Interest groups and political polarisation: outside the Bell Curve

There is a great passage in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay (pp.481-484) that reminded me of what we’ve talked about here before: the exaggerated nature of political debate.

To summarise our thoughts (in the context of public services):

  • People’s experiences of public services follow a Normal Distribution
  • Although most people’s experiences are average or thereabouts, the experiences and examples we hear most about are, almost by definition, unusual
  • Politicians, organisations (from whatever sector) and the media most often talk about the very best or the very worst that public services have to offer
  • The very rare is what drives most activity in public services.

It’s this difference between the ends and the middle of the Normal Distribution that creates the problem in the space of people’s expectations of public services: The gap between what the Normal Distribution says our experience is most likely to be (95% of people will get an average service) and what we think our experience will be – the space represented by newspaper headlines and political rhetoric – leads to expectations that, in reality, can very rarely be met.

Normal Distribution - public services

Fukuyama’s example relates to interest groups within the political economy, and it is a compelling explanation of why our political debate feels so polarised (in the equivalent way to why feelings about our public services are so polarised).

By way of background, Fukuyama first notes Mancur Olson’s negative portrayal of interest groups, in which Olson feels they operate only to extract benefits for themselves. This itself would be fine, except for the fact the general public can’t organise as effectively as relatively small interest groups, resulting in a “steady diversion of energy” into activities that only benefit the interest groups.

Fukuyama then summarises de Tocqueville’s more positive take on interest groups, in which it’s argued they are “schools for democracy” and teach private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes.

Somewhere between the two is James Madison, whose view of interest groups was that, even if you don’t agree with the ends a particular interesting group is after, the fact there are so many of them would prevent any one group from dominating. Echoing how a free market operates, this pluralist approach to interest groups means they’d all interact to produce an overall good for the public.

What, though, is the reality? Fukuyama comes to the same conclusion we do about the exaggerated nature of public policy – interest groups polarise politics.

Sharks Jets
Image via Fanpop

Fukuyama gets to this conclusion by drawing on arguments from E.E. Scattschneider and Olson as follows:

  • Political outcomes rarely follow from political preferences. Because there’s generally a low level of political awareness and participation amongst the population as a whole, decisions are actually taken by smaller groups of organised interests
  • What compounds this is that not all interest groups are equally capable of organising themselves
  • Those that are capable of organising are much more motivated to do so: they may feel more strongly or have more clearly defined positions they need to “defend” compared to weakly-held views or less well-defined positions
  • As a result, “politics is defined by well-organised activists, whether in parties or government, the media, or lobbying and interest groups” and there is an “intrinsic overrepresentation of narrow interests”
  • As a result we do not get compromise positions; instead we have polarisation and deadlocked politics.

It’s this that leads to the nonsense we see on Question Time each week, or “debates” where a presenter simply pits one viewpoint’s representative against another’s. It’s frustrating, and actually not at all representative of what the vast majority of people think.

Whilst political debate therefore operates mainly in these exaggerated positions at the margins, so it will be that people will disengage because of the seeming irrelevance of the debates to people’s everyday thoughts and beliefs.

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rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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