April 25, 2005

The Sociology of GOP Implosion

There's been a lot of talk of late about whether or not the unwieldy Republican alliance—between social conservatives and lib. free marketeers—is ever going to crack up. Business groups, it seems, are none too happy right now with Kim Jong Bill's maniacal drive forward on the "nuclear option," which, if enacted, would help the GOP stock the federal benches with a few more gay-bashers and uterus-confiscators, but the ensuing nuclear fall-out would essentially kill Big Business's grand hope of ramming through any more favorable legislation through Congress. Or at least that's the story. (In truth, I wonder what exactly Big Biz is still hoping to get passed. The energy bill? More tax cuts?)

Anyway, it's hard to tell if a crack-up is truly imminent or not, but for fun—and maybe even a side of edification—it's worth revisiting the concluding chapter from Lewis Coser's classic, The Functions of Social Conflict, to try to figure out when intra-group conflict does and does not rip groups apart at the seams. Some grand passages:
Internal social conflicts which concern goals, values or interests that do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which the relationship is founded tend to be positively functional for the social structure. Such conflicts tend to make possible the readjustment of norms and power relations within groups in accordance with the felt needs of its individual members or subgroups.

Internal conflicts in which the contending parties no longer share the basic values upon which the legitimacy of the social system rests threaten to disrupt the structure.
To be honest, I think the first paragraph better describes the tension within the GOP—they're fighting over "goals, values, or interests," and not fundamental assumptions (whatever that might mean). So down goes the Crack-Up Thermometer. But this next passage is worthy of a few contemplative strokes of the chin:
Closely knit groups in which there exists a high frequency of interaction and high personality involvement of the members have a tendency to suppress conflict. While they provide frequent occasions for hostility... the acting out of such feelings is sensed as a danger to such intimate relationships...

If conflict breaks out in a group that has consistently tried to prevent expression of hostile feelings, it will be particularly intense for two reasons: First, because the conflict does not merely aim at resolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak; all accumulated grievances which were denied expression previously are apt to emerge at this occasion. Second, because the total personality involvement of the group members makes for mobilization of all sentiments in the conduct of the struggle.
Does that describe the current GOP coalition? Without a doubt it has been very personality driven, somewhat unified around the cult of Bush and Rove—recall, for instance, back in early 2001 when the coalition of estate-tax repealers were willing to back the president no matter what he did or decided. This is Mark Schmitt's thesis: that the GOP has become so centralized, such a command-and-control operation, that collapse will come swift and severe.

On the other hand! We've seen no sign that the current tensions between the libertarian and social conservative wings of the party are escalating their conflict beyond "resolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak," which Coser thinks is crucial for a serious rift to occur. Nor do these Republican battles seem particularly more emotional than usual intra-party conflicts. Down goes the thermometer. And onwards:
Groups which are engaged in continued struggle tend to lay claim on the total personality involvement of their members so that internal conflict would tend to mobilize all energies and affects of the members. Hence such groups are unlikely to tolerate more than limited departures from the group unity. In such groups there is a tendency to suppress conflict; where it occurs, it leads the group to break up through splits or through forced withdrawal of dissenters.
Hmmmmm, now this could be a problem for the Republican Party, which has so thoroughly mobilized itself against the "liberal movement"—see Tom DeLay's recent "Wah wah, I'm an embattled figure" remarks—no one would pretend this is a party that's not in "continued struggle." So perhaps this is where the pressure for a crack-up will come. If Coser's right, then so long as the GOP defines itself as a majority opposition party, rather than a governing party, it will run the danger of a nasty split or "forced withdrawal of dissenters." (Which has started to happen to a small degree.) Of course, the Democrats run the exact same risk, as they've definitely "mobilize[d] all energies and affects of the members" towards a single purpose—defeating their enemies.

So, amateur social science tells us that the Republican Party is probably safe for now. What else you got?
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 AM || ||