Boehner in a Manger? The Entitativity Scene in DC

The SHUTDOWN-CEILING SHOWDOWN has been depicted, typically, as “the Republicans versus [Democrats/Obama].”  The simple story here is that many people think of “the Republicans” as a unified whole, a group qua “unitary actor,” a collection of individuals who are acting as one.[1]  My recent posts (e.g. this, this, and this) and my recent blustering on the wireless have attempted to make clear that this understanding of the negotiations/stalemate obfuscate attempts to understand how the drama is playing out and the true causes of the “governing from-crisis-to-crisis” dynamic in DC.

The popular/informal understanding of the Republicans is an example of what is known as entitativity, which describes the perception of a group as an entity, generalized from its individual members.  My recent posts have pointed out that Boehner and the other leaders have multiple factions to worry about, and I argue that the varying incentives of the members of these various factions provide a key starting point in understanding the apparent irrationality of this bargaining process.

A very nice example of the language/framework I am discussing here is provided by this nice piece by Jonathan Chait, “Stop Fretting: The Debt-Ceiling Crisis Is Over!” who writes:

Of the Republican Party’s mistakes, the most rational was its assumption that Democrats would ultimately bend. … Democrats would have to pay a ransom. Republicans spent weeks prodding for every weakness.

Democrats seemed to share a genuine moral revulsion at the tactics and audacity of a party that had lost a presidential election by 5 million votes, lost another chance to win a favorable Senate map, and lost the national House vote demanding the winning party give them its way without compromise.

Probably the single biggest Republican mistake was in failing to understand the way its behavior would create unity in the opposing party. 

The MathOfPolitics of entitativity is interesting.  Defining the notion in 1958,[2] Donald T. Campbell described three important characteristics that supported entitativity in the sense of leading observers to think of a group as an entity:[3]

  1. Common fate, or the degree to which the members experience common outcomes,
  2. Similarity of members’ behaviors and/or appearances, and
  3. Proximity, or the positive correlation of perception: when you see/”think of” one member, you tend to see/”think of” other members as well.

The three dimensions of entitativity are really interesting to think about in the context of Congressional bargaining because each of these dimensions is politically relevant on its own.  Common fate, for example, is highly relevant for the two parties in DC.  The candidates of a given party clearly face a common challenge (winning the most votes in their districts on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November), and they tend to face common hurdles.  Parties are “brand names,” and many political scientists believe that many voters punish and/or reward candidates based on their partisan affiliation, above and beyond the platforms and records of the candidates themselves.  Furthermore, when it comes to being in the majority or minority following (say) the 2014 election, House Republicans obviously have a common fate.

Similarity is clearly relevant in terms of individuals’ perceptions of the parties.  For example, the GOP is worried that it is seen as the party of stuffy old white men. At the same time, the reality of common fate discussed above provides an incentive for displaying unity, something that Boehner has repeatedly been faced with (last week and back in 2011), though it is arguably collapsing today.  The Democrats have been pursuing a similar strategy.  What is important to note in each of these cases is the public argument/assertion that “the party” should be unified.  The appeals in these cases are coming from party leaders, on partisan/policy grounds.  That is, these are not appeals along the lines of “look, we all have the same interests and just happen to share a label.”  These are “we share a label because and/or therefore we share the same interests.”

Finally, proximity is an interesting consideration in light of some second-order differences between the members themselves.  For example, the Tea Party is recognized as a faction within the GOP more than, say, Log Cabin Republicans because members of the tea party are “seen together” more frequently.  For example, the Tea Party has a caucus in the House.  Similarly, some members such as Senators Ted Cruz, John McCain, and Rand Paul, and Representative Michele Bachmann are portrayed (and often promote themselves) as different than the “typical” Republican, and their actions and statements are often differentiated from those of “the Republicans.”

The notion of entitativity is interesting at times like these precisely because the relationship between its origins and effects illustrate how the costs and benefits of partisan “unity” are—at least relative to times of normal governing/bargaining–altered/reversed in times of crisis bargaining, as is going on in DC now.  More specifically, it demonstrates an alternate understanding of the “Hastert rule” and other related procedures used by both parties to attempt to promote internal unity/consensus on external decision-making.  When dealing with a normal bargaining situation—one in which members are not (or do not expected to be) under particularly fine-grained scrutiny by their constituents—copartisans with at least partially common (policy and electoral) fates have an incentive to bind themselves together.  However, when the matter at hand is high profile, the partial nature of the common fate undergirding “the party” is revealed: as constituents watch their members’ votes more closely, the differences between the districts represented by—and hence electoral fates/fortunes of—the party’s members come into starker relief.  Similarly, as the policy stakes of the vote “get larger,” the usually minor differences between the party’s members “policy fates” (policy goals, personal ideologies) loom larger.[3]

The problem, then, is how to balance the value of unity during “normal times”—unity that is truly useful only to the degree that it is perceived/believed by others and accordingly is less valuable if it cracks when “everybody is watching”—and the need for flexibility when governing requires simply “getting the job done.”  If we could all credibly commit, for today at least, to “not paying attention to which party a member is in,” I strongly suspect the current crisis would end within the hour.[4]  In a sense, we have to take entitativity out of the scene for a second to get to the next act.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] I talk about the GOP here, but the basics apply to discussions of “the Democrats,” too.

[2] See Campbell, D. T. (1958). “Common fate, similarity, and other indices of the status of aggregates of person as social entities.” Behavioural Science, 3, 14–25.

[3] Remember Blue Dog Democrats and Senator Nelson’s “Cornhusker Kickback?” Both parties have unity issues when the stakes get big and the votes get visible.

[4] Similarly, we could agree to not record the votes.  I’ve said before, if we could somehow get a debt ceilingincrease/CR approved with a voice vote, this would be over already.  And, of course, the House used to do something like this all the time, with “the Gephardt Rule.”  The GOP got rid of this in 1995.  But, as Sarah Binder notes, note that this particular rule would not save us much pain right now.