What electoral politics isn’t: policy-driven

Paul Waldman argues:

If there’s one thing Republicans have understood and Democrats haven’t, it is that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are not those aligning their positions most precisely with a majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are (and a negative image of who their opponents are). Issues are a vehicle to create that identity, one that combines with symbolism and narrative to shape what the public thinks about when they think about Democrats and Republicans.

He may be right… but consider this: if issues don’t guide elections, then democratic governance as it is usually conceived, as an aggregation of preferences, is a sham. Instead, we face something closer to what radical political theorists like Madison called factionalism. The goal in that model isn’t to ‘get it right,’ where the ‘it’ could be anything from highway appropriations to abortion. Rather, the goal is to absorb the contention and militance of the populace in relatively unimportant battles, while the real governance occurs in the concatenation of business interests with growth and the status quo.

Policy reversals are reserved for moments of extreme ill-feeling, as when a policy has had severe economic effects, or a political party has shown itself to be radically corrupt. The rest of the time, electoral upsets only spell more of the same, since there will not be sufficient distance between the parties on fundamental issues, or else candidates could not receive the backing of corporate contributions or the support of the party machinery.

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