Thursday, June 5, 2008

Political Coalition Shifting Redux

I'm having a bit of a tiff in the comments section to my post the other day, which was otherwise one of the best-received posts I've ever had. Although it is not worth reviving most of the debate here, I think the commenter does make one important point that is presumably intended to undermine my argument that political coalitions are not monolithic but are instead slowly but constantly shifting as different issues fade from or jump to the forefront. His point is that the leadership of the "Left" actually IS monolithic. Although they are not "socialists" (or, for that matter, even classical liberals, as demonstrated by their lack of backbone on warrantless wiretapping) as he perjoratively calls the leadership, it is probably true that this leadership is fairly monolithic. However, this is also equally true of the leadership of the Republican Party, and the leadership of the "Right" more generally.

So, this must prove that political coalitions are, in fact, monolithic, correct? No. All it proves is that party leaders represent their constituent party groups. The role of party leaders is to maintain the party's coalition as best as possible while doing what they can to push through top-priority issues for as many consituent groups as possible. As a result, party leaders well represent the results of the logrolling and unconscious dealmaking that occurs in the formation of a coalition. As coalitions change, so do party leaders - but always the party leaders will approximately represent the top priority issue positions for the coalition's most important constituent groups at a given moment in time. The result is that party leaders are rarely philosophical ideologues*, but are instead usually uninspiring and philosophically incoherent practitioners of "pu-pu platter partisanship," taking a few pet positions from every constituent group.

Over the course of time, top priorities change for constituent groups as victories are won or those priorities become obsolete. As a result, priorities between constituent groups will inevitably conflict. When that happens enough times, the group that loses the conflict will start to withdraw from the coalition as it becomes increasingly willing to question party orthodoxy on lower-priority issues. As long as we remain in a two-party system, the likely effect of withdrawal from one coalition is to simply switch coalitions- provided, of course, that there is common ground with the other coalition on a sufficiently important issue.

Admittedly, even this is an oversimplification - even within subgroups, individuals will have many different secondary and tertiary priorities, and may even have different views on the prioritization of its primary issues (e.g., libertarians). A party's failure to support the subgroup's primary priorities will thus not necessarily result in the subgroup abandoning the party if the other party is little or no better on the issue set.

Once a good chunk of a constituent group begins to migrate to the other coalition, it will begin to exercise an increasing amount of pull on its primary issue sets. This pull will result in increasingly friendly policies towards the consituent group's primary issue set such that, over time, the entire body of the constituent group switches coalitions, leaving a void in the process in the old coalition that will be filled by either formerly allied groups that remain in the coalition or by another group that is also switching coalitions.

To return to the issue of why party leaders are so monolithic, I think this analysis leads to two explanations - one cynical, one less so. I suspect the truth is a combination of each. The less cynical explanation is that party leaders reach their positions because they are the people whose views are most capable of achieving consensus within the party, or at least of representing the largest number of constituent group priorities. The more cynical explanation is that it is absolutely essential to party leaders that they maintain the then-existing coalition. Any changes in the coalition's fundamental structure are a threat to the party leaders' positions, and thus they need to maintain the coalition's status quo in order to keep their hold on power. Taking a position that may force one group out of the coalition may guarantee that the leader will lose power, even if (and maybe especially if) the outgoing group is replaced by a larger incoming group.

*Newt Gingrich is the exception that proves the rule. Although he was most certainly a philosophical ideologue, he was successful because his Contract with America strategy was entirely centered on finding the issues on which the various Republican constituent groups could agree and pushing only those issues. In so doing, he brought the Republican coalition back from its initial post-Cold War life support and revived it long enough for the Clinton-era scandals to take over as the unifying factor for Republicans.

UPDATE- Re-reading my post this morning, I realized that a sentence in my first paragraph was poorly worded and could have been construed to mean that I was calling the political Right as a whole monolithic when I was only intending to call the leadership of the Right monolithic. That sentence has been corrected.