Bryan Caplan  

The Puzzle of One-Party Democracy

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Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, guest blogger David Schleicher tries to explain why so many cities are, like Singapore, one-party democracies.  He begins by pointing out that the "obvious" explanation is wrong:

It is true that in almost all major American cities, one party is dominant. However, as I argue here, this, it turns out, can't explain the lack of competition either, at least on its own. In order for national political preferences to explain the lack of competition at the local level, we would need a reason why the party that is in the minority locally doesn't change its stripes - at the local level - to become more attractive. That's what Downs would predict, yet it doesn't happen at the local level.
I eagerly await David's solution.  But the best explanation I've come up with so far is that voters have party preferences as well as policy preferences.  As Lindbeck and Weibull assume in a model that I used in my dissertation, voters might strictly prefer e.g. Democrats to Republicans even if their platforms are identical.  Here's how I explain the assumption:
Lindbeck and Weibull (1987) suggest that it captures parties' contrasting and relatively fixed commitments to important non-economic policies, such as their stances on abortion and national defense... Alternately, in line with much of the empirical political science literature on party affiliation (e.g. Mutz and Mondak 1997; Sears et al 1980; Luttbeg and Martinez 1990), [party preference] could irreducibly reflect individuals' inherited partisan loyalties. Just as many sports fans root for "their" team even though all teams have the same objective function, many voters strictly prefer "their" party even if it acts the same as its competitor. For example, Catholic voters might continue voting for traditionally-preferred Democratic candidates even though platform changes leave them somewhat ideologically closer to Republicans.
Who cares?  Well, when voters have party preferences, the intrinsically more popular party has slack which enables it to (a) consistently win, (b) deviate from voter preferences, or (c) both.  That definitely sounds like Singapore.  Could it just as easily be New York or San Francisco?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Could it just as easily be New York or San Francisco?

It could be Chicago, where the young Mayor Daley is the privatization leader among Mayors.

Scott Wentland writes:

I am originally from a one-party city, Toledo, OH (2 Republican mayors in the last 50 years). Republicans who want to have a serious shot at becoming mayor just run as Democrats. So, often you'll see multiple Democrats running in the general election, not just the primary.

I think Downs would predict that in many one party cities the elections have hardcore Democrats versus more moderate Democrats. Since the median voter is likely a strongly leaning Democrat, then it makes sense for the candidates to split within the party.

Oddly enough, the essence of two-party system models is not the actual names of the parties.

Will writes:

"In order for national political preferences to explain the lack of competition at the local level, we would need a reason why the party that is in the minority locally doesn't change its stripes - at the local level - to become more attractive. "

I think, in practice, that there are more links between local and national politics than this quote supposes. A local mayor of party X might use the office as a springboard to representative and now the X caucus has one more member.

A local politician will link up with the national office in big elections and share their voter database, list of likely contributors, etc.

So to the extent one has a national preference, one ought to have a local preference in the same direction even if the local parties were identical on policy.

Troy Camplin writes:

The founding fathers hoped there wouldn't be any political parties, for this very reason. Unfortunately, the right to peacably assemble (which we thankfully have, when the government lets us, which is thankfully most of the time) prevents us from making political parties illegal. Perhaps we could make a rule that every 20 years, members of Congress, the Senate, state, and local government have to create at least 10 new parties, which can then merge after, say, 4 years into as many parties as they wish. Perhaps we could select the party members using 10-sided dice and then see what kinds of platforms they come up with. Too much chaos, you say? Have you noticed that the more chaos there is within a government, the more stable the country is as a whole, and vice versa?

jsalvati writes:

That is what my initial guess would be as well. The problem I see with that idea is that Singapore does not have national political parties to create those party preferences.

gamut writes:

Why aren't there more satellite radio providers? Because there isn't enough cash to fund the operation of two. Politics costs money, and city politics isn't worth it unless people band together and actually have a very high chance of payout. It's easier to buy a house in one of the burbs than try to get in on a game against a group that's already invested in the logistics.

This also explains why you have such divergent views from one borough to another; here in Toronto we have a socialist council, with a very discrete mix of very rightist, to very leftist suburbs. The margins in voting cannot possibly be explained by social conditions in areas that are, for all other intents, exactly the same.

Lord writes:

The competition just moves to the primary of the dominate party. The opposition party loses credibility in accomplishing results, collaborating, the power of influence over those in power. They are the weak man out, with poor prospects.

Ted Craig writes:

I think the number of parties matters less than the voters. Singapore has one one-party rule. So does Detroit. Sweden has multiple-party rule. So does Italy.

I'll stick with the two-party system for now.

dWj writes:

Chicago, at least in the eighties, had "regular Democrats" and "independent Democrats", though I don't know whether they were indicated one way or the other on the ballot.

Thorfinn writes:

The traditional two-party result in Game Theory makes the assumption that voter preferences lie on a linear continuum. So given any two people, one will be more "left-wing" than the other, and you can find some moderate in between. Parties then jostle for the median voter, and political dominance is unstable.

In reality, the political landscape tends to be more broken up. You have issues like abortion which cleave the electorate. With large population areas, such large Democracies, there tend to be sufficiently many issues that the two parties take on many differing positions and you can effectively think about a "marginal voter" who is torn about which policy preferences should receive greater weight. So any political dominance is always unstable, as the other party can create enough wedge issues to come back.

The problem in smaller political units is that voters are split on fewer issues. Voters tend to be much lower information on local races and go with identity more often. In Chicago for instance, the Daley machine can get at least 60% of the vote in primaries from their vote bank of Irish, immigrants, and other whites. It's hard to compete as another Democrat (let alone a Republican) since Daley serves his base very well (plenty of union and city jobs), and his base is over half the Democrat primary pool. Add to that the fact that city dwellers tend to have relatively uniform social preferences.

Similar ethnic divisions are at play in Singapore (Malaysia too). With a large Chinese supermajority, the Lee family makes sure to reward their supporters well. South Africa displays this pattern too, with the ANC commanding the undivided support of a large black base (though high-profile splits in that party might be important).

Explaining this paradox is all about showing why a competing party can't arise in small places while they can in large ones. If you can get >50% of the population to care about a simple set of issues, and then become the best person at providing them with their needs, you have a stable dominant equilibrium even in a democracy.

More interesting perhaps is explaining the long legacy of one-party rule in large and pluralistic democracies like India, Mexico, Taiwan. There the answer also has to do with the costs of building a political machine, and the use of state coercion to tackle political opposition, as well as reputation buildup in the freedom struggle (in India). Information costs in large democracies mean that the scions of politically powerful families start with a heavy stock of reputation capital, explaining the prominence of political dynasties in South Asian Democracies (Gandhi, Bhutto, Zia), and also American and Japanese Democracies.

I suspect that as China goes democratic, it will also follow a one-party democracy. Running political operations in all Chinese states is very expensive, so a single party can take advantage of economies of scale. Meanwhile, there is a relative population homogeneity and relative consensus on policy. Most political disagreements center on clique differences between rival power centers, which currently takes place behind closed doors but could easily be democratically decided. The government is very popular and would easily win elections; popular pressures already determine much of state policy. The big difference might be on foreign policy, in which a democratically elected government would be constrained into acting more hawkish on a world stage to save face domestically. Economic policy would also probably become more distorted through the influence of rent-seeking interest groups.

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