The current federal shutdown is but the latest antic of a dysfunctional Congress. Enough House Republicans are in favor of the Senate’s proposed compromise to pass it, but as of Tuesday night, Speaker John Boehner won’t let the House vote on it, fearing retaliation from extremists within the GOP. Over the last several years, extremists in the House have put far more effort into obstructionism than actually proposing a serious alternative to Obamacare, a package truly rife with serious flaws.
The national consensus seems to be that the far right is bonkers and that Congress as a whole is incompetent. The reality, however, is that Congress’ dysfunction is a predictable result of our flawed political institutions. For just about every crazy thing any political system does, one can find a plausible explanation rooted in the strategic behavior of rational individuals.
Our political system is what makes politicians extreme, not vice versa. Consider any election with more than two alternatives: Voters disagree on how to rank candidates. If one candidate is preferred by a majority of voters, to all other candidates in head-to-head contests they would be considered a “Condorcet winner.” Conversely, if they lose all such contests, they would be considered a “Condorcet loser.” Sometimes neither category exists because a majority of voters prefer A to B, B to C, and C to A. This is called the Condorcet paradox. An ideal election system would elect a Condorcet winner when one exists and never elect a Condorcet loser if one exists. There are systems that meet both these criteria, but instead, America relies on the “first-past-the-post” system which meets neither criterion. In other words, there could be a third party that most Americans in every district prefer to either party, and that party could still lose.
Congressmen are elected via majority vote, and most of the votes they take in Congress follow a similar structure. Game theory tells us that such a system is vulnerable to “strategic voting” where voters elect candidates that they don’t like because they’re worried about an even worse candidate winning. The theoretical result is that voters will almost always be forced to coalesce around two candidates or parties, which is exactly what happens in real life. Third parties can’t survive, making politicians more partisan than they otherwise would be. Once in office, Republicans and Democrats alike gerrymander election districts to be even more partisan.
Of course, the question remains: Why would extremists or non-extremists in Congress delay an agreement that must be reached eventually at the avoidable cost of a government shutdown or debt ceiling scare? There are several reasons. Members have an incentive to pretend to be even more radical than they really are and to extract concessions. Politicians may also benefit from self-sabotage if they can convince voters in their district to blame the other party, something that is easier to do in hyper-partisan, gerrymandered districts. These extremists can credibly pretend to be even more extreme than they really are, can afford to take big risks, and can more easily convince their super-partisan constituents to blame bargaining failures on the other party. Voter partisanship is itself rational. Since an individual vote is never pivotal, voters do not suffer from voting based on biased information. Therefore, they often choose to watch news that makes them feel good by confirming their own beliefs.
It is not just obstructionists who are behaving in cynical, yet rational ways. Government bureaucrats want to make the shutdown as visible (and painful) as possible to demonstrate their value. The National Park Service has closed all parks operating on public land, including parks funded and operated by private groups. Park rangers went out of their way to erect barriers and close parks that otherwise would have been operational without a cent of federal money. The census bureau modified its website to say that data won’t be available until funding restored. Of course, lack of funding didn’t force the bureau to do this because it somehow still has the money to keep the servers running to explain why desperate political science students can’t access their data! If they had really turned their website off, visitors would have received a generic error.
It is tempting to dismiss people as stupid, crazy, or irrational because we don’t share their political preferences, but doing so is lazy. Strategic and rational behavior exists in virtually every situation, and forcing yourself to look for it reveals deeper insights. Populists like to blame a biased media or greedy politicians for America’s problems, but reform efforts that aim to identify and fix structural causes of dysfunction will undoubtedly be more fruitful. America has made major constitutional changes to its electoral system in the past, so the problems caused by our current voting system are hardly unchangeable.
Taylor is a member of
the class of 2015.