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The necessity of coalition politics

(a) The danger to a political cause when one or more of its factions begin to dogmatize to the point of excommunication is especially evident in minority status. A cause that, whatever its merits, can only gain the assent of a minority of the rulers or voters will be an increasingly failed cause to the extent that it indulges the impulse of internal purgation.

(b) Some matters are of such high moral importance that one is obliged to dogmatize, even unto the point of excommunication.

The tension between these two statements lies at the heart of one of the ancient and ineradicable problems of political society. It may said to be almost coexistensive with political society under self-governing forms. It recapitulates the problem of human freedom.

Even under tyrannical forms the problem only recedes, never vanishes. A conspiracy to overthrow a pretender or foreign oppressor must deal at once with how far to spread its appeals, lest it expose itself and be crushed. Should republican plotters, in conniving at bringing down a corrupt and lawless king, admit into their ranks the ultramonane Catholics who despise the king for ecclesiastical reasons?

Nor, indeed, does the problem vanish when the object of political combination is tyranny. Should the socialists embrace within their designs against the commercial republic the monarchists whose hatred of the republic is no less ardent than theirs, despite emanating from different sources?

In a word, it is not within the power of any art we here below possess, to escape the necessity of political coalitions. And yet, off at the end, all principled men must admit that even certain potentially successful coalitions could not win their assent, on the grounds that some faction of it is too odious.

This tension is in the world. No finesse of mind, no power of technique can remove it.

Thus it remains true to say that prudence must govern the politics of man; and that this prudence must deepen as the power of statesmanship increases.

It follows that the greatest statesman is the man of perfect prudence. But prudence alone does not a virtuous man make.

A corollary of this paradox or tension is that political weakness is often the midwife of extreme dogmatism. A man who insists on sharp and even intransigent points of principled orthodoxy, even to the ruin of political friendships, will soon find himself a man always bereft of a candidate to endorse at any level.

Speaking of candidates, invariably it is the primary season in American politics that induces great waves of arrogant and truculent dogmatism and excommunications.

But it is good to remember that in America the indispensible vehicle for true coalition politics in democracy was discovered. The sovereignty of elections over revolutions, or compromise over excommunication, was achieved first here on a continental scale.

The election of 1800 was it. The first. The political party of opposition carried an election and the holders of power, despite extreme rancor up to and including coercion by law, in the run-up to the election, peacefully relinquished their hold on the instruments of state. Jefferson’s inaugural proclaimed that “we are all republicans — we are all federalists”; and coalition politics under conditions of individual liberty were off and running. Consensus and deliberation would rule, rather than accident and fraud.

The fact that Publius in The Federalist did not quite imagine that the political party would be the institution to embody his vision of the commercial republic, does not diminish his prescience in seeing that such an institution was wanting, and that such an institution would be a huge advance in the political science of Western man.

The sovereignty of ballots over bullets, which is coexistensive with coalition republicanism, is a thing worth conserving: something not wrong but quite right with the world. Nevertheless, the prudence of American statesman, despite its extraordinary genius, remains but an approximation by sinful human hands — an approximation attempting to present a solution to the problem of human freedom.

Comments (21)

A corollary of this paradox or tension is that political weakness is often the midwife of extreme dogmatism.

Probably one reason for this is the feeling of having nothing to lose. "We're probably going to lose anyway; we might as well vote for someone who really represents us and make clear to the world what that looks like." There might even be a point to that, at least in cases where the premises were correct.

Quite right Lydia. The trick is in knowing when to characterize the matter as "we have nothing to lose, so let's declare our love for issues X, Y, and Z through Candidate C who is going to lose" instead of "with candidate A we will lose X, Y, and Z matters that are dear to us, but that is STILL better for the nation than all the adverse consequences of candidate B winning." Can such a judgment be made without at least making some sort of evaluation (perhaps inchoate, but real nonetheless), as to the long range consequences of getting candidate A and losing X, Y, and Z proximately, versus the long range good of making that statement that we would rather proclaim our love for X, Y, and Z with a losing candidate C? Doesn't it implicitly require an estimate that with Candidate A not only will we lose X, Y, and Z proximately, but we are unlikely to ever have a chance of getting them in the foreseeable future following him, even less likely than we might achieve something long range by making the statement through C?

I think it depends entirely on what X, Y, and Z are and on what candidate A's positions are. That, of course, is explicit in the main post. I'm not going to vote for Hitler just because he's better than Stalin. (Or vice versa.) There has to be a line in the sand somewhere.

Beyond that, I do think that primaries _are_ the place to make a statement. I strongly oppose the strange slippage that I've watched with my own eyes take place just in the past twenty years. Used to be we were told, "Vote for your favorite candidate in the primary and vote strategically, for the lesser evil if necessary, in the general." Somewhere along the line that got lost. Now, it's, "Don't vote for so-and-so in the primary. He can't win the general." It's like we're running the general election from the word "go." Now, talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! If we never even give so-and-so a chance in the primary because the establishment is against him, of course he can't win the general! But that's hardly because he never _could_ have won the general.

This got to the bizarre point a couple of years ago where there was one female candidate that actually did win her primary and the party establishment (which had fought against her on the grounds that she "couldn't win the general") then kept on opposing her and snarking against her even after she *was their candidate* by winning the primary. Is that "strategic"? Hardly. What possible purpose could it serve to "diss" their own candidate in the general if their original objection to her had been simply a strategic one? Seems to me the only purpose was sheer hatred of the uppity outsider and a warning to future uppity outsiders not to try to break in.

So I tend to think that a lot of strategic thinking at the time of the primary has been all-in-all a bad thing for conservatives in America.

Now, full disclosure: I'm kind of a purist even when it comes to the general. But for goodness' sake, let's at least _try_ to get our views represented when we're given the opportunity. And the place to do that is the primary.

I'm not going to vote for Hitler just because he's better than Stalin. (Or vice versa.) There has to be a line in the sand somewhere.

Yet you surely support a war coalition, political in nature, that accepted Stalin as an ally against Hitler, no?

Let me add that even for one who, say, swears off all contact with national politics in protest to the ruinous consolidation and centralization of modern forms, the necessity I spoke of is not avoided. Local politics, state politics, school board politics, neighborhood association politics, church politics -- these remain despite his rejection.

I would've preferred if we could have had some less cozy relationship with Stalin--like "co-belligerents" or something--that would not have led to Yalta. In any event, a war coalition is not the same thing as a vote for an individual. Nobody was asking anybody to vote for Stalin.

And of course you are right about the local level of politics. I would not dispute that for the world, though I would say the pressures are probably less intense at that level. And in some local jurisdictions (and certainly within a church) the common ground ab initio is much greater.

Speaking of candidates, invariably it is the primary season in American politics that induces great waves of arrogant and truculent dogmatism and excommunications.

In that spirit - Read my lips: No New Texans.

What possible purpose could it serve to "diss" their own candidate in the general if their original objection to her had been simply a strategic one?

Are you talking about O'Donnell? She was campaigning in Delaware and running a defensive ad saying "I'm not a witch." I'm surprised she managed to get more than 30% of the vote.

Lydia, although I agree that in general it ought to be more viable to vote for your favorite candidate in the primary, I don't see that there is any hard principle involved there. About 3 years ago, we had a primary for congressman, and the Republicans had 4 guys out there. A had lots of money and support, and was obviously the "guy to beat" for the others. Unfortunately, he was also the least pro-life of the 4. But by "least" I don't mean down in the 60% or 70% range, I mean pretty strongly pro-life, just not vociferous about things the way the B, C, and D were. Of those 3, B looked a little oily, so we ruled him out. That left C and D totally solid pro-life candidates, both would have been extremely worthwhile men in Washington, both were very similar in many ways. In order to choose one of them, I had to basically decide based on other criteria than "which one is the best guy for the job" but also things like "which one is more likely to win?" Turned out that the medium-to-firm conservative vote got split between B, C, and D, and the less definitively pro-life (A) guy won. And won the general election.

Now, I could easily see a situation where, instead of the 3 pro-lifers being relatively evenly split, maybe C was pretty clearly in second place in the polls. And if he was just sliiiiightly less vociferous about his pro-life stance than B or D, I could have been in the position of saying that I don't think he is quite as good a candidate as D, but he is noticeably better than A who is leading the polls, and we have a LOT better chance of getting him nominated than either of the 2 guys B and D who I think are more obviously pro-life, and than D who I think is a better man. Just because I think that D is the best guy for the job doesn't mean that voting for him makes the most sense in the primary.

Now, this was all a matter of minor shades of difference between guys who are much more pro-life than McCain or Dole were, and probably noticeably more than Bush was. But my point is that I don't see a principle that tells us that in the primary you use a completely different calculus than in the general election. If a situation can arise where you are more likely to do the greater good by a vote for a lesser man, that's still viable.

Paul:

But it is good to remember that in America the indispensible vehicle for true coalition politics in democracy was discovered.

Lydia:

a war coalition is not the same thing as a vote for an individual.

That's really at the heart of the question, isn't it? Is a vote for a man inherently more than saying "I am willing to have you be elected, given the situation"? Is it more nearly "I want you to be elected, and the circumstances come after that fact"?

Maybe if we had a way of voting that used a series of 15 or 20 component vote rounds as reductions in the eligible group, the first round including everyone who has at least 20 people sign a petition for his name, then we would be forced to admit that at the very first or second level you have no business putting your vote behind someone whom you don't REALLY WANT to win.

Tony, we had a situation a bit like that in Michigan, only the man who won was definitely a pro-choice Republican. He's now our governor. I just wished there had been fewer opponents to him in the election. The right-to-life group picked one of them to get behind and was rather strident about insisting that everyone vote for that one, not everybody agreed, and the upshot was that Snyder won the primary. It was heartbreaking.

But when I speak of thinking specially about primaries, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about small shades of difference. I think in the primary one can be interested in _more_ shades of difference than in the general, but it needn't get to the point where one is basically flipping a coin. In my opinion the three pro-life candidates in our primary race should have gotten together ahead of time and agreed that one of them should run.

I would have preferred a lot of things, Lydia. We all would have. Nevertheless the calculation that goes into a war coalition is no less political for its urgency.

This is why I do insist on the near-universality of the problem.

Nevertheless the calculation that goes into a war coalition is no less political for its urgency.

I'm not quite sure what the point is here, Paul, but since you brought up Stalin in reference to my statement that I wouldn't vote for him, I just have to reiterate: I reject the analogy. We may very well have gotten too "close" to the Communists in WWII, but that question is, I believe, a separate question from the question, "Should I ever vote for a moral monster like Stalin?" It seems to me that the latter is a cut and dried matter. It doesn't admit of hems, haws, and political calculations. We need to have ideas of certain (types of) people we won't vote for. The funny thing is that your main post actually seems to _agree_ with this principle (in point b), yet when I articulate it here you seem to be demurring. Please, take "yes" for an answer.

Lydia, one of the ways of thinking about voting (or not) for not-so-good guys is in the context of "cooperation with evil." It is never OK to do formal cooperation with evil, which makes you a willing participant in the evil itself. And it is not OK to do remote material cooperation with evil without a proportionate good that justifies it.

What I am having trouble seeing is how one can set out, as an across the board stance, that there CANNOT be a proportionate good that balances the potential bad of voting for an admittedly bad candidate, if he is truly a bad guy. For example (just to pit an extreme example), I would say that a vote for Stalin might be better than a vote for Satan, because Stalin might (theoretically, with God's grace) change his mind, but you know Satan never will. And, Stalin might have a few areas where he actually wants (or is willing to allow) what is good for people - when it coincides with his desires - and Satan doesn't. And Stalin has human defects in his capacity to achieve his evil aims, Satan's defects are in the will not intellect. [Please, note: this example shows that I am NOT presenting a "devil's advocate" position. Doesn't it :-)? ]

Sure, against the vote for Stalin you have to weigh the good of just plain NOT voting. And there certainly is a degree of good that might come through that. But that is a judgment call about future contingencies, about which foresight is inherently incomplete, and I am having trouble seeing why it MUST be the case that the good that comes of not voting exceeds the good of getting Stalin instead of Satan, always and everywhere, of necessity.

Is it wrong to say that however bad THIS candidate (Stalin) is, the judgment call about cooperation with evil may also weigh the evil if his opponent (Satan) wins, because the "proportionate good" to be achieved includes those ways in which Stalin's acts will be not as bad as Satan's?

Tony, here's my long discussion of this:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/05/what_is_a_vote.html

I just re-read the post and am satisfied with it. This is still one of my favorite arguments:

1. Anyone should be truly horrified to find a "Vote for Hitler" sign on his front lawn.

2. You should never vote for anyone if you would be truly horrified to find a sign on your front lawn urging other people to vote for him.

Therefore,

3. You should never vote for Hitler.

That's a good one, Lydia.

I would not want to confine the discussion unduly to the act of voting in major elections. Coalition politics certainly applies in business and private enterprise. There are times when a businessman might find himself obliged to join in alliance with some real SOBs in order to save his company. Shareholders are asked for their votes regularly.

There have been around Georgia in recent years efforts to detach communities from the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, mostly to get out from under excessive taxation. In that sort of thing, hippies and conservatives might find themselves in a successful coalition.

I'm sure academic folks here can give endless tales of professorial intrigues and political wrangling in academia. Editorial boards are notoriously explosive in political disputation. In these situations, is it often the case that personal friendship is undermined and finally ruined by political difference, even on matters of comparatively small importance.

The problem with your argument is that it is useless when it comes to making real world choices. Hitlers are Hitler only in retrospect; we shouldn't forget that PATCO endorsed Reagan (and no, I'm not saying THAT, just pointing out that you don't always know what you get until it is too late - happens to me all the time).

I certainly agree with you, Paul, that there are all sorts of "intrigue" situations in which one makes alliances. Often these are temporary. One of the things that puzzles me is how often, at least on my side of issues, they don't work. Example: We had a local "gay and transgender rights" ordinance that we tried unsuccessfully to defeat in my community two years ago. Our side (not me, personally, but people on our side) made strenuous efforts to make an alliance with some black Christian leaders. And they did get some of them to speak out and of course made much of that. It didn't seem, that I could see, to get us much leverage or to make a noticeable difference to the outcome. Maybe I'm just wrong about that, but that's how it seemed to me subjectively.

Perhaps it's just that I'm so often quixotically choosing sides of issues that are going to lose no matter what is done, or perhaps it takes two to tango and the other people whose help is sought in an alliance aren't all that enthusiastic. Or perhaps alliances don't turn out to be very effective on the really burning social issues of the day. Or some of all of these.

Here's an interesting question: If a given faction in a coalition had a crystal ball and could foresee that in the long run, joining this coalition would lead to the triumph (or relative triumph) of a very different faction, would faction A join in the first place?

For example, I wonder this: Hippies pioneered home schooling in America. To be honest, I don't know how much coalition building went on there between hippies and HSLDA types, but I'm thinking that in the 1970's and even 1980's there must have been some. Now, of course, the HSLDA types dominate at least the popular perception of home schooling and I think also dominate home schooling statistically. Meanwhile, the public schools have become much more liberal, so the hippies who originally home schooled because they thought the public schools too conservative might not think that now.

I wonder sometimes what the home schooling hippies of the 1970's would think about the fact that their pioneering actions opened the way for God-and-country right-wingers to sweep all before them within the movement and become a force in the land.

The problem with your argument is that it is useless when it comes to making real world choices. Hitlers are Hitler only in retrospect

That's not the point here. The question is about voting for someone who publically endorses evil policies amongst other policies you happen to be in favor of. If it turns out he was lying through his teeth and you had no reason to think he was, then you are not significantly culpable.

Lydia, after wading through 150 comments from that 2008 post, I am not about to wade in where angels would hesitate, at least not on everything. I am pretty sure that I agree with you more than half. And I agree with Zippy less than half (especially his unusual voting arithmetic), but some. Particularly, I agree that voting has an internal meaning, a whatness that is aside from the policy and material acts consequences that you foresee a successful (or knowingly unsuccessful) vote having. And this is even more true in voting for a person instead of for a proposition.

Yet, to balance that, I would suggest that it is also the case that formal voting is a human construct and, given a vast array of different ways such voting can be structured, the internal meaning can vary from one circumstance to another, and some votes have far more meaning than others, (again, even aside from the policy consequences). Let me given 2 scenarios: You are on a board of trustees with 7 board members voting on proposition X which has certain distasteful features but, barely, you think is better than the alternatives. (A) Votes are taken verbally, in alphabetical order. You are 6th to vote. Before your vote, 1 person voted against and 4 voted for, (so X already has a majority and nothing after your vote can change that). If you abstain on your vote, you do not register any kind of opinion about X, and thus you do not render support for the distasteful features about it even incidentally. On the other hand, if you now vote in favor of X (which you were prepared to do if it had not yet received a majority), you "force" the appearance that you definitively favor X, and perhaps incidentally the appearance that you discount the distasteful features more than you really do.

Alternative (B): votes are taken all at once by (signed) written ballot, so nobody's is cast "before" anyone else's. In this event, you cast your vote for X because (as above) you are barely persuaded that it is the better of the alternatives, in spite of its distasteful features. In this, your positive vote for X does NOT lend the same appearance that you are definitively in favor of X and that you readily and fully discount the distasteful features.

(Similarly, in A, if you vote NAY after X has already gotten a lock-hold majority, you give a much stronger statement of disfavor to X than the earlier vote against X that took place before X had a majority.)

Voting for a someone is more removed from the specific policy and act consequences of "the vote" than voting for a particular proposition, because you are voting for someone whose task is to use their judgement, springing out of their character and their prudence (or lack thereof), rather than registering your opinion about a policy or action.

In my own experience with small groups and regulating same, there is a vast difference between (for example) nominating someone out of the blue to be put in contention, and voting between the 2 people who end up as the remaining run-off candidates. The act of nominating someone when they are not yet on the ballot MUST be seen as "standing for" them in a distinct and special manner, that is not true at all in voting for the 2 who remain in a run-off.

And, I would suggest, though ready to eat my words if there is a good counterargument, that the typical American vote at a general election (for whatever post, mayor to state legislator to President) is a good deal more like picking the remaining 2 out of a run-off than it is like nominating someone to stand in the race to begin with. Given our exceedingly unfortunate 2-party system, a general election tends to BE a kind of a run-off between the 2 remaining candidates, in effect if not formally. It is just that the 2 left standing for the run-off did not get there in the usual manner of the run-off preparatory process.

My point is that the internal meaning cannot be ascertained without looking at the structure of the vote apparatus, and will be different in different arrangements (and in different parts of one overall system).

Similarly, in A, if you vote NAY after X has already gotten a lock-hold majority, you give a much stronger statement of disfavor to X than the earlier vote against X that took place before X had a majority.

Wouldn't it be the other way around? Wouldn't a "no" vote while X still has a chance of losing indicate that you are willing for proposition X to lose, and willing to contribute your vote to that end, even if this means some other plan gets passed instead? A "no" vote after X has already passed can mean, "I don't like proposition X, though secretly, I'd be sorry if X failed, since that would mean one of these other plans would succeed. I can now afford to say that I don't like X, because someone else has already done the 'dirty work' and passed X."

I agree with you that context matters, Tony, and I also agree that nomination says something much more positive than voting for one of two candidates in a run-off. I'm also prepared to agree that our two-party system makes voting for a presidential candidate more like the latter. However, I _wouldn't_ grant that this means that voting for one of two candidates in a run-off has lost entirely its character of "being for" the candidate and has turned entirely into "pulling a lever in a political machine." After all, there's a reason why we _have_ yard signs in our presidential elections. This is why I think there always has to be a cut-off, a point where you say, "This person is just too bad, stands for things that are just too evil, for me to vote for him."

I think this is consistent with one part of the possible dilemma Paul stated in the main post.

A "no" vote after X has already passed can mean, "I don't like proposition X, though secretly, I'd be sorry if X failed, since that would mean one of these other plans would succeed. I can now afford to say that I don't like X, because someone else has already done the 'dirty work' and passed X."

I am having trouble seeing how that would be a more sensible vote than a simple abstaining. If you were prepared to vote for it, wouldn't a nay vote imply too much negativity about it to be able to represent your real opinion even indistinctly? A "no" vote after it has passed says "I am willing to go on the record against this when I don't have to register a vote", at the first level of meaning. After that, it is difficult to see it backhandedly allowing the observer to understand "even though I think enough of X to have considered it seriously" NOR to understand "even though I consider X to be reasonable overall it is with significant misgivings." In other words, the meaning in the first instance doesn't lead to either of the other meanings in any concrete way. In my opinion. All that comes through is the negativity alone, without any balancing.

Which, I think, underscores the extreme caution we should take in assigning secondary and (worse yet) tertiary meanings to a vote on a proposition beyond the principal one "I want this to pass" or "I want this to fail." And an abstention vote to mean "I don't intend to register an opinion at this time." But of course, this reservation cannot be applied to voting for a candidate: such a vote is not voting for his expressed (or implied) vision alone, and certainly not strictly for his specific proposals to implement his vision.

The election of 1800 was it. The first. The political party of opposition carried an election and the holders of power, despite extreme rancor up to and including coercion by law, in the run-up to the election, peacefully relinquished their hold on the instruments of state.

Paul, are you sure this had not previously happened in Greece or Rome? Seems unlikely to me. My ancient history is pretty spotty (its been a while since I dusted of Thucydides), but I do seem to recall the government changing hands due to the rise of new factions.

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