Unpacking the DPJ’s divisions

Curzon at Coming Anarchy looks at a couple recent statements by DPJ officials and concludes that the DPJ suffers from cognitive dissonance.

He also suggests that I believe that the Obama administration plans to create an alliance “focused solely on joint security declarations.” If he read my post on the subject more carefully, he’d notice I believe in precisely the opposite, that the 1996 alliance has been characterized more by joint declarations and symbolic gestures than by substantive transformation of the alliance and that the Obama administration, insofar as it has a Japan policy, will try to move away from token security contributions and flighty rhetoric about shared values and shared interests to substantive cooperation, even if it doesn’t involve Japan’s self-defense forces.

But let me turn to the point of his post. Does the DPJ suffer from cognitive dissonance?

First, I think it is best not to anthropomorphize a political party. In other words, individuals suffer cognitive dissonance; parties, as collections of individual politicians, have contested interests or policies. This difference is essential. Curzon seems to imply that parties should have more or less coherent policy approaches, that the party’s statement of principles or policy platform, once enunciated, binds its members and creates, in a sense, a corporate identity for the party. In theory there should be no problem with this: this party the hawks, that one the doves, this party the capitalists, that party the socialists, and so on.

But does it ever work this way in practice, especially since socialism lost its authority, muddling the distinctions between left and right? Looking solely at the Japanese party system, the ambiguities of the DPJ’s policy positions — such as they exist (more on this momentarily) — are a product of Japan’s messy party system, not a cause of it.

Why is this the case?

First, arguably in a political system in which one party has dominated as long as the LDP has, valence issues — defined by Donald Stokes as “[issues] that merely involve the linking of the parties with some condition that is positively or negatively valued by the electorate,” in contrast with position issues, which concern policy alternatives — will most likely take precedence over position issues in the competition for power between the governing party and the opposition. Simply by having been in government for more than fifty years, the LDP’s performance in government is the issue. Its ability to formulate and implement policy, its relationship with the public, its relationship with the bureaucracy: these issues are all connected to the LDP’s fitness for government but have little to do with policy per se. Debate over administrative reform, for example, has less to do with the content of reform (although one can easily find LDP members who oppose it) than with the LDP’s ability to deliver on its promises. Similarly, both parties claim to want to formulate policy on the basis of the concerns of the people. Who can be opposed to that? The question is which party is best able to follow through on the pledge. On the one hand the DPJ may be an unknown quantity, but on the other hand the LDP is known all too well.

But arguably valence issues also take precedence over position issues for reasons having to do with the LDP’s own ambiguities. Curzon describes the DPJ as a “motley crew of socialists, right-wingers, and free market liberals,” but that could just as easily describe the LDP. Of course the LDP doesn’t literally have socialists in the sense of former Socialist Party members, but is the LDP’s old guard all that different from the old left? The LDP is no less motley than the DPJ, and may even be more motley. We can ascertain the confusion within the LDP by the complaints its ideologues make about the party. Nakagawa Hidenao, a leading Koizumian reformist, ceaselessly calls for a new LDP that will break from the LDP’s tradition of governing hand in hand with the hated bureaucracy. Meanwhile, further to the right there have been no shortage of complaints from conservative LDP members and intellectuals about the LDP’s not being a truly conservative party. Hence the Hiranuma-Abe-Nakagawa (Shoichi)-Aso study group in pursuit of a “true” conservatism. Hence Hiranuma Takeo’s ongoing talk about creating a new conservative party as a third force in Japanese politics. Some of this talk was linked to Fukuda Yasuo’s premiership, of course, which only goes to show that the conservatives love the LDP only when one of their own is in charge, i.e. someone like Abe Shinzo or Aso Taro. LDP members who belong to these two ideological tendencies are woefully unhappy with the LDP as it exists today, but both groups appear to prefer staying in the party and battling for control to building new parties.

In addition to the LDP’s internal divisions, there is also the matter of LDP governments’ being adept at lifting policies from the opposition, making it more difficult for opposition parties to compete with the LDP on policy terms.

The same dynamic is at work today. There is arguably a national agenda, with little disagreement that the government, regardless of which party is in power, has to shrink the national debt, fix the health, pensions, and welfare system, revitalize stagnant regions, and now, above all else, get the economy growing again. While there are different proposals for addressing each of these problems, the disagreements are more in degree than in kind, and are as often within parties as between parties. The disagreements between the LDP and the DPJ are by and large not ideological, now that even the Koizumian reformists are doing their best to not look like Thatcherite neo-liberals. (It bears mentioning that behind the aforementioned issues lurk cultural issues like immigration, and women’s and minorities’ rights, about which there is little consensus in either party and surely neither the LDP nor the DPJ would like to make central issues in an election campaign.)

As such, the concerns about a lack of policy differentiation between the LDP and the DPJ are overblown. Parties do not need to fit the model of two large political parties sharply differentiated on ideological terms to have fruitful and intense competition.

Turning now to the question of the DPJ’s divisions, analysts like Curzon often assert that the DPJ is divided, because its members come from different parties, but provide little evidence of how the DPJ is divided. I don’t deny the party’s divisions, but it seems to me that analysts often assert these divisions and move on to other matters instead of providing proper elaboration of what they mean.

In some ways the DPJ’s divisions are similar to the LDP’s: the party’s young reformists fret about Ozawa Ichiro, who they see as emblematic of the old LDP way of politics that they believe must be destroyed. But oftentimes this has less to do with policy and more to do with political style. This was my argument in a post regarding Maehara Seiji’s mini-rebellion against Ozawa in June 2008, which I described as more a matter of Maehara’s idealism in opposition to Ozawa’s realism. Ozawa is the consummate fixer, as we’ve all been reminded in recent weeks, which means questionable fundraising ties, shadowy ties across party lines, leadership veiled in secrecy, and some creative accounting in policy proposals. By contrast, Maehara and his compatriots are idealistic almost to a fault. But I do not doubt that they share the goal of bringing down the LDP and uprooting the LDP-bureaucratic system of governance.

Meanwhile, analysts — myself included — often have little to say about the role of the DPJ’s left wing. It is obligatory to mention that the party includes former socialists, but few seem to have much to say about the left’s role within the DPJ. That may be in part because the DPJ’s left wingers are simply less visible than the party’s neo-conservatives, who are regulars on Japanese TV and frequently quoted by the domestic and foreign press. It may also be because the DPJ’s left has made its peace with Ozawa. On economic policy, there is surely little for the left to be disappointed about: the DPJ is now, for better or worse, mildly anti-capitalist (cf. Ozawa’s speech at this year’s DPJ convention). As far as I can tell even the neo-conservatives are following along. I can’t imagine Maehara would have as much praise for the Koizumi-Takenaka reforms today as he did last year. The party is running on a hybrid platform of old-style protection at home for workers and small- and medium-sized businesses, the creation of a new-style welfare state for the twenty-first century, and a relentless campaign to remake the bureaucracy.

Obviously foreign policy is a different matter entirely, as Curzon argues. Curzon is concerned above all with the vagueness of statements by Hatoyama and Ozawa. He’s right to a certain extent, in that it is hard to tell just how these statements about a more equal alliance will translate into policy under a DPJ government. As he says, we will only learn if and when there is a DPJ government. At the same time, however, Ozawa’s remarks — clearly more important to discerning a DPJ government’s plans as long as Ozawa is still head of the party — are finely tuned to balance between the DPJ’s left and the DPJ’s right.

It is worth looking back to when Ozawa’s Liberal Party merged with the DPJ in 2003. Recognizing that foreign policy had the potential to splinter the party, Ozawa and Yokomichi Takahiro, a onetime Socialist, agreed in 2004 to a list of foreign policy principles that included support for a UN standing army, Japanese participation in multinational UN-mandated coalitions (with some fudging on the precise details of Japan’s participation), opposition to the dispatch of the JSDF abroad without UN approval, and the maintenance of Article 9. Arguably this agreement has survived intact. Ozawa has clearly strained against the boundaries of this agreement with some of his remarks on foreign policy (his call for armed Japanese intervention in Afghanistan were there to be a “proper” UN mandate, for example), exploiting some of the ambiguities in his non-binding agreement with Yokomichi, but even his “controversial” remarks about reducing the US presence in Japan to the Seventh Fleet with the JSDF picking up the slack for the defense of Japan are consistent with the terms of the agreement. Naturally the neo-conservatives would prefer to do whatever possible, but even they seem to be able to live within the terms of this agreement, even as DPJ members like Nagashima Akihisa argue for vigorous Japanese involvement in the multinational anti-pirate campaign off the horn of Africa.

It is fair to ask whether this entente would survive in Ozawa’s absence. I doubt it would — hence my concerns about the Ozawa scandal — but in the meantime Ozawa has managed to strike a balance between the left and the right in the DPJ. Standing up to the US is something that everyone seems to be able to agree on, and doing so conveniently enables them to distinguish the DPJ from the LDP, which has to wear a crimson “B” for having worked alongside the Bush administration for eight years, for “showing the flag” and “putting boots on the ground” when the Bush administration went to war. Is this an uneasy balance? Without question. Is it largely symbolic? Absolutely. Should the DPJ win the general election and form a government, it will be in no position to act on what was not even a proper policy proposal from Ozawa, in part because of budgetary constraints, in part because of the long list of domestic problems that will demand the new government’s attention. And facing the Obama administration instead of the Bush administration, a DPJ government will have a harder time saying no for the sake of saying no, especially if the Obama administration is smart and limits its requests to non-military requests, as Obama did when discussing Afghanistan with Aso last month.

For the time being, divisions within the DPJ are less of a concern than it would seem, provided that Ozawa survives this scandal. Even if Ozawa falls but is replaced by someone like Okada Katsuya, the DPJ’s policy bargain could survive relatively untouched. While Okada inspires no particular adoration from the party’s ranks, he would also not be the object of loathing that Ozawa is in certain corners of the party. Indeed, Sankei reports that the LDP and Komeito are afraid that Ozawa might pass the torch to Okada, who is younger and would deprive the LDP of its efforts to paint Ozawa as the ghost of the bad, old LDP (no small amount of irony there). Much as the DPJ would prefer to contest an election against Aso than anyone the LDP might find to replace him, so the LDP might rather have Ozawa as the face of the other side than any of the DPJ’s younger politicians waiting in the wings.

The point is that the DPJ not perfect, but it is by no means as shambolic as the conventional wisdom suggests — or as shambolic as the LDP, for that matter. There is a fragile unity in the party, most likely a product of Ozawa’s authority, the decline of constitution revision as a central issue in Japanese politics, the emergence of a broad national consensus on the most important issues facing the government, and, most importantly, the prospect of unseating the LDP, which has undoubtedly worked wonders for party unity. If the DPJ takes power, there will be missteps, mistakes, and u-turns, all of which are to be expected from an opposition party taking power for the first time. But that is no reason to dread a change of ruling party. If the DPJ manages to maintain this uneasy balance within the party and govern effectively, great. And if it doesn’t, and it is unable to govern, leading to an electoral defeat, that would be good for Japan too. The very worst thing, however, would be the replace one deeply divided, unmanageable perpetual ruling party with another.

3 thoughts on “Unpacking the DPJ’s divisions

  1. Bryce

    I pretty much agree with what you are saying, but there is a problem for any party that organises itself around the simple notion that the ruling party should fall: After the election is over and the government changes, there is no agreed policy agenda to hold the new governing party together. If the DPJ is really just a coalition designed to change the government, then haven\’t we been here before? And wasn\’t that a fairly temporary arrangement?I think that the LDP will fall at the next election, simply because voters know that with the divided diet the DPJ has greater chance at the moment of being a more effective government. But the DPJ better get to work on updating and pushing its manifesto in order to show that it does have some fundamental party-wide agreements on policy that will work to cement it together after it wins.


  2. Bryce

    Another reason the DPJ is factionalised, by the way, is that if the major target of your opposition is a factionalised party in and of itself, it almost makes no sense to formulate policy from the standpoint of an ideological position. This is because if your policies are any good, somebody in the ruling party will come along and nick them, implement them and take the credit for themselves. That\’s happened time and again with the LDP, so unless its for pragmatic reasons as I have indicated above, it makes no sense for a party in such a situation to take a hard ideological position.


  3. former DPJ member

    How united is the party about the facts of the 9/11 attacks? In a new book, a Diet member claims that the Bush administration perpetrated them in order to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and that these suspicious wars have been the main missions of U.S. military forces in Japan since then.As the Obama administration continues one of the wars, it would be illogical if those who share his view did not seek a speedy departure of all US military forces from Japan.


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