Some Thoughts on Americans Elect, Polarization and Gridlock

In January I was invited to speak at a roundtable hosted by Americans Elect–a nonpartisan presidential nominating organization.  As you may know, Americans Elect (AE) has garnered quite a bit of attention this election cycle from academics and pundits alike (see here for a Colbert Report bit and here for a forum at Vanderbilt).  Joining me on the panel was Americans Elect CEO Elliot Ackerman, veteran South Carolina political reporter Lee Bandy,  and my colleague at the College of Charleston David Gillespie.  I wanted to direct readers to David’s excellent article at the History News Network on Americans Elect and their prospects for changing American politics and in particular our party system.  I also wanted to put in a plug David’s most recent book–Challengers to Duopoly–which examines the important role played by third parties.
David’s comments on Americans Elect have been fairly optimistic in nature.  This optimism is revealed by the title of his article at HNN: Americans Elect Could Become a Viable Political Party.  My views on AE are more reserved and perhaps a tad skeptical (though I’m a supporter of their overall mission).  The difference in our views is attributable, I suspect, to the various effects Americans Elect might have and which of these possible effects the two of us have focused on.  Where David has discussed AE as a participant in the “market place of ideas” (where third parties, like the progressives and populists, have been rather successful), I’m more interested in the effects of AE on political polarization and legislative gridlock.  My interest in these factors stems from personal academic interest but also because AE is motivated, according to their own accounts, by these two factors (see their about section).  My overall message is relatively simple:  it’s not clear to me how AE’s non-partisan presidential nominating convention will alleviate these two problems.  Here are a few of my thoughts:

First, if AE delegates select a Democrat or Republican for their presidential ticket (which is very likely), that individual is required by AE bylaws to choose a vice-president from the other party.  The logic of this bylaw seems to be that a Republican president and a Democratic vice-president (or vice versa) somehow equals a moderate administration.  This, of course, ignores both the role of vice-presidents in our constitutional framework and the history of bipartisan presidential administrations.  Though the vice-president is first in line for presidential succession, he or she has few formal powers other than breaking tying votes in the Senate (a rare occurrence).  History is replete with VPs who lamented their bland existence (Roosevelt comes to mind).  In addition, there have been two examples of vice-presidents belonging to parties opposed to that of the president (1796, Adams and Jefferson; 1864, Lincoln and Johnson).  Neither worked very effectively toward “common goals.”  Moreover, party unity does not make a unified or “collaborative” administration.  Though they shared a party label, John C. Calhoun famously resigned as vice-president over Jackson’s support of federal tariffs.  In sum, I just don’t buy the logic that a president and vice-president of rival parties somehow equals a moderate or bipartisan White House.

Second, Americans Elect clearly states that part of the aim is to break gridlock, telling their members “you have the power to help break gridlock and change politics as usual.”  Now it is true that polarization is a cause of greater legislative gridlock (see Binder 2003 or McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2006).  But I don’t see how a non-partisan president can break gridlock when confronted with a partisan House and/or Senate.  Gridlock is hard enough to break even when the same party controls all three institutions.  If anything, a non-partisan president may have the exact opposite effect (exacerbating gridlock).  Single-party control is a solution to the constitutional barriers Madison and his colleagues erected, in other words.

Third, the rather simple fact is that polarization is the norm in American politics–not the exception.  Brendan Nyhan has made this point a few times on his blog (see the figure to the left from Poole’s VoteView).  As the norm, polarization is something very difficult to break or reverse.  So the question we should ask is: Why polarization?  (note: I highly recommend Sean Theriault’s excellent book “Party Polarization in Congress” on this topic).   Political scientists have some good answers to this question.  One is a process variously called geographic or partisan “sorting.”  Though there is some disagreement about whether redistricting has caused greater polarization, there is at least some consensus that at the state- and district-level, voters with similar demographic and socio-economic characteristics are grouping together resulting in more politically homogeneous locales (though see this post at TMC for a dissenting view).  Reforms in Congress are yet another source of greater polarization.  Simply put, the formal power of party leaders has expanded in the House and Senate since the 1970s while the power of committee chairmen–as a rival source of legislative power–has declined over the corresponding period.  Party leaders are able “stack the deck” in their favor leading to roll-call votes that more cleanly pit Democrats against Republicans.  Finally, it’s also generally known that the parties’ platforms have undergone significant change or “ideological realignment” over the past four decades.  The South has become homogeneously conservative and Republican dominated while the northeast has become homogeneously liberal and Democratically dominated (see here for an excellent video on this).  In sum, I’m just not sure how Americans Elect’s non-partisan presidential nominating process alleviates these things which political scientists know (or very strongly suspect) have caused the growth in polarization over the past thirty or so years.

Let me finish by saying there are some unclear strategic voting implications of Americans Elect’s success.  I suspect that–if anything–AE has a pro-incumbent bias.  I’m assuming that individuals who voted for the incumbent president–in this cycle, Obama, but I think effect flips from incumbent to incumbent–are probably less enthusiastic about AE’s nominating process than individuals who are seeking an alternative candidate.  This assumption is supported by AE’s own data, as all three of their “most supported candidates”–Buddy Romer, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman–are on the political right.  Thus, if AE selects a member from the non-incumbent party, this will probably have the effect of disrupting a relatively simple two-candidate election and create incentives for strategic voting .  Overall, I would say this complicates our presidential elections (not that complexity is inherently bad, but I just don’t see what this improves about polarization and gridlock).

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