Transactions, Transformations, and Institutions

Aaron Miller, a veteran US diplomat involved in Middle Eastern negotiations, has an interesting op-ed piece in Washington Post.  It is, superficially, a pessimistic piece on why US diplomacy cannot bring about peace between unwilling actors in the Middle East, but, beneath the surface, it is a useful piece on the limits of institutions in politics.

Much recent political science argument has praised, in effect, the power of rigged institutions, the most infamous in this election cycle being the much ballyhooed then much derided The Party Decides.  It is quite clear that, after the successful Republican candidacy (at least in terms of securing nomination) of Donald Trump and the still unresolved state of the Democratic primaries where, despite the odds, Sanders supporters are not giving up, the rigged institutions have not quite don their job.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, the answer is that neither Trump or Sanders, or indeed, their supporters, bought into the premises of the political bargains in the first place.  The usual “transactional” negotiations are relevant when people are broadly agreed on the outcomes they want to accomplish but differ only on who gets how much of what.  They want to achieve an agreement that roughly achieves X, Y, and Z, but they are open to how much of X, Y, or Z goes to each side.  Or, in the lingo of electoral, “ideological” politics, they know and are agreed on what is “liberal” and “conservative” on a well-defined political dimension–they know and accept the validity of DW-Nominate scores, if you will.  The only question is whether the outcome will be -0.6 or -0.1.  The difference may be significant in terms of DW-Nominate scores (it basically is–it is the difference between solidly “pro-Democrat” outcome vs. essentially bipartisan), but that is relevant only if everyone is on the same page over what it is that are open to negotiations and what would be kept off the table.

“Transofmrational” politics does not accept the validity of the conventional wisdom and its definitions.  (Which is why Harry Enten’s attempt at identifing Barney Frank as more “liberal” than Sanders is problematic).  Indeed, the goal of transformational politics is to define (or re-define) what are open to negotiations and what would be kept off the table in the first place.  It is, by necessity, a far more risky and difficult step than the “transactional,” but the necessary first step.  As Fenno wrote of the American electoral politics for Congress in 1960s, symbols trump policy positions, but the power of the symbols is founded on the broadly shared belief that the politician and the voters are generally agreed on the questions of policy.  Building “trust” through years of interactions has done the part of the “transformational” politics:  the rest can be grounded on how to best use the symbols to cement the subsequent transactions.  Likewise, if “politics” are to be defined on “liberal” and “conservative” labels, it is necessary and desirable to define them first and achieve some kind of consensus on the part of everyone to play within these definitions.  Otherwise, we wind up with a game of Calvinball, and the participants of the game are not necessarily a little boy and his stuffed tiger.

US diplomacy, or indeed, any diplomacy between Israel and Palestinians failed because they tried to work out the terms of the outcome even before they were agreed on what would be open (and not open) to negotiations in the first place.  What makes the Sanders intransigence baffling to the mainstream Democrats is that they disagree at a fundamental level on what is open for negotiations.  In some sense, this is what lies ahead for the (probable) general election race between Clinton and Trump:  they will talk completely past each other because they are not even in the same ballpark (or playing the same game).  The potential risk goes far beyond who wins the election:  the demand for “transformation” comes from dissatisfaction over the current premises on which ALL transactions are built on, whether they are -0.7 or 0.5 on the DW-Nominate scale.  Just getting the would-be political participants (assuming they are still involved in electoral politics some years later–always a problem with “missing” voters) to think about politics in DW-Nominate dimension will be a difficult challenge–a problem whose very existence seems to elude many today.



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