Small Actors and A Second Dimension

Update, March 9: Ezra Klein wrote Wonkblog post that deals with many of the issues below and the fissures within the Republican Party. I bet he’d find similar fault lines within the Democratic Party as well.

On Twitter yesterday, I had a small debate with two people–Matt Yglesias and Brendan Nyhan–who are smarter than me when it comes to policy. I argued that there’s a chance that copyright and other issues that pit small actors (e.g., start ups, small businesses, creative artists) against large actors (e.g., existing IP holders, large companies, entrenched interests) might create a second ideological dimension in Congress. (The first dimension is the partisan liberal-to-conservative/Democratic-to-Republican spectrum.)

In the mid-20th Century there was a second dimension on race issues in Congress (see the Southern Democrats), but no longer. Nyhan relates his work on a current 2nd dimension this way:

My initial tweet linked to an article that argued that pro-reform copyright issues were a natural fit for Republicans given Dem’s alliance with Hollywood. But, since Republicans are primarily funded by big business (who hold a lot of IP), this argument seemed off to me. Rather, perhaps a “small actor” alliance could form between members of both parties.

Admittedly, the chance of this alliance forming and enduring is small. Yglesias rightly mentions the issue of abortion, which took a decade to align itself along the primary political axis, but finally did. (See Achen and Bartels for the political science behind this self-sorting alignment.) If the visceral issue of abortion couldn’t start a second dimension, how can copyright?

Below the evidence that, at least for the moment, small v big actor issues do cut across the two parties. Perhaps if the issue stays in the background, activists and elites will not feel compelled to align their stances with their partisan affiliations. Of course, in that case, there will be few roll call votes to form a statistically relevant 2nd dimension. Respecting those caveats:

After briefly reviewing (some of) the evidence, I conclude that there is an underlying second dimension on these small v big actor issues in Congress, but there probably aren’t enough roll call votes for this dimension to pop in the data. Given this current reality, I’ll stand by my position that there is a non-zero chance that this dimension appears in the future. I would just need long odds to bet on it.

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