Category Archives: Legislatures

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:


Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

Brittle House on the Prairie

Nebraska’s state government is a strange and wonderful thing. To start with, it is an institution rife with sexual innuendo owing to its unusually phallic domicile. Wikipedia says the state capital building thrusting skywards from downtown Lincoln is popularly known as the “Tower on the Plains.” Hah. Check out the picture above and you tell me what it looks like. That’s right, it does. Out here in flyover country we call it, “the penis on the prairie.” And swinging below this 400-foot high art deco putz is, no dicking around, a one testicle legislature.*

Nebraska is the only state in the union with a unicameral, non-partisan governing assembly. It is actually these traits rather than the over-compensating jumbo johnson architecture that makes it really, really different from Congress and every other state legislature. It contains no minority or majority party and no internecine rivalries between upper and lower chambers. It has only 49 members, meaning Nebraska has the fewest elected legislators of any state.

No political parties? No House-versus-Senate snit squads? Total membership in the Most Noble Order of Hot Air Traffickers limited to what will fit on the average bus? That all sounds pretty good to most people. But, does it work? As in, could it provide an example to Congress of how to do things better? Well, maybe. Especially if people will let it.

The Unicam has been an eighty-year experiment in a very different sort of way to run government. Sure, anyone can figure out who in the chamber is actually a Republican and who’s really a Democrat. They might run as non-partisan, but state senators generally make no secret of what party they boogie with. Still, while legislators are not scrubbed clean of all political loyalties when they enter the chamber, there seems to be little doubt the absence of the party whip has a certain liberating quality. Republicans have regularly voted for Democrats to be powerful committee chairs and vice versa. Lacking party caucuses, at least inside the chamber, there’s remarkably little of the sort of partisan Hatfields and McCoys irrational blood feuds so characteristic of contemporary governing institutions.

Instead, coalitions have tended to be fluid, forming around one issue only to dissolve and re-form around another. The closest thing to an institutionalized split is an urban-rural divide, but even that’s pretty blurry, with both types generally getting on with each other. Even if it’s not a Unicam utopia, it’s generally been a place with a damn sight more civility and comity than the slander factories often found polluting the commonweal with bluster and accusation under capitol domes.

There are two groups that aren’t too thrilled with these shockingly high lawmaker kumbaya levels. The first is, believe it or not, political scientists. For my crowd it’s mostly an issue of representation and accountability. We’ve repeatedly proven that the sum total of an average voter’s (accurate) political knowledge can be written in large letters on one side of a Starbucks receipt. And have room to spare. What most voters do know about politics, though, is that Republicans and Democrats are different—one is more righty, one is more lefty. Party labels, then, provide voters with a quick, semi-informed basis on which to vote and hold government accountable.

Take away those party labels and people do not suddenly say, “ah crap, I better start reading detailed policy proposals and looking up voting records so I can sort these suckers out.” Nope. Lacking a party label, voters simply search for something else easy to latch onto, which like as not is candidate name. Recognize it? More likely to vote for it. Dudes also seem to get more voter love, so having some manly-man moniker like Duke Studmuffin is probably more of an asset than something like Lucy Limp-Lemon. Out here in Nebraska something recognizably German or Danish is probably a good vote-getter. Something sporting tildes dancing merrily above multiple syllables probably not so much. Being a good old fashioned “Al” is likely a plus. On the other hand, “al-Harambi” isn’t likely to get the vote machines ringing. As a rule, political scientists generally view picking lawmakers on the basis of last name diphthong counts as a poor basis for representative democracy. So until every citizen enthusiastically signs up for Intro to American Politics at the local U, professional scholars of government would prefer party labels on the ballot.

The other group that really wants party labels put back is, not surprisingly, political parties. Or more specifically, the Republican Party. The GOP quite correctly surmises that if the Unicam was partisan it would rule the roost and could get down to the serious business of turning Nebraska into Kansas. Nebraska is a very red state and the number of senators with a known Republican Party affiliation is well north of 30, while known Democrats are not even half that. What drives the GOP bats is the fact that this huge majority often doesn’t do them much good. Senators regularly and routinely wander away from the party line, bouncing back and forth depending on the issue. Republicans have supported expanding Medicaid, ending the death penalty, allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and all manner of other insults and heresies to Republican Party orthodoxy.

In Congress and pretty much every other state, punishment for such partisan backsliding is likely to be certain and swift. It’s a lot harder to primary a party apostate, though, when there’s no party primary. It must gripe them no end, but Republicans in Nebraska have discovered that political scientists are essentially correct—no party labels means most voters are never quite sure what their representatives have been up to. And, at least in Nebraska, that’s turned out to be not necessarily a bad thing. Freed from the hammer of party discipline, senators have been much more likely to pay something approaching reasoned and thoughtful attention to the issues at hand. Fancy that.

This much displeases party grandees, especially our governor the Very Republican Pete Ricketts. Corralling any legislature is hard enough, but feline flocking a non-partisan assembly into lockstep fealty to a party agenda has proven dang near impossible. Ricketts and the GOP are certainly putting in the effort, though, and they seem to be making some headway. They are aided by two things—Ricketts is bona fide billionaire and the legislature is term limited. This means the guv’s deep pockets can help recruit and promote the candidacies of sworn party supplicants, and as senators regularly get term limited out there are plenty of open seats for them to run for. If you’ve got a big enough group of devout partisans with more loyalty to the governor than to the institution in which they serve, chances are you can start to approximate the ideological follies common in every other legislature.

And, sure enough, the little house on the prairie is starting to wobble from this concentrated attempt to make it more partisan. In the most recent session there was a lot more obvious partisanship than usual in selecting committee chairs. The legislature spent an inordinate amount of time debating rules changes that would allow smaller majorities to ram through legislation. Partisan elbows went out in the selection of committee chairs. Levels of irritation, if not outright animosity, have ratcheted up a bit. The Unicam has shuffled closer to the norm of lawmaking by partisan prattle and pretense.

And that’s a shame. What the Unicam has shown is that a non-partisan representative legislature can work, and work well, within the political system of the United States. Rather than trying to get rid of it, it might be a better idea to emulate it. Could that really happen? Sure. If only some people had the balls to let it.

*the “one testicle legislature” label was, as far as I’m aware, coined by Dan Moser, former local NPR personality and very funny guy. You should follow him: @danmoser1961.