a better approach to coalition politics

Sometimes people view coalitions instrumentally and transactionally. You know what you believe, but unfortunately you don’t (yet) have enough support, or seats, or votes, or dollars to get what you want, so you must join with other people who either share roughly similar beliefs–close enough to settle for–or who will support your agenda in return for your help with theirs.

We see this approach most clearly in parliamentary systems, when parties come together to form majorities. The center-left party will form a government with the Greens if they need the Greens’ votes, but will drop them if they don’t. We also see it in US logrolling politics: Democrats from rural districts vote for HUD; urban Democrats vote for the Farm Bill. And we see it in social movements, when participants advocate for a “big tent” or invoke a “bird that flies with two wings”–clichés that usually mean: “Include me in your coalition or you won’t win.”

Some circumstances–such as parliamentary votes of confidence–require a transactional approach to putting together coalitions of 50% plus one. But it is possible to view a coalition in a different way: as a network of valuable relationships among people who trust and respect one another.

Brad DeLong, a self-proclaimed “neoliberal” and “[Robert] Rubin Democrat,” recently announced his support for a coalition led by people to his left. Speaking of his own faction within the Democratic Party, he wrote:

Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition. We blame cynical Republican politicians. We blame corrupt and craven media bosses and princelings. We are right to blame them, but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.

Note that DeLong is not renouncing his own beliefs or exiting public life in defeat. Instead, has has reached an all-things-considered judgment that people who disagree with him on some important matters should lead a coalition that he will support. It’s their time.

In a Vox interview, he adds:

while I would like to be part of a political coalition in the cat seat, able to call for bids from the left and the right about who wants to be part of the governing coalition to actually get things done, that’s simply not possible as of now.

We shouldn’t pretend that it is, or that it’s going to be. We need to find ways to improve left-wing initiatives, rather than demand that they start from our basic position and do minor tweaks to make them more acceptable to their underlying position.

DeLong wants to contribute, but he thinks the left should lead. His role is non-coercive persuasion: offering market-based suggestions that the left can accept or not. He doesn’t suggest that his support will be conditional on their agreement. He is in, but he wants to retain his voice. His explicit renunciation of a claim to lead should engender some trust from the left. It’s an example of the general principle that Danielle Allen defends in Talking to Strangers. Our task is to become “political friends” who demonstrate “reciprocal goodwill”; and to get there, often the first step is to make an explicit sacrifice.

In turn, if the left were to lead the Democratic Party, it would become the main source of energy and ideas. Progressives would earn the voluntary support of a broader spectrum. They would not view leftover neoliberals as enemies to be rooted out but as fellow members of the coalition who can be inspired and persuaded. They would take seriously their own capacity, opportunity, and moment to lead. They would see themselves as better leaders if people like Brad DeLong continued to follow them. They would value not only the votes of such moderates but their insights.

They would also care about the condition of the coalition. Is it sufficiently attractive to a broad range of people? Does it offer entry-points for newbies and youth while also honoring the folks who have been working hard for a long time? Is it nimble but also principled? Can it manage dissent? How does it handle disagreement? You can’t answer those questions well if you are always thinking about whether your own policy goals will prevail. You must also care about the coalition as a community.

I am not saying that the currently insurgent left is failing to act this way. So far, so good. I am just offering a way to conceptualize leadership that doesn’t reduce a coalition to a pure means for accomplishing the leaders’ goals. I’d argue that valuing the coalition is a path to wiser strategies and more influence.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); saving relational politics; and the value of diversity and discussion within social movements.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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