The Dim-Post

September 26, 2016

Notes on the unidimensional spatial model of politics

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:28 am

Via Stuff:

Labour leader Andrew Little has rejected a suggestion by his predecessor Helen Clark that parties on the left must “command the centre ground” to win elections, describing the suggestion as “a pretty hollow view”.

Little says he instead is focused on building “a coalition of constituencies” as he prepares for next year’s election.

Clark told TVNZ progressive parties like Labour could not be written off and had to “roll with the punches” despite poor results around the world in recent years.

“The truth is that the modern politics in democratic societies has become a bit like a consumer exercise. You try something; you try something else.”

However, they had to ensure they had the support of voters in the centre in order to succeed, she said.

“It’s possible and it’s necessary, because to win an election in New Zealand or probably any Western society, you must command the centre ground.

“You have your strong core of supporters, but you must get the centre ground voters, and I think I was successful in that for quite a lot of years.”

But Little said he didn’t think an analysis about the centre is at all helpful – “it’s meaningless”.

Yes, this was a dumb thing for Little to say, but I sympathise. Talking about ‘the left’ or ‘the centre’ is useful shorthand, but the ‘median voter theory’ or, as political scientists call it, the ‘uni-dimensional spatial theory’ of voter behavior is meaningless and has been discredited for several decades, although some pundits still seem attached to it. The Republican Party in the US didn’t win the 2014 mid-term elections by appealing to ‘the median voter’. Trump is competitive in the US race and he ain’t ‘moving to the centre’.

For intellectuals interested in values and policy the unidimensional model is important. You can pick your side – ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ – and decide that they’re the good guys, and the others are the bad guys, and convince yourself anyone voting for the bad guys is doing so out of bad intentions or false consciousness. But very few voters think about politics like this. They decide based on social identity, valence issues like competence, their mood, largely determined by economic factors but also influenced by retail politics: interactions with politicians and their supporters. I think of this as ‘The Good Look’ spectrum (based on the press gallery’s current favourite euphemism for when a politician does something illegal or evil or stupid, that it is ‘not a good look’) and it interacts with the left-right spectrum

gls

On one hand, it feels like the Ideological Spectrum should be bounded by the Good-Look Spectrum: Move too far to an extreme on the x axis and it’s ‘not a good look’, while moving to the centre IS ‘a good look’. On the other hand: Trump.

But in NZ terms, when most voters move from Labour to National, ie from the bottom left quadrant to the top right quadrant it looks to an ideologue as if they’re moving from left to right. But voters just see themselves as moving from a less competent party to a more competent one. This is good news for the left in one sense: we don’t need to compromise our values to win voters! On the other hand, being more competent and organised than National over a long-enough timeline to win an election will be really very hard, much harder than just changing your policy platform and ‘moving to the centre’.

 

13 Comments »

  1. I was once taught law by someone from the UK who had practised criminal law in the East End of London. He used to say that the juries there only recognised 2 criminal offences: “out of order” and “well out of order”. Didn’t matter what the charge was, the accused would only be convicted if the jury was satisfied that he or she was out of order. Which sounds much like the Good Look spectrum to me.

    Comment by Nick R — September 26, 2016 @ 9:39 am

  2. I have invited colleagues to pelt me with rotten fruit if I ever use the phrase “not a good look” (except between quotation marks which serve as a kind of pair of long-handled tongs, as in this sentence).

    Little’s right. It is meaningless, mostly, But in politics you pick your battles, you choose what messages you want to send, and you don’t want to choose those which reinforce your existing negatives. This one does.

    Comment by Rob Hosking — September 26, 2016 @ 9:50 am

  3. It’s not a great look for one of our most influential political commentators to refuse to speak in terms that the person on the Onehunga rail line can easily comprehend.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 26, 2016 @ 9:53 am

  4. The Centre is just short hand for non-tribal loyalists.

    A party needs its tribal loyalists to exist but has to appeal beyond them to win an election.

    Having one 3 elections Clark’s observations are probably of some value and given what’s happened to the Brtish Labour Party a timely warning of what happens when no thought is given to the centre.

    Comment by NeilM — September 26, 2016 @ 10:00 am

  5. And then there is actual policy, based on principles…

    Comment by jmcveagh — September 26, 2016 @ 10:44 am

  6. Talking about ‘the left’ or ‘the centre’ is useful shorthand, but the ‘median voter theory’ or, as political scientists call it, the ‘uni-dimensional spatial theory’ of voter behavior is meaningless and has been discredited for several decades, although some pundits still seem attached to it. The Republican Party in the US didn’t win the 2014 mid-term elections by appealing to ‘the median voter’.

    The voter turn-out in the USA 2014 mid-terms was 36% and the voter turn-out in the NZ 2014 elections was 77%.

    The centre doesn’t vote in America and this is the where the theory Danyl offers gains credibility. In America the goal of an electoral cycle is to make the opposing team look incompetent in the eyes of their natural supporters. This works in America, because there are two political teams and no operable centre.

    Comment by unaha-closp — September 26, 2016 @ 11:36 am

  7. Could you explain what the point is of winning an election by adopting the more or less exact policies of your opponents?

    And how you avoid getting unelected, when, as happened to Clark & co, those policies work out just as badly as they would for National.

    Comment by richdrich — September 26, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

  8. I suppose you could read Little shooting his foot as a signal to the media that expert political analysis is irrelevant to voters. The reason Key has consistently copied Clark’s successful formula is that it works. The difference between the USA & Aotearoa on this point is indeed huge – probably due to the institutionalisation of corruption for at least the past century gradually whittling away the number of fools who believe in the US political system.

    So Little thinks he is on the road to winning by building “a coalition of constituencies” that somehow explicitly excludes centrists. Apart from unionists, likely constituencies seem strangely reluctant to spring to mind. The leftist greenies will support the MoU but the other greens will reserve judgment, bedrock Labour loyalists will bring in a tribal vote of barely 20%, so how he can get above 30% with such a concoction beats me. Perhaps carefully-targeted election bribes to a few choice major constituencies could do it?

    Comment by Dennis Frank — September 26, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

  9. “For intellectuals interested in values and policy the unidimensional model is important. You can pick your side – ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ – and decide that they’re the good guys, and the others are the bad guys, and convince yourself anyone voting for the bad guys is doing so out of bad intentions or false consciousness.”

    You appear to be saying that identifying a difference between left and right necessarily involves identifying one side as good and the other evil. This seems like a strawman.

    Also, it is quite possible Trump will lose, and if he does lose it may well be because of his failure to win the votes of independents and ideologically moderate Republican voters – and “the centre” is a pretty good way to describe that group. A better example of an American politician winning without “the centre” would be George Bush in 2004 with Karl Rove’s “get out the Republican base” strategy.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — September 26, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

  10. I’m not sure why Little feels the need to dismiss Clark as some political lightweight. He did the same over the TPP.

    Comment by NeilM — September 27, 2016 @ 9:17 am

  11. A better example of an American politician winning without “the centre” would be George Bush in 2004 with Karl Rove’s “get out the Republican base” strategy.

    Obama in ’12 is a yet more recent example. Romney won independents 50-45.

    Comment by Phil — September 27, 2016 @ 9:33 am

  12. “You appear to be saying that identifying a difference between left and right necessarily involves identifying one side as good and the other evil. This seems like a strawman.”

    Well, the right tend to view the left as uneducated in matters economic, but the left do actively demonise the right as evil. It’s in the handbook, isn’t it? They are all bigots and racists. Because being concerned about immigration is racist… except in NZ, when it seems to be okay for Labour and the Greens (and many on this blog) to question it, but “not okay” for NZ First.

    I’m still confused as to what exactly people on the left believe in, as many say they are socialist. But their oft-cited examples of “successful” socialist countries, are all north European countries which are capitalist, albeit with strong, well-funded social programmes.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — September 27, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

  13. Moving to the centre is one thing, and it’s a model that’s running into diminishing returns.
    Moving the centre is quite another thing, which likely takes lots of spadework and shoes on the ground.

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — September 27, 2016 @ 5:50 pm


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