Follies of Spatial Politics

While I think Joseph Stiglitz’s prescription to the Democrats is largely on the mark, I have a rather important if trivial looking objection to his characterization:  adopting a more inclusive approach to economic policy is NOT exactly turning “left.”  It can be construed as turning left, in terms of the past policy choices of the New Deal coalition that emphasized both economic and socio-cultural inclusivity, but, for the past few decades, “left” and “right” have come to be defined largely in terms of socio-cultural concerns while the economic dimension has been left largely untouched by politics.  This is the “rigging” of the sort Sanders and Trump were talking about:  not so much that “winners” are preordained, per se, but the topics of debate are.  Of course, the net effect can be the same:  the debate topics are preordained to provide advantage for the existing political actors, but that dimension is less certain.  Trump (and to a lesser degree Sanders) shook up the debate by forcibly reintroducing the economic dimension past the “rigged” institutions on the strength of millions of supporters.  While most voters might have remained along the old socio-cultural dimension and voted accordingly, millions voted on the economy now that they could, and this was what won Trump the victory.

Far easier thing for the Democrats to do (and for that matter, Republicans too) is to subvert Stiglitz’s advice:  turn left but on different kind of “left,” by doubling down on the socio-cultural aspects.  It is not obvious that it will necessarily fail:  the socio-cultural left IS larger than the socio-cultural right.  But it is also irrelevant for a large minority that is primarily concerned with the economic situation.

There is a bit of cruel irony when the “inclusivist vs. exclusivist” argument is applied to economic concerns.  Mayhew had argued that an inclusivist coalition is inherently superior because it permits construction of a larger, indeed, dominant coalition at the risk of added difficulties in intracoalitional governance.  Advocates of socio-culturally liberal policy might be giddy at the thought that, because of their relatively more inclusive nature, they tend to win culture wars in the long run–which I believe is usually true.  But what causes them to lose occasionally is not necessarily because of culture, but because they become exclusivist in areas other than culture that matter to many people, enough to tip the overall majority to the other side that can be exploited by those who realize that the entire playing field can be changed heresthetically, as Trump has demonstrated.  What made the New Deal coalition successful was that it struck balance between different kind of inclusivity:  it was economically and culturally inclusive, including, as many are ashamed to admit in retrospect, many who were bigoted–it welcomed both African-Americans and Klansmen, and where they could not accommodated simultaneously on culture or “ideology,” made up for the difference through economic inclusion or even plain old pork barrel politics.  This is the wisdom of politics that is increasingly being lost. The process of doubling down on the cultural left, or, in other words, rejecting the validity of the dimension of politics other than socio-cultural concerns is already rather widespread.  Dangers of wonkism indeed:   the agenda is right because the theory says so; therefore, question the theory, you attack the agenda.  Therefore, we reject the facts inconsistent with the theory.  Some “scientific” thinking.

PS.  One might say that the “heresthetical” politics is a form of “triangulation,” even if of non-Euclidean variety.  It retains bulk of the coalitional configuration as before, but change the distribution of voters by offering them concessions along a dimension other than the principal dimension–i.e. making economic concessions while the main dividing line in politics remains along the socio-cultural issues.  People who don’t necessarily agree with you on the main axis shift because they don’t care much about it.  Note also that this turns upside down the aspect of politics that people have increasingly come to accept as gospel truth lately–that people’s attitude does not change and that the problem is turnout.  In this case, Trump actually did convert voters, enough to shift the outcome.  The critique that the naive Clinton GOTV operation might actually have turned out many Trump voters is quite plausible given this scenario.


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