Tyler Cowen on the Contours of Partisanship in American Politics

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on the contours of partisan politics in America. In the post he argues that at the state-level Republican politics and governance is superior to the Democratic variety:

This superior performance stems from at least two factors.  First, Republican delusions often matter less at the state and local level, and furthermore what the core Republican status groups want from state and local government is actually pretty conducive to decent outcomes.  The Democrats in contrast keep on doling out favors and goodies to their multitude of interest groups, and that often harms outcomes.  The Democrats find it harder to “get tough,” even when that is what is called for, and they have less of a values program to cohere around, for better or worse.

Second, the states with a lot of Democrats are probably on average harder to govern well (with some notable Southern exceptions).  That may excuse the quality of Democratic leadership to some degree, but it is not an entirely favorable truth for the broader Democratic ethos. Republicans, of course, recognize this reality.  Even a lot of independent voters realize they might prefer local Republican governance, and so in the current equilibrium a strong majority of governors, state legislatures, and the like are Republican.

Thomas Pepinsky looked under the hood of this argument and found this:

Those high functioning states (he cites this report) are North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, and Iowa.

It is not obvious to me why Republicans would not look to the entire map of places that the GOP controls state government.

Maybe one clue is that those five states are among the whitest states in the country.

As an exercise, let’s ponder what “They think the rest of America should be much more like those places” means.

Cowen also has an interesting theory of why expats foreigners tend to lean Democratic:

It is easier for intelligent foreigners to buy more heavily into the Democratic stories. They feel more comfortable with the associated status relations, and furthermore foreigners are less likely to be connected to American state and local government, so they don’t have much sense of how the Republicans actually are more sensible in many circumstances.any circumstances.

I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never lived in a fully Republican controlled state. All I know is that Republican governors and legislatures have a knack for cutting taxes at the expense of essential public goods — like schools in Kansas or drinkable water in Michigan; or refusing to accept federal dollars to finance healthcare for their poor voters in the name of ideological purity. I also know that for all their talk of ideological purity when it comes to social spending, Republicans’ preference for the size of the social safety net is conditional on the proportion of the population that is of European descent.

This is not to say that Republican elites are evil or anything. They are simply self-interested. Instead, it speaks to the awkwardness of the Republican coalition.

In Cowen’s language, in the current historical moment I see Democrats as a coalition that peddles status and some goodies to boot. Republican elites, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in status, while opting for lower taxes and fewer regulations for elites. This may work during boom times. But in tough economic times a shared status (codified by say, race) might not be enough to convince the working poor that they are natural political allies with either anti-tax business owners or the editors of the National Review.

And if we are honest, it doesn’t help that we’ve just had 7+ years under a president from a historically low status group in the American context.

Enter Donald John Trump.

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One thought on “Tyler Cowen on the Contours of Partisanship in American Politics

  1. I’ve lived ten years in one of those high-functioning Republican-controlled states listed. The economy grew quite well during that time, but state Republican leaders were no less likely than national Republican leaders to engage in loopy, fringe politics. They harped on their anti-immigration credentials, want to seize public land from the federal government, and don’t necessarily run budgets any better than their Democratic counterparts. The big difference is that the state I lived in (Utah) is relatively warm, had cheap real estate with good upside, overwhelmingly white, and relatively well-educated. That makes it easy to attract businesses. But it says little about Republican governance.

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