Friends with Books: Nils and EP Party Cohesion

A few friends came out with excellent books during the past two years, and it is worth their mention. A lot of friends do garbage work, so the mere mention of these books is meaningful. This is part one of some.

Nils Ringe‘s Who Decides and How?
Nils’ book is an excellent alternative explanation for European Parliament party cohesion that avoids the disturbingly trodden ground of the importance of left/right and national dimensionalities. Instead, Who Decides, and How?, argues that the positions adopted by expert MEPs affects the votes of other MEPs, thereby creating group/party action:

Nonexpert MEPs do not just follow any policy specialist, however, since they have to be concerned with the consequences of the legislation they enact. Therefore, they adopt the positions of their expert colleagues in the responsible committee whose preferences they believe most closely match their own. This is based on the assumption that these positions resemble what they would favor if they possessed the resources and expertise required to truly judge the content and likely implications of a specific policy proposal. The critical mechanism explaining the policy choice of MEPs is thus what I label perceived preference coherence (PPC) between expert and nonexpert legislators.

This approach offers a few accomplishments lacking in the existing literature. First, it nicely incorporates a degree of flexibility that parsimoniously explains variations across votes within (informal) MEP groups. That is, the PPC formation process allows individual MEPs to factor and weigh information in different ways for different issues and situations. The rather impositional and templated traditional explanation can only offer that same degree of flexibility through a more complicated process that does little to instill confidence in handling a large number of varied vote outcomes.

A second benefit of Nils’ approach is that it explains party cohesion in a bottom-up, rather than top-down, manner. Rather than forcing dimensionality to explain the long-standing argument that parties control their members, Who Decides, and How? argues that individual MEP preferences lead to group/party behavior/cohesion. That is, the members make the party rather than the party making the members. While Nils does not dismiss the key factors in the top-down approach, it is rather shortsighted to ignore the role of actors, especially when keeping in mind the lack of resources EP parties have to control their members (as compared to other political parties).

A third benefit to this PPC approach is that it is more generalizable. Not only does the theory work well in legislators where parties have more whipping capabilities (e.g., US Congress), but also where the ideological landscape is not accurately distilled to a simple notion of left/right. In fact, this left/right focus has become a bit of a burden on the traditional explanations as the the legislative agenda, MEP membership, and general composition of the EU has changed over time, including but not limited to the incorporation of eastern Europe. As a result, there are frequent attempts to redefine, expand, or simply force the left/right model of ideological dimensionality, rather than simply bypassing it with a more parsimonious and generalizable model, such as the one Nils offers.

The PPC argument rests upon the flow of information among MEPs, meaning that social-network issues and questions are near. Although Nils’ methods in this book are varied and a beautiful example of how so-called quantitative and so-called qualitative methods can be nicely reconciled for a given research project, he does not rigorously dive into the social networks of MEPs and whether the empirical evidence from this line of questioning supports his argument. This and my other responses to Who Decides, and How? are, admittedly, beyond the scope of this book, but something he has considered nevertheless. In fact, his recent work has tackled this issue using a social network framework, specifically in the following three works:

Beyond Cheap Talk and Free Lunch: The Social and Political Power of Legislative Member Organizations, under contract at The Michigan University Press

The Social Utility of Informal Institutions: Caucuses as Networks in the 110th US House of Representatives,” with Jennifer N. Victor, American Politics Research, Volume 37, Issue 5 (peer-reviewed special issue on ‘Social Networks and American Politics’), September 2009, 742-766.

“Keeping Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Information Networks in Legislative Politics”, with Jennifer N. Victor and Justin H. Gross

Now only if he would take the criticisms I levied at existing SNA work during a conversation over an espresso on a beautiful summer day in Paris two summers ago seriously.