The Myth of Non-Partisanship

February 4, 2007

Per Mr. Hess’s request, I will attempt to explain why non-partisanship, by and large, does not really exist in America. Furthermore, in cases where voters or lobbies do act in a “non-partisan” fashion, it is to their strategic detriment. I won’t speak for other democracies, but I suspect the situations are similar abroad.

Disclaimer: While every voter should understand this stuff, if you’re not interested in political theory, you will probably be very very bored.

I should preface this discussion with the biggest myth of all: the independent voter. Some 30% of the country considers themselves to be independent voters. Their voting behavior, however, tells a different story. These “independents” significantly favor one party over another on a regular basis. Maybe 5-10% of the voters could be classified as genuinely independent, exhibiting rather random behavior. Are their decisions based on careful analysis? Dementia? What the weather is like on election day? Who knows. They are, however, a tiny minority of the total electorate.
Assume: A voter’s major policy positions are 20% similar to the Democrats’ and 10% similar to the Republicans’. The voter does not place a priority on any issues.

Here are a couple scenarios:

1) The voter chooses to not vote

Since neither party represents their views very well, it might seem reasonable to ignore the election. Doing so, however, is roughly equivalent to supporting the Republicans. While it is not a great fit, the Democrats better represent this voter’s views. Were they forced to vote, they would vote for the Democratic candidate. By choosing to not vote, they are withholding their support from the Democrats. Since the Democrats are not receiving as many votes as they might otherwise, the Republicans profit. Even by not voting, the voter is supporting a party.

Now let us add a third party to the mix (Green) which is 60% similar to the voter and has no chance of winning.

2) The voter opts for a third party

Voting for a third party cannot, by a strict definition be considered non-partisan, but some people view it as such. The same logic as scenario one applies. Of the two meaningful candidates, the voter would vote Democratic if forced to. By supporting the Greens, the voter is withholding his vote from the Democrat, thus helping the Republican. This is why the ~90,000 people in Florida who voted for Nader were, in effect, voting for Bush.


Now let’s broaden the exercise. It is a presidential year and the presidential candidates are both party-liners. The same voter and same party positions, but let’s assume the local Republican congressional candidate is a maverick and the Democrat is a straight party-liner. The voter now has 20% similarity to the Democratic candidate, but 25% to the Republican, which might induce them to split their ticket.

3) The voter splits their ticket (part 1)

It seems reasonable enough, vote for the candidate whose policies best match your own. Assume this is a congressional election (you’re unlikely to get real mavericks at the presidential level, but I’ll address that later). In this case, the views of the individual candidate are mostly meaningless on the major issues. The important legislation is controlled by the party leadership, namely whichever party is in power. They determine the agenda and work hard to create strong party unity. Even if the Republican disagrees with his party on, say, tax policy, they are going to be under extreme pressure to toe the party line. What often happens in these scenarios is that the maverick in question will force some minor concession from the party leadership and vote for their bill. So while split-ticket voting may be technically bi-partisan, it is, in most cases, bad strategy.

Now let’s flip the situation. The congressional candidates are party-liners and the Republican presidential candidate is the maverick:

4) The voter splits their ticket (part 2)

Roughly the same forces are at work here. While the Republican president would not directly answer to his party’s congressional leadership, they would be forced to work with them. The president, while notionally the leader of the party, is not immune to party pressures. A Republican president, for instance, will always have to nominate pro-life judges or risk completely alienating his supporters (vice versa for a Democratic president). Even if the Republican candidate has views that might be outside his party’s mainstream, they will not have much freedom to enact their policies if they hope to win reelection.

A case where split-ticketing for the president might make sense, would be if your preferred party’s candidate is clearly incompetent. The president wields a great deal of power (unlike a senator or representative), so even a well-intentioned idiot could be dangerous to the country and the voter’s interests. The candidate would have to be pretty incompetent, though. In this example, we know a Republican president will be a threat to the voter’s interests–an incompetent Democrat might be a threat.


Now let’s assume that the voter only cares about a couple issues or is, perhaps, a single-issue voter. The same reasoning from the previous example applies. A single-issue pro-life voter does not want a Democratic congress or president–even if their local Democrat shares their views on abortion. The most important vote a representative casts is the one to elect the Speaker of the House. It is a pretty strong rule that nobody crosses party lines on that vote. So even if a pro-life Democrat would vote with Republicans on abortion issues, they would still be putting Nancy Pelosi into power.

This example was played out in the 2006 cycle. NARAL, a prominent pro-choice lobby, did not want Rep. Langevin (D-RI) to be the party’s nominee to against Senator Chafee (R-RI) because he holds pro-life views (although he is strongly supportive of stem cell research). Langevin, however, was the strongest Democratic candidate in the state and was projected to be able to defeat Chafee. NARAL, however, insisted they needed a pro-choice candidate and vowed to defeat Langevin in the primary, so he decided to stay in the House. This was before it was clear that 2006 would be an exceptionally strong year for Democrats, so this move was very irresponsible to NARAL’s own interests. In the end, NARAL went ahead and endorsed, not Sheldon Whitehouse, their pro-choice nominee, but the Republican Chafee because he was nominally pro-choice as well. Clearly Whitehouse would further the pro-choice agenda better than Chafee, but even Langevin would have been better for NARAL. As a Republican, Chafee faces extreme pressure to support his party, including voting for Bush’s pro-life judicial appointees (which he did). Langevin, likewise, would have been pressured to vote against Bush’s nominees which he doubtless would have done, just like the other pro-life Democrats.


The bottom line is that, in America, each of the two parties has established positions on most issues. Invariably, one of the parties better represents your views and interests on those issues. To support your causes politically, you should be loyal to that party on the national level.


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