Friday, December 18, 2009

Coalition politics

Quite a while back, I took a very simple heuristic analysis from Stirling Newberry, and I have used it, again and again, to get analysis of American politics going.

Stirling Newberry's formula, which I am no doubt distorting and oversimplifying, was that there are always three, generic groups vying for inclusion in a governing coalition. These groups are not necessarily coincident with political Party; the Parties may have other dimensions, and overlap these generic "ideological" groupings, as do interests and various aspects of identity politics. So, politics is more complicated three three groupings of political inclinations, but let's see how far it gets us. These groupings can be labeled, reactionary, conservative and progressive.

The labels suggest the definitions, and anything more I could say would just muddy things up. The basic idea is that it takes two out of three to govern. So, governance is always one leading a second, to the exclusion of the third; and strategy by one group is always aimed at changing partners, or threatening to change partners.

In this simple-minded formula, Reagan-Bush was conservatives leading reactionaries; Clinton was an attempt by conservatives to lead progressives; GWB was reactionaries leading conservatives, and now Obama.

Obama formed a governing coalition by drawing a small number of conservatives (and corporate financial support) out of, or away from the Republican Party, where the many secular conservatives, corporate conservatives have felt alienated by the antics and incompetence of the far Right. (Sarah Palin?)

Obama's coalition is different from Clinton's, in that Clinton was just trying to retard the migration of (white southern) conservatives out of the Democratic Party, while Obama has brought (northeastern and western) conservatives into the Democratic Party.

One of the tricks of tripartite governance is the mix of substantive (read: dollars) and symbolic goodies distributed. In general, the senior, leading partner gets the big bucks, while the junior partner gets symbolic actions. Under Reagan-Bush, with conservatives at the levers of power, and the reactionary racists and religious right still in the wilderness, the big bucks flowed to the wealthy and powerful freely enough, but the reactionaries got very little of substance. Social liberalization of the country continued on many, but not all, fronts.

In many ways, progressives and liberals were co-opted by the politics of the 1980s -- they were as much the junior clients of the corporate conservative governing coalition as the reactionary right. Both were being kept quiet and marginalized, while the New Deal was taken apart -- unions destroyed, savings and loans destroyed, etc. They were kept quiet, by the provision of costless symbols and the unimpeded forward momentum of social change began in the 1960s: the steady erosion of racial and sexual authoritarian oppression and peace abroad was a gift to the exhausted Left.

But, the tectonic plates of American politics kept moving. The increasing interest in the mechanisms of climate, have revealed that the slow movement of the continents, floating as they do, on the viscous mantle of the earth, has changed the earth's climate over time. Consolidation of continental mass can impede and shape ocean circulation, creating wide-spread drought or ice ages.

Authoritarian conservatives were moving steadily into the Republican Party, making both Parties more purely "ideological" in character, the distinction of partisan identity being almost entirely a matter of personal worldview and attitude. I am using "authoritarian" in its social-psychology sense, as a grouping defined by a particular cluster of attitudes, and suggesting that authoritarians makes up an important part of the electoral base of the "reactionaries". "Reactionary" is the heuristic grouping, I am taking from Newberry, and is a label for a governing policy stance, highly supportive of vested interests and not very imaginative or rational.

Authoritarian "followers" are ready-made for exploitation by demagogues, which is one reason, why they are often so welcomed into a reactionary political grouping. The leadership of a reactionary group can lie with impunity to its authoritarian followers. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin are tailor-made "leaders" for a reactionary politics, based on an authoritarian electoral base. It's not quite Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns leading peasant farmers and Junkers with bad attitudes, but it could be pretty close, given enough time.

But, too many authoritarians in a room tends to be repulsive to everyone else. They are too gullible, too stupid, too irrational, too prejudiced. A few strengthen an organization, giving any program of action the sinews of willing obedience and group self-discipline: an army needs to have the social impulse to walk in unison. But, too many is dysfunctional. An Army cannot function, either, when it is dominated by martinets; incompetence, then, takes over, and the capacity to deny reality -- which authoritarians have in spades -- becomes a perverse imperative to act stupidly. To invade Iraq, for example, in reprisal for something Iraq had nothing to do with, and to extinguish a threat Iraq could not credibly make, at a cost several times in value, the cost of either offense.

So, the Republican Party's evolution has become toxic, even to conservatives, who have an interest in competent governance. Losing two pointless wars and bringing about a near-collapse of the financial system is too high a price to pay, evidently.

But, these centrist conservatives, basically, remain, well, conservative. For thirty years, they have accepted the slow decline and deterioration of the country, erosion of the economic and institutional base, and their politics consists entirely of imposing the costs of that decline on the poor and middle class.

They have orchestrated the maintenance of a huge military establishment, and its deployment in costly and pointless engagements, shaped not by a striving to achieve strategic ends, but by the shaping the logistical means in a way that creates a maximum of profits for the military-industrial complex.

They have pursued a macroeconomic policy of substituting increasing debt for rising income, in powering the standard of living -- a grasshopper strategy, in place of an ant strategy, if you will. And, they have advocated, ceaselessly, to impose all the pain of declining income on the middle class, eroding pensions, and attacking social security.

Obama has the corrupt centrist conservatives in a governing coalition with the progressives. And, so far, it is not working out.

In the health care reform struggle, as in the financial sector reform debate, as in war policy in Afganistan, the conservatives have shown, again and again, that they are not willing to let the progressives make progress.

Obama has favored the centrists on substance, and offered the progressives symbols.

The dilemma is becoming daily more clear: only the substance really matters. The country desperately needs to change direction, on substance. Continued erosion, with the costs always crammed down on the poor and middle class, is not a stable solution set.

A financial reform that makes the system more fragile, a health care reform that makes health care, effectively, even more expensive for people, who cannot afford it now, a war policy that increases military budgets -- this is not a formula for long-term success or political stability.

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