Friday, July 20, 2007

Realignment à la française

In the United States, there is a large literature on what is called "party realignment," a concept associated most prominently with the name of Walter Dean Burnham. The central idea is that not all presidential elections are alike. Some, like the elections of 1896 and 1932 in the United States, represent a seismic shift, a slippage of the tectonic plates of the society that undergird the political system.

I know of no similar literature for France. Nevertheless, it is often argued that not all French presidencies are alike. A good example of this sort of argument appears in this morning's Libération. But before I get to that argument, which is provided by Jean d'Ormesson, I have to explain why a columnist of the right like d'Ormesson is appearing in a paper of the left, Libé.

's editor, Laurent Joffrin, has had an idea. Mimicking Sarkozy's ouverture to the left, he has decided to invite writers of the right to air their views in the normally left-leaning columns of his newspaper. His intention seems partly ironic: to expose l'ouverture as un gadget, a feint: "In short, Libération's ouverture shows the limitations of Sarkozy's." The left remains the left, he says, and the right the right. In other words, there has been no party realignment, no movement in the depths of society, no rethinking of old positions--and, moreover, Joffrin would seem to imply, that is as it should be. Political integrity depends on firmness of principle, Joffrin insists. And the Socialist Manuel Valls, who refused an overture from Sarkozy, puts the point even more emphatically: "To cover your tracks [as Sarkozy is doing] is to endanger democracy."

D'Ormesson takes a very different tack. Like the realignment theorists, he distinguishes between major presidencies and minor presidencies. Major presidencies effect significant and durable changes in the political landscape. But for d'Ormesson, these changes are not the manifestation of underlying changes in the electorate; rather, they are tributes to the skill, nay, the cunning, of the great presidents--read de Gaulle and Mitterrand--who in a sense betrayed their electorates--de Gaulle by cutting Algeria loose, Mitterrand by embracing social democracy--out of a shrewd and realistic appreciation of the need for profound realignment, which, d'Ormesson would argue if he knew the vocabulary of realignment theory, followed rather than preceded their election.

Sarkozy, d'Ormesson implies, aspires to be a great president and is in the process, in order to become one, of betraying the forces that elected him. His ouverture is not only popular but also deeply republican in spirit. Even Joffrin concedes that point: ""In a republic it is natural to listen to those who don't think as you do." One is reminded of the "republican" animus against parties--against factionalism--which followed the revolutions in both France and the United States (for France, see Pierre Rosanvallon's Le modèle politique français; for the United States, see Richard Hofstadter's The Idea of a Party System). Yet "the idea of a party system" now seems to have such a firm grip that the older idea that parties ought to be viewed with suspicion, that there was something illegitimate about organized factionalism, that the partisan spirit was a distortion of the general will, has itself become disreputable in the eyes of even as shrewd a political observer as Laurent Joffrin, who can see Sarkozy's move only as a tactic for partisan advantage and not, perhaps, just possibly, a tactic in the service of the general interest.

D'Ormesson may have the better of this argument. There are times when factional blockage must be overcome, and the hope of drawing on the best talent regardless of prior allegiances makes sense. I think d'Ormesson overestimates, however, the degree to which such moments are created by sheer political cunning. I think that realignment begins, as Burnham would have it, deeper down in the society, though the wit to take advantage of the altered constellation of forces must come from above. That the French political parties have been en décalage, out of alignment, with the underlying political geology has been apparent for some time. The double discourse of the Socialists--pretending to resist changes that in fact they were actively abetting--was one (for them) debilitating and, I think, ultimately fatal consequence of this. If Sarkozy can capitalize on that change, he will have performed a great service not only for himself and those who think as he does but also for those who don't, who will at last be able to construct an opposition that stands on something more solid than a crumbling ideology.

P.S. Sarko may be causing greater consternation in the ranks of the UMP than among the Socialists.


Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with you and d'Ormesson, in the sense that both a changing social landscape and shrewd political leadership were involved in these 'moments' of realignment. But I would add - to both of your analyses (though I have not read his in full) the importance of the constitutions at the time, and their incentives and unintended consequences. De Gaulle's 'cutting Algeria loose' was itself entangled with the crisis of the IVth Republic's Constitution; and Mitterrand's shrewdness and desire to realign was 'inspired' one can say by the new constitutional incentives of the Fifth Republic (namely the direct election of the president). So it all seems rather path dependent.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. (Sashimi, Sushi--why is it that commenters on a French politics blog draw their pseudonyms from the lexicon of Japanese cuisine? But I digress.) Anyway, path dependency, yes, of course. But at bottom I'm more of a historian than a political scientist, so I always have a little trouble pinpointing exactly what path dependency means. Events have contexts, we pass this way but once, you can't step in the same river twice, the past is prologue--sure, and you bring out nicely some of the relevant context in each case. But the question for a political scientist is then to specify precisely how a choice at any particular point on the path constrains the choice set (to speak the jargon) at future points. When you try to do that, it becomes clear that the choice set at any point of the French path is constrained not only by prior points on that path but also by prior points on many other decision paths (since past choices have brought France increasingly into a system in which it must interact with other players). As the paths entangle, the dependencies become more baroque. So I think the metaphor breaks down. As a former topologist, I would propose thinking of decisions as points not on a path but on a manifold of many dimensions. Manifold-dependency is a richer idea than path-dependency, especially since manifolds may lack a rigid geometry. But of course I jest. Poking a little fun at political scientists may provoke one of them to react. Hint: how about a string theory of political science, in which paths wriggle about manifolds in n dimensions of space and time? The social sciences are said to aspire to the rigor of the physical sciences, so why not go all the way?

Anonymous said...

An important reference on party realignment in France is Pierre Martin, Comprendre les évolutions électorales: La théorie des réalignements électoraux revisitée (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2000). I read it a while ago, but I remember that he claims that there was a realignment in 1981-84 but not again since then. In subsequent elections, there were "electoral adjustments" rather than realignments.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Marcos
I don't know that book but will look it up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for engaging my comment. As for path dependence, it can of course mean anything from the simple 'history matters,' which doesn't get us too far; to a more complex and nuanced understanding of how it matters, when and where, critical junctures, and all the things your former colleague Paul Pierson talks about in Politics in Time. I suppose I was just pointing out that social cleavages matter, leadership matters, but institutions intervene and take on a life (and incentive structure) of their own in the realignment process. These institutions seemed to be missing in the d'Ormesson account, and your correction of it. Martin is an expert on electoral systems, so I look forward to reading the book mentioned in the previous comment to see the extent to which he engages the influence of institutions in the realignment.

Unknown said...

Yes, Paul makes admirable and able use of the concept of path dependency, but the virtues of the concept appear to me to depend on the virtuosity of the author more than on its general applicability. It has a genuine heuristic value, but it can also be used in a hand-waving sort of way. Of course sometimes one has to wave one's hands--as in blog-writing, for instance--so it's useful to have some convenient phrases at the ready.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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