Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Error of Unison

So, did anyone around here catch Markos's rant against the dominance of single issue groups within the Democratic Party this week?
One of the key problems with the Democratic Party is that single issue groups have hijacked it for their pet causes. So suddenly, Democrats are the party of abortion, of gun control, of spotted owls, of labor, of trial lawyers, etc, etc., et-frickin'-cetera. We don't stand for any ideals, we stand for specific causes. We don't have a core philosophy, we have a list with boxes to check off.

So while Republicans focus on building an ideological foundation for their cause, we focus on checking off those boxes on the list. Check enough boxes, and you're a Democrat in good standing.

Problem is, abortion and choice aren't core principles of the Democratic Party. Rather, things like a Right to Privacy are. And from a Right to Privacy certain things flow -- abortion rights, access to contraceptives, opposition to the Patriot Act, and freedom to worship the gods of our own choosing, or none at all.

Another example of a core Democratic principle -- equality under the law. And from that principle stem civil rights, gender equity, and gay rights. It's not that those individual issues aren't important, of course they are. It's just that they are just that -- individual issues. A party has to stand for something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Pretty fiery stuff, eh? Of course, what set Markos off was NARAL's endorsement of Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee over Democrat Jim Langevin. According to Markos, this is a foolish position for NARAL because doing so helps to preserve the current Republican majority in the Senate. As a pro-choice Republican, Chafee is likely to vote against attempts to further regulate abortion. However, a Democratic Senate majority would be unlikely to allow such legislation onto the agenda at all. Therefore, NARAL has essentially sacrificed the long-term goal of defeating all antiabortion efforts in order to have an additional "no" vote against the legislation we are likely to see while Frist rules the chamber -- a vote surely to be cast in vain. A fairly convincing analysis, if you ask me.

Moreover, this seems to be fairly elementary stuff. NARAL has been around the block and knows how the game is played. It's not that they necessarily should have endorsed a pro-life Democrat, but they certainly had the option to remain silent on the issue. Instead, they chose a path that leads away from the ultimate goal: control of the agenda.

What gives?

Naturally, theories abound to explain such events. However, while many theories provide compelling insights, I often find that they fail to address one of the most important factors that motivate human behavior: the psychology of the social unit.

In this instance, for example, Markos refers to NARAL as "myopic fools" who don't understand that "abortion and choice aren't core principles of the Democratic Party." Personally, I'm not persuaded by this argument. The basic implication here is that the NARAL administrators are idiots who don't get the big picture. To be sure, this was a strategic blunder. But, I'm not prepared to blame it on abject stupidity. NARAL is far too successful and sophisticated for such a label to apply.

Unfortunately, intelligent people sometimes do incredibly stupid things.

In April of 1961, under the direction of the Kennedy administration, 1500 Cuban exiles landed on the southern coast of Cuba with the intention of sparking a popular uprising against Fidel Castro. However, the expected insurrection failed to materialize, thus allowing the invasion to be easily repelled. Over a thousand of the invading exiles were captured by Cuban forces, requiring the United States government to provide $53 million in food and medicine to Cuba in order to secure their release. This event, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, was an enormous embarrassment to Kennedy, served to further Castro's heightened sense of paranoia, and directly led to the Cuban Missile Crisis shortly thereafter.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion is also considered to be a classic example of groupthink. First coined in 1972 by Irving Janis, groupthink is the tendency of insular social units to produce irrational decisions that its membership would not support individually. The proposed dynamic is one where group members unconsciously attempt to conform to a perceived consensus. If there are no systemic controls to encourage internal dissent, the group's actual consensus has a tendency to shift toward extreme and/or irrational conclusions.

The important thing to take from this theory is that this phenomenon is not indicative of stupidity or psychological disorder. Rather, it arises in groups of healthy and socially aware individuals as they react to the stresses of certain specific social situations. As such, it is the immunity to groupthink that should be considered to be deviant. Since it occurs in otherwise healthy and intelligent social units, it has to be systemically managed. Failure to do so leads to things like the Bay of Pigs, the Invasion of Iraq, and -- I would suggest -- certain strategic political blunders that we have been discussing.

NARAL is far from the only interest group to fall prey to the pitfalls of groupthink. Of late, the religious right has been pushing issues that serve to highlight its extremist tendencies. They seized upon the Schiavo situation and forced their congressional representatives to intervene in a decision considered by most to be personal family matter. More recently, they have been apoplectic with respect to the Memorandum of Understanding that averted the "nuclear option" showdown, despite the fact that they achieved much of what they set out to do. As Publius put it
Essentially, Frist used the credible threat of cheating and breaking the Senate rules as a successful negotiating tactic to get a few judges through and to create a climate in which it will be at least marginally easier to get more extreme nominees through going forward. Bush's confirmation rate will now rise above 95%. If the Dobson wing were sane, it would realize just how successful Frist has been in getting the Bush nominees through and would shut up and work in the shadows to get their people on the bench.
Of course, it's not about sane or insane -- it's about the social structure of the group. But, that nitpicking point aside, the religious right isn't reacting rationally to the situation and may, in fact, be working against their best interests.

So, rather than haranguing single issue groups for failing to see solutions that they may be systemically unable to perceive, it might be better to engage them in such a way that they would be forced to cope with dissent. The insular nature of single issue advocacy gives these groups a certain degree of power and authority. But, it also makes them vulnerable to strategic gaffes that undermine their efforts and those of their allies. It doesn't have to be that way. The party (either one) can be an agent for solving this problem for the interest groups that reside within its tent.

The advantage goes to whichever side figures this out first.

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