We’ve all played Jenga: You start with a solid tower made out of latticed layers of wooden blocks, then take turns removing pieces from the base and balancing them atop the increasingly ungainly structure until the whole thing topples over — or the pizza bagels are ready. Anyway, building majority coalitions is a lot like this. To a certain extent, both the Republican and the Democratic coalitions are ungainly and irrational constructs (Ted Nugent and Mitt Romney? Jesse Jackson and Barney Frank?). But current conditions — the recession and the prospects of a slow-growth, high-unemployment “new normal” — give Democrats an advantage in keeping their cats herded.

In a sentence, the poorest Democrats (who also tend to be the most socially conservative) are locked into the coalition out of sheer material fear, giving wealthier, socially progressive Democrats a freer hand to pursue their cultural projects. The Republicans got the bum end. As in 1932 and 1936, they failed to convince the financially insecure middle of the country that the government is worse suited to help them than they are to help themselves. This gives them little room to maneuver on cultural issues like gay marriage, or issues like immigration, which cuts across the cultural/economic divide.

Many on the Right argue, plausibly, that a GOP softening on gay marriage might bring on board a few hundred thousand fiscally conservative small-L libertarians, but it would also alienate a couple dozen million evangelicals. Mutatis mutandis, they say, a pro-amnesty GOP might make marginal gains with those elusive “socially conservative” Latinos, but only by forsaking the white working class. These realities would leave the GOP little margin for error in this game of Demographic Jenga under normal conditions. But to tweak your base when the middle of the country is voting like Marx was right is an especially high-risk, low-reward stratagem.