Hegemony/Coalition Theory

[I wrote this a couple of years ago, and it seems more relevant today than ever.]


“The dream of every lower-middle-class immigrant is to some day have enough money to vote Republican.

The dream of every upper-middle-class executive is to some day have enough money to vote Democrat.”

That joke, like most jokes, presents a gross generalization but also gets at a genuine pattern of how many people and societies behave. I think it’s a very important pattern of behavior, so I’ve done my best to analyze it here.

Before everything else: before government, before class, before structural inequality, countries are made up of different demographic groups of different sizes. One circle of people will be the biggest.

They’ll usually have the greatest numbers, and soon the most money and high status positions. For most of American history this has been White Protestant Men. In other countries it’s the Shia or the Hindi, whatever ethnic group is dominant.

There are a bunch of other circles. Minority racial and religious groups. People who identify strongly with their gender if their gender is disfavored. The extremely poor. Geographically isolated communities. Ideologoical sub-groups. In America these are blacks, hispanics, Jews, (for a while the Catholics), gays, women and gender non-comformers, the labor movement. But the pattern is replicated almost everywhere.

By and large, all the smaller circles have less power overall than the biggest circle, which we call:

The Hegemony.

This cultural group largely equates the country overall with themselves. They are “Real America”. They’re strongly attached to their ethnicity, religion, economic system, and all other cultural markers. They’re often afraid of other countries, especially ones that are very culturally different. They get aggressively militaristic about how to deal with these countries, and identify with the military as part of their cultural heritage (whose officers are mostly made up of members of the Hegemony).

It’s important to remember that this group is mirrored in most nations. Which leads to the ironic situation that the belligerent nationalist group in one nation is often MOST afraid of the belligerent nationalist group in another nation, even though they share many ideals and structural similarities.

They want a governmental system that preserves the status quo, because the status quo in many ways favors them. This means a government that enforces social rules (which are their social rules) and does very little economic management or redistribution (because they already own most of the economy).

Also to them, most of politics is entertainment. Given how strongly we feel about politics and moral matters it’s difficult to call it entertainment, but that is what the subject matter is actually consumed like. Voting and other key policy decisions will rarely directly affect their lives. Politics is much more about being right, or making politicians “do the right thing”, or gleeful enjoyment of the celebrities who express their own political opinions in exaggerated and entertaining ways. Members of the Hegemony, when they consume politics, do it by listening to angry talk radio and telling their elected politicians not to compromise with anyone evil.

This gets at why so many political issues raised by the right-wing are incredibly trivial. Not even trivial, but irrelevant. To opponents, it seems to take three jumps of fuzzy logic to why something like “Bill Clinton’s lying about affair” or “#gamergate” even matter, or how they affect anyone’s life. But to someone viewing this through a lens of entertainment, and poorly expressed cultural resentment, these issues hit the button exactly.

And there is a lot of cultural resentment going on in the Hegemony, of course. They can’t understand the world outside their circle [be it other countries or the other side of the political spectrum], and it resolutely refuses to go away (and probably calls them mean names too.) http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ is a famous article about the subject, just as true now as 50 years ago when it was written.

It’s hard to explain the last bit non-condescendingly. I think the Hofsteader article is right in positive terms, but I also sympathize that some outsider asking you to give up your cultural identity is very hard and stressful. Sometimes the requests seem reasonable, sometimes they don’t, and it’s hard for someone with only the Hegemonic experience to tell the difference. Lack of empathy for the oppressed is a problem, but it’s also fairly human.

(It’s worth noting that their thoughts on politics have little to do with their thoughts on how people should behave. There’s a lot of compartmentalization here. With an issue that *actually* matters to their lives, members of the Hegemony believe in cultural continuity, community cohesion, loyalty, and being protective of all their in-group members. Caveats for diversity among people here, but the key feature is the dramatic contrast between their absolutist political goals and their mundane maternally social attitude.)

Which, in a nutshell, is how you get the modern Republican Party. Nationalistic, belligerent, religious, in favor of governmental social control, against government economic control, and obsessed with the purity of their officials. But full of people who deal with each other healthily and caringly.

The primary victims of the Hegemony’s cultural and political power are

The Dispossessed.

These are the ethnic, racial, religious, and ideological groups who are very strongly defined and not part of the dominant group of a country. Life is a lot harder for them. They do not necessarily have much in common with each other, but they do have a shared experience. They know what it’s like when good jobs, government policy, and cultural traditions are clearly intended for someone else. They’re often on the negative end of law enforcement, and have become cynical about the justice system.

Life is messier than models of course, and people often belong to multiple groups. In America, a white gay man may in many ways feel part of the Hegemony but also be part of the Dispossessed queer circle. The fact that you can jump between circles doesn’t make them any less real though, and the dynamics between these circles still apply.

Governmental policy is very real to them. (Well politics is probably always mostly entertainment, but it impacts the lives of the Dispossessed the most.) An effective and active government economic policy can do a lot to improve their lives directly. While the social rules a government may enforce are often not their social rules, and either intentionally or accidentally create a lot of hardship for them. So they become economically authoritarian and socially libertarian.

So their politics are often very materialistic. What can a given politician accomplish to make life better for their constituency? This leads to more compromise, and often seemingly venal politicians who seem more obsessed with how many dollars they can get than ideological principle. This is a great article on the political asymmetry here http://www.vox.com/2014/9/15/6131919/democrats-and-republicans-really-are-different

Foreign policy generally isn’t as relevant to these groups as the domestic policy that actually affects them, but they’re cynical of the Hegemony’s nationalism, and often might be sympathetic towards foreigners who are painted with the same outsider brush that they are. When foreign policy concerns turn inward (such as concerns about a “fifth column” or terrorists) they always feel the brunt of this security state, and become even more pacifist in response.

In many ways, these tribal circles can act a lot like the Hegemony with reference to their immediate world. They may clash with each other over local fights and create very tense minority-against-minority situations (like the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary). Individually, they are after all culturally cohesive groups that are very protective of their members. Inside the circle they follow their own rigid codes and forms of expression and deeply care for each other and this community. (While being very cynical about the government and other structures of the nation’s society.)

As individual circles, these groups have almost no leverage to get the Hegemony to change how the country works, policy-wise or money-wise. But their shared enemy is obvious, and they often group together to form a Coalition of the Dispossessed.

Which still isn’t enough to effect change, except for:

The Defectors

These are people who are naturally members of the Hegemony (in race, gender, religion, economic status or other native qualities) but have moral qualms with the results of unchecked Hegemonic power. Consideration of abstract moral principles have led them to the conclusion that the Dispossessed are treated badly, and social mores and governmental policy should be used to help minorities out (and to stop oppressing them).

In classical terms, they are Liberals. They’re socially libertarian and economically authoritarian for the same concerns as the Dispossessed, even if they feel the impact of those policies much less. A Defector can always return to being a member of the Hegemony (either due to changing political environment, or due to their own changing circumstance – ie., having kids and moving to the suburbs.)

To them politics is still entertainment, but they change their life around their politics. In many ways they abandon their own cultural traditions for pursuit of the best moral outcomes (in their philosophical view at least.) They don’t always have the same cohesive internal-group structure that the Hegemony and some of the Dispossessed have. Instead they feel their group should adhere more closely to the same political lessons they are espousing on the national scale (which can often be too cold or absolute for many tight-knit communities.)

As conditions for the Dispossessed get worse (or better), the number and intensity of Defectors can rise (or fall) in response to this moral concern, which is the primary fulcrum that political power in many countries changes on (that and “satisfaction with the economy”).

Because success of the Coalition of the Dispossessed relies on courting Defectors from the Hegemony, and because Defectors are much more skilled and confident at navigating the realms of power in this country, and because they form a middle-ground between the many other Dispossessed circles, the Defectors generally take leadership of the coalition. (It wasn’t until 2008 after all that the Democrats elected a President who wasn’t white male and Christian, and only one of those wasn’t Protestant.)

Thus, the Defectors reasons for opposing the Hegemony often become the story told of what the entire Coalition wants. Defectors believe in more universal, abstract moral principles (often about tolerance and freedom and equality) and assume everyone else in their Coalition does too. No one particularly argues, because these make fairly good propaganda too.

On one hand, Defectors believe they are constantly on the losing side of a war. But in many other ways, being a Defector is a very good position. You get to feel morally superior and like you have risen above your cultural biases to see the right outcome. You still get many benefits of being in the Hegemony. And you get (relative) leadership in the Coalition. It’s easy sometimes for Defectors to take for granted the ease and privilege of this position, just because they are nominally on the side of the Dispossessed.

It goes without saying that I consider myself, and most people I know, as Defectors.


Anyway, I think it’s a useful model. And there are some really interesting implications.

  1. The Hegemony can absorb other circles. Sometimes a circle of the Dispossessed can become large enough or assimilated enough in a country that they join up with/are admitted by the Hegemony. This famously happened with Catholics in this country, and could easily happen with Hispanics, Asians, or the homosexual community. (In fact it might have to to ever win the Presidency again.)  [Update: Haha that sure was wrong.]

    And it might seem hard to believe, when you look at the vitriol that is expressed between the Hegemony and this circle before absorption, that they would come together (or that that circle would ever forget what it was like being on the outside). But it definitely happens, and surprisingly quickly.

    The current demographic triumphalism of the Democratic Party in this country should be very short-lived. Any political coalition that was dependent on “demographics is destiny” will soon find the definition of who’s in and who’s out changing beneath their feet.

    (I don’t know the exact alchemy of when and to whom this happens. If I did, I’d have some very bold predictions to make of the next 12 years.)

  2. The Defector situation is great but precarious. Many of their allies do not share their same moral outlook, and have concerns that are more important to them than abstract principles. They may also be fairly resentful of the privileged leadership position that Defectors have. When situations arise that the Dispossessed do not need the Defectors, things can change very rapidly for them.

    When this happens, Defectors don’t really have the tools to deal with it. They’re shocked at finding out how different their beliefs (which got public expression) were from their Dispossessed allies (that often did not get public expression.) Much of the argument is about whether the Defectors even get to keep their identity as members of the Coalition (and identity fights are very personal and painful.) They are uncomfortable seeking the purely cultural/community succor that they associate with the Hegemony, but they also find that “arguing abstract principles” is not very effective against people who are coming at these issues from personal experience.

    In other words: the Democratic Party is controlled by moderate, compromise-friendly voices who try to adhere to universal codes – until suddenly it isn’t.

    Or more concretely: the land zoning policy of the city of San Francisco is like a war zone.

  3. This is mirrored in so many countries. The importance of this can’t be underestimated. Which is why we see a Republican-like party in almost every democratic country, and the Republicans hate them most of all. It’s also why liberals will go to great lengths to defend foreigners, even ones who hold ideals they are specifically fighting in their own country.
  1. Whole theses could be written on whether “the hegemony represents conservative women”. Rigid gender roles are definitely part of the package, again across societies.
  1. There is an undiscussed split among liberals between whether an ideal goal is a polity where “everyone is the hegemony” or “no one is”. It’s worth thinking about for yourself.

  2. I wrote earlier that the Hegemony favors economic liberty. This is true for many government actions (taxation, a broad welfare state) and in their rhetoric. But they are not motivated by principle and rather by serving the interests of their group. So in fact the Hegemony will even more passionately defend government economic actions that primarily serve their group, particularly ones they are used to. In America this is reflected in high conservative support for Medicare and farm subsidies. In other countries where the Hegemony is even more ubiquitous, such that governmental actions really only impact other members of the Hegemony and there are few Dispossessed, the Hegemony can be very socialist about sharing resources, like within a family.

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