Niche Construction is “the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches”. We often think of adaptation as a process where natural selection favors organisms that are well-adapted to their niches. But this is too simplistic, organisms not only adapt to their niches, they also create them. Niche construction has proved to be a fruitful and stimulating idea in evolutionary biology.
I want to introduce the concept of political niche construction, the process whereby political elites modify society to maintain or increase their own power and fitness.
An example of large scale political niche construction is Stalin’s campaign to eliminate the kulaks while creating an industrial working class.
Small scale political niche construction takes place e.g. when a political party that has won an election gives jobs to its supporters. Here is an example from DEBKAfile, an Israeli nation security website analyzing the failings of of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the current Lebanon war,
Olmert’s predecessor left him with a flawed legacy. During his six and-a-half years as premier, Ariel Sharon shook up the top levels of the IDF’s general command, military intelligence and the Mossad (although not the Shin Bet) and stuffed them with appointees who subscribed to his political philosophy.
Israel’s top military and security echelons have never before been picked for their political outlook. Sharon’s axe created a monolithic establishment lacking in the motivation burning in their predecessors for developing brilliantly innovative methods of warfare.
The current debate in the U.S. and Europe about immigration is also a debate about which kinds of societies we want to construct. One way of reshaping society is through immigration.
In Scandinavia, for example, Sweden has a much more liberal immigration policy than the other Scandinavian countries. This can be explained by the strength of the Swedish Social Democratic Party compared to the Social Democratic parties in the other Scandinavian countries. The Swedish Social Democratic Party has produced prime ministers since 1920 and been in power with only minor interruptions since 1932. It is one of the most successful political parties in the world.
How has it managed to stay in power for so long? By favoring large-scale corporations employing blue-collar workers, while sharply limiting the growth of small and medium size enterprises in Sweden. It has encouraged substantial growth of the population segments that vote for the Social Democratic Party, i.e. public sector employees, immigrants, and people living on various social security schemes. It is a shining example of successful, modern, democratic political niche construction.
Think about it, who were the winners and who were the losers in each of the cases above? What are some other examples of political niche construction?