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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Towards a Libertarian Realignment

In my post on the DNC deal on Sunday, I linked to Will Wilkinson's outstanding post on so-called "Liberaltarianism." Wilkinson's post is outstanding and, as much as I didn't want to, I found myself nodding in agreement with just about everything he wrote. In the post, Wilkinson points out that although much libertarian attention is focused on Rand and Rothbard, thinkers like Hayek and Friedman were far less absolutist in their approach and far more willing to argue on behalf of some form of basic social safety net. This is not to say they were socialists - far from it. And that is exactly Wilkinson's point, which is that not every single government program represents an irrevocable slide towards socialist totalitarianism. Indeed, he argues that the experience of most liberal welfare states in recent years shows a general trend away from socialism and towards a "liberal-capitalist welfare state."

Finally, Wilkinson argues that the death of any possibility of full-on socialism, combined with the end of Communism has permitted libertarians to more greatly emphasize social issues, something I have argued repeatedly. As a result, we no longer have much of anything in common with the American Right. On the other hand, the effective death of outright socialism in a large part of the American Left makes a long-term alliance with them completely natural. Indeed, such an alliance would be much more of a reunion than a new coalition - as Hayek himself argued in his classic Road To Serfdom, many socialists were really just classical liberals who became frustrated with the speed of free markets and were effectively suckered into alliances with groups that had rather illiberal ends. In other words, the difference between libertarians and many, even most, American liberals is one solely of means rather than ends. By comparison, after 8 years of the Bush Administration, I think it is increasingly clear that the differences between libertarians and American conservatives is fundamentally one of ends rather than just means.

Ron Chusid, a self-avowed liberal with whom most libertarians disagree only rarely, notes that liberals should welcome libertarians into their fold, saying: "If you think of libertarianism in terms of the prominent political candidates this year, you are also missing a considerable amount of libertarian thought which is much closer to liberalism, especially if we remember the origins of liberal thought. "

This is not to say that Wilkinson's points, which have been receiving an awful lot of attention in the libertarian blogosphere, are above criticism. Indeed, Arnold Kling has written his own partial dissent that is worth reading (H/T: Art of the Possible). However, I think Kling falls into a significant logical trap, as I wrote in a comment at AOTP, and which reiterates much of what I have stated repeatedly on this blog: that politics are about shifting coalitions, and there is no reason to believe that a coalition will remain static if its constituent members cease to have much in common:

I think Kling makes an extremely common mistake, which is in assuming the political left to be monolithic. The fact is that the “Left” in this country, just like the “Right” is just a mish-mosh coalition of various ideological groups. Those interest groups can and do change sides over the course of time, as different issues come to predominate within the group.

Much of what the “Left” generally claims to believe in is not as universally held as they like to think. Instead, many in the modern Left coalition, just like many in the modern Right coalition, conform their political views over time on lower priority issues to match the views of coalition members to whom those issues are of higher

So I think it depends which element of the “Left” you’re talking about. The Barack Obama wing of the Dem Party, for instance, typically is most concerned with civil and personal liberties and a less aggressive foreign policy; meanwhile, the populist wing of the party (now dedicated to HRC) is primarily concerned with populist economics. The Obama wing tends to have a pretty good understanding of the concept of free markets; what winds up happening, though, is that they wind up sounding like outright socialists because the figure that people within their coalition who care more about the issue than they do probably also know more about it than they do. Similarly, politicians in this wing of the party have to tailor their message to be more populist on economic issues in order to make sure they retain the support of the more populist elements of the party.

If you look at the survey TNR posted a week or two ago regarding the respective political messages of the two parties, you kind of get a good idea of what I’m talking about. In that survery, something like 60 or 70 percent of Dems wound up agreeing with restrictions on free trade when the survey indicated that free trade was the Dems’ position; but when you removed party labels from the questions, that number dropped to barely half, with the rest saying that they supported more open trade policies.

Bottom line: if economic populists begin to shift to the Republican Party due to the GOP’s stance on social issues, foreign policy, and immigration, then the remaining Dems are likely to be well worth libertarians joining as coalition members. As I said yesterday, the threatened defection of HRC supporters would hasten this result. However, without that kind of defection, McCain is probably not the candidate to pull the economic populists into the GOP fold. Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, would have been exactly that candidate.

In the short term, the coalitions have not switched enough to make me willing to gamble on Obama, even though I think he is a far superior candidate to most recent Dems. In the long-term, though, I see no reason for libertarians to return to the GOP fold.

UPDATE: Several other bloggers have picked up on this now, each with some very smart takes that provide a good supplement to what I've written above: Fester at Newshoggers, Kyle at CFLF, and Ron Chusid. Fester's post does a particularly good job of describing the nature of political coalitions, concluding that:

The coalitions that are assembled under the labels and institutions of Republicans and Democrats will change after this election. But that is normal and healthy. And this is the far more likely outcome than a complete rejiggering of American voting rules, political norms and constitutional governance structure that would be needed to break a two party hold on power.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Well Played, Sir!

As plenty of libertarians are now aware, the Bob Barr campaign issued a press release denouncing the support of Stormfront and an (apparently prominent) racist, which had been posted on an internet message board. The press release is sweeping in scope, and hits every note that a lot of us had wished Ron Paul had hit. As an expression of libertarianism, it just about hits the nail right on the head, I think:

"The Barr campaign is not going to be a vehicle for every fringe and hate group to promote itself. We do not want and will not accept the support of haters. Anyone with love in their heart for our country and for every resident of our country regardless of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation is welcome with open arms.Tell the haters I said don't let the door hit you on the backside on your way out!"

I am not going to say that this statement took a lot of political courage (although given some of the comments in the Hit&Run thread, maybe it took more political courage than it should have in this day and age). But it does demonstrate an understanding of politics and media savvy that has been heretofore lacking amongst libertarian politicians (self-styled or otherwise). Moreover, it shows a willingness to tackle issues head-on that I suspect could have some significant appeal to voters in the general election. In any event, this is the first story of any significance involving Bob Barr since he won the LP nomination last week. I think it gives us a pretty good preview of where he is going with his campaign.

1. The campaign is organized and capable of creating its own news stories. Were it not for the press release, it is debatable whether any news outlets would have picked up on the "endorsement" by the hate group. However, in choosing to both disclose the endorsement and vehemently denunciate it, the Barr campaign gets to control the way the story is portrayed in the media. Moreover, they actually are able to get some media coverage of the issue, which is always something that libertarian and LP candidates find nearly impossible.

2. The campaign is politically astute enough to turn a potential liability into an asset. If media outlets had picked up on the "endorsement" before the Barr press release, the headline would have been "Hate Group Endorses Libertarian Candidate." By making itself aware of the "endorsement" and immediately denouncing it, though, the headline becomes "Libertarian Candidate Denounces Hate Group." In the process, the candidate avoids having to answer questions like "What do you think of Mr. X, who has endorsed you?" Look at the fallout that McCain has had to face over the Hagee endorsement, or that Obama has had to face over several of his supporters, and you can see just how difficult it can be to completely recover from an endorsement by a particularly vehement racist or extremist. By taking ownership of the issue immediately, the Barr campaign was able to control its dissemination and to prevent any impression that it was equivocating on the issue.

3. The campaign has decided that the support of more, uhh, mainstream voters is more valuable than trying to keep fringe groups within the fold. One of the biggest problems I had with the Ron Paul campaign was that it appeared to value the support of people like Alex Jones and 9/11 Truthers far more than it valued the support of the average libertarian-minded voter. While this may have allowed the Paul campaign to raise an obscene amount of money, it also prevented the Paul campaign from catering its message to a broader audience. The Barr campaign has no intention of falling into that trap.

4. The Barr campaign is prepared to take advantage of new media to disseminate its message. In addition to being sent to media outlets, the press release was included in what is going to become a regular briefing for "Bloggers for Barr" (Full disclosure: I have joined that list). Within minutes, dozens of bloggers had their hands on the press release, and many of us have now discussed it.

Now, I know there are still plenty of libertarians who resent Barr's nomination or who refuse to consider Barr a libertarian because of his past Congressional record. Obviously, I am not one of them, though I do not begrudge that position. But regardless of whether Barr meets a libertarian "purity" test, there can be no doubt that he is far superior to either McCain or Obama.

The larger point of this post, however, is that the Barr campaign is demonstrating a level of competence that will allow libertarian-minded voters to have a real choice in this election. Even if Barr does not win the Presidency, a vote of just 6-10% would actually have a real effect on the direction of at least one of the two major parties, unlike the usual 1/2 of a percent to which third parties are accustomed.

More from memeorandum.

About that Will of the People Thing

The next time I hear a conservative whine about a governor or court circumventing the so-called "will of the people" by supporting gay marriage, I think they should be required to read the statements below by Vice President Cheney. The first set of comments come from an interview a few weeks ago with ABC News' Martha Raddatz, and the second set of which are from an event at the National Press Club this afternoon.


RADDATZ: Two-third of Americans say it’s [the Iraq war’s] not worth fighting.
RADDATZ So? You don’t care what the American people think?
CHENEY: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.

MODERATOR: Do you wish you had answered that question differently? Does it
matter if the public disagrees sharply with the wisdom of the war?
CHENEY: No, when I said, “So?” the point was, “What’s the question, Martha?” She made the statement; she didn’t ask a question.

To be sure, I am not one who thinks that polls should drive political decisions. Indeed, there is perhaps no one as suspicious of the tyranny of the majority as a libertarian like me. But it seems to me that if the majority should be ignored when it comes to issues like ending a war (and thereby increasing government's respect for individual rights), then there is really no basis for claiming that majority should be listened to when that majority seeks to decrease government's respect for individual rights.

So which is it: should the alleged "will of the people" control or should it not? You can't have it both ways.

H/T: Kathy at CFLF

Also more at memeorandum.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

My Two Cents on the DNC Deal

1. Rules are rules- Florida and Michigan should not have counted at all. The Clintonites' push to change those rules in the middle of the game shows what they think about the rule of law. They would make good friends with the Bushies.
2. I know that all Democrats remember with great vividity the protests inside the Miami-Dade building in 2000. I wonder- whose supporters most resembled those protesters yesterday? As I said, they'd make good friends.
3. There is nothing so Clinton-esque or, for that matter, Rove-ian than the argument that what the Clintonites seek to do is based on respect for the rule of law. If they had any actual respect for the rule of law, they wouldn't have pushed for the Florida and - especially - the Michigan delegates to be seated in the first place.

The Clintonites now threaten to pick their ball up and go home if their candidate is not the nominee. Obama supporters should not have a problem with this- the Clintonites are as illiberal as could be and are an anchor that weighs down any claim that the Dem Party is a force for good in this country, as I explained here. Instead, the Obama campaign and the remnants of the Dem party should start looking at reforming their coalition- let the Republicans be the party of authoritarians. In the process, the Republicans will lose a pretty good number of their own members, who either vote for Bob Barr (like me) or for Obama, with whom they will have more in common than McCain and the Clintons.

Rather than fret over the possibility of losing the Clintonites, Obama supporters should be embracing the possibility of creating a new coalition that is based on a respect for the rule of law.

Right now, those of us who support Bob Barr are quite likely to be the difference in any McCain loss. The belief is that, in so doing, we will force the GOP to rethink its move to big-government authoritarianism. But if the Clinton-ites move to the GOP, any chance of a reunion between libertarian types and the GOP will be forever eliminated; meanwhile, though, the Dem party will have the opportunity to build its coalition around a broad anti-authoritarianism that unites the huge number of Americans who still have a commitment to the ideals of classic liberalism.