By Eoin O’ Malley.
Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt were very different men, with very different interests. One was a Protestant, a member of the Anglo-Irish elite, the landed gentry. He was an instinctively cautious man. The other was the son of Irish emigrants evicted from their land. He had radical ideas about land ownership. Yet together they formed a remarkable association that delivered land reform for the Irish and put Irish nationalism at the centre of British politics, ultimately leading to Irish independence.
Nationalism had for some time been the preserve of the idle rich. It failed to make inroads with the Irish peasantry, who had better things to think about, such as feeding themselves. Parnell’s genius was to link land reform with nationalism. What he did was to create a coalition to advance his goals.
It is rare for any one coherent group to form a majority. For any campaign to achieve any success it has to build coalitions. Being good at this will often define a politician or political movement’s success.
In the aftermath of the marriage referendum some on the left though it was a great victory for the left, and could point to a possible left-wing majority in the country. The campaign for same-sex marriage worked not because it was a left-wing issue, but because it wasn’t a left-wing issue. It was one that transcended that divide. The campaign successfully built a coalition of liberals on the left and right. It would have risked defeat if it had alienated classic liberals. In the US attempts to advance the cause of gay rights have always depended on the support of liberal (in the European sense) Republicans. If the left tries to ‘own’ the issue, it excludes others on the right who regard gay rights as matter of personal freedom. This was evident in the Supreme Court judgments gay marriage where Anthony Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan, swung the vote.
Fintan O’Toole observed recently that marriage equality wasn’t the human rights issue of our time. Rather “the most urgent human rights issue…is child poverty”. He’s promised to campaign on child poverty, and so we can expect countless sermons on it. Here’s a prediction: the campaign will go nowhere.
It’s not that I want it to go nowhere – I hope I’m wrong. I agree with him about the identification and the urgency of the problem. Liberal democracy has created a class, that from childhood fails to empower people to recognise the value in their life. Roberto Unger claims this class suffers “death by installments”.
But this campaign will suffer from two related problems. The first is what Robert Nozick observed as normative sociology: “the study of what the causes of problems ought to be”. Conservatives don’t like the welfare state and so consider it the cause of all ‘social ills’ such as school drop-out, drug dependency etc. Social democrats hate inequality, and so make the naïve assumption that it must cause all the bad stuff we see around us: school drop-out, drug dependency etc.
They agree on problems. It’s just the issue of causality gets mixed up by their prejudices.
An old joke comes to mind:
Psychologist: ‘You should go easy on Johnny. He comes from a broken home’
Teacher: ‘I’m not surprised. Johnny could break any home’.
The causes of social problems are complicated, and we often don’t have policy instruments to deal with them, but we frequently just pick what we think should be the cause. O’Toole and others are probably already certain they know the cause of childhood poverty, and even more certain it’s time for their preferred solution. In fact I suspect social democrats in Ireland feel that there are few if any serious social problems that Danish-style social democracy can’t solve.
This is a problem for campaigns like this. When we have decided the cause and the solution in advance we exclude others who have identified their cause and solution in advance. Breda O’Brien responded to O’Toole, signing up to the child-poverty agenda, but citing the link highlighted in Robert Putnam’s (disappointing) new book ‘Our Kids’: social ills such as poverty, poor health, mental illness are associated with the breakdown in stable two-parent families.
To succeed the campaign needs to build a broad coalition. That means two things. Making compromises, and working with people you don’t like. Neither are things that come naturally to people, especially to true believers (who are likely to lead new issues). True believers tend to have a boundless self-confidence in their position, which makes compromise difficult. And they tend to hold simple views, whose simplicity makes them perplexed that others don’t share their views. (‘Why can’t you understand if we just burned the bondholders all this would have been fine?’) But simple solutions are also easier to find fault with and so this naturally alienates people, rather than encourages finding common ground.
For the child poverty campaign to work it could require the left to work with the Catholic Church, who share a lot of the same concerns, and control a lot of the structures that should be used to deal with the problem, such as schools. On the first occasion when they could have made common cause, on the cuts to the lone-parent allowance, it didn’t happen. This is because Catholics want rid of policies that they think encourage non-traditional family formation.
And if it turned out that Iona had a point about traditional family formation, that there IS a causal connection between lone parent families and childhood poverty, I suspect the O’Tooles of the world would find that hard to accept.
The liberal left and the conservative right would probably form a majority in the country, and so a campaign could succeed. They should start by trying to find common ground, and build slowly from there. More common ground will reveal itself when they work together.
The failure of the left in many countries is the failure to find common ground with others and exploit it. For instance the left and the libertarian right agree on a lot of things, but they don’t like each other and so don’t make progress on issues both would like to advance.
The idea of a negative income tax (effectively guaranteeing a basic income) is something that was developed by Milton Friedman – an intellectual arch-villain for the left. Recast as a ‘living wage’ it gets support on the left, but neither side has tried to work together to achieve this.
The left and libertarian right tend to share suspicions of crony capitalism, and would have found common ground on allowing banks to close. A capitalism that encouraged entrepreneurship and small business might be an improvement for both. But for the left that might mean accepting capitalism, and the right would mistakenly find fault with regulating banks so that they are never ‘too big to fail’.
Many on the right are broadly in favour of deregulating and encouraging more immigration. There are many on the left who are in favour of immigrants’ rights, but might find it objectionable to share a platform on immigration with Peter Sutherland.
It may be comforting to be self-righteousness and uncompromising. But Davitt and Parnell achieved more than any true believer. •
Eoin O’ Malley is Director of the MSc in Public Policy, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University