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Over at Cato, Julian Sanchez has written a post about how the aftermath of healthcare reform could reveal faultlines in existing political coalitions and trigger realignment:

There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience.

My excerpt doesn’t do justice, read the whole thing. I’ll revisit the last paragraph since it’s particularly important.

For now, however, let me point out that there are two broad ways of looking at the underlying motivations of political actors. The first view, one which I give little credence to, understands individuals as being motivated primarily by “issues”. That is, discrete views on a set of minimally overlapping topics to which we give greater or lesser importance in our internal rankings. This is certainly an accurate view when applied to certain subsets of the population. Professional lobbyists, for instance, are likely to have their activities driven by their views on a particular issue.

We generalize too easily beyond the subset for which this view is appropriate, however; and I suspect that this generalization is driven in part by the tools for measuring political attitudes that we have at our disposal. Polls tend to ask about issues, people respond to polls with statements about issues, and consequently we come to believe that issues predominate in general. This is not necessarily accurate.

A deeper investigation of political motives might reveal that issues are epiphenomena of worldviews — sometimes better and sometimes worse thought out, but always holistic, visions of what the ideal society would look like. Worldviews tend to be nebulous, they tend to be conveyed easily through imagery and poorly through scales that range from “Agree Strongly” to “Disagree Strongly”, and most of all they tend to resist discretization. I suspect that motivation based on worldview is overrepresented among professional political activists, think tank employees, and journalists.

So far so good, nothing I’ve said precludes realignment. It’s doubtless likely that many who support a particular contingent ideological ensemble share very different worldviews that happen only to align on key issues. What changes the picture is the fact that the political agenda is largely set by a self-selecting group of professional activists, think-tank workers, and journalists. Within this environment, pressure to be a “team-player” for your coalition is high. So too is the institutional inertia embodied by foundations, policy shops, and alliance umbrella-groups. Given this, one might expect the worldviews of the key players to undergo drift, to slowly mutate until they are more homogeneous and more compatible on all fronts. In fact, we see this occur quite frequently: one example is the labor movement, which for a long time was considered hostile to immigration, but which now is mostly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. I suspect that this shift percolated down from the top, from the professional ranks of DC labor activists, who in turn underwent internal shifts in worldview due to the pressures exerted upon them by the contingent alliance in which they found themselves.

If this hypothesis is correct, we would expect political coalitions to be “stickier” than they would otherwise be. The fact that the Great Conservative Crack-Up that so many predicted after the fall of the USSR still hasn’t fully arrived might be considered evidence in favor of this hypothesis. One testable prediction might be that the rift between scientism and romanticism won’t immediately fracture the left after global warming ceases to be an issue.

What might melt the stickiness, however, is the systematic undermining of the intra-alliance power of the political professionals, as Julian describes:

. . . the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization . . . They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  . . . It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.

It seems like you need something else to make this claim: the assumption that all these cool, new, distributed advocacy groups don’t get sucked into the extant ideological groupings over time. So long as we have the two-party system, incentives to conform are high and tipping points are rare but dramatic.

As for the Hamsher/Norquist folie à deux, such things aren’t exactly unprecedented, nor are they only a product of the digital age. Recall Karl Hess, or perhaps Gus DiZerega, who in 196Z was president of his university chapters of both SDS and YAF. What did he do after that? Why, he blogs about Paganism of course.

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