Legislative Politics

How Much Partisanship is Fake Partisanship? Or, What’s the Matter with California?

John Sides May 11 '09

CA dwnoms.png

California’s fiscal problems, and the state government’s struggles to fix them, are well-known. What exactly explains the policy gridlock is a different matter. Seth Masket has an interesting post on this subject, based on his new book.

In short, it’s not just supermajoritarianism (i.e., that budgets require a two-thirds majority to pass the legislature). That requirement didn’t used to be so onerous. What has happened is that, as in the US Congress, the parties in the CA legislature have polarized. See Seth’s graph above.

Why have they polarized? Seth argues the local party organizations are increasingly dominated by ideologically minded activists:

bq. California’s political parties are run at the most local level by informal networks of activists, donors, and a few key officeholders. These people work together to pick candidates they like and provide those candidates with endorsements, money, and expertise that can put them over the top in the next primary election, and they deny other candidates these same resources. Because these actors are relatively ideologically extreme, so are the candidates they select. If a politician they put in office strays too far from the principles they hold dear, they can deprive that politician of her job by withholding funding, by running a more principled challenger in the next primary, or, in the most extreme cases, by organizing a recall.

In other words, it’s not that certain activists put pressure on parties to nominate certain candidates. The activists are the party, at least at this local level. So the pressure is bottom-up, rather than top-down. And it has little to do with voters themselves, who are not as motivated by ideological concerns.

Moreover, Seth argues, incumbents would actually prefer a non-partisan or weakly partisan environment. They actually don’t relish partisan fisticuffs. In this piece, Seth finds:

bq. …this article takes advantage of a particular natural experiment: the state of California’s experience with cross filing (1914–59), under which institutional rules prevented outsiders from influencing party nominations. Under cross-filing, legislative partisanship collapsed, demonstrating that incumbents tend to prefer nonpartisanship or fake partisanship to actual ideological combat.

It would be interesting to examine other legislative bodies: perhaps the apparent “fight club” is mostly staged for an audience of local activists?