3 11 2010

I am not a pundit.

And yet, as a political scientist (however mediocre), I am nonetheless required to say something about the first Tuesday in November in an even-numbered year.


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Aw, shit, you want punditisms, you know better than to check here. So how about some real political science?

There’s a rationality problem in voting. No, not in terms of does-my-vote-count sense—there are reasons beyond that of affecting in an absolute manner the outcome of an election—but in terms of the intransitivity of the vote.

To wit: Voters may prefer A to B and B to C. So far, so good. But it is often the case that voters may also prefer C to A.

Transitivity would lead one to expect that A > B > C, but the possibility (and in many cases, actuality) of A > B > C > A renders voter preferences irrational. There are any number of variations on intransitivity, but this is the basic set-up.*

This is hardly always the case, of course. A > B > C  (w/A > C) happens often enough; that we live in a (largely) two-party polity and that those parties hold primaries arguably erases the third option, such that one must choose either A or B.

But the argument could also go the other way: If your preferred candidate loses the primary, you might decide to vote for the opposition party’s candidate rather than your own. So you support Mike Castle in Delaware  who loses to Christine O’Donnell  in the Republican primary, and are so unhappy with O’Donnell that you end up voting for Chris Coons.

On the naked-individual level, this isn’t necessarily irrational: Castle > Coons > O’Donnell, such that the loss of Castle’s candidacy simply moves you to the next step.

But on the party-member level—and this is how the primary system can work against transitivity—it makes no sense. You vote in a primary because you support that party, but in the end vote against your party.

And as you move up levels, the transitivity problems increase, not least because you’re aggregating not only within districts, but aggregating across districts. Add in winner-take-all seats, and the interpretation of results is a muddle.

Oh, and add in people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing—don’t understand even the basics of policy and legislating—and good night, Irene.

Now, this is not just sour grapes. I’m not happy about yesterday’s results, but the muddle holds in almost every damned election.

Does this mean elections are useless? Nope. They do provide a kind of check on those in power, and marked preferences clearly do emerge at some levels. Whatever the problems with electoral representation, it is better than having no say in one’s representation.

Elections > no elections. Full stop.

Still, elections are simply the ticket to the show—terrifically important, insofar as one needs to get into the arena before one can play—but the play is the thing.

And here I think of George W. Bush’s first term. Here’s a man who clearly lost the popular vote and only won the electoral college after a lengthy (and still disputed) legal process, but who nonetheless sought to govern as if he had won overwhelmingly. (Which, come to think of it, he arguably did win ‘overwhelmingly’: he didn’t have to share the Oval Office.)

I like almost nothing about GWB’s administration, but I give him credit for the boldness of his moves in the years 2002-2006. He was the president and he governed as president—disastrously, from my perspective—but he was very effective in rolling past and over any opposition.

Was this because Bush was so strong or because the opposition so weak? Both, likely.

But both Bush’s presidency (the strong and the weak parts) and Obama’s first two years demonstrate that if you want to get something done—war in Iraq, health care reform—you have to keep moving, keep rolling past and over any opposition.

Stop moving—see Bush and Social Security reform—and you lose.

Of course, it’s all so much more complicated than all of this, and many more dimensions than can be captured in any regression or mathematical model; even Machiavelli recognized that boldness was not always enough to overcome Fortuna. Or a determined opposition.

So, Mr President, how determined will you and your party be?

(*See William Riker’s Liberalism Against Populism and his discussion of ‘the paradox of voting’ for a more elegant discussion of in/transitivity. And for real wonky quantitative pol sci discussions, check out The Monkey Cage.)