The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Identity, Flexible Opportunism, and Political Success


Ross’s Campaign Stops column notes that the Obama reelection campaign was hyperlocal in its messaging:

In early October, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball reported on an Obama ad running quietly in rural Ohio, which attacked Romney from the right on coal, turning his environmentalist record in Massachusetts against him. After the election,Obama’s Florida campaign bragged about having used Paul Ryan’s past support for lifting the Cuban embargo to get a foot in the door with Florida’s reliably Republican Cuban community.

On paper, some of these pitches seemed to conflict with one another. The White House’s leftward pivot on abortion risked alienating socially conservative Hispanics. The raw economic nationalism of Obama’s Midwest strategy made an uneasy fit with his liberalizing push on immigration. His pro-coal and anti-Cuba pitches could have prompted pushback from liberal activists.

But because the Romney campaign never found a way to exploit these tensions within the Democratic coalition, Obama was able to narrowcast successfully. He won the states he needed, not with a single unifying message, but with a series of appeals carefully calibrated to the realities on the ground. [Emphasis added]

Perhaps the Romney campaign could have exploited these tensions. But there is another possibility: even if Romney and the GOP had drawn attention to hypocrisy (arguendo) of the Obama campaign, would the president’s supporters have batted an eyelash. That is, would liberal voters convinced that President Obama shares their convictions on the critical importance of climate change really be fazed by the fact that he is making favorable noises about coal? Do Cuba-friendly progressives in Ithaca, NY believe that the president really is an anti-Castro hawk? You could say that these voters simply believed that he’d be less bad than his Republican opponent, but I believe that there is actually more to it than that. 

Consider, for example, the politics of same-sex marriage. One of my good friends recently observed that social liberals were entirely comfortable with Barack Obama’s reversal on same-sex marriage during his 2008 campaign, presumably because they saw it as a concession to political reality. Once the president reversed himself yet again, his support for same-sex marriage was seen by many as one of the most morally urgent reasons to favor his reelection. To return to 2008, however, it seems fairly clear that accepting the president’s reversal as something less than an outrage was a shrewd move for social liberals, as the Obama administration decided against defending the Defense of Marriage Act, among other things. 

Can you imagine the Republican base having the same attitude towards a GOP candidate who made a similar tactical shift to the center on social issues? Perhaps a solidly conservative candidate with a long record of support for the pro-life cause could get away with such a shift, but even that seems somewhat unlikely to me. One possible reason is that conservative presidential candidates tend to be drawn from an elite stratum in which culturally conservative views are not near-universal whereas liberal presidential candidates do tend to be drawn from social milieus in which socially liberal views are near-universal. This might deepen distrust. 

But let’s return to the Obama coalition. Earlier this year, my aforementioned friend kindly passed along “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434″ by John Padgett and Christopher Ansell, an essay that describes the Medici role in Florentine state centralization:

The dynamic underlying Florentine state centralization, we shall show, was this: unsuccessful class revolt (1378-82) and fiscal catastrophe due to wars (1424-33) were the ultimate causes, but these shocks were transmitted through the ratchet mechanism of elite network transformation. A citywide oligarchy, cemented through marriage, first emerged from a quasi-feudal federation of patrician neighborhood hierarchies. The very process of oligarchic consolidation, however, also produced the agent of its own destruction: the Medici party. The Medici party was a heterogeneous mixture of contradictory interests and crosscutting networks. In stark contrast to this fact, contemporaries perceived the Medici categori- cally as “heroes of the new men.” The Medici’s contradictory agglomeration exhibited great cohesion and capacity for sustained collective action. But what the Medici stood for is unclear to this day.

On the surface, it seems obvious that Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) did it all. Cosimo de’ Medici was multiply embedded in complicated and sprawling Florentine marriage, economic, and patronage elite networks. And he was riding herd on vast macropolitical and macroeconomic forces far beyond his control. Yet he founded a dynasty that dominated Florence for three centuries. He consolidated a Europe-wide banking network that helped induce both international trade and state making elsewhere (de Roover 1966). And he oversaw and sponsored the Florentine intellectual and artistic efflorescence that we now call “the Renaissance.”

Contemporaries deeply appreciated Cosimo’s power. Foreign princes after 1434 flocked to Cosimo’s private palazzo to work out international relations, much to the consternation of bypassed Florentine officials. Cosimo was legally enshrined on his death as the father of his country — no mean recognition from citizens as cynical and suspicious as the Florentines. Machiavelli ([1525] 1988), almost a full century later, still held Cosimo and his family in awe — attributing both all good and all evil in recent Florentine history to Cosimo’s deep and ruthless machinations.

Yet the puzzle about Cosimo’s control is this: totally contrary to Machiavelli’s portrait in The Prince of effective leaders as decisive and goal oriented, eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de’ Medici as an indecipherable sphinx (Brown 1961, p. 186). “Cosimo was anxious to remain in the background, hiding his great influence, and acting, when need arose, through a deputy. As a result, very little is known of the measures for which he was directly responsible” (Gutkind 1938, p. 124). Despite almost complete domination of the state, Cosimo never assumed lasting public office. And he hardly ever gave a public speech. Lest one conclude that this implies only savvy back-room dealing, extant accounts of private meetings with Cosimo emphasize the same odd passivity. After passionate pleas by supplicants for action of some sort, Cosimo typically would terminate a meeting graciously but icily, with little more commit- ment than “Yes my son, I shall look into that” (cf. Vespasiano 1963, pp. 223, 226).

Moreover, especially after 1434, all action by Cosimo (never explained or rationalized) appeared extraordinarily reactive in character. Everything was done in response to a flow of requests that, somehow or other, “just so happened” to serve Cosimo’s extremely multiple interests.

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character, and the judge/ boss contradiction thereby, we argue, is multivocality — the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego. The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism — maintaining discretionary options across unforeseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options. [Emphasis added]

Perhaps sphinxlike leaders make the strongest leaders — allies see in them exactly what they want to see, thus giving the leader in question considerable freedom of action. Ronald Reagan’s political success arguably derived from the fact that his conservative supporters saw him as a loyalist and his moderate supporters saw him as pragmatic and flexible when necessary. In a related vein, Barack Obama commands the allegiance of a large number of base liberals, moderates, and culturally conservative minority voters because members of each of these potentially clashing constituencies see him as one of them. 


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