July 15, 2008

A parable

Quico says: Imagine a baseball team that's not like other baseball teams. This baseball team doesn't have a manager, or a single uniform. Basically, all they have is a roster: 25 guys all dying to go out there and play.

Thing is, only nine of them can play at any given time. So, before each game, all 25 of them have to sit down together and negotiate who's going to be on the starting line-up.

During these line-up negotiations, players cluster into little cliques of friends to rally to one another's support. Coordination failure is rife. Everybody wants to bat clean-up, and the first instinct, for anyone who looks to get stuck on the bench, is to storm off in a huff, or to just head out into the field when he decides it's "his turn" to bat - even if he's not on the agreed upon line-up.

The fans in the stands hate the other team like a Red Sox fan hates the Yankees: they want to win. But they have no direct influence on who'll be in the starting line-up. A few of them might be asked what they think, but there's no guarantee they'll be listened to. They find the whole situation deeply frustrating.

Meanwhile, the players know that no matter how exasperated the fans might get with them, no matter how much they may boo them, how disgusted they may feel with the whole freak show, they're basically stuck with this set of players.

A lot of the fans suspect that it's only for them that winning the game is the main thing, that for most of the players, the real goal is just to play. The brinksmanship that comes to dominate line-up negotiations doesn't do much to dispel that feeling.

For at least some of the players, the perception's probably not wrong. After all, they figure, who knows? Maybe they can elbow their way to the plate ahead of the "agreed-on guy" and hit a home run. By the time this is all over, they could be the heroes!

Would you call a bunch that behaves that way a "baseball team?" Sure...a horribly screwed up team, certainly, but a baseball team nonetheless.

Now, would you call the Venezuelan opposition a "political party"? Sure...but one with very, very deep-seated problems.

I've long thought there's a basic conceptual problem in the way Venezuelans talk about "opposition parties" - like that, in the plural. Entities like Primero Justicia, UNT, AD, MAS and that long etc. may be legally constituted as parties, but their role in the political system is really more like that of the "cliques" in our little parable.

In baseball, the whole point is to win baseball games, and it's 9-player teams that do that, not the cliques of friends they form in the dugout. In electoral politics, it's getting elected to office that's the whole purpose of the activity, and Venezuela's mis-named "parties" long ago realized that the only way they can do that is if they band together and present a unified slate of candidates at election time. But coordinating the ambitions of many contenders into a single slate of candidates is the essence of what a political party is.

In important ways, then, the Venezuelan opposition is a party...it's just a deeply dysfunctional one, one that hasn't figured out an institutionally stable way to settle on a starting line-up and make it stick and therefore can't limit destructive competition between contenders or punish defection from the ranks.

In baseball, that institutionally stable selection mechanism is called "the manager". In politics, there are all kinds of possibilities, from a strong Secretary General figure able to play the manager's role, to asking the fans their opinion (primaries) to district-by-district nominating conventions to local association committee meetings to drawing lots to a thousand other possibilities.

This is not, as you may be fearing, foreplay to a pitch for primaries. For my money, the specific mechanism chosen is less important than the fact that a credible mechanism is chosen. The real question is its level of institutionalization, of perceived legitimacy, of "taken-for-grantedness". After all, even a totally zany, on-its-face absurd selection mechanism - say, a system of region-by-region contests, each following its own rules, costing hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars and stretching out over six months - can "work" so long as everybody takes it for granted that the eventual loser will have to support the winner, through gritted teeth, even though absolutely everybody understands she hates Obama's guts.

What's "institutionalized" about the US primary system is not so much the specific set of formal rules that make it up as the informal, tacit, taken-for-granted set of expectations about what constitutes appropriate behavior on the part of aspiring politicians. Nobody has to write down in a statute book that Hillary has to pretend to be thrilled at the prospect of an Obama presidency, because everybody "already knows" that it's the end of the world if she doesn't. What it means for a norm to be strongly institutionalized is that nobody needs to spell it out.

In Venezuela, we already have a united opposition political party, we just have to start showing it a little lovin'. Thing is, it's a hard to love little bugger we ended up with: it's so weakly institutionalized, it doesn't even recognize itself as a party. Instead, it insists on treating its component factions as though they themselves were parties - they aren't - and causes a huge amount of confusion in the process. It's not surprisingly, when you consider all this, that our party has the hardest time finding an effective mechanism to select candidates and punish defection from the official slate.

It's already clear that we will not get the complete starting line-up that Oposición Democrática had promised us for July 15th. It's also clear that the fans in the stands are increasingly disgusted with the spectacle of their players squabbling like children over who gets to play third base. What's not clear at all is that opposition politicians grasp the need to put an end to the hijinx by working to institutionalize a mechanism for unity. If they don't, our "inevitable victory" in november could turn into a vale of tears.