Sigh. Drew Westen. Again.

by John Sides on October 29, 2011 · 15 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Public opinion

The New York Times devotes additional column inches to the opinions of Drew Westen.  Last time, that didn’t work out so well.  How about this time?

Westen:

Because of their attitude toward authority and hierarchy, Republicans in Congress are more likely to follow their leaders… Democrats on the other hand react so strongly against taking “marching orders” that they can scarcely stay on message even if their political lives depend on it (which they often do).

Fact: Democrats in Congress are as unified if not more unified than Republicans in Congress.  See here or here.

Westen:

…the most popular political figure or institution in the country remains “none of the above.”

Westen again:

If the American people aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid from either side of the aisle, it’s probably because they don’t trust the water from either well.

Fact: When Obama is pitted against a generic Republican candidate or any of the current Republican candidates, only a handful of people, perhaps 10% at best, say “neither” or that they are “unsure.”   Lots of polls are here.  The same is true when a generic Democratic congressional candidate is pitted against a generic Republican (see here).

Fact: When you ask people whether they consider themselves “a Democrat, Republican, an independent, or what” and then ask those who say “independent” or something else whether they lean toward the Democratic or Republican party, only 10% of Americans describe themselves as truly independent. And this number of true independent is smaller now than 30 or 40 years ago.  See here.  And most independents who “lean” towards a party vote loyally for that party.  See here.

Fact: People’s partisan identities have become a stronger influence on vote choice since the 1970s.  See here (gated).

Fact: Almost 3 out of 4 Democrats (72%) currently approve of the job that Obama is doing as President.  See here.

Fact: Among Republicans who recognize the candidate, more than 60% of Republicans have favorable or strongly favorable views of Romney and Perry.  About 75% have a favorable view of Cain.  See here.

It’s true that the large majority of Americans don’t trust the government and also disapprove of Congress and either party in Congress.  But these facts are largely due to a weak economy and to people’s perennial dislike of Congress as an institution.  We don’t need a psychotherapist to diagnose the malady.

Westen portrays the American public as disgusted with both parties and their presidential candidates.  But Americans largely identify with and vote loyally for a major political party.  And Democrats tend to like Obama.  And Republicans tend to like most of the Republican candidates.

In reality, Americans are disgusted with only one party: the one they don’t belong to.  As for their own party, well, the Kool-Aid tastes pretty good.

{ 15 comments }

Andrew Gelman October 29, 2011 at 8:44 pm

But, on the plus side, his name is “Drew.” I like that part!

William Ockham October 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Sigh. Poltical Science Blinders. Again.

Fact: “Staying on message” does not equal “party unity in floor votes”.

I am not defending Drew Weston. I just want to point out that there is more information to consider in evaluating the comparative effectiveness of the two parties in pursuing their core values. The best example of the assymetry is the Norquist no-tax pledge. If you apply the same logic you use for floor votes, then the Dems are more unified than the Republicans are (the count I found listed 3 Dem signers and 13 Rep non-signers). I hope that everyone can agree that it would be utter nonsense to see it that way. On one side of the aisle you have almost total unity against all tax increases for all time. On the other side , there is almost total unity that some tax increases at some point in the future might be worth considering. What ever you think about the relative wisdom of the two positions, there is no way to think that they have comparable outcomes.

John Sides October 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm

William: I think “the walk” is more important than “the talk.” All the message discipline in the world doesn’t matter if the parties can’t hold together on the floor. And the fact is that members of *both* parties stand together when it’s time to vote — the Democrats no less so than the GOP.

Moreover, I have no idea if the GOP has more message discipline than the Democrats. Your tax increases example might be correct, although I could imagine that Democratic unity on, say, raising taxes on millionaires, rivals that of the GOP. But there’s just no systematic evidence that the GOP is consistently “better” at this than the Democrats (or that it matters).

andrew long October 31, 2011 at 2:24 am

“when it’s time to vote.” That’s *exactly* the problem. The first commenter on The Parties are Really Unified post points out the obvious lacunae of the CQ unity score measure: it only counts roll call votes. Of course on the surface that sounds legit, but it’s just not good enough to gauge the current *actual* degree of unity, in the Dem Senate caucus, at least. That’s because Harry Reid only allows a bill to come to a vote when he knows one of two things: 1. that he can’t get cloture but he’ll only have 0-3 Dem defections, or 2. He can get cloture. And cloture these days essentially substitutes for passage, there’s rarely any fall-off on the final vote.

But oh, that path to cloture! A poor, unsuspecting little bill has/had to set out a slow, exhausting march through the lands of Nelson, Baucus, Conrad, and Lincoln! Landrieu, Lieberman, Warner, and Bayh! Oh My! And then a terrifying side trip to the frozen wastelands of Collins and Specter and Snowe! By the time our little bill returned to the well of the Senate, not one person in the chamber recognized him. But he passed, by God. He passed. And Democratic Unity was preserved. You can see it right there in the Congressional Record.

John Sides October 31, 2011 at 8:51 am

Andrew: Of course parties engage in internal deliberations to ensure that members will support a bill. But you don’t think the same thing happens on the GOP side? The same perilous journey you describe in the Democratic Senate takes place in the GOP House, for example.

andrew long October 31, 2011 at 9:56 am

That’s not internal deliberations, that’s a significant minority of senators, acting, both singly and sometimes as a bloc, to significantly weaken a given bill relative to what the *majority* of both Dem caucuses desire. The majority liberal/progressive blocs give in to the minority Blue Dog/Conservadem blocs because otherwise they could not pass anything. That’s simply not unity, it’s just politics. Sure, the same dynamic has exploded in the House this year. Boehner has actually allowed a bunch of votes to go down to defeat, before getting tea party folks on board. Can we call that Unity? I don’t think so.

Contrast all that to the Republican Senate caucus, and previous GOP House caucuses. They are almost always completely unified, partly through fear (which Dems of course do not use to their advantage enough), but mostly because their position is shared by the majority of their caucus. The few stragglers are on the edges, and can be controlled easier. That’s also politics, but it’s closer to actual unity than anything the Dems have shown since the Social Security war.

William Ockham October 31, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Let’s review what we agree on:

1. Democrats and Republicans are more or less equally cohesive on roll call floor votes in Congress.

2. Drew Westen is a very poor observer of American political reality.

3. There’s really no good data on whether or not GOP has more message discipline than the Democrats.

Where we disagree (at least to the extent I understand your position)

1. Your claim: Party unity is completely, accurately, and precisely measured by the data on roll call floor votes.

2. My claim: Roll call floor votes are one, not very interesting, way to measure party unity.

If I may be permitted a small parable to explain how your argument sounds to me:

Late one night I was walking down the street and I saw a man crawling on his hands and knees near a street light. I stopped to ask the man if I could help him.

He said, “I dropped a silver dollar in the park over there and I’m trying to find it.”

I said, “If you dropped in the park, why are looking for it over here?”

He replied, “Because there’s no light over there!”

Just because roll call floor votes are easy to measure, that doesn’t mean that they actually are what people care about when they talk about party unity/messaging/discipline/effectiveness. You do your profession a disservice when your response seems so unconnected to the assertions being made. I am interested in whether or not political science has something useful to teach me about differences (or the lack thereof) in the way the two major American parties work. The fact that both parties hold together on floor votes should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to our current political environment. I don’t think there are very many people who argue otherwise. There are a lot of people who, knowing the data on floor votes, still argue that the Republicans are more effective in pursuing their agenda than the Democrats are. I tend to agree with them in some respects, but I firmly believe that we should test these ideas because finding out whether or not they are true would tell us something really important about our political system.

Political scientists ought to be able to come up with new ways of evaluating claims like this to engage with politically interested citizens instead of shutting down the discussion with dismissive blog posts. Some times I think that if Drew Westen didn’t exist, you folks would have to create him just to have an easy target.

Sebastian October 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Part of this may be a matter of taste:
John – and with him many, though not all, political scientists – thinks that it’s better to evaluate a claim with imperfect data, e.g. data that only captures part of the story, than to just make-up facts. If the best data we have rejects a claim, that claim is considered rejected until/unless someone provides data of at least equal quality supporting the claim. To me that would seem like a reasonable model of doing science.

The other part is about what matters – you seem to think that what people say – message discipline – matters a lot, and you focus on that part of Westen’s story. John, again, with a majority of his colleagues, thinks that behavior (i.e. votes) is more telling and more important than speech, and he focuses on Westen’s claim that “Democrats on (…) react so strongly against taking ‘marching orders’” – a claim that he, imho, convincingly disproves.

That said, the only study on message discipline that I could find quickly
http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/4/0/8/8/pages40881/p40881-1.php
looks at the Estate Tax debate. This would be, if anything, a debate where we would expect higher discipline among Republicans – but coding floor speeches, the paper finds similar levels of message discipline.
So even looking at message discipline Westen is most likely wrong.

andrew long November 1, 2011 at 2:12 am

“a claim that he, imho, convincingly disproves.”

I’ve got to strongly disagree. The Dem roll call votes don’t come close to proving that Democrats take “marching orders” well, or even that they don’t “react so strongly against taking ‘marching orders.’” They only prove that the caucus itself did whatever was necessary to get the bill passed. In most recent cases, that has meant caving on significant policy points, pushing the bill much farther to the right than the Dem caucus *majority* would prefer. Again, that’s not unity. That’s centrist leverage, effectively applied.

Sebastian November 1, 2011 at 2:49 am

Those types of centrist compromises, whatever you may think of them, only work if the people on the extremes don’t defect. They hardly ever do. That’s unity.

That the system gives disproportionate power to the medium legislator is an entirely different topic. Republican diehards hate(d) Snow, Collins, Specter for exactly the same reason you and I dislike Nelson and friends.

If you like more qualitative data, think of how Pelosi was able to push the Senate version of ‘Obamacare’ through the house, in spite of significant discontent among some House Dems – that’s party unity.

andrew long November 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm

re centrist compromises: the centrists are the ones on the extreme. They are the extreme right flank of the Democratic party. They aren’t defecting because in those cases they *are* the center of gravity. At the extreme left end, there are/were only a couple of senators–Sanders and Feingold really, who have actually defected, and usually when their vote is not necessary for passage. But they, and the majority of the reliably liberal senators to their right usually vote with their party NOT because they are unified with the conservadems, but because they are devoted to governing, and rightly believe that passing at least some Democratic policy is better than doing nothing.

Re the Republican senators: yes, they hate(d) them because they are *fighting their own party*! They are practicing DISUNITY!

Pelosi’s very shrewd and effective leadership is a different thing altogether. She had huge numbers, and so was able to pass most votes with the bare minimum necessary, around 218. But the means she always cut at least 40 members free for whatever reasons they had back home. That’s DISUNITY! But it’s amicable disunity, and perfectly acceptable given the broad spectrum of ideological positions in the Democratic party.

William Ockham November 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Sebastian,

Let me be a little clearer. I’m not particularly interested in messaging. I’m more interested in the fact that a political scientist sees a claim (albeit a goofy one, I will admit) that there is a difference between the parties in their attitudes towards authority and their ideological cohesion and responds by quoting statistics on floor votes. The problem isn’t that the data on floor votes is imperfect, the data is irrelevant to this particular claim. It’s easy for me to imagine a world where Westen’s specific claim is 100% true and the data cited by Sides is 100% accurate. That neither you or Sides seems to be able to see that is what I’m calling political science blinders.

Perhaps a real world example would help. For most of my life, I have participated in churches with a high degree of local control. In almost all of them, the final vote of the congregation on any matter of importance was near unanimous. Some of these congregations really were unified and effective in their mission, but others were riven with the worst sort of diviseness. I’ve seen the same pattern in school committees, secular non-profit boards, small businesses, and software development teams. Why would political parties be different?

A political party is, at its core, a coalition. The fact that it hangs together in floor votes in ultimately uninteresting. A political party that doesn’t hang together in important floor votes (like the Democratic party of the 1960′s) is interesting, but we don’t have that situation today. Why bring it up?

Is the Republican party more cohesive and more effective than the Democratic party? I don’t know. There are probably ways to get imperfect answers to that question. But if you stop thinking about it when you see the data on floor votes, you’ll never answer it.

John Sides November 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm

William: I chose not to engage your hyperbole re: my position on party unity scores. But I did write a second post on the subject of party unity. It may be more fruitful to post any additional thoughts you have there.

Amy October 29, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Westen:
…the most popular political figure or institution in the country remains “none of the above.”

But isn’t that true when you consider actual voting? Most of the polls at the link provided sampled only registered voters or “likely voters.” And even when people say they prefer candidate x over candidate y, that doesn’t seem to mean much if their preference isn’t strong enough to make them actually go out and vote.

John Sides October 30, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Amy: People don’t vote for all kinds of reasons, and so there’s no way to know whether the 38% of eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2008 were saying “none of the above.”

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