Why Do Republicans Have Such Excellent Party Discipline


In contemporary US politics, if I know that an elected federal official is pro-life and have no other information about this official, then I am almost certain that this official also has pledged against any tax increases. In some sense, this is weird. Abortion is a social issue, while taxation is a fiscal issue. They don't even share the same policy space, so why is knowing an official's pro-life stance such a good predictor of their stance on taxes?

One might say this is due to both of these stances being tied to the Republican Party. That is part of it, but being a member of a party does not completely dictate issue stances. For example, during the late 1950s, the Democrats were bitterly split on the segregation issue. In fact, Republicans in Congress today are more ideologically extreme and synchronized with one another than any party since right before the US Civil War. I argue that this is due to the rise of pledges in American politics.

Today, several right wing interest groups, such as Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and Susan B. Anthony List (SBAL), have pledges they ask candidates to sign before they give any support to them. The vast majority of first-time Republican candidates sign these kinds of pledges.

One might ask, "why do they sign such pledges?" In order for a voter to vote for a candidate, the voter has to be familiar at least with the name of the candidate, especially in primaries when a candidate's party identification as a Republican is not sufficient to garner them a vote against other candidates in their party. In order to have name recognition, one either has to already be famous or have money to publicize themselves. The vast majority of first time candidates are not previously famous. Neither are they usually rich enough to self-finance their own campaigns, since congressional district campaigns can cost millions of dollars, while senatorial bids can cost tens of millions of dollars. So candidates are desperate for interest group wealth.

So Republican candidates sign all these pledges. One example is the ATR pledge, where the candidate pledges never to vote or sign legislation that includes a tax increase. Another is the SBAL pledge, where candidates promise to help push through legislation that ends federally funded abortions.

With a little luck, some of these Republican candidates will be elected to office. Now suppose one of these elected officials only signed some of these pledges, like the ATR pledge for example, because s/he was desperate for money. But now because s/he is in office and some fiscal crisis has hit and budget deficits are ballooning, s/he thinks it is no longer appropriate that multi-billionaire Warren Buffett has a lower tax rate than his secretary. So this Republican officeholder wants to break the pledge, but s/he doesn't because s/he is afraid of losing funding.

Now one might say to this that "this Republican officeholder is being too cowardly. Yeah, they might lose some of their funding, but there are thousands of interest groups out there that have nothing to do with taxes (e.g. pro-life groups) that will still support the officeholder. Losing interest group support from that one faction is not sufficient to cause them to lose re-election, especially since they have the incumbent advantage."

If the officeholder were a Democrat, then this claim might be right. However, for a Republican officeholder, I think there is more at stake than just one interest group. Rather, their support from the entire Republican coalition is questionable after breaking a pledge.

There are at least three reasons. The first, is that voters currently seem to be less likely to vote for officials that break pledges, even if the pledge breaking leads the official to the voter's position. I think there is significant evidence that this is a necessary part of the explanation, but I don't think it is the whole story since voters tend not be aware of all the pledges elected officials take. I think two additional reasons, based on elite reactions to pledges, are necessary to complete the explanation.

First, there is the non-coordinated reason. When an officeholder breaks a pledge with one interest group, other interest groups the officeholder has pledged with will be more hesitant to support them, since they have already reneged on a pledge and might do so in the future to their pledge. Second, and I think this is most important, especially among Republicans, is that Republican coalition interest groups seem to use a variant on the grim trigger strategy.

The idea is simple. Suppose that a Republican officeholder, who has made several pledges to Republican coalition interest groups, decides to break one. For the sake of example, let us say it is the ATR pledge. When Republican interest groups and bundlers find this out, then by coordination or tacit understanding, they are to stop funding and support for that Republican officeholder that broke the pledge. This tsunami of interest groups and bundlers dropping support is what the Republican officeholders fear. Because if it was just one group that would drop their support, that would not be the end of their political life. But this grim trigger threat, that they can lose an extremely large portion of their existing support whenever they renege on any pledge to a significant Republican coalition interest group, scares them into compliance.

We know there is some evidence for this claim. First, it explains why the coalition between big business and social conservatives is so strong. Big business groups know that social conservative groups will snub elected officials that burn big business, and social conservative groups know that big business will snub officials that burn social conservatives. So there is every reason for the coalition members to abide by the strategy. Second, we know that Grover Norquist, the head of ATR, holds a weekly meeting with virtually all major interest groups in the Republican coalition to coordinate actions. Third, we know that Republican party Congress members act almost in complete lockstep on several issues, including the 2009-2010 healthcare reform effort, and any efforts to raise taxes. Fourth, such a grim trigger strategy would help explain why Republicans are much more disciplined than Democrats, because if it were only the non-coordinated reason and the voter reason at play, then we should expect the Democrats and Republicans to have similar levels of party discipline in following their respective party lines. But empirically, we know Republicans are much more polarized and extreme and disciplined than the Democrats.

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