Can Median Voter Theorem explain political polarization?

When I began dipping my toes into game theory and rational choice theory, like many others, I learned about the Median Voter Theorem (MVT). This theory is essentially the Hotelling’s Law of voting, in which two competing politicians, on any given issue, will adopt views similar to the median on a spectrum of views of that issue, in order to maximize the number of votes they receive. Any movement toward either extreme, so the theory goes, would allow the opponent to gain the votes of centrists by moving in the same direction, but not as far, effectively gaining all voters on the other extreme AND the centrists. According to MVT, the most successful politicians should, if rational choice theory can be said to apply to elections, represent (if not hold) the views closest to those of the median voter, who should be relatively “centrist” even if extremist voters outnumber centrists.

This is, rather dramatically, not the case. History and current events offer a plethora of examples: a brief look at the makeup of the US government implies that centrist voices (and especially centrist voters) are outnumbered and drowned out. If MVT has any effect at all, why is increasing political polarization such a hot topic?

What are the possible explanations for this? Is MVT fundamentally wrong in its core idea, and is voting in fact not possible to model in rational choice theory? I do not think so, so here are several ideas, some old and one novel, about why the application of MVT does not lead to centrist politicians winning most elections in practice:

  • Voter preferences are polarized. If voter opinions are not only not normally distributed, but are in fact gathered at two poles with no centrist voters, MVT may actually function, but it would predict that centrists would lose a lot (because the median voter would be at one pole or the other). The idea that voters resemble a barbell graph more than a normal distribution may be very salient, because many issues are dominated by extreme views. However, the voting population is demonstrably more centrist on some issues, so this cannot fully explain the difference between reality and MVT.
  • Third parties spoil things. This hearkens back not only to Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, but also to the influence of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader on presidential elections. Third party participation does not spoil MVT, because it still fundamentally follows the idea of rational choice theory about elections, but it complicates two-candidate models.
    • Further note: multi-party systems are vulnerable to extremists. The possibility of invasion by extreme views is higher in multi-party systems, because if multiple centrist parties compete for median voters, extreme groups gain power disproportionate to their constituency.
  • Primaries spoil things. This is an old idea in US politics: in primaries, you have to run to the extremes, and then in the general election, run to the center. The very logic behind this idea, and any empirical evidence of it, proves the viability of MVT, but it does introduce complications to any model of it that fails to account for the two different elections many politicians must win. Also, we must remember to factor in the fact that politicians have a negative utility in abandoning past positions (especially recent decisions) of seeming inauthentic or losing their base.
  • The Electoral College spoils things. Outside of US presidential elections, “swing states” may not have the same power, but in the US, candidates would be “rational” to pursue votes in swing states much more assiduously than they do in states that are nearly sure bets. This is only narrowly applicable, but the campaign focus on swing states indicates that candidates do at least campaign rationally (see academic studies or news reports), in that they seek votes strategically and not indiscriminately.
  • Voter turnout skews MVT. In elections without mandatory voting, those who are less committed to the issues at stake—who are more likely to be centrists—tend to vote less than those who care greatly one way or another. Therefore, voting may be more about mobilizing one’s base than appealing to centrists. (Note: this is not an endorsement of mandatory voting, which can allow more zero-sum games in politics and the enforcement of which seems worse than the problem).
  • People do not vote based on rational weighing of stances. This would be a troubling conclusion, and suggests that people may align with parties and candidates based on motives other than matching candidate views to their own. While this is certainly true to some extent, MVT can still predict the overall “centrism” of politicians. Also, just because many people have an irrational method of weighing stances does not mean that the aggregate result does not mean that the utility of favoring centrist positions would not be positive.
  • Voting is multidimensional. Since single candidates represent dozens if not hundreds of salient issues in a single election, voters are forced to compromise on some issues in order to win others. This multidimensionality is not a counterargument to MVT, but an extreme complication, because “median” politicians could lose based on voter preference not within an issue, but between issues. That is, a politician can gain voters by recognizing weighting each voter’s stance by how likely that issue is to change their vote. This can be observed in the fact that referenda tend to follow MVT in a more straightforward fashion than elections. It is also a possible explanation for the rise of certain coalitions: no matter if constituents have deep disagreements on many issues, they end up aligned behind the same candidate based on inter-issue preferences. This may have been a major motivation for federalization and separation of power: different decisions are constrained to certain elections, allowing voters to communicate on each individual issue more clearly because of the reduced multidimensionality. The game theory on multidimensional voting is well developed, but still has some complications that have not been specifically argued:
    • Complication: Special interest compared to general interest. Multidimensional voting allows politicians to promise concentrated special interest to voters on certain issues in order to gain votes rather than appeal to general interest across many issues. The implications of this have been shown in game form, especially in special interest influence on enforcement. In this, public choice theory proves the idea that governments tend to favor dispersed costs and concentrated gains.
    • Complication: Singe issue voters. This is a subset of the above, or at least related to it. In multidimensional elections, voters obviously have to weigh issue preferencing. However, if a voter decides that they would choose a candidate so long as he agrees with the voter on a single issue, then on that issue, the single-issue voter has a hugely disproportionate influence on the candidate’s opinion on that issue. The reason: if the candidate runs to the center on that single issue, he risks his opponent capturing the vote of all single-issue voters on that side by running slightly more to the extreme. The Nash Equilibrium of such a situation would depend on how many single-issue voters there are at either extreme (I assume here that single-issue voters are not centrists, based on examples shown below, but I am open to argument) and how much of the non-single-issue constituency is ceded by focusing on single-issue voters, but it is distinctly possible that issue preferencing, especially the power of the ultimatum implied in single-issue voting, makes it rational for politicians to run to the extremes. Interesting examples of this phenomenon include background checks for guns, defense spending, and possibly marijuana legalization. (Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement of these ideas—whether the majority is correct is a different question from whether the majority idea is enacted by politicians).
      • The single-issue voter idea continues to fascinate me. Most of all, it fascinates me how little (apart from some basic preferencing models in the literature) I can find that either theorizes or empirically examines the specific influence of single-issue voters and voter preferencing. I hope it is out there, and I just can’t find it (so send it to me if you have found one!). But if not, is anyone out there a public choice theorist who wants to help me figure this out?

Thanks for sticking with a long read, and please give me feedback if you have any examples of this phenomenon or another angle on MVT!

Dutch politics, after the elections

Now that the Dutch elections for the Lower House are over, as well as the unprecedented international hype surrounding it, it is time for a few pointers and reminders.

Turkey

Prime Minister Mark Rutte used the crisis with Turkey to his greatest advantage. When the crisis just loomed he escalated, helped of course by the increasingly hysterical reactions of the Turkish authorities, particularly the President.

I have not been able to get figures, but it is rather normal for foreign ministers, including from Turkey, to visit the Netherlands and address their nationals, also for political purposes. This is just the consequence of allowing Turkish people to have dual nationality and -in the Turkish case- also double voting rights. With the referendum in Turkey coming up, it is only logical to allow proponents and opponents to campaign as well.

This said, any thinking person would strongly object to the plan to give even more power to the already way too powerful Turkish executive. Dictatorship looms (please read Barry’s much better informed blogs on this).

Politicians almost always choose the short term over the long term. Certainly four days before elections. Still, the downside of Rutte’s actions are immense, as they also serve the interest of Erdogan, enabling him to play the victim of the ‘racist Dutch’. It might even pull the deciding number of voters into his camp. That would be bad for Turkey, and for Europe.

Chances for Turkey joining the European Union were already small, but have now disappeared completely. (Which I personally do not mind much, but others differ, including many in Rutte’s own party).

Populism

Another topic of international concern surrounding the election was the rising populism and its alleged ending by the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom did not become the biggest party, yet he did win votes again. An increase of a third actually, from 15 to 20 in the 150-seat Lower House. His party thus became the second largest party in parliament.

He was never going to be Prime Minister anyway, as all parties had said before the elections they would not collaborate with him. This was important as the Dutch electoral system has a low threshold, which means many parties can enter parliament and no party has ever won a majority of 76. It demands parties to negotiate a governing coalition. After Wednesday at least four parties are needed for such a majority, which will take months.

There is a less-noted, other ‘bad populism’, which includes the largest winner, the Green Left party. This party represents are the radical environmental left, led by a young good looking leader who has been able to attract a lot of young people, in particular women, according to electoral research. There are also other populist parties elected, most notably the party for pensioners, the Islamic party DENK,  and the Forum for Democracy, the intellectual version of Geert Wilders’ party.

Coalition building

It remains to be seen whether Green Left will get a seat in government, given the large differences with the other parties who will be negotiating the new government: the centre right VVD of Rutte, the social liberals of D66, and the Christian democrats.

This process is slow and boring for most people, except for political junkies like myself. So chances are you will not hear about Dutch politics until a new government has finally been installed. Do not be surprised if this does not happen before Christmas.

Some thoughts on Rio de Janeiro elections

I’m a great fan of the Lord of the Rings, both the books and the Peter Jackson movies. Overall I believe the movies are pretty faithful to the books. There are, of course, some differences, but I generally accept the explanation that adapting a book to a movie is hard and some changes have to be made. There is, however, a whole chapter from the books absent from the movies that I believe shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, be warned, spoiler alert. The said chapter is called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In the movies, when the hobbits return home from the War of the Ring, hardly anything has changed. It seems like the Shire has not been affected by the events in the world around it at all. In the books, however, Saruman the White, the evil wizard, escapes to the Shire after been defeated in the battle of Isengard. He ends up governing the Shire in secret under the name of Sharkey until the events of “The Scouring of the Shire,” when the hobbits return and lead a rebellion, defeating the intruders and exposing Saruman’s role. I believe this chapter is important because it shows that evil is not somewhere far from home. We may fight a war overseas, but evil may end up lurking really close to us.

This last Sunday Brazil had municipal elections. The Workers Party (PT), the political party of impeached president Dilma Rousseff and the almost convict ex-president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, was the great loser. Some cities will still have a second round of votes, but it is clear that in the process PT will lose a great number of prefectures, city halls, and with it many commissioned positions as well. In sum, the process of rejection that started with the impeachment goes on and well. Or almost. In Rio de Janeiro the elections will be decided in second round between Marcelo Crivella and Marcelo Freixo. Crivella is a licensed bishop of the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and Freixo is a member of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). Crivella was Rousseff’s ally almost until the very end, when his party decided to vote for the impeachment. PSOL is a dissent from PT that left the former party in 2004, believing that Lula was too pro-market in his policies.

Saruman took refuge in the Shire and changed his name to Sharkey. The inhabitants of the Shire were too unaware of the events of the War of the Ring to understand what was going on. Saruman was the White Wizard. He was supposed to be good, but ended up being one of Sauron’s greatest allies. Freixo is Saruman: he may try to hide as much as he wants to, and even change his name, but he is an ally to the worst things in Brazilian politics. He poses as someone pure (or White), but just like Saruman he actually has a robe of many colors, depending on who he wants to impress. PT changed its name to PSOL and is now trying to hide in my Shire. I hope the cariocas will not let it happen.

PSOL is popular mostly among the young, artists, and rich people from rich neighborhoods, so I don’t actually believe Freixo will become mayor. But their plan is, following Antonio Gramsci, to create a cultural hegemony and thus to win elections on the long run. PT did exactly this, but it seems like Brazilians are beginning to understand that socialists care only for other people’s money and little else. PSOL even has liberty in its name, but of course they aren’t going to offer any liberty to the people. Slavery can be defined as forced labor to someone else’s benefit. And that is also the exact definition of socialism: you work, they take your money and they give it to someone else. As Alexis de Tocqueville said it, “socialism is a new form of slavery.” I hope people in Brazil, and especially in Rio, will realize it.

A short note on minorities and the Left

Lately I have been thinking about how minorities affect the Democratic Party here in the US. Basically, all minorities vote for the Democrats in national elections, but minorities tend to be conservative culturally. This has the effect of pulling the Leftist party waaaaay to the center (a fact that makes it hard for me to complain about Democrats’ pandering tactics).

Sure, the GOP will always be the party of old white people, but if the Democrats’ left-wing is essentially neutered due to minority voting blocs within the Party, who cares?

The fact that the Democrats pine for minorities explains why the US has never had a very powerful socialist movement. Socialists will often blame “neoliberals,” “capitalists,” “reactionaries,” and other assorted boogeymen, but doesn’t the minority insight make much more sense?

This minority insight has also got me thinking about demographic changes in Europe over the past 30 years. Basically, Europe has had a huge influx of immigrants since the fall of socialism. In the old days, Sweden was for Swedes, France was for the French, Germany was for Germans, etc. etc. This  mindset helps to explain why European states had such overbearing welfare states and why economic growth was so limited up until the late 1980s.

As immigrants moved into these welfare states, the Left-wing parties began to pander to them. This had the same effect as it did in the United States: culturally conservative voting blocs diluted the Leftism of traditionally Left-wing parties. As a result, these welfare states became less robust and economic growth became attainable again.

A big underlying point about my musings on this subject is that socialism relies on nationalism in the area of popular politics and policymaking. Without Sweden for the Swedes-type sloganeering, socialism becomes ridiculous to the masses. This underlying point, along with the straightforward fact that immigrants dilute socialist power (economic, political, and cultural), suggests to me that libertarians who pay close attention to popular politics should relax when it comes to the fact that minorities don’t find libertarian ideals all that appealing.

Voter Participation: Something Has to Be Done

In California, 70% of eligible voters are registered, and 47% of those turned out in a recent election. Thus about a third of those who could vote do so. These are dismaying numbers.

Dismaying because they are too high.

Why? First, some more dismaying numbers:

When Newsweek recently [2011] asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Too many ignorant fools are casting votes. People who believe that minimum wage laws create wealth, free trade destroys wealth, or clergymen should be forced to marry gay couples, to pick just a few examples. We need to bar these ignoramuses from the voting booth.

How? For starters, ditch the 26th amendment to the Constitution and the raise the voting age to at least 30. Get the 20-somethings out of the way; too many still believe in free lunches.

Second, change the 24th amendment to require poll taxes rather than forbid them. There is no justice in forcing non-voters to pay election costs.

Third, institute stiff qualification exams. Voters need know the vice president’s name, understand the Cold War, identify July 4 as Independence Day, and a whole lot more. Informed voters would be mostly immune from pandering demagoguery.

Disenfranchisement will lead to alienation and rebellion, some will say. Perhaps, and this could be alleviated by a phase-in of the changes. But then voting will become a privilege that young people can aspire to, as they might aspire to a corporate management position.

Another objection: my proposal is elitist. Of course it is! If there’s one thing we desperately need in this country, it’s a reversal of the egalitarian sentiments that have poisoned so much public discourse. We need to encourage and acknowledge the best and the brightest. Ignorant fools should not be allowed to operate dangerous machinery or pull levers in voting booths.

A Victory for the Big Center

“To my left, the wall,” Argentina’s President Cristina Fenández de Kichner (CFK) had expressed some months ago. Many of her detractors agreed with her on this opinion, while some others doubted where exactly to place the wall -and how far. The label of “Populist” might be subject to controversy as well, but everyone will at least agree on one single definition: her political strain could be everything but centrist.

Notwithstanding “Peronism vs anti Peronism,” “Populism vs Rule of Law,” “Left vs Right,” “Kirchnerism vs anti Kirchnerism” were some of the terms articulated along the presidential campaign whose run off has just had been won by Mauricio Macri, from the challenging front “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change), the decisive point of discussion of the past election was “Big Center vs Hegemony.”

The Big Center could be defined as the coalition of the Center-Left and the Center-Right in order to preserve a political system which allows the competition between both wings from the menace of a radical hegemonic force. That is why it would be a mistake to characterize the winning coalition as a Center-Right or a non-Populist political party. “Cambiemos” (Let´s Chance) has won the election with the support of both Centre-Right and Centre-Left voters and both Populist and non-Populist strains. Its political platform contains an orthodox monetary policy as well as the continuity of the policies on helping to alleviate poverty. Mauricio Macri won in the main cities with European ancestry population, such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario, Mendoza, and also won in the Province of Jujuy, where he finished his campaign with a ancient ritual salutation to the Pachamama, one of the most important pre-Columbian deities.

By the width of “Cambiemos” coalition one could imagine how much was at stake. Which will be the final turn of the new government is something that generates no concern among its supporters. It is clear that it will remain circumscribed to the “Big Center.” Perhaps the definition will depend upon the ability of the Peronist Party -from now on in the opposition- to reassess its political strain: to turn into a Center-Right party, or into a Center-Left one or to insist on becoming a radical force. Given that “Cambiemos” has been delimiting its political discourse as a mirror of the “Kirchnerism,” we can expect the former to place itself in the political spectrum in reaction to its opposition. Nevertheless, all of us are convinced that Argentina’s political language will return to the categories of the Modern democracies.

Putting a stop to the Argenzuela Project

[Editor’s note: The following piece is written by Dr Nicolás Cachanosky, an economist at Metropolitan State University, Denver and a native Argentinian. Dr Cachanosky hails from the same PhD program (at Suffolk University) as Rick, who introduced us. His homepage is here, and he is also a member of the group blog Punto de Vista Económico (which you can find on the blogroll here at NOL). Check out his popular work for the Mises Institute, too. – BC]

For the last 12 years Argentina was under the influence of the Kirchner administration. First by President Néstor Kirchner (NK), and then two terms by her wife (and widow since 2010) Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK). Their plan, as perceived by many, was to alternate presidential terms between NK and CFK and remain in power endlessly. While this plan came to an end with NK’s death in 2010, CFK started to entertain the idea of reforming the Constitution to be able to run a gain for office. Because this was not possible, she chose Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Buenos Aires Province to be her successor. Last Sunday, November 22nd, Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires City beat Scioli in a ballotage and became president elect starting his term this coming December 10th.

Argentina was in path to become what is referred as Argenzuela. Namely, the Kirchner administration was taking the country, step-by-step, to become the next Venezuela of Latin America in a close way to what has been described as the four stages of populism. Under the Kirchner administration, the government increased their political ties with Venezuela, Iran, and China, at the expense of political relations with countries like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But the resemblance was not only in terms of political friendship, but on institutional and economic reforms. Argentina became a country where “Republic” is just a word on paper without a real presence in the country’s institutional reality. According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, in 2003 Argentina ranked 99 out of 153 countries. By 2012 it ranked 149 out of 152 countries. The loss of economic freedom was fast and significant. Economic troubles and imbalances did not take long to appear.

Macri’s victory in the presidential elections put a stop to the Argenzuela project. We know what a presidency by Macri won’t look like. But it is still hard to say what it will actually look like. Macri is known for his emphasis not in free or unfree markets, but on an efficient administration. While not difficult to be more free market than the Kirchners, it might prove difficult to describe Macri’s political movement, Pro, as a free market party. The Kirchner administration has refused, at least so far, to share information with Macri and his appointed ministers, so the real situation of the economy and the Treasury remains unknown. Macri and his team are working on reform plans half-blinded because they don’t have reliable economic information, if they have it at all.

Specific reforms by Macri are still unknown (at the time of writing these lines), but his team of Ministers has already been announced. The people he’s bringing to the government with him show significant successful careers in government, the private sector, and international organizations (her chosen Chancellor is the Chief of Staff of Ban Ki Moon, General Secretary of the United Nations.) This is a clear contrast with the Kirchner administration, where all the Ministers showed a strong ideological motivation before professional accomplishments.

The economic crisis in Argentina hands Macri a unique opportunity to carry long needed significant reforms. He has, also, a unique political position. His political party has not only won the presidential election, with Pro Macri has also retained the Mayor’s office of Buenos Aires City and also won the Governor elections for the Buenos Aires Province. Macri’s Pro is in charge of the three most economically and political important districts. Let us hope that Macri does not become yet another lost opportunity in Argentina’s history.