In the recent entry on India, I noted how the Left alliance is not really credible in its threats to bring down the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government over the US-India nuclear deal. There, I made a general point about how small parties are usually not able to be the “tail that wags the dog”–that is, demand a price in terms of policy influence above their contribution to the majority coalition: unless the small parties are close to indifferent as to which major party leads the government, their bluff can usually be called by the bigger party.
Vasi1 took exception to this statement with respect to the shift, in 2002, of then-Republican Senator Jim Jeffords to Democratic-supporting independent status. This is a good example, and given one Senator’s ability to swing the chamber, is it an exception to my generalization?
No. First, in the India discussion and other times I have made this point about small-party influence, I have been referring to coalition government, and whether a small party can effectively “blackmail” a bigger party, demanding a high price for its support. In the Jeffords case, his swing made a huge difference because he determined which party held sole control over the institution’s agenda, not which one led a multiparty coalition.
Second, notwithstanding the big impact of his decision, the other side of the equation is what the party or legislator making this shift is able to get in return. This is the crux of the matter for those who argue that small parties (or individual pivotal legislators) have inordinate influence. I am not aware of any evidence that Vermont or Jeffords’s own policy preferences were specifically catered to by Democrats, once he let them take power over the Senate. (In fact, I recall somewhere reading a claim that he had probably extracted more when he was in the Republican caucus, but I can’t say for sure.)
An individual legislator who switches parties–especially when he then never runs for reelection again–is not the same as a party that has to face its own voters again over the coalitions it has chosen to support. The Indian Left simply can’t face its electorate as the party that threw out the UPA in favor of the BJP-led NDA. Because of that, it is not able to exert influence out of proportion to its contribution to the governing majority, and perhaps not even commensurate with that contribution (though it would not be an easy thing to measure accurately). It is not free to swing.2
So, what about the case of Israel, one often cited in defense of the tail (small party) wagging dog (determining which big party can lead a coalition). Vasi also raised this example:
The various ethnic- or religious-constituency parties don’t really care who governs.
Indeed, these are the sorts of parties that can potentially demand an above-proportional share of influence. Some Israeli parties are indifferent between Labor and Likud (or Kadima in 2006) and thus potentially can swing coalitions, and as a result, demand concessions. Yet, as I have noted before, there is little evidence for the “tail wagging the dog” argument in Israel. And if we can’t find it there, with its big multiparty coalitions and frequent government changes, there aren’t many places we can find it!
The conditions under which small parties or individual legislators can exploit “pivotalness” and demand influence beyond their contribution to the majority are much stricter than often assumed.
- Hope you can return to regular commenting, Vasi! [↩]
- While Jeffords did not have to face his electorate again, it is likely he was reflecting its (changed) preferences when he made his swing to the Democrats. A similar example might be the German FDP, when it brought down the SPD-led government in 1982 and effectively put the Christian Democrats in power. The 1983 election appeared to confirm that it was following–or anticipating–the voters, not “dictating” who would govern. [↩]