Scott Sumner  

Does tribalism breed extremism?

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Imagine that 80% of voters prefer normal sensible candidates, and 20% prefer wild extremists. Who would come out ahead under a democratic system of government? It might seem like the sensible candidates had the advantage. And that was certainly the case when I was young. Politicians that were perceived as extremists, such as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, lost elections by huge margins. The same was true in the recent French presidential election.

But this was not the case in the 2016 US election and the recent British election. Of course Donald Trump won and Jeremy Corbyn lost, but in a deeper sense I see the outcomes as being quite similar. Both lost the popular vote by about 2%. Both did better than the experts predicted. Both were dismissed by the elites as being deeply unserious candidates. And while Labour did not win the election, they denied the Conservatives the majority that most pundits expected, dealing a major setback to Theresa May.

Think about the following stylized model. Let's assume that 40% of voters are now "yellow-dog Democrats", who automatically pull the D lever. Another 40% are reliable Republican votes. And 20% of voters are totally disillusioned with the system, and prefer extremists who promise to shake things up. In that case, political parties would have an incentive to nominate an extremist, even though (by assumption) 80% of the public would prefer sensible candidates.

Just to be clear, this is an unrealistic example and the real world is far more complicated. Obviously Trump and Corbyn did not win 60% of the votes, or even 50%. But I do think this example gets at something about modern politics, which is much more tribal than when I was young. Polls show that the public is increasingly likely to despise people merely on the basis of their political affiliation. That was not true when I was young. Voters are increasingly partisan.

When Bernie Sanders was running, I was puzzled by polls showing that he would do better than Hillary Clinton. I thought to myself "surely a self-avowed socialist would lose big, in a George McGovern-style blowout." Looking back on the election, I suspect the polls were on to something. This means that we can expect more extremists in the future.

This does not mean, however, that actual governance will become more extreme. Most people exaggerate the extent to which elections determine policy. If 80% of the public wants sensible governance, then an extremist who gets elected will run into difficulties trying to implement their agenda. Trump is having difficulty with both Congress and the courts, which tend to reflect the views of that sensible 80%. And Corbyn would have trouble implementing a Venezuelan-style policy regime in the UK.

PS. Just to be clear, I am not using the term 'sensible' in a normative sense. Indeed I'm something of a libertarian extremist on many issues. Rather it's simply a descriptive term for the views of an average group of well-informed people.

PPS. After the Brexit vote, I pointed out that if young people had turned out to vote then Brexit would have failed. Some commenters told me that the views of the young don't matter, as they don't vote in large numbers. On Thursday the young did turn out, and they exacted their revenge against the "hard Brexit" Tories. This graph shows that what was previously a small tilt toward Labour among the young, ballooned into a landslide for Labour, especially among the very young (where the gap was 51%!)

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On issues such as taxes and spending the young become more conservative as they age. On other issues, such as gay marriage, their views reflect the times they grew up in and are likely fixed for life. It will be interesting to watch how British views on the EU evolve over time, as the very pro-EU younger cohort replaces older Brits who were skeptical of European integration.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
baconbacon writes:
Think about the following stylized model. Let's assume that 40% of voters are now "yellow-dog Democrats", who automatically pull the D lever. Another 40% are reliable Republican votes. And 20% of voters are totally disillusioned with the system, and prefer extremists who promise to shake things up. In that case, political parties would have an incentive to nominate an extremist, even though (by assumption) 80% of the public would prefer sensible candidates.

Your assumptions contradict each other. If 80% of the populace will vote either R or D without regard to their actual positions then they cannot meaningfully be said to want sensible candidates. In this model the 80% are the extremists, functionally single issue voters (I want an R/D in the white house), while the 20% are actually substance voters.

Jon Murphy writes:

@baconbacon

There's no contradiction. Look how he's defining "sensible":

"I am not using the term 'sensible' in a normative sense...Rather it's simply a descriptive term for the views of an average group of well-informed people."

We can reasonably conclude that sensible people will disagree on different issues. There's no reason to think that those who vote Democrat or those who vote Republican reliably have views outside an average group of well-informed people.

Scott Sumner writes:

baconbacon, I meant that they prefer sensible policies, but will reluctantly vote for an extremist if that person is representing their "tribe".

Weir writes:

Real estate in Britain is for elderlies only. No young people need apply. As they age, they'll still be locked out of the housing market. Their entire working lives, they're paying rent to their elders.

They'll get older, but they won't have anything to conserve, because they'll be renting into retirement, up until their parents die. Then they'll inherit a fortune. And they'll need it, because the Ponzi scheme of public pensions finished with their parents. Their parents spent everything and then some. Give up even one red cent of their housing wealth to cover their hospital bills? Unthinkable. There is no upper limit to the greed of the baby boomers.

So the young aren't going to become conservative about taxes and spending. They'll be nihilistic. They see the baby boomers, and brazen selfishness sure worked out great for them. The baby boomers didn't constrain themselves. Why should their children be any less destructive and bloody-minded than the generation that stiffed them with a bill that cannot actually be repaid?

And in fact these are the ruinous, destructive policies of the sensible 80%, aren't they? The vast majority of voters are insane, voting for free cash giveaways and putting up barriers against their kids ever making enough money to slip over that line dividing the dwindling number of net tax payers from the growing proportion of net tax recipients. So the disillusioned 20% will become the disillusioned 80%, voting for something like Corbyn's free money, knowing perfectly well that that much cash doesn't exist on earth, but grabbing at it anyway.

Jg writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Scott, extremism is a common failure of first past the post. Eg if you look at the Republican primaries, they managed to elect someone who also would have won a negative poll for "least preferred candidate".

That's because in a crowded field first past the post rewards candidates with a lot of hard core support, but doesn't pay much attention to "they are alright, but not my first choice".

With approval voting or range voting, the sensible candidates would not have split the vote between each other. So eg Romney or Bloomberg could have both run, without adverse consequences.

Sensible, boring compromise candidates getting approval from across the spectrum would dominate.

(An alternative is to move to some form of proportional representation. That's not a panacea and has pitfalls, too. The Israeli government often had extremists parties holding their coalitions hostage. The German mixed system might work better. (Like many ideas in the German economy and politics, it seems to work better in practice than in theory.))

Thaomas writes:

Agree with everything but the example. It assumes that the 40% and 40% are all "sensible." "Extremists" can exist within the parties aw well as outside.

Ghost writes:

Until 2010, voters in the UK were becoming less partisan (or at least less one-dimensionally partisan).

Labour won three elections in a row with overtly moderate policies; and growing proportions of votes and seats went to third parties.

Corbyn has been the beneficiary of two specific factors. The first is the collapse of the other non-Conservative parties: UKIP has evaporated, the Lib Dems have no credibility after their time in government in 2010-15, the Greens have no credibility.

The second factor, as Scott points out, was remarkable success with young voters. This has a great deal to do with Corbyn's promises to abolish university tuition fees, and to refund those already paid - tuition fees that had been introduced by the previous Labour government!

We should expect an ongoing generational fight in UK politics. However this will not be 'extremism', it's just a new version of interest group politics.

Michael writes:

There's evidence that the young turned out for the referendum more than first thought, and youth abstention wasn't decisive: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/young-people-referendum-turnout-brexit-twice-as-high

The extent to which public opinion has embraced Brexit is striking, and suggests fairly fluid identities. Though I agree with your point that in some circumstances the passionately committed minority can hold sway.

Martin writes:

Adjust for ethnicity and it might not look as extreme of a result (large influx in recent years of young immigrants that are the prime pandering target of labour politicians)

Scott Sumner writes:

Matthias, Good points.

Michael, Interesting, that sounds plausible. However some people lie when pollsters ask if they voted, so the actual number might be a bit lower.

Matthias Goergens writes:

Scott, though thinking about it some more, I would amend my first sentence to say that first past the post breeds tribalism first and foremost, and extremism as a second order effect.

I do have a soft spot for handling things at the local level: competition and reputation are friends.

We accept that for the supply of eg bread: even though customers don't vote how the bakery is run, it still delivers good bread.

Similar, eg Singapore has at best pro-forma elections, but people can vote with their feet because it's such a small and on country.

Even nominally socialist can be good politicians at that level: see America's famous sewer socialists.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Matthias Goergens Preferential voting will get you the same effect, but even more so, as it encourages broad coalition building by major parties.

Australia and Malta are good examples of the benefits of preferential voting systems.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Scott: their elders voted strongly for the EEC back in 1973. People underestimate how shifts in what the EU implies has changed opinions.

Also, you might want to revise your EU enthusiasm.

ChrisA writes:

A very good post Scott. I have been pondering this election result and also the passion for Bernie in the US from the young as well. It is depressing because I thought that the people on the side of economic freedom had won the battle. But it seems like the peoples romance needs to be fought every generation.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

The voice of experience re: the EU. Yanis Varoufakis has some warnings for Teresa May, with a real sting in the tail.

baconbacon writes:
baconbacon, I meant that they prefer sensible policies, but will reluctantly vote for an extremist if that person is representing their "tribe".

So they prefer their tribe winning, which makes them extremeists (ie they will take their tribe winning even if it causes poor policy outcomes).

@ Jon Murphy


"I am not using the term 'sensible' in a normative sense...Rather it's simply a descriptive term for the views of an average group of well-informed people."

You can't define people by how they wish they would act. If you describe the current voters as "sensible" then sensible becomes 'drop their poor decisions, judge them on everything else' and everyone becomes sensible.

This is the same with well-informed. A person cannot be considered well informed if they don't understand basic outcomes of their actions. One of these can't be true, either they are uninformed about how their voting patterns are going to effect the country, or they aren't sensible as they are purposefully choosing a poor path.

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