We tend to define bipartisanship as both parties openly agreeing with each other in a gauzy spirit of civic cooperation. But there’s another kind of bipartisanship — when each party cynically and tacitly agrees to take turns doing things they denounce when the other party does them. That’s what the parties do on spending and debt (and Supreme Court nominations, gerrymandering and a host of other issues). The cumulative effect is a political culture that says you can do whatever you can get away with. Why should voters care about deficits when most politicians only claim to care about them when it’s the other party increasing them?
Brennan and Lomasky’s expressive voting model tries to explain why politics is largely about style and stories, not substance and numbers. Long story short: Political entertainment is a private good; political results are a public good. As a result, political systems primarily yield entertainment, not results. Jonah Goldberg nicely illustrates these insights in a recent column. Highlights:
For instance, during what was supposed to be the debate period for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which spent plenty on non-pandemic Democratic priorities, the Republican National Committee was silent on it. The RNC did release two statements about it — but only after the bill passed. Yet plenty of Republicans found time to decry the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss.
But here’s the catch. Political parties need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can run on the vow, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between us and the other party.” So what does that leave? Culture-war stuff.
Application to immigration:
[I]mmigration is a perfect example of what I’m getting at. It’s an important issue regardless of where you come down on the specifics of immigration policy. But there’s a reason Republicans and Democrats often invest so much more in the issue than it warrants. It taps into, among other things, questions of race, national identity and the relationship between wealthy elites and average workers. Democrats love the issue because it lets them demonize Republicans — often but not always unfairly — as rank nativists and bigots. It lets Republicans rail about Democratic animosity toward the working class and indifference — real or alleged — to American culture.
I can’t recall if Jonah and I discussed immigration in this interview, but in a sense I agree. If massive deregulation of immigration is on the table, it’s the most important issue in the world. But if we’re only arguing about whether borders should be 98% closed or 99% closed, there’s little reason for either side to get excited.
P.S. My main disagreement with Jonah, strangely, is on Dr. Seuss:
For the record, Seuss wasn’t actually canceled. His estate announced it wouldn’t continue to publish a handful of his least popular and allegedly racially insensitive works.
The estate will cease publication of some books because they’re worried someone somewhere might take offense where none was intended? That’s virtually the definition of “cancelled.” Furthermore, when I actually looked up the list, I discovered that two of cancelled works – If I Ran the Zoo and To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street – were personal favorites. Indeed, I routinely use the expression “if I ran the zoo” when people query my precise policy preferences. So yes, while the budget is objectively a million times more important, I’m still unhappy about what happened to the noble Dr. Seuss.