Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Coalitional Theory of the Democratic Party --
osted to Open Left:

Recently, Chris Bowers asked if Obama represents a possible deal between progressives and the Democratic establishment.  I suspect that this sort of analysis is oversimplified and that there are more than two main poles in the party.  My hypothesis is that the Democratic Party functions as the sort of coalition that you might find in a parliamentary government.

This is only in the realm of hypothesis and hasn't been tested by analyzing data, but I suspect that the Democratic Party, at least at the elite level, can be broken down into several discrete power blocs.  My guess is that the main groups could be called the Progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus, the New Democrats, and the Blue Dogs.

There's a lot to raise my suspicious in this direction.  Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid seem to conduct Congressional business as if they are leaders of a fragile coalition that could fly apart at any moment.  The saga of William Jefferson felt like the CBC acting as a separate party.  The Hoyer-Murtha battle for House Majority Leader seemed like a New Democrat-Blue Dog partnership to oppose dominance by Nancy Pelosi and the Progressives.

The analogy isn't perfect.  Since these aren't formal organizations, politicians are capable of being independent actors who don't align perfectly with the various blocs.  But the schema makes sense.  I'm sure there are political scientists who have analyzed how often members of Congress vote with each other.  If my hypothesis is right, they will have identified groups of politicians who often vote together.

If this is all true, I have a few conclusions:

-A Democratic president with a Democratic-controlled Congress will still have to be able to negotiate with the party's various factions in order to pass an agenda

-To maximize their influence, progressives should caucus and agree to vote together on all legislation as a group and to negotiate compromises with other blocs within the Democratic coalition.  This requires some Democrats stepping up as real leaders.

-Progressive primary challenges should focus on replacing members of the New Democrat Coalition rather than the Blue Dogs in order to strengthen the leftmost position when compromise is eventually sought

-The Democrats are ill-suited to being a minority party.  Because they are effectively multiple parties joined together, the Democratic coalition falls apart when in the minority because there is not majority power to bind the coalition together

-If the U.S. shifted to a parliamentary system right now and the two-party system fell apart, a left-of-center government would probably resemble the current Democratic status quo in the House of Representatives, with a prime minister perhaps resembling Nancy Pelosi or perhaps Steny Hoyer.

Like I said, this is all an unproven hypothesis, but I think it does a lot to explain why Democratic politicians act the way they do and may be useful in predicting the success of various possible legislative strategies for making the country more progressive.

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