Robert Cruikshank has written a fascinating post at DKos on the issue of coalition building (motivated, I think, by the re-emergence of some of the old online Obama wars.) He compares the Republican and Democratic coalitions, of course, and points out the differences in solidarity and discipline (and the fact that the Democratic coalition is much less cohesive ideologically.)
He characterizes the GOP coalition compact as being "everyone shall get their turn" so they will all vote in line with all the coalitions' causes and issues. But he's put his finger on a specific point that I haven't heard articulated before and it strikes me as hugely important:
Members of the conservative coalition do not expect to get everything all at once. An anti-choice advocate would love to overturn Roe v. Wade tomorrow. But they don't get angry when that doesn't happen in a given year. Not because they are self-disciplined and patient, but because they get important victories year after year that move toward that goal. One year it could be a partial-birth abortion ban. The next year it could be defunding of Planned Parenthood. The year after that it could be a ban on any kind of federal funding of abortions, even indirect. (And in 2011, they're getting some of these at the same time.) This is the source of the mistrust that characterizes the relationship between the progressives and the centrists (or neo-liberals in Cruishank's piece ) in the Democratic Party coalition. It's not just that progressive goals are often thwarted --- so are conservatives'. Nobody always gets what they want. It's that progressive values and issues are actively disdained and used as bargaining chips in negotiations. It's one thing to feel that you aren't getting what you want, it's quite another to be constantly worried that you will lose what you already have --- and at the hands of your own coalition allies.
More importantly, they know that even if their issue doesn't get advanced in a given year, they also know that the other members of the coalition will not allow them to lose ground. If there's no way to further restrain abortion rights (Dems control Congress, the voters repeal an insane law like South Dakota's attempt to ban abortion), fine, the conservative coalition will at least fight to ensure that ground isn't lost. They'll unite to fight efforts to rescind a partial-birth abortion ban, or add new funding to Planned Parenthood. Those efforts to prevent losses are just as important to holding the coalition together as are the efforts to achieve policy gains.
Being in the conservative coalition means never having to lose a policy fight - or if you do lose, it won't be because your allies abandoned you.
This all worked for the centrists when the Republicans played bipartisan politics. But they don't anymore. They have adopted a hardcore partisan approach that does not allow give and take with the opposition party. The Centrists learned this during the health care battle and their response has been to manipulate and strong arm the progressives in their coalition to get the votes they need. (In the old days, they could just leave them standing on the sidelines and make deals with Republicans.)
Rather than make deals with the members of their own coalition or promising to never put them in a position in which they are losing ground, the Dem Centrists exert dominance by forcing progressives to continually make Solomonic choices between one constituency and another. It's a very difficult position for people of conscience to be in --- there are real consequences to these decisions. On big once-in-a-generation legislation like health care, the pressure was so intense for them to conform that it was excruciating to watch. The progressives didn't get that which they most wanted, single payer or the public option, which was very hard to take. But that wasn't enough -- the pro-choice members of the coalition actually lost ground. The health care act will make it harder for women to get insurance coverage for their reproductive needs as a result of that negotiation. That is where this coalition fails over and over again. It throws its long won gains on the table to sweeten the pot (and then demands that their membership cheer their own losses.)
Cruikshank is making an appeal to progressives to apply the GOP coalition rules to themselves and stick together, even if the centrists continue to play their games.. And that's certainly necessary advice. Warring amongst ourselves is about as destructive as it gets. But there needs to be an understanding of how progressives are being manipulated in the Party --- and a plan to thwart it -- or there is going to be some kind of crack-up eventually. You simply can't have a working coalition in which a very large faction is constantly used as political cannon fodder. If the anger doesn't kill you the disillusionment will. The old bipartisan way is dead for now and Democrats had better adjust to dealing fairly and equitably within its own coalition or they're going to find that they don't have one.