Unfortunately, if everyone follows that individually rational strategy, the political market fails, democracy doesn’t work, and we end up with a far-from-optimal outcome. And that is precisely the market failure that shrewd political campaigns seek to turn to their advantage.
There is a vigorous academic debate over whether negative advertising depresses or increases voter turnout. I suspect it does both, depressing turnout among moderates and independents while stimulating it at the ideological extremes. In that process, what has changed is the composition of the turnout rather than its overall level.
So, if this is such a winning strategy, why is it taking hold only now?
The most obvious reason is that American politics has gone through a gradual realignment since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which finally ended the Democratic hold on the South. The economic decline of the Midwest Rust Belt and the rapid growth in the Sunbelt were also big parts of this process. One result of this geographic shift has been that states and congressional districts became more politically and ideologically homogenous and thus more heavily tilted toward one party or the other — and all the more susceptible to aggressive redistricting strategies. In such an environment, appealing to moderate swing voters has become far less important.
Technology has also played a role. It is much easier today to pursue a strategy of energizing the base and suppressing the moderate vote when you can tailor your messages to different groups. Because of the Internet, sophisticated databases and cable television networks that hew to one ideology or another, such targeting is now easier and more effective.
More recently, the rise of “independent campaigns” run by PACs, unions, business organizations and other special interest groups has also heightened the polarization. These groups tend to air ads that are even more negative and more ideologically charged than the ones from the candidates themselves. And the candidates have been all too happy to reap the benefits while distancing themselves from such tactics.
The irony is that the politicians who prevail in these gladiator contests inherit a system so bitter, so partisan and so ideologically polarized that they can’t accomplish anything. They know that they and their constituents would be better off if they cooperated and compromised more, but they just can’t. If they try, they face a serious risk of being run out of office, either in the next primary by someone who better appeals to the party’s political base, or in the general election by an opponent whose extremism has allowed him or her to energize the other side’s core voters.
Politics has become a tragedy — a tragedy of the commons, that is. The individual pursuit of rational self-interest by parties and politicians, which in political and economic theory is supposed to generate the best outcome, has instead led to a cycle in which extremism, partisanship and stalemate all beget more of the same. We keep thinking it can’t continue like this, but it only gets worse.