The necessity of coalition politics

Cross posted at What’s Wrong with the World

(a) The danger to a political cause when one or more of its factions begin to dogmatize to the point of excommunication is especially evident in minority status. A cause that, whatever its merits, can only gain the assent of a minority of the rulers or voters will be an increasingly failed cause to the extent that it indulges the impulse of internal purgation.


(b) Some matters are of such high moral importance that one is obliged to dogmatize, even unto the point of excommunication.

The tension between these two statements lies at the heart of one of the ancient and ineradicably problems of political society. It may said to be almost coexistensive with political society under self-governing forms. It recapitulates the problem of human freedom.

Even under tyrannically forms the problem only recedes, never vanishes. A conspiracy to overthrow a pretender or foreign oppressor must deal at once with how far to spread its appeals, lest it expose itself and be crushed. Should republican plotters, in conniving at bringing down a corrupt and lawless king, admit into their ranks the ultramonane Catholics who despise the king for ecclesiastical reasons?

Nor, indeed, does the problem vanish when the object of political combination is tyranny. Should the socialists embrace within their designs against the commercial republic the monarchists whose hatred of the republic is no less ardent than theirs, despite emanating from different sources?

In a word, it is not within the power of any art we here below possess, to escape the necessity of political coalitions. And yet, off at the end, all principled men must admit that even certain potentially successful coalitions could not win their assent, on the grounds that some faction of it is too odious.


This tension is in the world. No finesse of mind, no power of technique can remove it.

Thus it remains true to say that prudence must govern the politics of man; and that this prudence must deepen as the power of statesmanship increases.

It follows that the greatest statesman is the man of perfect prudence. But prudence alone does not a virtuous man make.

A corollary of this paradox or tension is that political weakness is often the midwife of extreme dogmatism. A man who insists on sharp and even intransigent points of principled orthodoxy, even to the ruin of political friendships, will soon find himself a man always bereft of a candidate to endorse at any level.

Speaking of candidates, invariably it is the primary season in American politics that induces great waves of arrogant and truculent dogmatism and excommunications.

But it is good to remember that in America the indispensible vehicle for true coalition politics in democracy was discovered. The sovereignty of elections over revolutions, or compromise over excommunication, was achieved first here on a continental scale.

The election of 1800 was it. The first. The political party of opposition carried an election and the holders of power, despite extreme rancor up to and including coercion by law, in the run-up to the election, peacefully relinquished their hold on the instruments of state. Jefferson’s inaugural proclaimed that “we are all republicans — we are all federalists”; and coalition politics under conditions of individual liberty were off and running. Consensus and deliberation would rule, rather than accident and fraud.


The fact that Publius in The Federalist did not quite imagine that the political party would be the institution to embody his vision of the commercial republic, does not diminish his prescience in seeing that such an institution was wanting, and that such an institution would be a huge advance in the political science of Western man.

The sovereignty of ballots over bullets, which is coexistensive with coalition republicanism, is a thing worth conserving: something not wrong but quite right with the world. Nevertheless, the prudence of American statesman, despite its extraordinary genius, remains but an approximation by sinful human hands — an approximation attempting to present a solution to the problem of human freedom.


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