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Parties become popular by taking unpopular stands

Summary:
This Matt Yglesias tweet caught my eye: While that sounds plausible, I believe Yglesias is mistaken about how politics works. There’s more to politics than public opinion polling on this or that issue; the intensity of support also matters. Here’s a simply numerical example: Suppose that the GOP contained 50% of the public, and the Democrats were also 50% of the public. (I’m ignoring independents just to make a point.) Also assume: 1. Roughly 25% of the public is religious conservatives. Assume their policy views are endorsed by only 35% of the electorate. In other words, their views are unpopular. 2. Roughly 25% of the public is economic conservatives who oppose high taxes on the rich, higher minimum wages, etc. Again, let’s say only 35% of the public agrees with

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This Matt Yglesias tweet caught my eye:

Parties become popular by taking unpopular stands

While that sounds plausible, I believe Yglesias is mistaken about how politics works. There’s more to politics than public opinion polling on this or that issue; the intensity of support also matters. Here’s a simply numerical example:

Suppose that the GOP contained 50% of the public, and the Democrats were also 50% of the public. (I’m ignoring independents just to make a point.) Also assume:

1. Roughly 25% of the public is religious conservatives. Assume their policy views are endorsed by only 35% of the electorate. In other words, their views are unpopular.

2. Roughly 25% of the public is economic conservatives who oppose high taxes on the rich, higher minimum wages, etc. Again, let’s say only 35% of the public agrees with them.

It looks like it would be a mistake for the GOP to adopt conservative positions on religious questions and economic policy. These positions don’t poll well.

But that view ignores the intensity of beliefs. Many of the religious conservatives may not agree with economic conservatives on tax issues, but it’s the moral issues that really motivate their voting. Vice versa for the economic conservatives. You could add in a few other issues where GOP voters might have passionate beliefs, such as opposition to restrictions on gun ownership, or favoring a ban on marijuana. Even if the positions don’t poll well, they may offer an opportunity for the GOP to add small but highly motivated voters to their “big tent” coalition.

The Democrats do the same. Recent polls in (left-leaning) California suggest that the affirmative action proposition on the ballot is not very popular, but the issue may be important in motivating a significant portion of the Democratic “base”.

I think of the GOP as the party of people that resent progressive views on a wide range of unrelated policy questions.  They have “conservative” views on everything from economics to traditional religious values to foreign affairs to criminal justice.”  There are no “rank and file conservatives”.

To some extent all parties include “strange bedfellows”, but that seems truer of the GOP than the Dems, and much more true of the GOP than the Libertarians or Socialists.  This tendency might be less pronounced in a multiparty parliamentary system with proportional representation.  But when there’s a two party system, at least one party (maybe both) must include lots of people with little in common.

There’s a name for political parties that only adopt highly popular positions: “Losers”

PS.  Here’s a general rule of thumb.  Be skeptical when a pundit (including me) says that a political party needs to fix its problems by adopting positions closer to their own view on the issues.  I almost never recall a pundit saying to a losing party, “Your mistake is that you agree with me on this issue; you need to start opposing my view on this issue.”

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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