Sunday, November 13, 2005

[Political Strategies]

The Moderate Fallacy

Before I go, I'll leave you with this slightly preliminary rumination. I hope to elaborate on it in the future, fashion it into a shiny hobby horse, and ride it through the midterm elections. You've been warned.

As the GOP implodes, a story line emerges--well, two, really. They both revolve around the notion that Americans are essentially moderate in political temperment. In the GOP version, the lesson is retrospective: Republicans forgot that Americans are centrist, and are so running aground on the shoals of their own fanatacism. In the Dem version, which is predictive, peddlers of conventional wisdom caution hopeful donkeys not to get too radical if they want to feast on the dissatisfaction of GOP voters.

These twin, complimentary story lines are false. Americans are not philosophically centrist, they're instinctively non-radical. They look at the radical elements of the right and left and aim somewhere in-between, thinking that this is some kind of safe, rational position. They fetishize their "independence" by arguing they're as likely to vote Dem or GOP--proving they haven't the vaguest clue what the political philosophies of right and left are. In the 1930s, one party argued we should have a 90% top income tax bracket, while the other, the "conservative" party, said it should be only 75%. Now one party argues we should invade nonthreatening countries, torture our prisoners, repeal taxes altogether for the rich while privatizing the social safety net. The "liberal" party argues we should maybe not torture, but invasions are okay. Americans, hewing to historical norms, split the difference.

Americans fashion their political instinct from populism, which is America's cultural identity. In the 30s, populism was owned by the Woody Guthrie, collectivist left--this land is your land. Now it is owned by the individualist-loving right--this land is my land, and if you get rich enough, you can by the parcel next door, but until then keep off or I'll shoot you with my automatic Smith and Wesson.

Populism and centrism are rarely related. Populist rhetoric is generally radicalism dressed up as American Gothic. What Grover Norquist seeks to accomplish in this "aw shucks" garb really not less radical than what Emma Goldman preached when she told the poor to seize the bread of the wealthy. Both appealed to average Americans because they were presented as rational acts, even though politically, they were pretty extreme.

The lesson--and the thing I hope to elaborate on--is that Dems need to think differently about elections and governance. To get elected, Dems must evict Republicans as the populist party. Thanks to GOP overreach, this shouldn't be too hard. They don't need to pander to Americans in Bush-lite moderatism, because this just shifts the goalposts further right, compelling Americans to regard increasingly autocratic policies as "centrist." Governing from the left, though, means adopting policies that are truly liberal. Because Americans haven't a clue what a liberal or conservative policy actually is, will only hear the rational populism. Understanding that the path--populism in order to get elected--looks very different from the goal--liberal policies--is critical if the Dems want to create a long-term ruling coalition.

See you next week.


Absent Mindful said...

Nice to hear John Edwards apologize for supporting the war. Now there's a guy doing what not enough politicians are doing: courting a true majority of Americans over this extremely important issue.

Mick said...

Brilliant analysis on the American voter but if you really think the DLC is going to let the Democratic party go 'populist' and forsake its corporate donors, you're living in denial as deep as the one neocons wallowed in before the invasion and the majority of conservatives are still wallowing in. Ain't gonna happen.

Absent Mindful said...

Well, who's to say that it has to be John Edwards or any other Democrat? It's not likely to happen in 3 years, but I'm foreseeing an eventual weakening of both parties, allowing more "third party" candidates to start winning congressional, and quite possibly, presidential elections. The populist message seems to be that the donkey and the elephant are both poor options for the voter, so perhaps this age will begin to transform into a more citizen-centric society (?)

Alabama Sagebrush said...


I think you are off there a bit. A populist approach doesn't deny corporate access to policy. It reigns in what is considered abusive access. That may mean bigger money on the R side, but that is meaning less and less these days. Voters are wising up to how that money is used.

Jeff Alworth said...

I don't think the DLC has much to say these days. You happen to see the guy the Dems hired to run the party?

Mick said...

commander mccranium: A populist approach doesn't deny corporate access to policy.

Of course it does, at least it denies the kind of access and control corporations are demanding. Influence isn't enough any more. They want to run the show, and they're buying candidates to make sure they get it. The financial industry bought itself some 40 or so Democratic votes on the horrendous bankruptcy bill, for example, a direct slap in the face to anything that could reasonably be called 'populist'.

jeff: Oh come on. The DLC still maintains its stranglehold on the purse-strings and therefore its stranglehold on party policy. You see any significant shift since Dean took over the DNC that you could legitimately ascribe to him? He doesn't run the Dems any more than Mehlman runs the GOP, and DLC surrogates are already laying the groundwork for Dean's ouster by bitching in public about his inability to raise money.

$$$ is the name of the game in American politics. As long as that remains true, the DLC and the corporations it represents will be making policy.

eRobin said...

I'm with Mick. The DLC runs the party because the DLC are the bagmen and as long as that's true we won't get any real populism. We'll get JohnEdwards brand populism, which is as shiny as that hobby horse you're building but not as effective a policy driver.

Jeff Alworth said...

I always find it strange to be arguing from the less cynical position, but here goes.

The DLC controls SOME of the purse strings. Activist groups, which in the 2004 cycle elevated Dean and Kerry to unprecedented fundraising totals, were almost universally opposed to the DLC. Moreover, Kerry, although he was decried as not liberal enough, is actually well to the left of the DLC. Their candidates, Lieberman and Gephardt, tanked early.

In addition, you forget the power of unions which, while waning, are still the single biggest funding bloc, and generally are opposed to the DLC--hence their support of Dean.

Moderates in the party must play an interesting game--try to appeal to the base even while shaking their money at candidates. I see little evidence to suggest that the candidates the DLC backs are competitive with those the base backs. And that's a dimension neither of you is considering.

Money always influences politics, but only to the degree it can buy votes. The DLC has been woefully inadequate in that endeavor.

lawrence krubner said...

I agree with your summary of the history of this subject, but I think you exaggerate the influence that the Republicans or Democrats have on the political ideas of the American people. I think most people consult their own interests when forming their politics. This isn't necessarily bad - maybe politics is at its best when the people form their ideas first and then the political parties compete for their votes. Obviously there have been moments when one side or the other was sufficiently organized to make some substantial effort and organzining and influencing the politics of the people. The labor movement, at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, was able to indoctrinate a large segment of the public, and Fox News is doing the same today. But you know as well as I that a large part of the public does not follow politics, and that part of the public forms its politics by looking to their own individual interests.