32:30] Say, in terms of parties, which we always also hear when you study the founding era that everyone was sort of lamenting the fact that the parties arose, but it seems that they’re necessary.
Hans Noel: The interesting thing, in modern democracy anyway, and you can have a small scale town hall-type democracy of 20 people maybe, but any kind of modern democracy requires that. The interesting thing about the founders is yes, the modern founders said they were, didn’t like the parties, Washington in his farewell address is concerned about factions, Madison’s [00:33:00] worried about factions, and the Federalist papers Jefferson said if he could only go to Heaven with a party, he’d rather not do it. And yet, within a few elections, they were building parties.
Trevor Burrus: Oh yeah, they were at each other’s throats. Yes.
Hans Noel: They were going out and organizing, they were saying, “We need to win this election, so who do I need to win, who are my allies, who are not?” Even if you didn’t want to have parties, people are going to do it. So, we might as well, from a perspective of trying to organize and understand our [00:33:30] politics, we have to accept that we have them and then maybe try to steer them in useful directions, because people out of one side of their mouth say, “Parties are terrible,” and then the other side of their mouth, actually start to organize them. I’d much rather it be transparent that that’s what they’re doing.
Trevor Burrus: I imagine that Jefferson and Hamilton, as leaders of their respective parties, probably would have said something like, “Well the only reason I am doing this is because Hamilton is organizing his party,” or vice versa, which ultimately we shouldn’t [00:34:00] be doing this, but when you have people on the other side who are organizing, you have to do it. Maybe we can get past it someday, and not thinking that, “Nope, we’re never going to get past that.”
Hans Noel: It kind of touches back to this idea of if only …
Trevor Burrus: If only they would stop, that’s the thing-
Hans Noel: If only they would stop-
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Hans Noel: The other side is doing it, I’m only doing it because they’re doing it. I think a lot of the founders had this idea that we talked about a little bit earlier, about there really is some public will, [00:34:30] and I am on the side of what’s in the interest, and then their interest in special interests-
Trevor Burrus: They’re a faction. There are special interests.
Hans Noel: They’re a faction, they’re special interests, but I am not. I think that’s where a lot of it grows. Like sort of just re-appreciate that that’s not really how things work. Then, the naïveté of trying to get rid of parties becomes seen as exactly that naïveté.
Trevor Burrus: I studied the Founding Era a lot, because I do constitutional law here as one of the things, and you look at opinions [00:35:00] about public opinion, which to me are some of the most fascinating opinions around. Not so much your own opinion, but a person’s opinion about how other people form their opinions. Those are usually incredibly biased and partisan to … they’re just being manipulated by their party, whereas my party is not manipulating anyone. They are being manipulated by their donors, well, we’re not being manipulated at all. Of course, you see that throughout all of American history.
Hans Noel: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a good way to [00:35:30] go into number seven, which is, “How most independents are closet partisans.” We talk about independents all the time as this great, rare thing out there with people who just dispassionately look at the issues and have a voting record that goes back and forth between parties, but that’s kind of a myth, isn’t it?
Hans Noel: Yeah, I’m sure that there are some people who are like that, who really is paying a lot of attention and thinking through all of the issues, and building on several of the points that we’ve [00:36:00] mentioned already; if people don’t have the will to find opinions, and if they also don’t pay attention a little bit, and they need the ques to help figure out what they’re thinking, and if politics is organized by elite sense of parties, then when you go to vote, it’s probably not the case that you’re carefully evaluating the two choices. You kind of are leaning in one direction, or another.
One of the things that we’ve found is while it is in the case that more and more people today claim to be independent than used to be. Though if you ask, if you are you a Democrat or Republican, or [00:36:30] you’re independent, it’s, “Oh, I’m an independent.” But, the increase in people who are independent is mostly amongst people who still, when they go to vote, vote consistently for their party and not for the other.
It’s not something that’s very sensible to say, well this huge group of voters out there that are up for grabs, because most of them actually aren’t. One of the interesting things about this, I don’t want to diminish the importance of independence, because there is a change there, and it must mean something. There’s a really great book by Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, it’s just [00:37:00] out a couple of years ago, on the subject of independent voters. What one of the things that they find is that people are more likely to say that they are independent when you remind them that politics can be contentious and some people in politics are nasty, and hostile, and jerks.
Part of it is, people are just like, “People are mean and they argue with each other, and I just want a sensible common sense compromise, that’s what I would like to have,” and so then that’s what they say [00:37:30] that’s what they want, and they say that they’re independent. Of course, what most of us, when we want a sensible compromise, what we really want is we want the other side, that’s crazy, to compromise. There’s some research on this too, there’s a nice piece by Laurel Harbridge and Neil Malhotra, I think, that shines where they asked people, “What do you want in terms of a compromise?” and, what they mostly boiled it down to is they’d like the other side to stop being so intransigent and to [00:38:00] come over to where they are for us.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Hans Noel: So, that’s common sense. People would think that way, and if so, it’s sort of not surprising. But, as a consequence, it’s not reasonable to say, “Most people are independent,” most people have chosen sides, and what they believe is going to be shaped by what side they’re on, so really what we have is this contest between the two sides and therefore it very much matters what the leaders of those two sides decide what the battle lines are going to be about.
Trevor Burrus: That’s the common sense phrase, which aggravates [00:38:30] me to no end, sort of always betrays that. We see common sense solutions to “x”, which of course is considered crazy by the other side.
Hans Noel: Right.
Trevor Burrus: The other interesting thing about independents is the idea of someone who is super interested in politics, but does not have partisan allegiances. It’s kind of … someone who is really independent probably doesn’t care about politics at all, correct?
Hans Noel: Yeah, you think that. Again, [00:39:00] there are surely some people like that. Anybody who is like that, or really cares about politics but they’re kind of “above the fray,” they might be the person who’s listening to this podcast.
For the most part, no, people like that tend to take sides. Even if you don’t think that you’re taking sides, odds are you probably are still tend to find one side to be more persuasive than the other, and therefore you’re going to lean in that direction. Even if you think you’re arriving at an independent decision every time.
Trevor Burrus: Number eight is a provocative [00:39:30] sentence, especially for this town and Washington D.C. where I am, that “Special interests are a political fiction.”
Hans Noel: Yeah, I think it’s built on the topics that we’ve just been discussing over the last couple of items here, in that we like to think there’s some right thing that’s common sense, or is the general in everyone’s interest, and then there’s these special interests that are there trying to undermine things. The problem is like, “What’s a special interest?” A special interest is any interest that is mainly shared by a particular group and not everyone.
We have [00:40:00] diverse society, and there’s almost nothing that we all want exactly the same. Even the things that we broadly all want, we’re still going to have one of them accomplished in slightly different ways. So what is the special interest? The special interests are business leaders, that’s a special interest, and labor groups, they’re a special interest. They disagree on things, so they both have their interests. Pro-Life and Pro-Choice activists are going to be that, just about anything that you can imagine is going to be a particular group, and that’s everybody.
A reasonable approximation of what a special interest is, [00:40:30] is it’s the interest of anybody whose not me because what they want is not what’s in the common good. Of course, whatever I want is in the common good. Again, we’re echoing this notion about common sense principles and compromise.
This is what the founders understood as a problem. The founders said, “We’ve got all these different groups, these different factions, we can’t expect them all to agree, we can’t expect people not to have their difference, so we’ll just try to have a system that prevents them from organizing.” [00:41:00] Political parties do more organizing than Madison imagined would happen in when he was riding his federal stint, but that landscape of people who want different things is sort of how political scientists approach things.
We come to this and say, “There’s a lot of different interests, and how are we going to aggregate them, the other parties, what’s their ideology, what sort of structure is this?” But we approach this question initially as there’s lots of diversity in what people want, and we don’t tend to imagine that there exists some kind of general interest [00:41:30] that if only we could just set aside our biases, we could arrive at a good policy.
We recognize that just about every policy affect help some people, and maybe doesn’t help some other people, and that’s what political conflict is about.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, you’re right that the most important distinction is not between special and general interests, but between organized interests and unorganized interests.
Hans Noel: Exactly, yes. When you think about some broad groups that are maybe thinking policy doesn’t help, and it’s [00:42:00] not helpful for those groups, so, I think this is a classic example of this is the unemployed. There is a large group of people who perhaps face difficult just because they are losing their jobs, but that group changes from year to year. Some people, first are unemployed now, and they’re not later, and so policies that might help the unemployed and help reduce the unemployment level, or whatever else, are hard to do because that group isn’t going to organize it in the same way that say, a religious group is going to organize whether this group always identifies that [00:42:30] way, and they’re going to move, or a racial ethnic group is going to say, “We have particular interests, and we know who we are.” So, organization is important.
Again, cutting back to political parties, there is a certain way, which this whole essay could have been about the importance of political parties in one way or another, because one of the things the parties is they help to mobilize and organize otherwise potentially unorganized groups, and pay attention to policies that might sort of bring a bunch of small diffuse groups … bring them together, [00:43:00] and form a majority coalition.
Without somebody doing that, the interests of certain groups are going to be under-represented.
Trevor Burrus: Number nine, I think grows from this too, “The grass does not grow by itself,” which is the question of what is a real grassroots movement versus what is an AstroTurf, and I think this question is very tied to things we’ve discussed where a lot of people … they think the other side is somehow faking their political coalition, or it’s somehow created by dastardly and special interests who are manipulating [00:43:30] public opinions. All these things we’ve already discussed, whereas my grassroots movement is real and natural. Why is it that this whole attitude is mistaken?
Hans Noel: I think that’s exactly what I meant. I wrote this essay right as the Tea Party was becoming a major movement, and so a lot of people were saying that “The Tea Party isn’t really this movement, it’s just the Koch brothers, or the so and so is fueling this,” and no one really has these grievances. The thing is, you could point to organizers, you could point to groups who are doing things to [00:44:00] mobilize the Tea Party Activists, you could point to Fox News running news stories that were clearly having the effect of mobilizing people and making them think of themselves as part of a movement. So then you’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s happening.” But, that’s always the case. Every movement is like that. The Civil Rights Movement had leaders who were mobilizing and the like.
I think, again, it’s sort of unfortunate that we want to imagine that people just wake up one morning and say, “I’m frustrated, and I’m just going to walk down the street, and if I’m [00:44:30] lucky, maybe when I get to the town square, there will be other people who are also frustrated, and we’ll have a protest.” All protest is going to get organized in some way.
Now, you’ve got the flip side where you have the town hall meetings where people are showing up and it was before to people showing up at the town hall meetings … it was liberals who were saying the only people who are coming are being dragged there by some nefarious funding organization. Now, it’s “No, no, Soros is paying these protestors to go these [00:45:00] groups.” Nobody is pulling out a checkbook and paying protestors to show up at these things, but someone is mobilizing them. They’re saying, “Hey look, there’s going to be this town hall meeting, you’ve got to go down there and talk, and we need you to come and we need to have a larger voice.” So, again, that’s the dynamic of grassroots popular politics requires that kind of seating.
The difference is, if there was nothing [00:45:30] to mobilize, or no public opinion to get down there, then people wouldn’t respond, you’d say, “Oh, we have to go down there and protest against this policy that’s going to raise marginal tax rates on the wealthiest people; I’m the Koch brothers, and I don’t want that to happen.” No one is going to show up, unless there is some interest.
That’s not the message that they have, they sell the message in some other direction and if you don’t like that message, then that’s a concern. But your concern is not just with the Soros or [00:46:00] the Koch brothers, it’s also with the other voters who brought that message and then went and were mobilized by it.
Trevor Burrus: Number ten, is all these things that political scientists know. Number ten is, “We do not know what you think you know,” which is the things that a lot of myths that people believe about politics.
Hans Noel: Yeah, and a big part of what was behind my mind as I was writing this essay, and then I’m thinking about in general on this, is some of the things that we say, including some of the things that we’ve said in the last hour that we’ve been talking, [00:46:30] people are like, “Oh well, that’s obvious.” Of course, the mandate is just a rhetorical thing, and that’s obvious.
A part of that is, yeah, it’s obvious now that we laid it out and we had some people went out and found examples and so forth, but the exact opposite could have seemed obvious to you, too. That’s part of what social science is about, is taking some things, some of which seem obvious, and sorting it out and figuring it out. Is this really what’s going on, or is it not?
There’s a lot of “seems obvious” things that we don’t think are true. [00:47:00] One of the really common ones that political scientists get upset a lot about is this idea that gerrymandering is what’s responsible for polarization.
I think there probably is some kind of gerrymandering … that the way in which districts are drawn does have consequences, but among their consequences is probably not that you have increased polarization. It’s not like you draw lots of safe Republican districts, and lots of safe Democratic districts. If you think about it a little bit, it actually doesn’t make sense that gerrymandering would do this because if I was a partisan person, [00:47:30] I wouldn’t want to draw districts that would be good for both parties, I want to make them good for my party, and not good for the other party. Then of course the other party is going to be pushed back the other direction, and you’re going to end up with changes.
We don’t think that gerrymandering is why polarization, and of course one way that we know that is not true is that if were the case, that changing and drawing districts is what is causing things to become more polarized, then you’d see polarization in the house that we draw districts. Well, we wouldn’t see polarization in the senate, because those districts are states and have [00:48:00] been the same since the beginning. In fact, you do see polarization in the senate, so that suggests that polarization is about something more than just Gerrymandering districts.
People all around think the way to solve polarization is to get rid of gerrymandering districts, and like I say, there might be other consequences of gerrymandering that we’re concerned about, but that is not probably one of them. We have this, “What exactly is the story of polarization?” That, I don’t know. I have a bunch of theories about what might be driving things, but we try to disabuse people [00:48:30] of some things that we think that they do now, but the real tricky thing, and the real point of this last item in the list is, there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know, and it might be that it really matters. How much affects does the economy have versus a campaign? I don’t know exactly what the numbers are, but this is why we keep doing research and we keep trying to find good answers.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe the most common belief, I don’t know if this is true, but belief about congress in Washington D.C. is that everyone is sort of purchased by their ” [00:49:00] special interests,” and money just buys the votes of your average congressman. Even this widely-accepted truism, which I’m sure most people think that political scientists can easily prove, is not easily provable.
Hans Noel: Yeah, one obvious alternative explanation is it’s not so much that I want certain outcomes, so I’m going to bribe you, well I’m going to give money to the kind of candidate who I think is going to do the things that I want. So then, [00:49:30] the pharmaceutical industry gives money to a candidate, and then that candidate does good things for the pharmaceutical industry, or maybe it’s because what that guy would have done, anyway.
There probably is some influence of money. We think most of it is actually more about access than bribing. So, it’s not like if I give this donation from this interest group, or this pack, then I’m going to do whatever that pack wants. Honestly, you could just go somewhere else, if that was the case, right? You could say, “Okay, fine. I know you’re voting that for that thing, it’s going to be bad for my constituents, [00:50:00] I can find resources someplace else on that one thing.”
What’s more likely is the pharmaceutical industry, or whatever the pack is, now they get some access. They get to come talk and influence things. That might have some consequences, but it’s much more indirect.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Hans Noel: It’s more about signaling … of course, politicians are like, “I don’t know what the right policy is. I’ve got a bunch of different things. This group has a lot of money, and a lot of organized, and they say this is a good idea, well maybe I’ll listen to that.” It may not even be a bad idea to have that ability for different groups to organize [00:50:30] and try to impress folks. We talk about lobbying as if it’s some kind of nafarious vote-buying kind of thing, but a logic on lobbying is just here’s some people who know a lot about something, they’re going to camp out in the lobby and try to tell us stuff. Yeah, that’s at least not obviously a problem. So, how big of it if one of the consequences … I think money does have some pretty serious affects on politics, but it’s very tricky to figure out exactly what it is.
Trevor Burrus: It would be a strange way to try and change the world. I often [00:51:00] make an analogy, let’s say there was a billionaire who was a flat-earther, who was trying to change the world and make sure that we could have better policies for a flat earth, it would be a weird strategy to find politicians who do not currently believe in the flat earth position and give them enough money until they believe it, as opposed to finding people who believe in flat earth and then giving them money to try and get them elected.
Hans Noel: Yeah, that’s a much more reasonable strategy. Part of it becomes you don’t even need to [00:51:30] do that because what political parties are doing is they’re recruiting people who believe in a whole host of ideological things, and if flat earth becomes part of what it means to be one of the parties, then you’re going to bring along people who are educated in that information environment and so you end up with flat earth sort of bonus from supporting that ideology. If flat earth were to be that thing. Yeah, I think that exactly makes more sense, but we’ve both described a way now in which money could influence outcomes, [00:52:00] it’s just more complicated and so it makes sense for her to think about how does that work.
Then, what kind of policies should we implement? If it’s the case that the way in which money influences outcomes, isn’t by buying people of straight, but is by steering and shaping things. Then, one thing that I would imagine is the more in which that money goes through central organizations like political parties, where they have to balance off lots and lots of interests, that’s better, whereas [00:52:30] the money is going straight at people and then they can mobilize a flat earth person and just get flat earth people on the party’s platform.
We should have camping finance regulations that don’t undermine parties, but undermine individual contributions for example. That’s one plausible thing, if that’s the case. There’s some research that suggests that that’s what you ought to do. There’s a book by Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner that makes that … I don’t know if that’s right, and I’ve talked to lots of really smart people in campaign finance who don’t think that’s true, I don’t know, [00:53:00] and that’s exactly the point. We’re not quite sure about exactly how it is that money influences outcomes.
Trevor Burrus: When we look at our politics, and I’m not sure if it’s opinions about politics, or opinions about Washington, D.C. have ever been lower than they are today, shared by both sides, and we have Donald Trump, much to everyone’s surprise, and polarization and all these things. One lesson I think people can learn from your excellent essay, and I’m excited about the forthcoming book, is we might be expecting too much from politics. If [00:53:30] we don’t accept it as sort of a nitty-gritty, “This is how we hash out compromises and make deals,” then we might actually have a difficulty using politics for what it is, which is a way of trying to get people with many different interests and attitudes to live together cooperatively, rather than combatively.
Hans Noel: That’s a fair reading. We do have a large expectation. We want things to work, and the same goes beyond politics. “Why is this traffic this [00:54:00] way,” or “Why do these roads steer in this direction,” and, “Why can’t we have a better more effective way of getting to the beach,” and all these other things we just think that somebody -they- did it wrong.
The difference is in politics it’s actually a place where we are able to influence and get involved in outcomes. It’s not just being angry at the system, we could actually participate in it. So, yeah, it would make a lot more sense to appreciate that what we could expect out of it won’t [00:54:30] be a policy that makes you happy, or that makes me happy, but it’s going to be something that’s going to be from an algorithm of the various forces that were allowed in to the system.
Trevor Burrus: I think that’s a good ending, unless there’s something that you think I missed.
Hans Noel: One final thought I’d make for people who are going to be steered towards this article is that a lot of people read it, I think it’s a good piece, I’m glad to have written it, I am writing a book link version, and part of the reason I’m writing a book link version [00:55:00] is because there’s been a lot of demand for it, but also because some of the stuff that’s in the piece … social science has marched on, and we have a better understanding of things, and I would say things slightly differently here.
Which isn’t going to say I can give you all the caveats here, but that’s part of the point about social science, it’s that we keep learning, we keep building on things. Yet, there are some sort of enduring things, you don’t need to be up on the latest research to know what’s going on.
The important thing is that you have access to a political science journal, and the important thing is that you have access to your sophomore [00:55:30] in political science lecture notes in a lot of ways, because there are some enduring things to be found there. If you find out in the article that I wrote, that’s great, but you can also get that from your own education.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.