In which I play amateur political scientist

Mark Palko writes:

I have a couple of what are probably poli sci 101 questions.

The first involves the unintended (?) consequences of plans bring political power back to the common people. The two examples I have in mind are California’s ballot initiatives and parental trigger laws but I’m sure I’m missing some obvious ones. It seems like these attempts to bring power to ordinary people are generally taken over very quickly by those with money and power.

The obvious explanation is proposals that, with the intention of making things more democratic, allow small groups to have more power are prone to being taken over by special interests. Is this a recognized principle? If so, does it have a name?

The second involves issues reversing partisan connotations, cases where certain positions go from being strongly identified with one end of the political spectrum to being strongly identified with the other. The example I have in mind is pacifism. As far as I can tell, being anti-war was basically a liberal position in 1915, a conservative one in 1940 and a liberal one in 1965. Are there other, better examples? Do these shifts create problems for researchers studying political affiliations?

My reply:

On the first item, yes, lots of people have written about the way that potential reforms can backfire. I’m in general skeptical of such skepticism; my attitude is that shaking up the political system is generally a good thing. And if the powers-that-be end up taking over various reform measures, well, that takes some effort on their part. I’m also suspicious of the reforms-don’t-work argument because it is so generic. Albert Hirschman discussed this in detail in his classic book.

On the second item, I’ve long been interested in issues whose correlation with partisanship is fluid. Indeed, I’ve been fascinated with this topic since first studying political science, thirty years ago. The work of scholars such as Bob Shapiro is relevant to these questions, but I still don’t feel I have the big picture here.

12 thoughts on “In which I play amateur political scientist

  1. Is it clear that parental trigger laws are a failure? Palko seems to consider this obvious.

    When the power goes to people but people don’t use the power in a way that the intelligentsia expected they would have used it there’s a tendency to pejoratively label that as unintended consequences.

  2. Mark Palko wrote the anti-war position that it was:
    a conservative one [position] in 1940

    The hard left was strongly against US participation in the European war until mid 1941. For example, consider the history of the Almanac Singers—antiwar in May, 1941, strongly pro-war by November or December. Compare Pete Seegers anti-draft “Plow Under” of early 1941 with his “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” of late 1941. Two lines of it were:
    I wish I had a rope to tie Around old Hitler’s neck.

    Many elements on both the left and right were pro war in the Pacific. The right because of the Japanese invasion of China; the left because of the Japanese clashes with the USSR. I believe, although I don’t have clear evidence, that those clashes led the USSR to encourage elements in the US to oppose Japan.

    The history page on the IWLU Seattle local website states, “What was recalled along the march was Bridges’ seminal role as perhaps the first San Francisco internationalist. He presciently in 1936 led the ILWU in refusing to load scrap iron aboard ships going to Japan.” There are substantial references that indicate the Harry Bridges, head of the ILWU, was left of center.


    • Bob,

      Rather than “hard left,” I’d probably say communist, or better yet, pro-Soviet. I’m under the impression that most liberals were anti-Nazi in 1940 [ for example], while the pro-Soviet faction became anti-war with the Nazi Soviet anti-aggression pact and became pro-war at 03:15 on 22 June 1941.

  3. Gotta step back much further than 2014 California to see the Poli Sci 101 Big Picture

    The concept of “democracy” itself (majority rule) was also intended as reform and to “bring political power back to the common people”…. but is “generally taken over very quickly by those with money and power”. You don’t even have democracy in play at any level; got much bigger structural problems… tiny ballot issues are just a symptom.

    Nobody was elected by a majority of the their electorate in this month’s U.S. elections. Special interest Minority-Rule is the rule …. due to the U.S. plurality voting system, that in turn causes the dominant and dysfunctional American 2-Party system.
    (Re: Duverger’s Law of Political Science)

    How many Americans do you think are happy with their government ? Unintended consequences indeed.

  4. Initiatives work well for qualitative social policy, such as legalizing drugs or banning affirmative action. They are no good for quantitative budgetary decisions, like the 2008 California initiative to spend $10 billion on high speed rail. I knew it would cost vastly more than that, but most people didn’t so it passed.

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