The Minimum Winning Coalition, Isn’t

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 112 (January/February 2011)

Retired Indiana Senator Evan Bayh stated that a main reason for his retiring from the U.S. Senate—and announcing it now—instead of staying on to continue battle with the ongoing partisan gridlock which has paralyzed this country, is that he and fellow legislators have to spend most of their time fundraising for the next campaign, instead of giving real attention to our national problems. Putting to the side all need for political campaign fundraising, he implies, will let him better concentrate on the job at hand until end of term, and he feels he can do much more for the American people on the outside of Capitol Hill than inside.

Whether or not you judge that in fact to be one of his main reasons for retiring—with a 20-point lead in the polls, among other advantages—the condition he describes is certainly a serious one, widely decried by a wide spectrum of observers and commentators (not necessarily synonymous), and a major impediment to getting the nation’s urgent business done.

However, what Bayh has complained about is but a small splinter piece of a much larger ongoing process, one which may be by far the gravest threat to national security and beyond, out of many hazards now looming.

Is anyone here reading this who is familiar with the theory of minimum winning coalitions? That is a key part of political theory, game theory and political economy which got its major impetus toward development with William Riker’s 1962 seminal work, The Theory of Political Coalitions (New Haven: Yale University Press). Most major points in his thesis are discussion points for most researchers and writers since who have addressed the field.

What is remarkable is that no one seems to have predicted the mess our politics is in now, much less the greater one we are approaching even though the theory itself is flashing red lights and laser strobe lights all over the place to warn us.

Dynamic processes have been inaugurated which historically have led to either of two outcomes which are totally outside the perspective of just about any present-day American. Neither of these two outcomes would be at all acceptable to just about any American, including the very politicians whose partisanship is part of the process that is leading us toward those outcomes.

Either of these outcomes would mean the end of the grand centuries-old experiment in democracy in which America led the world in bringing an ever broader range of human talents into participation in and contribution toward high civilization (for more on this point, please see Democracy and Freedom and Freedom and Technology). The main dynamic leading there, the one explored in the theory of minimum winning coalitions, applies in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes as well and is not merely a disease of democracy, as summarized by Barbara Geddes from a number of recent studies by various researchers in that subtopic, in her 2004 monograph, “Minimum-Winning Coalitions and Personalization in Authoritarian Regimes”.

The most convincing explanation as to causes of the American Revolution, to me, is the one given by the theory of minimum winning coalitions. The same theory was very clearly demonstrated almost two centuries ago in the so-called “Era of Good Feelings”, inaugurating a chain of successive polarizations which eventually became the American Civil War. It has characterized conditions in a good many nations and empires leading either to civil war or to the overthrow of established governments and institutions by an autocratic “man on a white horse”. We have seen it in miniature inside of whichever political party, soon after an election in which it won nearly all the marbles, split or dissolved in bitter disputes.

Here’s the meat of the theory of minimum winning coalitions: political groupings tend to win and hold power by thin margins, in order not to have to share the spoils of power and office more widely than they have to.

This flies in the face of conventional expectation, especially because everyone likes to win in a landslide victory. But with victory assured, one makes fewer promises, puts out less effort, offers fewer inducements for support. If power is nonetheless won by a wide margin, party discipline breaks down and different interests go different ways. Meanwhile the loyal opposition becomes the disloyal or at least the bitterly disaffected opposition. A slip of the grip does not usually fix things:  the rascals have been thrown out, but their clean-broom replacements soon prove to be just as rascally.

On the wider scene:  In the Seven Years War, also known over here as the French and Indian War, under William Pitt’s brilliant leadership the British in the end had trounced the French so thoroughly that now most of the stakes of wealth and power in the world were within the British Empire. Where, then, were the various political and power groupings to do their contending for those stakes of wealth and power? If America had not split off, the Empire would have dissolved in some other manner or direction in roughly the same time interval. Although today’s America is not in quite the preponderant-power position with the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, it was close enough to that to have triggered a similar dynamic, and the timing is about right for us to be running into trouble through this phase of the dynamic.

Our internal paralysis has reached the level where the latest poll, released February 21, 2010, continued to show 83% of the American people convinced—as they were also under the previous administration—that our government and system are broken. More and more of our commentators sound reasonable when they say that much or most of our political leaders, instead of being Americans first and party members second, appear to be partisans first and Americans only a long second.

Either of these outcomes is unacceptable and even unthinkable (to use Eisenhower’s favorite descriptor), but highly likely if we don’t understand what is happening to us and devise an effective means for steering in another direction.

Outcome #1 — Substantial portions of the power establishment, together with a portion of our general public, decide they see no viable way out of the increasingly dangerous general paralysis except by means of an autocratic “man on a white horse” whose concentrated powers and will can somehow move us beyond the paralysis. Rome got lucky twice with Cincinnatus in the 5th Century B.C., but look at how things ended up nonetheless there. France was “saved” from her post-Revolutionary chaos by THE man on a white horse, only to be bled dry in the Napoleonic wars.

Outcome #2 — If this went, instead, in the even more unthinkable direction of a civil war, who would be fighting whom? Although matters on this scale can change remarkably fast and to a remarkable extent, I don’t think it even so will be today’s Republicans and Democrats, extreme though some of these be. More likely, the most disaffected among Republicans, together with Libertarians (ironically, given their commitment to policies of peace) and Tea Party-ites, will form one new party while disaffected liberals and youth will form a new party and eventually replace the Democrats, and/or a group of practical pragmatists may attempt to assemble from all across the spectrum but have a hard time finding either focus or leadership. The new parties won’t have even a history to serve as common ground between them.

America frittered away much of her advantage following the end of the Cold War and, tied up as she is in a political paralysis which no longer “stops at the water’s edge,” seems likely to lose much more, to the point where the stakes of power and wealth are so much to the outside again or an extreme outside threat forces internal unity on us; if we can get by through about twenty more years without a civil war, we might escape that outcome altogether. Yet if an intact America and rising superpower China could work together for awhile toward world peace, a tremendous lot of good could be accomplished in the world, so the price of escaping a civil war by dissipating our advantages itself may prove very costly.

The man on a white horse is our likeliest outcome, someone whose focused power and will, people come to believe, can somehow cut through all the paralysis and fix the dangerous accumulated wrongs of the nation. History has shown repeatedly ad nauseam how eventually futile this recourse is, and we certainly should have learned enough from the Hitler episode never to accept it. Yet how are we to head it off, if we ignore or don’t even understand the dynamic within which we have trapped ourselves?

Are there any thoughtful persons here who can examine this matter in the quiet of their own office or home, look at what others besides myself have to say on this topic, and possibly eventually talk matters over with some other thoughtful person whom they respect? That’s all I can ask of you.

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