Greater volatility makes it difficult to solve political problems
Even granting that it is true that a subgroup of Japanese and US voters have moved from candidate or party loyalty to more superficial reasons for casting votes, still no case has been made why such a change, in contrast to the more desirable option of voting on issues, would be significant for politics. For example, Renwick and Pilet (2016) study the effects of electoral system changes that personalize elections more, and they find no consistent effect on (1) numbers of women MPs, (2) voter satisfaction, or (3) turnout. There is, however, a long and surprising tradition in political science that says that the more demands that the voters place on a government, the harder it is for that government to perform well. The argument follows that governments need a breathing space in which to make decisions without the unrelenting scrutiny and demands of the people. Because people’s demands of government tend to be short-term and selfish, governments that are more closely tied to those demands create policies that are harmful in the long run, internally contradictory, or biased towards the particular good of the most vocal groups against the collective good.
Corollaries of this core distrust of democracy manifest themselves in a variety of political settings. Campbell et al. (1960, 541-5) argue that voter lack of information and attention give politicians greater freedom to act. In fact, they specifically link volatility to low information/low interest voters (547). Dahl (1961, 305-10) argues that the gap between voters’ potential influence and actual influence gives political entrepreneurs the leeway to push specific policies, as long as their efforts cause voters to become more involved in politics. A debate exists between those who argue that politicians are largely unconstrained by voters (Bernstein, 1989) and those who argue that voters do constrain the actions of their representatives (Ansolabehere and Jones, 2010; Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan, 2002). Clientelism, pork barrel politics, and corruption, though not the exclusive domain of democracies, all seem to root well and flourish in democratic settings in which politicians have incentives to woo the support of voters through these methods. In the international setting, Valentino, Huth, and Croco (2010) argue that democracies are more likely to minimize the costs of war in order to placate public opinion.
In analyzing the responses of Latin American governments to economic crises, O’Donnell (1973) argues that authoritarian regimes are better able to implement unpopular but necessary economic reforms than are democratic regimes. Haggard and Kaufman (1992) analyze government responses to inflation and find a more complex, but similar, response pattern. Authoritarian regimes respond more effectively than democratic regimes respond when politics in a democracy is polarized. In contrast democracies effectively respond to inflation when popular opposition has been coopted into the ruling system. These findings show that the demands of the people must either be partially coopted by the ruling regime or ignored by an authoritarian government in order to make difficult economic reforms.
A more widely known manifestation of this idea occurs in Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column in which he praised China’s authoritarian government for being able to ‘just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the twenty-first century.’23 Labor leader Andy Stern agreed, favorably citing Nobel laureate Robert Engle that ‘while China is making five-year plans for the next generation, Americans are planning only for the next election.’24
Though experts disagree on the empirical question of how free representatives actually are to go against their constituents’ preferences, they all agree on the potential for a politician’s actions to be constrained by voters in such a way as to prevent or make difficult the taking of unpopular political actions. Thus, in wartime, unity governments are sometimes formed to depoliticize the necessary decisions made in conducting the war effort. Similarly, in forcing the implementation of initial reform measures in the Euro crisis, France and Germany insisted on the replacement of political governments with technocratic caretaker governments in Italy and Greece. These actions all show the belief that partisanship and the demands of constituents must be subordinated when difficult decisions need to be made.
Two prominent actions of Kan Naoto, Japan’s prime minister in 2010 and 2011 illustrate these incentives well. When Kan came into office in the spring of 2010, Japan faced (as it does now) a severe fiscal crisis. Japan’s debt to GDP ratio was at the level of 1.8 placing it well above any comparable advanced industrial democracy. The consensus among elites was that the solution to this problem was to raise the sales tax in Japan from its level of 5 percent.25 Previous decisions to create the national sales tax and to raise its level from 3 to 5 percent were difficult decisions, but the ruling LDP had managed to take these actions with only some damage at the polls, the Party retaining its hold on power. Furthermore in 2010, the opposition LDP had also called for an increase in the sales tax to 10 percent, making it seem easier for the ruling Democrats to take the same position. Kan did, and he was praised for his action. An editorial in Asahi Shimbun called it a step in the right direction and praised Japan’s political parties for overcoming their history of kneejerk opposition by the parties out of power to all proposals for tax increases.26 Despite the praise, Kan and his party were punished at the polls in Japan’s 2010 House of Councilors election. In the wake of his party’s defeat, his actions were quickly seen as a massive political blunder.
In contrast, the model of how to win a Japanese election is shown by the same Democratic Party only one year earlier in the 2009 election. The same Asahi Shimbun panned the Democrats in 2009 for failing to address Japan’s fiscal problems. An editorial raised the question of whether the voters would be persuaded that the Democrats could be trusted with power if the new party leader Hatoyama continued the same fiscal promises as those made by his predecessor, Ozawa Ichirou. Specifically the newspaper criticized plans to increase government payments to citizens without any corresponding increase in government revenue other than vague assurances to cut bureaucratic waste.27 Fiscal irresponsibility was unpopular with the paper, but the Democrats used this irresponsibility to win their only electoral victory, a massive landslide in the 2009 elections.
The true motivations for why Kan failed to copy the successful electoral strategy of 2009 and instead embark on a risky electoral strategy are unknown, but it is likely that he saw the need to take action and noted the consensus among not only the experts but also the opposition LDP that a tax increase was needed. Unfortunately for Kan, the rise of several small parties that explicitly attacked Kan for his proposal for a tax increase and his reneging on his party’s electoral promise not to raise taxes led to the Democrats’ loss in 2010. The LDP vote share did not rise compared to the previous 2007 election. Rather the Democrats’ vote share dropped, and the difference was picked up by three new parties, depriving the Democrats of a working majority in the upper house and contributing to a precipitous drop in Kan’s popularity.
In contrast, at the end of Kan’s year in office, he seemed to have learned the lesson of volatile voters and political popularity. In response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Kan made several statements and took actions that suggested his willingness to commit Japan to a future without nuclear power. His efforts in this regard were done despite expert opinion that Japan’s reliance on nuclear power was so great as to make a quick transition away from nuclear power nearly impossible. In this situation, Kan took a politically popular but unfeasible position, and his reputation rose as a result. One year earlier he took the politically unpopular but necessary position and saw his popularity plummet. Perhaps Kan learned the lesson in his one year in office that first and foremost a Japanese politician must remain popular, even if that means delaying a response to a looming fiscal crisis or creating an energy crisis by a too quick embrace of a highly popular anti-nuclear power stance.
The tax story continues in the actions of subsequent prime ministers. Kan’s successor, Noda, actually passed legislation that raised the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 8 percent with an additional increase to 10 percent to take effect 1.5 years later. His actions led to the Democrats’ electoral drubbing in the 2012 elections and paved the way for Abe’s return to power. Abe, in contrast, twice delayed the implementation of the second tax increase (to 10 percent), putting it off until October 2019, at the end of his political career. Clearly, Abe was aware that tax increases could have destroyed his political career.
The importance of keeping high levels of popularity also seem to be thwarting the making of difficult but necessary decisions in the United States. Though analysts argue about whether American voters are becoming more partisan (Abramowitz and Saunders, 2008; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope, 2006; Layman et al., 2010), they all agree that elites are more partisan than they were in the past and that voters have sorted more cleanly into ideologically coherent political parties, at least in comparison to previous decades. Thus, partisanship is blamed for the failure in the US government to effectively resolve fiscal crises in recent decades (deficits and social security funding).
In contrast, I argue that partisanship was just a byproduct of a common desire in both the Republican and Democratic Parties to avoid taking politically unpopular action or at least delay those actions until they would have a lesser effect on elections. Thus, rather than seeing a partisan inability to agree on issues as the main cause of legislative gridlock in the United States, I see a bipartisan desire to avoid making tough political decisions as the real cause of the failure to act. For example, comprehensive health care reform passed in 2010, but the authors of the legislation specifically delayed the implementation of many of the legislation’s requirements until after the 2012 elections. The bipartisan compromise reached in 2010 to extend the Bush tax cuts was for two additional years, punting the need to make a final decision on the future of the tax cuts until immediately after the 2012 election. When cuts to the popular Medicare Advantage program were scheduled to appear to voters in information mailed out to senior citizens during October 2012, the Obama administration devised a demonstration project that would put sufficient funds into the program to make it appear to voters that no changes had been made in the program until after the 2012 election. Republicans finally agreed to raise the debt limit ceiling after paying a political cost, but oddly both sides were interested in raising the limit only as much as would be needed to get past the 2012 election. A final piece of evidence that election timing and presidential popularity rather than partisanship are what cause fiscal paralysis in Washington is the fact that no action on these difficult fiscal issues was taken during 2009-10 when the Democrats had control of both the Congress and the presidency, nor in 2016-18 when the Republicans had similar control. Perhaps the volatility of US voters combined with the likely unpopularity of any measures that would put the US fiscal house in order (either less spending or higher taxes) make it unlikely that either party would take the strong action needed to address this crisis for fear of being blamed for the action in the next election.
These tendencies continue in the present political climate. In 2019 Democrats have proposed an overhaul of social security with tax increases (though only on the wealthy) coupled with a much more palatable expansion of benefits. Democrats understand that a social security proposal that only includes tax increases will be unpopular, so they have coupled that proposal with an enticing increase in benefits, even if the benefit increase is fiscally irresponsible. The repeated failures of Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act also show this same political calculation. The Republicans never found a way to signal to voters that repeal would not eliminate popular features of the Act, health care coverage for dependents until age 26 and the ban on insurers considering pre-existing conditions when signing up people for health insurance. Surely politicians have always considered the popularity of proposals when making or supporting such proposals. My argument is only that with more volatile voters, popularity, especially short-term popularity has become perhaps the most important feature of policy discussions.