An Economic Theory of Democracy, by Anthony Downs
Summarized by Annie Gillman, 10/29/10
Chapter 2: Downs develops a model to determine the role of parties in democratic government, determining that parties are essentially for getting self-interested politicians elected.The half page summary (section IV) provides an excellent summary.
· Democratic government in his model: In a society characterized by division of labor, government’s is a specialized agent whose role is to serve as the “locus of ultimate power in its society “and the “final guarantor behind every use of coercion in the settlement of disputes”; that government is democratic if a series of conditions (listed in the article) related to the selection of government through elections prevail
· The role of political parties in his model: Generally speaking, party is a coalition (group cooperating toward mutually desired ends) of men seeking to control the goernment apparatues (physical, legal, and institutional equipment which the gvmt uses to carry out its role) by legal means (elections or legitimate influence). In his model, he makes the coalition a “team” (meaning the have all ends in common) wanting to gain office by election.
· In the model, there are political parties, citizens (mutually exclusive with political parties) and interest groups.
· In the model everyone is self interested. Based on this assumption, politicians only seek office to reap the rewards (fame, prestige, thrill of the game, income), not to carry out particular policies. Their primary objective is to be elected.
· The conclusion drawn (and the “fundamental hypothesis” of the author) is that: “Parties formulate policies in order to win elections, rather than win elections in order to formulate policies.” Governing parties only advance policies in so far as they gain votes and further the private ambitions of their members. Social functions may be by-products of this strategy, but are not the goal.
· The model can be used to test normative theories of parties because it determines whether behavior is rational or not (as I understood it, “good” behavior was only “good” if it was efficient, and this model can be used to test efficiency).
· The model’s primary contributions are to: 1. advance the “vote-maximizing” hypothesis as an explanation of democratic political behavior, and 2. construct a positive norm by which to distinguish between rational and irrational behavior in politics
Chapter 8: A basic determinant of how a political life develops in a nation is the distribution of voters along a preference spectrum. This determines the extent to which party ideologies will be similar, the stability of government, the stability of parties (new ones emerging or not).
· If we can create a spectrum of voter preferences from left to right (most progressive to most conservative) and if voters are equally spaced along that spectrum, then in a two party system, parties will converge toward the middle, becoming almost identical. This is true, because they know that if they are left of the middle, any voter left of them will always prefer them to the opposing party (and vice versa). If you are a leftists party, then, the way to gain votes is to try to get all of the voters to the left of middle to vote for you, and the more you move toward the middle, the more of these voters you get.
· Downs modifies this model by showing that voters actually are not equally distributed along the spectrum of left to right preferences, but may clump around different poles, so the ideal point for parties may be at the peek of those poles, not in the middle. This logic holds only if extremists (people at the far ends of either end of the spectrum) credibly threaten to boycott elections if the party moves too far toward the middle.
· In a polarized society, there is danger of revolution, because inevitably the party that gains power by following the agenda of one of the “poles” is going to be distasteful to the other pole, making them move further away from the middle, and then when the other pole gets power the reverse will occur.
· Normally, in the curve of voters (see the graphs, because they’re very helpful) there is usually a higher concentration in the leftist area (the workers), which is why the elite fear universal suffrage.
· There is a certain number of parties in equilibrium that is dependent on a) the nature of the limit upon the introduction of new parties (proportional representation vs. winner-take-all plurality electoral systems) and b) the shape of the distribution of voters (multiparty systems emerge when voter distribution is “polymodal,” aka has different poles around which voters group). In multiparty systems, there are a wide range of ideological choices, so voters tend to be swayed by ideology as opposed to personality, competence, etc. in the more converged two party system.
· Origins of new parties: Two ways new parties can come about is by winning elections, and by influencing already existing parties to change their policies. Parties are successful based on where they are vis a vis other parties in relation to a “pole” of voters on the distribution by preferences. New parties are most likely to emerge when they can “cut off” a large number of voters from other parties. This is likely to occur when there is a sudden shift in voter preferences, and old parties can’t conform fast enough, when there is a “social stalemate” of polarized parties and compromisers form a party, and when a party drifts too far center and an “extremist” party emerges to bring it back.
· Ideological coherence and integration: Parties try to a) appeal to the biggest number of voters and b) have a strong appeal for each voter. There’s a tradeoff of having a wide platform to bring everyone in but a watered down platform that people don’t feel strongly enough about. Voter’s judgement is based on the mean of polices (net position) and the variance of the policies (how wide spread they are).
· In multiparty systems, parties increase the strength of appeal and are not so much concerned about breadth (i.e. strong ideological positions).
· In two party system, the party will try to cast their programmatic “net” into the other party’s territory, taking stands that favor some groups in their party and some in another party (even if on average, their “mean” is more appealing to their group), and they try to be ambiguous. This results in overlapping moderate positions within the two parties, and a “fog of ambiguity” about policies, forcing the voter to vote on less important things (i.e. personality, etc). This would be irrational, though--creating the potential for a “rationality crisis” (see, Downs, look what happens when you take your rational choice model to the bizarre extreme! :) ) Voters can get out of being forced to be irrational by making rules for parties or by switching to a multiparty system (but he then says that the rationality crisis is even more likely in the multiparty system, as explained in the chapter we didn’t read).