Page 2

Electoral Competition (Second Edition)

I have been describing the changes in store for my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Let me now turn to the three opening chapters: electoral competition under certainty, electoral competition under uncertainty, and special interest politics (the last of these substantially but not only applied models of electoral competition).

The formal analysis of elections was among the first applications of game theory to the study of politics. The field is well developed, and at times it seems there must not be much more to say. In fact, the study of elections has been reinvigorated with the incorporation of assumptions about parties’ (or candidates’) “immutable” characteristics—their honesty or competence, for example—which both intuition and empirical evidence suggest citizens weigh in deciding how to vote. When voters’ preferences over these characteristics are homogeneous and separable from their preferences over policy, we say that parties may possess a “valence” advantage. Numerous models explore platform choice in the presence of such advantages. I discuss some key findings briefly as an exercise in the chapter on electoral competition under certainty, and then more extensively in the following chapter on electoral competition under uncertainty.

The real payoff from this approach, in my opinion, comes when we drop the assumption that preferences over parties’ immutable characteristics and preferences over policy are separable. Consider a phenomenon well known to students of political behavior: the “ownership” of issues by one party or another. In the context of American politics, for example, the Republican Party historically has been more trusted on national defense, the Democratic Party more on education and healthcare. This is not about a party’s general competence but about its competence in producing some policy outcomes over others.

Stefan Krasa and Mattias Polborn have an elegant model of electoral competition with issue ownership; it is the most substantial addition to the first three chapters of Formal Models of Domestic Politics. The environment is straightforward—voters differ in the weight they place on different public goods; parties differ in their efficiency in providing those goods, to which they allocate more or less spending—but equilibrium behavior is truly surprising for anyone schooled in the Downsian tradition. Parties propose distinct bundles of public goods, even though they are office-seeking rather than policy-seeking, with each party providing more of the good that it produces more efficiently. And the positions they adopt are independent of uncertainty about voters’ preferences. Shift the expected median to the right or the left, and parties stay put; it is their probability of winning that changes, not their platforms. Applied to American politics, one can see the dilemma of the GOP in the face of changing demographics: so long as voters as constant in their evaluation of parties’ ownership of various issues, no shift in platform can prevent the erosion of support among an electorate increasingly attuned to “Democratic” issues.

There is, of course, another tradition of modeling elections as a mechanism for selecting politicians according to their type: the formal analysis of “political agency,” in which an incumbent politician plays agent to voters’ principals. But that is another chapter, a topic for another post.

Regime Change (Second Edition)

In previous posts, I began to describe the changes to my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics, with a second edition planned for next year. Most of those changes involve new material: additional models and exercises, a new chapter on nondemocracy. There are, however, a handful of clarifications—small edits suggested by eagle-eyed students at UW and instructors using the textbook elsewhere, but also one big one in the chapter on regime change. A large portion of that chapter is devoted to the Acemoglu-Robinson model of regime change: an important theoretical framework in its own right, and also an opportunity to teach Markov games and the associated solution concept, Markov perfect equilibrium. Unfortunately, there was an error in the analysis, which nobody seemed to catch until Acemoglu and Robinson posted a correction in 2017.

I discussed this correction shortly after it first circulated. I wrote then:

Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson recently posted a correction to the key proposition in “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective,” the seminal paper in what has proven to be an enormously influential research enterprise. That proposition characterizes equilibrium in terms of the parameter q, which measures the probability of future unrest in an undemocratic regime. When q is large, then promises of future redistribution are fully credible and democratization is unnecessary, whereas when q is small the elite democratize to prevent revolution the first time that the poor pose a credible threat of unrest.

Those results still hold in the corrected proposition, but it turns out that for intermediate values of q, the unique equilibrium is in mixed strategies: the elite democratizes with probability strictly between zero and one, and revolution occurs on the equilibrium path. Technically, this correction is driven by a failure in the original analysis to check for all possible deviations. Substantively, the issue arises because institutional change in the Acemoglu-Robinson model is treated as a discrete choice: democratize/not. This discreteness implies that democratization, when it takes place, leaves the poor with strictly more than their payoff from revolution, thus creating scope for the deviation that Acemoglu and Robinson discuss in their correction.

The basic idea, as I wrote in a subsequent paper with Paul Castañeda Dower, Evgeny Finkel, and Steven Nafziger, is that

[O]ffering maximal redistribution whenever the poor pose a credible threat of unrest, holding constant the elite’s equilibrium strategy to extend the franchise the first time that the poor subsequently have de facto political power…is profitable to the elite if the poor respond by not revolting. That this may be possible in principle follows from the fact that democratization only works as a commitment device when the value to the poor from democracy, in which distribution is maximal in every period, is greater than that from revolution. If the poor are sufficiently patient, maximal distribution in the current period, while deferring franchise expansion to the next time that the poor post a credible threat of unrest, is sufficient to prevent revolution.

As I also overlooked this, the main text and a couple of exercises in Formal Models of Domestic Politics required correction. Done. And making lemonade out of lemons, there is some pedagogic value in the revised discussion. In my experience, the one-deviation property is typically not learned on first exposure. What better way to illustrate its application than to walk through a deviation sufficiently subtle that it was missed for nearly twenty years?

What else? Well, the reason I knew about this correction is that Evgeny discovered it just as our article on “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies” was going to press. In that paper, by way of setting up the empirical work, we generalize the Acemoglu-Robinson model to allow for a continuous institutional choice, which serendipitously—and instructively—sidesteps the issue discussed above. There is a brief discussion of that in the second edition of Formal Models of Domestic Politics. I also riff a bit on equilibrium multiplicity in “global games,” building on work by Mehdi Shadmehr and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, and I provide a couple of new exercises. But mostly the revisions to this chapter—in contrast to all other chapters in the text—are about fixing what was previously incorrect.

Veto Players (Second Edition)

In my last post, I discussed in broad terms work on a second edition of my textbook, Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Beginning with this post, I will lay out the specific changes I have made to the text.

For the existing chapters, most changes fall into one of three categories: new models, new exercises (which sometimes cover new models), and clarifications. The chapter on veto players has a bit of each. In the first edition, this covered a grab bag of models in which some players had the ability to block change in policy from the status quo. This included both the social-choice theoretic treatment of George Tsebelis, with its normative emphasis on “stability,” and Keith Krehbiel’s theory of pivots, with its mirror-image focus on “gridlock.” One contribution of the textbook, I believe, is to show the close relationship between these two perspectives. Beyond that, the chapter presented models of portfolio allocation in parliamentary systems, à la Austen-Smith and Banks and Laver and Shepsle, as well as bargaining between veto players and special interests, as in my work with Eddy Malesky.

For each of these models, the analysis assumes an exogenous status quo; the motivating question is what movement, if any, is possible from that policy. But whence the status quo? A good answer is that the status quo is the outcome of some unmodeled prior bargaining process—for example, when government spending is “mandatory” rather than “discretionary,” as in Bowen, Chen, and Eraslan. Yet just as veto bargaining in the past may affect political behavior in the present, so might veto bargaining today affect political behavior tomorrow. Taking this idea seriously requires an explicitly dynamic framework, in which the political outcome in one period becomes the status quo in the next.

The big addition to the chapter on veto players is thus a discussion of dynamic veto bargaining. But what to include? Here it may be useful to articulate a basic principle I have tried to follow: textbooks are not literature reviews. I make no claim of comprehensiveness in either presentation or citation, though I do try to get seminal contributions right. Rather, in approaching a topic, I am typically looking for a single model with a sharp message that can be written on a blackboard, with extra points if the mechanics are novel.

Wiola Dziuda and Antoine Loeper’s wonderful model of “Dynamic Pivotal Politics” fits the bill. In contrast to other work in the literature, the model emphasizes shifts in the preferences of veto players rather than their identity or agenda-setting power. For concreteness, think of two veto players—two pivots, if you will—who have “left” and “right” preferences, respectively. Much of the time the two actors will disagree about whether a shift from the status quo is desirable, but with a shock to the political-economic environment sufficiently large their preferences will align. (Congressional action during the 2008 financial crisis may be a case in point.) Critically, whether the actors disagree tomorrow depends on the policy chosen today, which with the passage of time becomes the status quo. Each actor therefore has an incentive to reject changes to the status quo that from a purely static perspective are preferable, as by doing so they can lock in policy benefits in the future. In contrast to the environment of Krehbiel (or Tsebelis), gridlock in the Dziuda-Loeper model can be inefficient, as there are situations in which the status quo prevails even though the veto players would agree to overturn the status quo, if only they could commit to doing so for one period only.

As is typical, presenting this model in textbook form required some simplification, which in this case implied focusing on a two-actor, two-period setting. The first of these is just a special case of the N-player model in Dziuda and Loeper. The second is in fact a change to the environment, which in the original paper is an infinite-horizon setting. Moving to a finite horizon is not always my first instinct—I simplify the Acemoglu-Robinson model, for example, by stripping away much of the economy while retaining the dynamics—but in this instance it simplifies the analysis considerably, while retaining the core insights of the original model.

There are other approaches to dynamic veto bargaining beyond Dziuda and Loeper’s. In the exercises, I include Peter Buisseret and Dan Bernhardt’s model of the “Dynamics of Policymaking,” in which the identity rather than the preferences of veto players may shift over time. I like using exercises to introduce models that can be presented efficiently, and in this chapter I also add Chiou and Rothenberg’s discussion of pivots in a bicameral setting and Dragu, Fan, and Kuklinski’s analysis of constitutional review as a veto-players game. Oh, and I have tinkered with the original discussion of pivots, with what I hope is an even clearer presentation than before.

Next up: The chapter on regime change, which for surprising reasons required some fairly substantial revisions.

Second Edition

In my second year at Wisconsin, in the fall of 2004, I taught for the first time the second course of a new sequence in formal theory. Leaning on my own graduate training, I organized the syllabus around Persson and Tabellini’s Political Economics—the book from which I learned many models of politics. It didn’t last long. Political Economics is a monumentally important work, but as the title suggests, it assumes an understanding of economics that many Ph.D. students in political science do not have. To compensate, I began to write and distribute lecture notes that took the same models but separated the economy from the fundamental political logic.

That exercise in translation was the foundation for my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Before long, I was adding models not in Persson and Tabellini that I thought both political scientists and economists should know. By the time I was finished, I was steeped in literatures I only vaguely understood when I started—yet my desire to cover more was always held in check by trimming and rewriting, as I sought to keep the text as accessible as possible. I finished and taught the final draft in the spring of 2012 at Harvard.

Improvements to the cover too

Eight years is a long time in academic research, and much has been published since Formal Models of Domestic Politics went to press. Hoping to stay just a few steps behind the field, I have been working on a second edition. If all goes as planned, I will be teaching a near-finished text to Chicago students in early 2021, with the manuscript going to production shortly thereafter. With a year to go, this seems a good time to discuss the broad contours of the next edition—what is new, what is tweaked, and what is missing. Beginning with this blog post, and continuing over the next couple of months, I will lay out the structure of Formal Models of Domestic Politics, Second Edition.

Let me begin by setting expectations. The revised text will not be the Mas-Colell, Whinston, and Green of politics. My vision has always been that Formal Models of Domestic Politics would serve as the primary but not exclusive resource for courses in formal theory and political economy. As before, the emphasis will be on clarity rather than comprehensiveness. What this means in practice is a book maybe 30% longer than the original. The big addition is a chapter on nondemocracy—a literature too immature to warrant coverage in the first edition. Most other chapters feature detailed coverage of one or two new models, plus several new exercises, many themselves based on research papers. I have also rewritten a few sections.

So, what is in the new text? I will be specific beginning with the next post. In the meantime, it might be useful to describe how I choose what to include. The models in Formal Models of Domestic Politics are a subset of 1) those I know, which 2) I believe represent important theories or modeling approaches and 3) I can write on a blackboard, while 4) fitting into the narrative flow of the text. Of the four constraints, the first is perhaps the most important. I try to read widely, in both political science and economics, but I undoubtedly miss a great deal. As for the second, there is no accounting for taste, as my former colleague Melanie Manion is wont to say. Again, I anticipate that instructors will supplement Formal Models of Domestic Politics with other work they want their students to learn.

The third constraint is driven by the underlying pedagogy of the text: models are learned by walking through the analysis, step by step, with a reasonable limit to the number of steps and tools required. If I cannot figure out how to strip down a model—if I am unable to distill an elaborate research paper into several pages of self-contained argument—then I cannot include it. Finally, the last constraint is just a matter of logistics: if a model isn’t central to the topics that I have idiosyncratically chosen to cover, or if it substantively belongs in an earlier chapter but requires material introduced later, then it doesn’t fit.

With all this as preface, I now proceed to describe Formal Models of Domestic Politics, Second Edition. First up, in the next post: the chapter on veto players, the centerpiece of which is new material on dynamic veto bargaining. Stay tuned…

1989

November 9, the day the Berlin Wall came down. I was watching CNN with my friends in Ann Arbor. It must have been early evening, as there was live video of young people on the wall—singing, crying, drinking champagne. I remember thinking at the time that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that I should scrape together enough money to fly to Berlin and see it in person.

On display in College Station, TX

Would that I had. Thirty years later, I have shown that footage in class more times than I can remember. It never fails to brings tears to my eyes: I sit in the front row with my back turned to the students so that they can’t see my face. But why? I don’t think I cried in 1989. The emotional resonance arrived later, as I came to know people who had lived on both sides of that momentous year, and a few who had been in the streets during their own countries’ revolutions.

Let’s back up. In 1989, the most likely outcome for me was to return home to the family business (a large livestock farm) after business school, which I entered immediately after receiving my undergraduate degree in agricultural economics. Instead, I took what I thought was a short detour to work on Capitol Hill for the member of Congress from my home district in Illinois. Employment in a GOP office during the Gingrich revolution made me a Democrat, and by the time I realized I wasn’t going home I also knew that I wasn’t staying in Washington. (You dance with the one that brung ya, or you don’t dance at all.) A chance meeting with a constituent recently returned from Ukraine reawakened my interest in a region I had first encountered during a brief family trip to Leningrad and Moscow in 1987.1 And so in 1994 I landed in Prague to take a position helping Czech entrepreneurs to write business plans and get bank loans—my only qualifications for the job being that unused MBA and a capitalist childhood.

Thus began the three most consequential years of my adult life. Partway through a year working in this small consulting shop, I met John Earle—an economist at the Central European University, which at the time had campuses in Prague and Warsaw as well as Budapest.2 As my original employer lost its grant funding, John took me on as a research assistant. When he moved to Budapest with the rest of the Economics Department, I stayed behind to run an enterprise survey, traveling periodically to Hungary and joining John for a quarter in Stanford. Then followed a year working out of the Budapest campus, another quarter in Stanford, and two trips to Mongolia to help advise on enterprise privatization. My intellectual trajectory was set.

Meanwhile, I was living in Prague and Budapest: two of the great European cities, each now emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. I had many Czech friends from my first job, and through them I saw a slice of Czech society (and also the Czech countryside). I learned some Czech, and in the process internalized Milorad Pavić’s argument that personality changes when language does.3 In Budapest I worked with a group of young economists from throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; lunchtime everyday was a journey through the postcommunist region. Finally, three months before leaving for graduate school at Berkeley, I met a young woman from St. Petersburg with a passion for film and a shared interest in architecture. And my personal trajectory was set.

Revolutions inevitably disappoint, and 1989 is no exception. The reforms of the 1990s produced losers as well as winners, and the winners were sometimes undeserving. Disappointment, in turn, has led to backsliding that one can only hope will be reversed. Still, when I think of 1989, I think of my friends and my wife, all of whom would have faced different and more limited choices had state socialism not been reconciled to the dustbin of history. If choice is freedom, then millions gained their freedom in 1989, with only a few shots fired. Tonight, I raise a glass to that annus mirabilis.

———

  1. No, my parents weren’t communists: pay attention to the personal details. But they were interested in the world, and this tour of Scandinavia had a side trip to the Soviet Union.
  2. And now Vienna.
  3. In Landscape Painted in Tea.

American Values

A number of years ago, one of Russia’s premier investigative journalists related to me a trick of the trade. In the run-up to publication of a big story, reporters are hidden outside of Moscow. It is the days before a paper hits the newsstands that are the most dangerous. Journalists are often killed not because they have already revealed public or corporate corruption, but because they are about to do so.

I remembered that conversation after Rudy Giuliani’s pathetic parade of lies on CNN last week. In the course of defending his client’s indefensible behavior, Giuliani smeared Serhiy Leshchenko—Ukraine’s premier investigative journalist and a former member of parliament—and the outstanding Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), falsely claiming that they had produced bogus documents to implicate Paul Manafort in crimes he supposedly did not commit. In fact, the so-called “black ledger of the Party of Regions” was real, as were Manafort’s crimes. (Robert Mackey has a great run-down at the Intercept; see also Leshchenko’s op-ed in the Washington Post.)

Fighting the good fight

I happen to know Leshchenko a bit; I have also met AntAC’s founders Daria Kaleniuk and Vitaliy Shabunin. They and a handful of others like them are the real heroes of contemporary Ukraine, fighting for some semblance of probity and transparency. I have tried to imagine myself in their shoes, and I just can’t. It requires a particular combination of physical courage and personal indignation to take on a corrupt oligarchy and their proxies in government.

Once upon a time, we would have said that people like Leshchenko, Kaleniuk, and Shabunin represented “American values”—of honesty, good government, and democratic accountability. Needless to say, America has often failed to live up to those values, over which the United States in any event has no monopoly. Still, it is jarring—sorry, appalling—to see the personal lawyer of the president of the United States accusing the good guys of the very behavior they have pledged to fight. Doing so not only sows confusion among American citizens, which is of course the goal, but also puts Ukrainian civil society at greater risk than it already is.

Shame on you, Rudolph Giuliani. You could learn a lot from Ukrainians about what it means to have the right values.

Book Club

One of a series of lasts in Madison: the final meeting of the book club I co-organized with my colleague and friend Yoi Herrera. This time we read A Time of Gifts, the first book in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s superlative (and incompletely finished) account of his youthful journey— by foot, beginning in 1933—from Rotterdam to Constantinople. I love this description of the Hungarian language: “a dactylic canter where the ictus of every initial syllable set off a troop of identical vowels with their accents all swerving one way like wheat-ears in the wind.” Much better than the newspaper article (in the New York Times? I can’t find it) that characterized Hungarian as sounding like something falling down stairs. Fermor does justice to the rich languages of central Europe and the people who speak them.

We read a lot of good books, a couple of mediocre ones, and a few classics. Along with A Time of Gifts, I would put The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the top of my list. I also really enjoyed Mary Beard’s SPQR and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.

In Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, the sociologist Elizabeth Long discusses the social role that typically all-female book clubs play in American society. In such clubs, Long observes, the book is important, but so is the broader discussion about members’ lives that it generates. Yoi and I aimed to create somewhat the same environment, though in a co-educational setting and with a conscious decision to alternate fiction and nonfiction. I think we succeeded. It was especially gratifying to discover aspects of my professional colleagues’ personalities and interests that I would not have known from our weekday interactions. (Inevitably, our membership included many political scientists, though not only.) And Masha and I enjoyed the way that our home became part of the social institution—close to campus, we always hosted. I will miss that institution, perhaps more than any other I helped to create in Madison.

History, Variously Defined

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve been busy moving. That, at least, is my excuse for not writing up some thoughts earlier on the first annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia, held in Madison in late May. For three days, we had economists, historians, and political scientists in town for a fabulous exchange of ideas and work.

The origins of this workshop lie in a discussion at the Slavic meetings in 2017. As I related at the time, historians and historically minded social scientists were talking—but seemingly past as much as with each other. Roughly speaking, historians felt that social scientists were inattentive to the messiness and contextual meaning of the data they were using. Social scientists, in turn, insisted that their methods were often employed to deal with such issues, but that it was hard to communicate this across the methodological divide that separates disciplines.

Thankfully, the scholars who were part of this discussion enjoy each other’s company, and so we decided to deal with our differences by spending more, not less, time with each other. Picking up on a suggestion by Martin Kragh, Amanda Gregg organized a pair of panels at the 2018 Slavic meetings—one with historians presenting and social scientists discussing, the other with precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, I had come into some money through a retention offer, and so I decided to organize a workshop with the help of Paul Dower, Natalya Naumenko, Dmitrii Kofanov, Martin Kragh, and the amazing staff at UW’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.

We had a fabulous lineup of papers and posters, by scholars senior and junior, across three disciplines: check out the program. And at the end of it all, we talked. I personally don’t think that every workshop needs to end with a conversation about The Relationship, but with many folks in the room together for the first time, this one was maybe useful. Here is what I took away from the discussion:

  • Format is important. We ran the workshop according to “cliometrics rules,” which is to say that participants read the papers in advance, authors had five minutes to remind the audience of their argument, and everybody participated in the general discussion that followed. This seemed to force a greater engagement with unfamiliar approaches than would have been the case with a more traditional format.
  • We can do better with graduate training. With a few exceptions, graduate students in history don’t take econometrics; those in the social sciences don’t take methods of history or even much history. What we need, and what some of us may be in a position to provide, is courses in reading across disciplinary divides. I have in mind especially seminars co-taught by historians and social scientists.
  • Collaboration can help but will be hard. There is nothing like writing with somebody to figure out how they think. That said, collaboration works best when coauthors can check each other’s work. Unless and until graduate training is truly interdisciplinary, that will be difficult.
  • We need to keep talking. Conferences are great but infrequent (though with the generous support of the University of Chicago, there will be more summer workshops). In between, technology can serve to keep the conversation going. To that end, I have set up a Slack workspace for those interested in the economic history and historical political economy of Russia—a place to share papers, discuss data, announce conferences, and so forth. Email me if you are interested.

Three disciplines in one backyard

I’m Moving

For every one of the sixteen years I have held a Ph.D., I have been a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Beginning with my seventeenth year, I will be at the University of Chicago, with a joint appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Harris School of Public Policy. It is a bittersweet moment. I have lived in Madison longer than anywhere other than my hometown of Lincoln, Illinois. My wife, our son, and I have a community of friends and colleagues that runs deep. At the same time, life is short, and Masha and I have both been offered wonderful opportunities that we could not pass up. For anyone who is interested—and to head off the creative explanations of Political Science Rumors—let me explain my reasons.

First, I should be clear about what this decision is not. I am not fleeing Scott Walker (who is, um, no longer governor), department politics, university governance, or anything of that sort. The University of Wisconsin and its Political Science Department are healthy. Anyone who gets a chance to work or study here should take it. You will have amazing colleagues and a supportive work environment. And you will live in arguably the best college town in America. (I know of what I speak, having lived in nearly all the great college towns: Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison.)

One more summer on the terrace

In short, this is all pull, no push. To understand the pull, it helps to understand me. As a scholar, I identify as both a comparativist and a political economist. At Chicago, I get to fully indulge both sides of my personality. Mornings? I’m in the Political Science Department. Afternoons? I’m at Harris. I’m having my cake and eating it too.

On top of that, it is useful to know that Chicago is investing heavily in political economy. There is a lot of hiring being done in the department, to join the already great group at Harris. Other plans are afoot. From the top down, there is a determination to make Chicago the preeminent center for the study of political economy. Stay tuned.

Finally, there is Chicago. Masha and I both miss the big city, and Chicago is our favorite big city in the country. I grew up downstate, with grandparents in the Chicago suburbs. My parents still live in Lincoln—from Chicago, a train ride rather than a drive away. (Here Scott Walker does briefly enter the picture: no high-speed rail to Madison, alas.) We want to walk to the Seminary Coop Bookstore after work, to have season tickets to the Chicago Symphony, to see the Cardinals beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field (whoops: there’s the downstate boy), and to raise our son in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America.

Farewell, Madison. I will miss you. Hello, sweet home Chicago. I can’t wait.

John Dingell, Heresthetician

In one of two or three previous lives, I worked on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s as a legislative assistant to the member of Congress from my home district. It was a heady experience. I had always loved politics, and while my own political views were evolving—ultimately contributing to my decision to move overseas and try something else—I enjoyed seeing politicians at work and up close. For much of that time I lived on upper Connecticut Avenue, and on Sunday afternoons I would bike up to Politics and Prose to see in person the newsmakers who had been on television that morning.

John Dingell was then the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. I remember first hearing him speak during a floor debate over something or other. I was not blown away. Like many newcomers to politics, I confused rhetorical mastery with political effectiveness. I am sure Congressman Dingell gave many fine speeches over the course of his long career (best remembered may be his riff on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), and he emerged in his final years a skilled practitioner of the tweet. Be that as it may, his remarks that day were not designed to persuade. How, I wondered, could such a clumsy speaker have risen to a position of such power?

John Dingell was a master not of rhetoric but of what William Riker famously termed heresthetic: the art of political manipulation, or of “structuring the world so you can win.” I got a glimpse of this during an Agriculture Committee markup of a bill over which Energy and Commerce had partial jurisdiction. Chairman Dingell showed up to ensure that some language was removed from the draft legislation. Seated on the dais in the Agriculture Committee’s main hearing room, he gave the most perfunctory speech in opposition to the language that one could imagine. The only sentence that really mattered came at the end, when he stated (roughly—this was 25 years ago), “And I come here with the proxies of the members of the Energy and Commerce Committee to vote against this onerous provision.”

The proxies…”How many proxies does the chairman bring with him?” asked Kika de la Garza, the genial chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Dingell slowly looked around the room before answering. “Let’s just say: enough.” The provision was struck without a vote, and the staff in the room declared their collective intention never to play poker with Congressman Dingell.

Riker recognized political manipulation as among the most important of the arts—one that could be learned from instruction as well as from practice. With John Dingell’s passing, we have lost one of our best teachers.