Saturday, April 18, 2009

Is Limbaugh wrong?

One of Rush's main talking points is that the GOP only wins when they become more conservative not less. That sounds good on radio but is it true? Last night I came across a snippet of information about a guy named Anthony Downs who supposedly used game theory to prove that in a stable democracy with a large degree of ideological consensus winning candidates all eventually move towards the political center:

In chapter eight of the book, Downs explains how the concept of ideology is central to his theory. Depending on the ideological distribution of voters in a given political community, electoral outcomes can be stable and peaceful or wildly varied and even result in violent revolution. The likely number of political parties can also be identified if one also considers the electoral structure. If the ideological positions of voters are displayed in the form of a graph and if that graph shows a single peak, then a median voter can be identified and in a representative democracy, the choice of candidates and the choice of policies will gravitate toward the positions of the median voter. Conversely, if the graph of ideological distribution is double-peaked, indicating that most voters are either extremely liberal or extremely conservative, the tendency toward political consensus or political equilibrium is difficult to attain because legislators representing each mode are penalized by voters for attempting to achieve consensus with the other side by supporting policies representative of a middle position. Here is a list of the key propositions Downs attempts to prove in chapter eight:

  1. A two-party democracy cannot provide stable and effective government unless there is a large measure of ideological consensus among its citizens.
  2. Parties in a two-party system deliberately change their platforms so that they resemble one another; whereas parties in a multi-party system try to remain as ideologically distinct from each other as possible.
  3. If the distribution of ideologies in a society’s citizenry remains constant, its political system will move toward a position of equilibrium in which the number of parties and their ideological positions are stable over time.
  4. New parties can be most successfully launched immediately after some significant change in the distribution of ideological views among eligible voters.
  5. In a two-party system, it is rational for each party to encourage voters to be irrational by making its platform vague and ambiguous.

The conditions under which his theory prevails are outlined in chapter two. Many of these conditions have been challenged by later scholarship. In anticipation of such criticism, Downs quotes Milton Friedman in chapter two that: “Theoretical models should be tested primarily by the accuracy of their predictions rather than by the reality of their assumptions” (Friedman, 1953).


Here is an example. According to at least one report 55% of Americans support at least some right to abortion, that would be a single peak on a graph of attitudes among the populace. According to Downs theory, at least as I understand it, the GOP should strike a middle ground on this issue. Other examples of single or double peaked issues can be found. (Gun Control, Taxes, etc.)

I am not saying that Downs is correct, his work has been challenged, or that Rush is wrong just that it is an interesting question. I would like to see a sample platform put together off of his work. That could then be compared to the actual GOP platform and a decision made about whether or not to modify the position or engage in a more aggressive voter education program.

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