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At the end of the twentieth century, academics and policymakers welcomed a trend toward fiscal and political decentralization as part of a potential solution for slow economic growth and poor performance by insulated, unaccountable governments. For the last two decades, researchers have been trying to answer a series of vexing questions about the political economy of multi-layered governance. Much of the best recent research on decentralization has come from close collaborations between university researchers and international aid institutions. As the volume and quality of this collaborative research have increased in recent decades, the time has come to review the lessons from this literature and apply them to debates about future programming. In this volume, the contributors place this research in the broader history of engagement between aid institutions and academics, particularly in the area of decentralized governance, and outline the challenges and opportunities to link evidence and policy action.
Using new data on roll-call voting of US state legislators and public opinion in their districts, we explain how ideological polarization of voters within districts can lead to legislative polarization. In so-called “moderate” districts that switch hands between parties, legislative behavior is shaped by the fact that voters are often quite heterogeneous: the ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans within these districts is often greater than the distance between liberal cities and conservative rural areas. We root this intuition in a formal model that associates intradistrict ideological heterogeneity with uncertainty about the ideological location of the median voter. We then demonstrate that among districts with similar median voter ideologies, the difference in legislative behavior between Democratic and Republican state legislators is greater in more ideologically heterogeneous districts. Our findings suggest that accounting for the subtleties of political geography can help explain the coexistence of polarized legislators and a mass public that appears to contain many moderates.
Political polarization in the United States causes inefficiency and policy uncertainty. This occurs not because of unusually high levels of ideological polarization among voters or legislators that generate large policy swings. Rather, it is a problem of extreme gridlock under a unique form of two-party presidential democracy in which changes from the status quo frequently require defections from opposition legislators.
This chapter explores the argument that these defections are increasingly difficult to achieve because of a profound transformation of American political geography associated with deindustrialization and suburbanization. Our understanding of this transformation is still limited, as should be the hubris with which we dispense reform advice. This chapter advocates a cautious and experimental approach to reform at the state level, focusing on the potential advantages of some form of compulsory voting.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The United States has a unique constitution. It is one of the only countries in the world that combines a strict two-party system with a presidential form of government. Its only peers are Venezuela, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. As demonstrated in Figure 7.1, all other former British colonies with singlemember districts and strict two-party systems have a parliamentary form of government. These countries have no need for bipartisanship. Members of the government party almost always vote for the legislative proposals of the executive, and members of the opposition vote against. A bimodal distribution of roll-call voting scores without centrists is neither remarkable nor troubling in a parliamentary system.
The problem in the United States is that for two-thirds of the years since 1950, the president has not presided over a partisan legislative majority. To achieve any change from the status quo, the president must assemble the votes not only of co-partisans but also of some members of the opposition party. In most other presidential systems, the chief executive is able to assemble multiparty coalitions rather than relying on defections from a single opposition party that controls the legislative agenda.
Due to insufficient sample sizes in national surveys, strikingly little is known about public opinion at the level of Congressional and state legislative districts in the United States. As a result, there has been virtually no study of whether legislators accurately represent the will of their constituents on individual issues. This article solves this problem by developing a multilevel regression and poststratification (MRP) model that combines survey and census data to estimate public opinion at the district level. We show that MRP estimates are excellent predictors of public opinion and referenda results for both congressional and state senate districts. Moreover, they have less error, higher correlations, and lower variance than either disaggregated survey estimates or presidential vote shares. The MRP approach provides American and Comparative Politics scholars with a valuable new tool to measure issue-specific public opinion at low levels of geographic aggregation.
Like a fashion trend traveling from New York to the heartland, soul-searching about causality has made its way from empirical research in economics to that in political science with the usual lag. Gone are the days when it was enough to have a nice theory, a conditional correlation, and some rhetoric about the implausibility of competing explanations while implying but assiduously avoiding the “c” word. Editors, reviewers, and search committees are beginning to look for more explicit and careful empirical treatments of causality. That is, following a definition of causality tracing back to Mill (1848), researchers are expected to lay out a set of possible outcomes, or counterfactuals, generated by a set of determinants, and demonstrate that holding all possible determinants except one at a constant level, the manipulation of that determinant is associated with a specific change in outcome, which can be deemed a causal effect (Heckman 2005).
It does not take much soul-searching to realize, however, that the observational studies that make up the vast majority of empirical explorations in comparative politics are deeply flawed when held up to the experimental ideal. Where does this leave us? In the extreme view, if we cannot do randomized field experiments or perhaps survey experiments, we should do nothing. The opposite extreme position holds that this would remake comparative politics into an arid subfield of program evaluation, turning a blind eye to the interesting and important questions that animated the field in its golden era (definitions vary).
A venerable supposition of American survey research is that the vast majority of voters have incoherent and unstable preferences about political issues, which in turn have little impact on vote choice. We demonstrate that these findings are manifestations of measurement error associated with individual survey items. First, we show that averaging a large number of survey items on the same broadly defined issue area—for example, government involvement in the economy, or moral issues—eliminates a large amount of measurement error and reveals issue preferences that are well structured and stable. This stability increases steadily as the number of survey items increases and can approach that of party identification. Second, we show that once measurement error has been reduced through the use of multiple measures, issue preferences have much greater explanatory power in models of presidential vote choice, again approaching that of party identification.
If voters use information about the economy to assess the competence of incumbents, a connection between economic conditions and incumbent success should only be discernible in settings where public policy might plausibly affect the economy, and where the assignment of government responsibility is relatively straightforward. Applying this logic to gubernatorial elections in the United States, we test the following hypothesis: the connection between economic conditions and incumbents' vote shares is mediated by the structure of the state economy. This hypothesis is premised on the idea that voters understand that raw macroeconomic aggregates – when driven by factors like weather, commodity prices and federal policy – are poor signals of incumbent performance. Using data from gubernatorial elections held between 1950 and 1998, we show that the connection between macroeconomic indicators and incumbent success is weak in states dominated by natural resources and farming but quite strong elsewhere. This finding helps explain why earlier studies found no connection between state-level economic conditions and gubernatorial elections.
This book asks a very specific question: Under what conditions do the actions of state and local governments strengthen or undermine the overall fiscal discipline of government? Yet the question is posed with an eye on older and larger questions about the relationship between decentralization, federalism, and the efficiency and accountability of government. Thus, it is useful to situate current debates about fiscal discipline within a larger current of intellectual history that runs through the classics of political philosophy to modern public economics. Moreover, an important first step in doing theoretical and empirical work on this topic is to cut through the array of definitions and measurements of decentralization and federalism used in diverse literatures and settle on some concepts that will be used throughout the book. In doing so, this chapter also serves to highlight the ways in which the approach taken in this book departs from previous studies.
After introducing in broad terms the classic themes that motivate modern research, this chapter reviews the contributions of welfare economics and public choice theory to the notion that federalism and decentralization can enhance the efficiency and accountability of government. It pays special attention to theories suggesting that decentralization, especially in the context of federalism, can enhance overall fiscal discipline. Next, these abstract arguments are confronted with attempts to define decentralization and federalism with more precision and pin them down with cross-country empirical measures.