Why the Close Elections?

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In the Washington Times, sometime Reason contributor Bruce Bartlett argues that access to alternative media is spurring the oh-so-close elections we seem to have been experiencing the past several years. Apres talk radio came the Internet et voila:

There was finally a full blown conservative alternative to the decades-long liberal media domination. This, I believe, is behind the tightening of political races. Now both sides can get their message out with equal effectiveness, returning politics to the 19th century norm, before liberals took de facto control of all major media, creating an era of liberal political domination that was a historical aberration.

More here. Bartlett is responding to a Michael Barone col in which Barone posited sharp divisions on basic issues as the cause.

Outside of presidential races, I'm not convinced we are in some grand age of razor-thin contests. Isn't the conventional wisdom that gerrymandering has made U.S. representatives and senators even more bullet-proof than ever? But to the extent that presidential races have been close–and to my mind the most striking thing about the past four elections is that only one has produced a majority vote-getter, Bush in 2004, and not by much–maybe it's consensus on most issues that's providing the dead heats. Dem and Rep presidential candidates have been offering up an echo of each other, not a distinct choice, which might explain the weak vote totals as much as anything else.

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  1. When power shifts from Democrats to Republicans, or vice versa, there are likely to be close elections along the way.

    One foot-dragging trick is to challenge the elections, as if democracy fails when it’s closer than it’s easy to determine with conventional counting methods, as if democracy would be saved by better technology.

    But if it’s close, it doesn’t matter who wins, from democracy’s point of view. It’s 50% either way. What matters is that the count be determinative.

    If one side cheats consistently, then that just postpones the problem to a 49% threshold, but it’s still about half, and they still lose power eventually in the shift, if it goes against them.

  2. Isn’t the conventional wisdom that gerrymandering has made U.S. representatives and senators even more bullet-proof than ever?

    How does gerrymandering help senators? Are they moving the border of Iowa again without my knowledge?

  3. In effect, the entire mass media became a de facto arm of the Democratic Party.

    Bullshit, Bartlett. You make the same mistake you lament: writing crap that only your own partisans will believe. Newspapers attacked Carter and Clinton when they were in office, and the NY Freakin’ Times, the very bastion of liberal bias, helped the White House sell the war in Iraq, and concealed the spy story for over a year. And what about the NY Post and NY Daily News? Maybe Bartlett just forgot that the right wing papers are all sleazy as hell.

    “Whatever else one thinks about these institutions, they are as one in liberal political philosophy.”
    Bartlett has a point here: when the author is a grumpy old far-right critic, everything seems liberal and far left. Another thing he get’s right: the rise of “spin news” like Fox and Limbaugh has given the GOP the ability to mimic the neocon extreme rather than govern from a responsible center right position. I, for one, appreciate the media’s role in challenging the regime in power. I don’t appreciate Bartlett’s 20-years after-the-fact attempt to paint America circa 1970 as some neocon flower waiting to blossom if only the liberals would’ve stopped reporting their liberal viewpoints as fact.

  4. the weak vote totals

    Nick, maybe you missed the 2004 election…

    How does gerrymandering help senators?

    Actually, Kevin Drum has a post up discussing this. There does appear to be increasing self-selection politically (“self-gerrymandering”), with people moving to places where others who share their views live. It’s a slow process but effective.

  5. In the first half of the 20th Century, working reporters were certainly more likely to be sympathetic to the whole New Deal consensus. Editorial boards, on the other hand, were often solidly Republican. Yes, there were Sulzbergers, but there was also Col. McCormick.

    The gerrymander issue shakes out like this: You can’t gerrymander a Senate seat, but you can buy one. The phenomenon of wealthy candidates winning open Senate seats has become rampant. These guys, following Buckley v. Valeo, are the only citizens unbound by our stupid, unconstitutional campaign reform (sic) laws. Winning an open House seat is slightly different. Some districts are solid R, some solid D, and a few are swing districts. In the case of both Senators and Representatives, once you are an incumbent you have little fear of losing your seat. The “close elections” theory would only seem to fit swing House districts and open Senate seats where neither side has an extreme funding advantage.

    We could slide into an era where the margin of majorities in the Congress was thin, and the Speakership and Majority Leadership ping-ponged between each party from election to election. That might not suck, but the aggregate national vote for one party or another is irrelevant to who organizes each House.

    Kevin

  6. Outside of presidential races, I’m not convinced we are in some grand age of razor-thin contests.

    Uh, I hope not too, Nick. I really, really, do. But then I live in Washington State, with a governor who won by 129 voters on the second recount, only after election officials kept ‘finding’ more ballots. Is this the shape of things to come?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_gubernatorial_election%2C_2004

    (full disclosure: I proudly voted for the loony lesbian libertarian.)

  7. Since neither party is even remotely libertarian anymore, does it really matter which bunch of statist crooks wins? There are plenty of bad ideas on both sides, and it’s mostly a matter of which set of bad ideas is less offensive to you personally, and/or which you believe is the less likely to actually be implemented.

  8. Now both sides can get their message out with equal effectiveness, returning politics to the 19th century norm, before liberals took de facto control of all major media, creating an era of liberal political domination that was a historical aberration.

    What era is he talking about? The era where 12 of the last 37 years have seen our nation lorded over by Democrat presidents?

  9. ChrisO: One benefit of competitive elections could be that the first set of crooks can keep the second set honest. When the Republicans were a powerless permanent minority in Congress, there was a lot of “going along to get along.” Once they started to smell a chance of actually gaining the levers of power they became much more effective at blocking bad ideas put forth by the Dems. If we can’t have real libertarians in office, conservatives hobbled by “liberals”, or “liberals” constrained by the cons are the two least worst choices. Either group having a thumping majority would be much worse.

    Kevin

  10. Good point, Kevin. Inertia is certainly preferable to most of the alternatives.

    I wish that Congressmen/women would start duelling each other again. On payperview. At least it would be an enjoyable waste of my tax dollars and a way of ensuring that we have good marksmen representing us.

  11. How does gerrymandering help senators? Are they moving the border of Iowa again without my knowledge?

    Would it even matter if someone did redraw Iowa’s border? Maybe combining it with Wisconsin is for the best.

    I fucking hate reason’s servers. Someone needs to fire Ray.

    FIRE RAY NG!

  12. It is odd that Bruce Bartlett would complain about the liberal media, since the “conservative” media is overwhelmingly supportive of the “imposter” that Bartlett sees bankrupting America from his perch in the oval office.

  13. Yeah, the liberal media was real effective in keeping Eisenhower and Nixon out of office, wasn’t it? Not to mention their strident support for the Vietnam War until it started to look like we were losing in 1968, or their credulous acceptance of every Cold War shibboleth in the 50’s and 60’s.

    The MSM may lean left, but that ain’t the reason the GOP was in the minority for so long – the deep division between the Bush/Rockefeller East Coast country-club internationalist wing and redneck conservatives accounted for a lot of the party’s problems. Reagan figured out a way to make a coalition out of this motley crew, and the Republicans have been riding on that ever since.

  14. Mark B., you don’t get it. The Librul Media helped Ike steal the GOP nomination from Taft, while it rehabilitated Nixon to keep Ronnie from winning in 1968. You have to squint harder at the tea leaves. 🙂

    Kevin

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