The Importance of Time Horizons in Politics
And general considerations on mid-term elections.
Let’s consider the following scenario. It is Wednesday, November 4, 2020. You have just been re-elected to the US House of Representatives. You will be sworn in as a member of the 117th Congress on January 3, 2021. It was a long campaign and the last thing on your mind is re-election. Or is it? You are a Representative from the State of Texas and your next primary election is scheduled for March 1, 2022. And, oh dear, the filing deadline is just barely a year away: December 13, 2021 (but you can file as early as September).
So, you have roughly a year to file to run for re-nomination, but you can’t wait until then to start raising money. That has to start, well, yesterday.
With a two-year term, it is always re-election season.
The above scenario should rather easily illustrate the role the length of terms plays on politics and political calculations. As well as how things like the challenge to the Electoral Vote, Trump’s “stop the steal” rhetoric, and reactions to the 1/6 insurrection could get very quickly baked into our politics.
The ability to fund-raise on “Stop the Steal” alone was a powerful inducement to promoting the story. And the time to start strategizing to retake the House was, literally, right after the election because the narrative for the next campaign cycle would start as soon as the new president was sworn in.
The 2-year term is a great example of what looks like more democracy on paper is actually a detriment. And yet it puts legislators from the House side of the ledger into permanent campaign mode with a lot less time for legislator mode. It also means that instead of one national electorate electing the national government for a four-year term, the reality is that different electorates select the national government for two years at a time. This leads to even less coherent governing.
The opposition party in the House also knows that the prevailing historical pattern is to their advantage. The president’s party tends to lose seats in mid-term elections. From 1934 to the present, the only exceptions to this are FDR in 1934 (+9), Clinton 1998 (+5), GWB 2002 (+8). They also tend to lose Senate seats, although at a slightly lesser rate.
Exactly why this is the case remains a contested question. But to my point about different electorates, it is certainly the case that turnout is lower in mid-terms meaning that the electoral coalitions the make up the two electorates are simply different two years apart (indeed, they would be different, to some degree days apart, let alone years). At a minimum having the entire House stand for election and one-third of the Senate at the midterm point changes the nature of the electoral coalition that brought a given president to power in the first place. It is also a good illustration of how our system disperses and confuses questions of responsibility for government. When voters split their vote between president, House, and Senate (not to mention for state and local offices), who is really responsible for policy successes and failures? This question is made even made murkier by mid-terms.
And, of course, this system means we are permanently on a two-year policy-making cycle that is really focused mainly on the first year or so since primary season starts early in the second year of the term. This is not, to deploy a cliche, a good way to run a railroad. I would note, too, the immediate pressure to fundraise is powerful and very much influences behavior.
It should be noted that not only do Republicans have historical trends on their side, they also have reapportionment and redistricting on their side. GOP-leaning states gained seats after the 2020 census and GOP-led legislatures will have a significant hand in drawing new lines. The net result of all of that will be to the Republicans’ favor.
All of this feeds directly into the behavior of House Republicans and Minority Leader McCarthy. They have limited influence in the House, as is typically true of House minorities, and their minds are already turned to 2022. McCarthy in particulate wants to be Speaker.
I cannot stress enough that the incentives created by a given set of institutional structures will very much dictate political behavior. We are seeing the confluence of two-year terms, primaries as nominating mechanisms, non-competitive general elections, the pathologies of single-seat districts (to include geographic sorting and gerrymandering), a too-small House, private financing of campaigns, the effects of presidentialism, and a host of other variables at play here.
And, yes, the willingness of a subset of voters to accept nonsense–ranging from passively rationalizing away the behavior of party elites to intensively believing untruths. I would add, not as a defense and certainly not to say that this nonsense is unimportant, voters as a rule often believe nonsense. That is a constant, what change is the nature and seriousness of that nonsense. This is why democracy sucks, but sucks less than all the other options. It is also why it matters how a given democracy structures incentives for behavior within its elections.
It is also true that assessments of a given party’s strategic thinking are in two-year increments because every two years there is a new Congress. From the House GOP’s perspective specifically, they won the House in 2016, lost pretty badly in 2018, but did a lot better than expected in 2020. And 2022 is an advantage for them. They have no incentive to do anything other than double-down on the party’s prevailing zeitgeist as linked to its nominal leader, Trump, and his narrative, especially since the base is onboard.
A concluding side-note on incentives: there is less of this nonsense on the Senate side, as the time-horizon for 2/3rds of the Senate is four or six years, not two (note that McConnel tried to steer away from Trump on 1/6, but was not able to get the party to go along). The posturing in the Senate is largely from Senators who want to be president more than those worried about immediate re-election (and from people like Graham who clearly need the attention). This is not to say the 6 years terms are the ideal either, but to note that 6-year terms do change the political calculus by definition.
Having said that, it is also worth noting that Senate leadership sees the mid-terms as to their advantage but is also hopeful that the House will flip. The two-year cycle is central.
Slightly off-topic, but I wonder if the reason for a two year term was that the Founders imagined that serving in Congress would be seen as a patriotic duty, a burden, rather than a lifestyle to be pursued. (My night time reading is somewhat more Uhtred, son of Uhtred, than the Federalist Papers.)
@Michael Reynolds: Yes, I think they thought people would have rather short careers in Congress. But, mostly, they just didn’t understand politics all that well—much less how things would evolve. They believed that the people would pay rapt attention to their local representative and vote him out of office if they didn’t like his voting habits. It just didn’t work out that way.
(I really enjoy the Netflix series based on the books but haven’t gotten around to reading them.)
In addition the founders didn’t understand the role political parties would take and in fact, disdained the concept of political parties. That disdain, probably contributed to their blindness to the later development.
I’m happy to see that you’ve included campaign financing in your list of what ails us. I’d start there if I were to set a strategy for repairing our politics.
But, of course, there’s not a damn thing any of us citizens can do about any of the malignant variables in your menu, especially the liberals. Only the Republicans have agency for change within the structures the rest of us are stuck with.
Everyone else is left hoping they will overstep sooner or later.
Careful now. Using “nonsense” seems an attempt to generalize in order to bothsides the voters in your “constant.” The nature and seriousness of this national moment are seditious lies unprecedented in our nation’s history and this behavior is being exhibited by one subset of voters and one subset only. We’re never going to get about correcting for the perverse incentives in our political structures if we aren’t clear-eyed about what is uniquely dangerous about our current situation that makes such corrections existential to our democracy.
I think this highlights the extent of the philosophical disagreement I have with your larger argument (i.e., structural factors determine political outcomes).
At this point, I am pretty much certain that a Republican Congress will not certify a Democratic presidential victory in 2024.
While I agree that two-year House terms, weak parties, single-seat districts, the Senate, etc., etc. have made such an outcome politically possible, I don’t believe that these structural factors will have made this projected outcome inevitable – or even likely (by themselves).
There are other factors that (I think) are at least as crucial:
* the Southern strategy/ideology of white supremacy
* money in politics, e.g., Citizens United
* the right-wing infotainment complex*
* the cravenness of individual GOP politicans
In short, it’s not the two-year cycle (or any other structural factor) that is central. Rather, it’s how human agency and choice interact with these structural factors.
Structure may set the stage, but is not determinative, I think.
* Including its ability to create and feed a cult of personality. Or, in other words, to do rather a bit more than foster partisanship as normally understood – which is why I think the debate about the “cult” framework was relevant.
I find it odd that you emphasize agency and choice, yet hold on to the cult of personality frame. You’re not the only one who does this.
I’m not arguing people have no choice. But the mass of evidence is pretty clear that an individual’s choice is constrained by a series of disparate menus.
Imagine a really large flow chart that after some number of choices, the precluded options can no longer be seen, much less considered.
I am going to admit to being a bit grumpy when I ask: is it not clear that I understand that? (or maybe I should just sincerely and honestly ask, is it not clear that I understand that?).
Let me clear: my goal most of the time is to explain the general way in which American politics has brought us to this point, which requires noting generalized realities about human political behavior. That’s fair, yes?
The passage from which you quote is simply a recognition that human politics ends being about, in large measure, partially understood opinions and semi-understood solutions.
Not only are none of us immune from believing nonsense, but it is also almost certainly true that all of us believe some amount of nonsense. Accepting that reality is, well, just accepting reality.
@drj: Well, I noted money pretty prominently above.
And I have never said that ideas are irrelevant. I feel like I have been pretty clear that I think that the GOP has become essentially a white nationalist party. That racism and white nationalism have a long history in the US is true (you mention, for example, the Southern Strategy).
These ingredients are all present, but there are structural designs that would have made it harder for the GOP to be taken over as it has by that faction. There are structural conditions that keep us locked into two parties.
Clearly the available pathways to power matter. Incentives matters. Structures matter. It isn’t that we had the best system and then Trump’s cult ruined it.
Who in the world said that? I’d like to have a word with them because it is unwise to speak of inevitabilities in these kinds of conversations.
@drj: BTW, since everyone always feels free to point out where I haven’t mentioned all cotingencies or properly caveated my statements, can I point out that the phrase “The two-year cycle is central” was in the context of comparing House and Senate GOP’ leadership’s behavior as in, “the two-year cycle is central” in explaining the difference between the Senate and the House since the Senate is on a 6-year cycle.
I am sure I could have been clearer (one almost always can), but I think the context backs me up here.
@Steven L. Taylor: Really, that last paragraph is about how the House cycle is central to all of these strategic choices. Surely that isn’t controversial.
I keep seeing this everywhere, but wouldn’t this require give-or-take 100% of the Republicans to break with democracy?
I don’t see that happening. Maybe I am naive, but I think it’s a lot easier to do performative outrage that has no effect than to do something that actually matters.
I think the problems are going to be much more at the state level than the federal level.
@Steven L. Taylor:
But you are implying that because of that two-year cycle there is only one choice that is realistically available to the GOP House leadership and members. See also:
To me, it sounds like your assumption is that politicans by definition only care about the amount of power they can wield in the immediate future, which, combined with the aforementioned structural factors, makes their behavior pretty much inevitable.
The thing is, however, that people in other situations don’t just look out for their immediate self-interest. We don’t generally expect other people to immediately loot everything that isn’t nailed down and live according to the precept “Après moi, le déluge.”
(For instance, I assume you don’t. And, I assume, neither do your neighbors, colleagues, and friends.)
But you strongly imply that this is, realistically, the only course of action that we can expect from our elected representatives. That “Grab what you can as long as it lasts” is the only choice that they are constitutionally capable of making. That politicans, on either side of the aisle, can have no principles or ideals.
I think that is rather simplistic. I also think that it lets the GOP off the hook, as I am sure that quite a few of them believe that the coloreds and the city folk should be kept down. Not out of direct self-interest, but as a matter of principle.
In short, I believe that the GOP leadership and members are able to make different choices. I also believe that they have other paths to power available to them that don’t necessarily rely on white supremacy.
But they simply don’t want to.
They are now (successfully, btw) using the Big Lie as a litmus test. Publically, every GOP Representative is on board.
They have already broken with democracy. Where they are currently in power (which, as you noted, is on the state rather than federal level), they are cementing their break with democracy in actual legislation.
So no, I’m not hopeful.
@Steven L. Taylor: I can understand your grumpiness. I feel vicarious grumpiness when you are called to account for not writing a 50,000 word essay noting all the complexities, caveats, etc. Context clues people, context clues!
Of course, if you did write such an essay, methinks that few people would actually read it. And/or people would read a snippet and then bitch about something that you clearly addressed in the parts they didn’t read.
I say all of this not to ingratiate myself with you, but rather because I am on the receiving end of such treatment in my own little personal/professional sandbox….and it drives me to drink. Anyway, you are patient and decent in responding to these things, even when you are grumpy.
This is exactly the type of thing I was getting at, on a different thread, when I mentioned prediction markets and thinking in bets. I can’t tell when people are being serious when they make bold claims/predictions or when they are merely emoting (note, I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense). Of course, it could be some combination of serious and emoting. Thinking in bets helps clarify this.
So what are you suggesting?
Four year terms in House?
That would certainly relieve pressure on members to start fundraising on their first day in office or even before they start their next term.
Of course that would require a Constitutional Amendment which we all know won’t happen.
My suggestion is figure out a way to get private money out of politics.
But we can’t do that without either amending the Constitution or packing the Court.
There is not short-term, practical solution.
I would rarely want to assert that anything is inevitable. But do I think that politicians are primarily motivated by power and reaction to short-term circumstances and calculations to maintain power? Yes. Yes, I do.
Actually, I think people mostly do. What matters, however, is how they define that self-interest and what avenues they think exist to get them there.
All well and good, but I am not sure what this is supposed to mean. They could behavior differently than they are. This is not, to me, some revelatory observation.
I think they have made a calculation that their current pathway is their best shot at power. They may be right, they may be wrong. But the fact that you want them to behave differently doesn’t really explain away my analysis nor the reality of their choices.
I tend to disagree agree with this position. Also there would be a significant First Amendment issue with any law like that.
I am suggesting that it helps to understand these variables to understand US politics. I suggest this because I think that most people don’t really think about it, or understand the implications, as to them it is just how things work.
While I make no recommendations in the post, yes, if I were waving magic wands I would, at a minimum, align house terms to presidential terms. I might do the same for the Senate, but that was not the topic of the post.
But, of course, I understand this. But, that doesn’t change the effects that having 2-year terms has on electoral politics nor on the strategic calculations that parties and candidates make as a result.
I would politely note that describing the effects of the current constitutional design, or even suggesting that reforms would lead to some set of outcomes does not mean a lack of understanding about how difficult (if not impossible) changing that feature might be.
Can you explain your position? I know some of the common arguments, but I’m curious how you see it.
Hence why it would require an amendment, or a SCOTUS willing to overturn Valeo and Citizens United.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Yes, that’s fair. And, it is clear that you understand the moment and you can be as grumpy as you’d like when I rankle against the fact that your goal most of the time is different than mine.
For me at least, as much as I appreciate how thoroughly you try to explain American politics to your readers and how grateful I am for the understanding I’ve come to through your posting, in the end it seems somewhat pointless to understand without then at least trying to solve. You’re a teacher while I’m a problem solver by trade, so we are both drawn to our respective wheelhouse.
And in the world of troubleshooting, specificity matters. Root cause analysis begins by determining conditions that exist in one cohort and not in another – by determining something happening now that wasn’t happening before. The political conditions you’ve described here – two-year terms, primaries, single-seat districts, gerrymandering, campaign financing, presidentialism – none of it is new. What is new in this political moment is that we are at the point on the trend line of Republican authoritarianism and bat-sh!t insanity where our democracy is legitimately at risk.
Your objective is to fundamentally improve understanding and, for my money, you’re good at it. Sometimes, I’m going to long for answers.
If we are going to limit ourselves to discussing topics for which concrete changes/solutions can be enacted, we’re gonna run out of topics to discuss pretty quickly. Just sayin’…
@Scott F.: Good post. I especially like how you articulate the difference in how you and Steven tend to engage (your respective process priors). This shows good self-awareness and observation (at least from my perspective…Steven may disagree with your characterization), which is rare. I think many a disagreement – within and outside OTB – boils down to a difference in process/engagement, as opposed to facts, such as they are. Hence, arguments that go round and round without any progress or understanding.
Well, the choice seems to be appeal to white supremacy and white evangelicals or change their positions on economic policies.
And applying that question to Democrats is in order. Rather than fight on the ground set by Republicans via those wedge issues plus guns, maybe Dems should only talk about economic policies.
Part of the Dems’ messaging problem is getting bogged down in the fights Republicans want to have, and constructing every message through the prism of identity equity.
There is plenty of research that shows the majority of Americans are socially conservative, but quite left-wing economically.
There are examples of Lefties surviving in deep red districts for many terms, because economic policies tend to override social concerns, IF people feel as though those economic policies are designed to help them rather than targeted at some Other.
This is fair. FWIW, I still think that the level of understanding is so low that we are still (collectively) in that stage of convincing people that there is a problem to solve. And I think the only way to know how to solve it is to understand it.
In short, we share the goal of solving problems, although perhaps see different routes to so doing.
What is new is the culmination of the realignment of the parties that started in earnest in 1994 and has come to its full, polarized fruition. It has made a lot of things that have always been in place function differently (this is part of why I keep being so pedantic on these points).
There are other changes in demography and residential patterns that are relevant.
In other words, I think it is an error to say “everything is the same, except for the recent bad behavior of the Reps.”
@Just nutha ignint cracker: Indeed.
I meant to note: thanks, and kind of you to say.
And to add that I appreciate your thoughtful engagement.
No, but neither is Facebook or YouTube. Neither is conspiracism. But what has changed is innovation in how those businesses operate. It took them over a decade to sharpen algorithms enough to bring us where we are.
It also took the Great Recession and the inequity in the recovery to push people toward conspiracism.
You’re right, we need to find solutions. But any solution has to work within the structural limitations that are poorly understood by most people.
People fear systemic change without acknowledging that just because the political system itself doesn’t change every interrelated system does evolve. That evolution is only noticed in hindsight most of the time; even partial understanding of the impacts and implications well after that.
I wish a workable solution to that could be easily revealed, but it isn’t.
Indeed. Also the long-term effects of increased inequality in wealth distribution over the last 30-40 years.
One of the ironies of the moment is that a lot of the discontent that is motivating Trump voters has been created (or, at least exacerbated) by Republican-preferred fiscal policies.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Yeah, and part of the issue with that persuasion is… wait for it… partisanship. And the evidence of partisan motivated reasoning occurs here as well.
Most of the argumentation here is of a much higher quality than most other places. But in some ways, it serves to obscure the moments of partisanship that exist between the warranted claims.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Ha! That’s kind of where I was going in the post I was typing as you responded. The partisan-based comments that we often see here are partially predicated on: well, if they are willing to vote for economic policies that obviously hurt them, then it must be because of bigotry.
The term unconscious bias irritates me, because what makes bias relevant is the unawareness of motivation by the agent. But it can be interpreted that way–Americans seem to resist economic policies if they are discussed as social policy designed to help minority populations.
I suspect it’s a commitment to color-blindness as a proxy of their interpretation of American ideals, specifically self-reliance and individualism rather than out and out bigotry. AKA structural racism.
That commitment, because it’s based on values, is resistant to data. They see racism as a motivation that leads to a certain set of overt behaviors, rather than a compilation of smaller behaviors incentivized by the system. Based on
that, it should be easy to see how they could be frustrated by accusations of bigotry. To them, they’re just holding onto a virtue.
So the only option for the economic Left is to change its messaging strategy.
@Steven L. Taylor: The OTB search engine returned no hits on “Martin Gurri.” I’m curious what, if anything, you think of his thesis in Revolt of the Public. I’m a lightweight wrt political science, but his thesis strikes a chord based on what I know about human behavior (individual and group).
Not only does his thesis seem to capture much of what’s happening in the global political scene, but it also seems to capture what is happening wrt the US political parties – what you write often about the top-down vs. bottom-up structure and the primary process.
Any heavyweight thoughts?
@Steven L. Taylor:
I grant that this is true. But, even in this regard, some specificity is warranted.
If the first step to collectively working to solve the problems in American political structure is to convince people there’s a problem, the question becomes who is it that still needs convincing?
Certainly, not the political minority who is advantaged by the vagaries of the US system. Since their objective is power (as you’ve made clear), they won’t see any problem at all with what benefits them until such time as the government falls.
And I’d contend the political majority that is disadvantaged knows the system is rigged, and even if they aren’t discerning enough to know it’s the play and not the actors that is to blame, what agency do they have either way short of protesting (only to be branded as the unruly mob)?
So, I’m back to where I started. It’s going to have to get worse before it gets better, so let’s hope the Republicans keep doubling down. If a partisan mob storming the Capitol wasn’t enough to convince those who could be convinced, sadly, then I’m fearful of what it will take.
@Mimai: I must say that I’d never heard of Martin Gurri, who isn’t a political scientist. Reading the description of his book, though, he seems to be making a point that has been routinely accepted in blogging circles since the days when Steven and I started blogging in 2003. Blogs and other social media platforms have given people a way around the gatekeepers and, while credentialed people have often done pretty well, so have a lot of crackpots.
@James Joyner: That is one point of his thesis. And no, it is not a revelation per se. But his thesis is more comprehensive and integrative than that.
Indeed, I think some of the push-back I get on that issue is that to accept the thesis is to admit that we are all affected by partisanship.
well, if they are willing to vote for economic policies that obviously hurt them, then it must be because of bigotry.
Indeed. But the reality is, of course, people, on balance, over-estimate their understanding of economic policy, and their own circumstances.
For that matter, if we all voted primarily on raw economic calculations on taxes and such, a lot of the folks on this site should vote GOP. But, the reality is that people don’t simply vote their economic interests. For example, while it riles some commenters, religion and social values are important to people and that, too, shapes voting.
Having only two viable choices and learning partisan ID largely from family certainly matters as well, as I note incessantly.
@Mimai: While I am pretty sure I have heard the name, I am unfamiliar with his work.
@Scott F.: My generic answer is this: less than ten years ago, when we were writing A Different Democracy my co-authors and I noted that in the US there was no discussion of electoral reform in the public (and there wasn’t).
In the last four years there has been a growing, far more general conversation about minority rule in the US, the need for electoral reforms (RCV gets discussed, but unfortunately mostly in single-seat districts), adding states, adding Justices, and other potentially real changes.
Enough agitation that change is needed and pressure will grow in Democratic circles to initiate do-able reform, especially (or perhaps only) if that do-able reform is seen to be in Dem interests. You can’t get to that point if people don’t, in general, understand the need and what potential actions exist.
(To use your analogy, getting the public to understand the play needs to be rewritten in parts, rather than just assuming new actors would make the show better).
DC statehood is closer now than it was four years ago (although I am not holding my breath). It would be a minor step in the right direction, but even small steps are better than no steps.
Despite all my seeming focus on academic minutia, I think I am being extremely practical: we need to build enough understanding in the general public so that elected officials know what options exist and are motivated to try and institute them.
Beyond that, yes: it will take an escalation of the assault on democracy well beyond 1/6 to get the public’s attention and that is a dangerous game to play (and one I fear).
I will go a step further on this: I think a lot of folks, including diehard Trump voters, know that the system is not actually representing national interests well. They don’t know how, and they don’t know why, but they know things are working correctly. This discontent is part of what is allowing populists like Trump to access power.
The reality remains that con artist failed real estate developer from NYC who did not understand one whit about government or the office he pursued was never going to solve the problem of coal miners or of small towns that haven’t kept up with globalization. The GOP is not capable of being effective at representing Wall Street and blue collar workers–it is only our nutty rigid two-partyism that allows that to even be attempted.