Political Science for Cynics
September 17, 2008 11:39 PM   Subscribe

What is the term in political science that describes this concept?

I'm sure there has to be a name for this. Here's the best way I can describe what I'm thinking:

Although a political party's rhetoric may be vehemently against/for a particular outcome with regards to a specific issue, it is not to that party's advantage that the issue ever be completely resolved. Because it is a galvanizing issue, it ensures a guaranteed turnout every election cycle. Lip service may be paid in between elections, and some symbolic action may be taken, but any real resolution is intentionally subdued. The party ultimately profits more by leaving the issue open into perpetuity and claiming that the opposition is thwarting them from the desired results.

Factual historical examples are welcomed but let's keep the conversation focused. I'm more interested in how this is defined by political science than by theories about current US-based politics.
posted by quadog to Law & Government (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I studied poli sci in undergrad and there's not necessarily names for these kind of things.

What your talking about rings pretty closely to Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas" idea of how Republicans have stayed in control for so long, but that's just US politics.

"Bait and switch" might be kind-of the right term in some instances, as would be "a lark."

You might have to reach into literature to find other examples. Off the top of my head, it's Orwellian in how Emmanuel Goldstein is "the Resistance" is set up in 1984 and how there is always a state of war in which all three sides know they nobody can be allowed to win for domestic reasons. “Orwellian", however, is almost always used as a reference to double-speak, which this is not.

There's also the example in Vonnegut's Cat's Caradle of the dictator of San Lorenzo trying to track down Bokonon (or seeming to) and killing Bokononist every once in awhile with "zee hook!", while being a practicing Bokononist himself. The difference, though, is that that was used to promote the spread of Bokononism by making it "a little bit dangerous."

Other real world examples:
- the China - Taiwan issue (probably) on both sides
- slum electioneering in the Philippines
posted by trinarian at 1:57 AM on September 18, 2008

A 'wedge' issue? It could be argued that while politicians routinely call for certain things to happen, the leverage it gives them with wedge issue/single issue voter groups means they'd lose a lot of guaranteed support were they to ever achieve 'success'.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:20 AM on September 18, 2008

I majored in political science and I never heard a term that encompasses all of that. I agree with Happy Dave that "wedge issue" might be as close as you're going to get, although it doesn't necessarily imply that a party doesn't wish for the issue to be resolved.
posted by Nattie at 4:09 AM on September 18, 2008

Political capital?
posted by punkfloyd at 5:04 AM on September 18, 2008

Political capital defined.
posted by punkfloyd at 5:05 AM on September 18, 2008

I'm sure there has to be a name for this.

Not that I am aware of. I do this for a living, but I don't do parties, so it's possible but unlikely that the parties people have a consistent term for this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:50 AM on September 18, 2008

I'd say a plank, but that's US-centric and not always as long-term as you specify.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:16 AM on September 18, 2008

I second Happy Dave's use of "wedge issue". That is exactly how George Lakoff seems to use the word.
posted by jlowen at 7:39 AM on September 18, 2008


But I doubt this concept "exists". It seems more of a result or consequence of the political process.

It's not political capital, because political capital is spent to further ones agenda. One would earn political capital by doing populist types of things, winning an election, and then spend it doing something less popular. So it's sort of the opposite. GWB was definitely a user of this early on- he ran as a centrist and governed as a rightist.

An example of the unnamed concept at hand would be to build a platform of extreme issues, run as the candidate who will fix them, whip the electorate into enough of a frenzy and then win an election. Then, fail to fix said issues, knowing that one could use the same tactic to win the next election.

I claim this doesn't happen as such, because in whipping up that frenzy, opposition will build up on the other side of those issues and balance out any attempts to fix the issue. And if one doesn't try whole-heartedly to fix the issue, another candidate will trump them from the inside.

So, there's never intent to not try to fix issue- it's a losing proposition.

But it's definitely a result of the checks and balances of the political process.
posted by gjc at 7:47 AM on September 18, 2008

I don't know about PoliSci, but I call it Job Security.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:19 AM on September 18, 2008

Take a look at "cleavage" and "cross-cutting cleavage" and go from there.

Also, trinarian, I can assure you that cross-Strait relations (from the Taiwanese perspective at least) do NOT fall into this category.
posted by Dr.James.Orin.Incandenza at 10:12 AM on September 18, 2008

It is close to what I would closely associate with the term "Resentment Politics" in the sense that it is more about harnessing and playing to feelings of resentment in voters towards the other political party than actually doing anything or caring about any issue. I've seen this term used recently in responses to the recent RNC speeches from Giuliani and Palin. I don't know if it the term is new, but it certainly has seemed to be an integral piece of political strategy in the U.S. for a long time.
posted by daser at 10:44 AM on September 18, 2008

I've heard it referred to as something like "they would rather have the issue than solve it."
posted by goethean at 11:06 AM on September 18, 2008

Abortion is the ultimate example of this. You really think that the Republicans want to illegalize abortion, considering that it would probably render them a permanent minority party?
posted by goethean at 11:08 AM on September 18, 2008

Well, there's a lot of things bundled together there, quadog. Wedge issue has been mentioned. Scapegoating and demagoguery have not. Resentment/ressentiment is another prism for looking at this. Rhetoric vs. reality is what you're getting at. Taking constituencies for granted, shining them on with lip service, hypocritical promises.

I'm not sure you're right to ascribe it completely to intentional strategy. The party may "profit more" from keeping an issue alive, but I'm also quite sure that there will be people who fervently wish to resolve that issue (e.g. abortion). The radicalization of true believers is something of a counter to the political inertia that you're talking about. Probably the most significant example in US history is the collapse of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican party over the issue of slavery. This wasn't because the Whigs sought the support of abolitionists and shined them on -- it was because it was a wrenching change that nobody could agree on (not just how but whether).
posted by dhartung at 1:04 PM on September 18, 2008

I've been wondering about a good term for this as well and I'm surprised that there wasn't one already.

To me, [magic phrase that doesn't (yet) exist], means "an issue that a party vocally opposes, yet the empowered segment of the party does not or cannot take substantive action toward resolving that issue in their own favor because the issue is more politically valuable left unresolved as a permanent financial and voting motivator of that party's own base, which does want the issue resolved to their position."

Current US politics is filled with these: abortion, gay marriage, gun control, taxes of all sorts (inheritance in particular), some environmental causes, land use, etc.
posted by turbodog at 3:24 PM on September 18, 2008

Wedge issue is the closest it gets to this idea. On a long shot I was hoping maybe the French had a word for this concept. They seem to be good at that sort of thing. But "wedge issue" will do. Thanks for the insights everyone.
posted by quadog at 9:35 PM on September 18, 2008

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