Switchhitters

Is party switching a solution to the government shutdown?

The math doesn’t seem to favor any resolution to the crisis so long as Boehner controls the House, many GOP having little electoral incentive to compromise, and Harry Reid drawing some lines in the sand of his own.

The last two don’t seem likely to change, but the first could change if Boehner lost the majority. Other than waiting for the next election, this would happen if at least 17 to 18  Republican House members switched their party affiliation to Democratic.

The math: there are 232 Republicans, with two vacancies in GOP-leaning districts.There are 200 Democrats, with one vacancy in a Dem-leaning district.In a 432-member House, whoever controls 217 votes (half plus one) has a majority. If 17 Republicans became Democrats, this could happen – although one more would make the margin durable to the likely make-up of a full 435-member House.

This type of massive party switch seems highly unlikely.While as many as 20 GOP are ready to side with Democrats to reopen the government, many of these members are very conservative and would be loath to switch parties more permanently. Of the 20 GOP, it appears that only six are considered vulnerable to losing their seat to a Democrat: Davis, Fitzpatrick, Grimm, Meehan, Rigell and Young. (Although as many as 23 more GOP are in competitive elections, according to the Cook Political Report.)

Also, major partisan realignments typically happen through elections and are very rare. And while around 160 House members have switched parties while in office, the majority of these changes happened at election time. (It seems that between 20 and 30 have changed while in office, although I haven’t seen a totally reliable tally.) In the modern party era, the most members that have switched in a single year have been 5: in 1919, 1935 and 1995, and none of these were blocs going from GOP to Democratic.

However, at times of great turmoil, party switching isn’t unheard of. As Timothy Nokken and Keith Poole write:

King and Benjamin (1986) study party defections over a wide swath of American history (1789-1984). They find that party switching is most likely to coincide with important political events such as changes in partisan control of political institutions, with changes in key economic indicators, and in times of military conflict. In recent Congresses, it is the ideologically cross-pressured members who are most likely to change parties (Castle and Fett, 1996). In spatial terms, some Democrats (Republicans) might find themselves closer to the median member of the Republican (Democratic) Party, hence such cross-pressured members may find a party switch appealing for ideological reasons. During the past 30 years, the Republican Party sought to facilitate the party defection of a number of conservative Southern Democrats at both the national and sub-national level with an active recruitment process to join the GOP (Canon, 1992).

These 20 GOP House members will consider what wins out in the battle of political loyalty, electoral pressures, ideas about rationality in government, and adherence to right leaning ideological traditions.

This last factor should not be overlooked. While many on the left find it impossible to contemplate how the GOP could come to the conclusions it does about health care and deficits, their recent actions show that ideology as a source of social power is alive and well. Michael Mann, who has written extensively about this issue, writes:

An ideological movement that increases the mutual trust and collective morale of a group may enhance their collective powers and be rewarded with more zealous adherence. To monopolize norms is thus a route to power…

Knowledge purveyed by an ideological power movement necessarily “surpasses experience” (as Parsons puts it). It cannot be totally tested by experience, and therein lies its distinctive power to persuade and dominate. But it need not be false; if it is, it is less likely to spread. People are not manipulated fools. And though ideologies always do contain legitimations of private interests and material domination, they are unlikely to attain a hold over people if they are merely this. Powerful ideologies are at least highly plausible in the conditions of the time, and they are genuinely adhered to…

Ideological power offers a distinctive sociospatial method of dealing with emergent social problems… ideologies of class or nation (the main examples) with their distinctive infrastructures, usually extensive and diffuse, contributed importantly to the exercise of power from the times of the ancient Assyrian and Persian empires onward.

POSTSCRIPT, 3 pm: For any of this party-switching to occur, Democrats would have to make clear that the new caucus members would get to occupy a position like the Blue Dogs used to occupy, before they got wiped out. And, some pretty sweet deals like committee chairmanships. And, they’d have to all jump at once, so no single one of them could be overly targeted.

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