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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Seeing the Battle and the War

By Heather Hurlburt
We’re at an extraordinary moment in the political life of the Democratic Party. The Truman Project is joined by partisan and non-partisan advocacy groups as diverse as Democracy Corps, National Security Network, the Peace and Security Initiative, The White House Project, Third Way, and US in the World in offering national security messaging advice whose basic thrust is:

“The key is to both stand up for strong national security, while highlighting our values – including a core value that we must keep Americans safe.” (“A Progressive Battle Plan for National Security.”)

These groups span the spectrum from Lieberman staffers to MoveOn activists. Yes, their advice differs on many important details, and some would probably object violently to my lumping them in with others, but compared to 2004 or even 2005, the convergence is real. I can actually tell a candidate that there’s general agreement that he or she should come out strong on national security, not avoid the topic; present a specific, positive, new policy direction that draws on core American values; and then critique his or her opponent for being satisfied or complicit with the Administration’s incompetent, ineffective, unrealistic approach.
So why aren’t we hearing more hallelujahs? I’ll posit three reasons, some of which the Truman writers point out, all of which I’d like to see them – and their colleagues at other institutions – focus more on.
1. Democrats are deeply suspicious of messaging guidance.
An irate left-wing respondent on DemocracyArsenal.org, where I blog on these topics, recently compared me to a Nazi. That would be laughable if I didn’t often hear the same sort of thing, in politer terms, from my academic and activist friends who happily inhabit the left end of the Democratic base. We have a large group of core supporters who reflexively equate being thoughtful about how we frame our positions with being dishonest about our core values.
But that view is shared by the left and right wings of our party. One of the megastars of the Democratic foreign policy establishment blew up a strategy meeting earlier this year by declaring, more or less, “You can’t poll foreign policy. We just need to keep doing what we’ve always done.” I have had national security experts whom I respect deeply tell me that you simply cannot use metaphors of daily life to explain foreign policy to non-expert audiences – even as I see folks from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama do exactly that, sincerely and to great effect.
And it doesn’t seem that the campaign consultant community is convinced: even as we all churn out these great ideas for communicating effectively about security, I hear reports from the field that candidates are in fact being advised to turn away from national security and go back to an economic message.
So we have much more work ahead of us over time, to help our crack national security professionals, our base voters across the spectrum, and our political professionals understand what good journalists, novelists, artists and ad executives take for granted: that communication is only effective if your audience hears what you intended them to hear. Most of us have had the experience of an email, seemingly so straightforward in black and white, conveying the opposite nuance of what we intended. And it’s clear every day in politics that media and citizens alike often hear what they expect to hear.
That’s where research-based messaging guidance comes in – as one tool for helping candidates, national security experts and advocates do a better job of getting the message across.
On this, we could learn from each other: the actual language proposed in “A Progressive Battle Plan” would benefit from a scrub that asks smart communication questions like: do these phrases inadvertently direct listeners’ minds back to the positions of our opponents? Where there’s a wide choice of synonyms, do they use words and phrases that recent testing shows voters react to well? Does the order in which concepts are introduced help open voters’ minds to an alternative approach, or close them? In each of those areas, there’s good open source data and even more closely held data to draw on. (For some examples of what’s publicly available right now, click here or here.)
2. It’s a long-term problem.
This brings me to a point that Grinberg, Kleinfeld and Spence perceptively make: This is a long-term problem. They rightly note that their solution, offering an alternate “story line,” can’t be accomplished in one election cycle.
That’s not because Democrats aren’t good storytellers; it’s because we need to change the terms of the conversation so our story gets heard. Our target audience – independents, potential swing voters, disaffected voters and non-voters – has firmly established mental “shortcuts” about Democrats and national security. The media reinforces them because they are easy and evocative. A regular diet of local TV news and shout radio also reinforces conservative mental shortcuts: Government is ineffectual abroad as at home, the world beyond our shores is a dirty and dangerous place, the US is the only country that does anything, other countries and international institutions with a very few exceptions are fundamentally untrustworthy.
Any alternate story about the United States, our place in the world, and the safety of our citizens that stays true to our progressive values is going to bounce off those shortcuts until we start putting long-term effort into replacing them with other images, not just bombarding the ramparts with strategy after strategy.
In this longer-term arena, we need a broader strategy than the one Grinberg, Kleinfeld and Spence propose. We need to go back and pick up the foreign policy concerns – working with allies, leading with American values on issues such as poverty, genocide and the environment, building coalitions to solve problems from disease to trade – where the public agrees with Democrats but gets distracted by highly charged short-term talk of safety and threats. In between electoral cycles, Democrats and progressives can be building genuine links in the public mind between competence on the whole sweep of our involvement overseas and progress on the hard issues – instead of avoiding these issues and relying on spurious links at election time, and then wondering why they seem to favor Republicans (e.g. “draining the swamp.”)
With more time and oxygen, Democrats need to be crafting effective policies and smart messaging about the other insecurity voters feel – their place in the global economy. And there’s still more to do to back up the short-term national security machine Democrats have put in place in the past few years with a deeper bench of folks thinking equally interesting, but less politically tuned, thoughts that can be tossed around for years at a time.
The long-term challenge is to deny conservatives their monopoly on words, images and ideas surrounding national security. Democrats could do “everything right” for the next six weeks and still get beat by gas prices, terror alerts, and some quick progress in Baghdad that lets troop withdrawals be foreseen. Over the long term, we must aim to create a national environment where those Republican trump cards will be worth less, where we have more pathways into voters’ minds – a better campaign story on national security but also a better background story about how national security and international involvement fit into the lives of Americans.
3. It’s a systemic problem – voters are disillusioned with everyone.
Finally, I worry about a more fundamental problem. Voters are disillusioned with the Republican story line, no question, but there’s some evidence that they are preemptively disillusioned with the Democrats as well–that in fact the experience of watching most of our political class support a war that has gone so badly has soured Americans on the whole notion of principled US activism, whatever the principles, outside our borders. That is how I read the Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations and other polls reporting American “isolationism” rising to levels previously seen at the end of Vietnam and at the end of the Cold War. Both of those times, public discontent produced a short period of policy retrenchment. But both times, the longer-term effect came when it was the forces of the right that came up with the new ideological and policy arguments that reengaged a plurality of Americans with the right’s own ambitious international projects.
While the folks whose job it is to win elections are right to worry about “standing on principle” today, we are in dire need for the best progressive minds – and the deepest-pocketed progressive funders – to start looking a decade or more down the road and talk to Americans about what our principles will look like and how they will be tested once Iraq is over, the next compromise on immigration has been reached, and the challenge of Iran and other non-status-quo powers has reached its next level. If we don’t start now to get the politics right, in the long run there simply won’t be the intellectual space to get the policy right.

Heather Hurlburt is Senior Advisor to the US in the World Initiative, consults as a political speechwriter and national security strategist, and blogs at democracyarsenal.org


Getting Down to Specifics: Core Principles and Policy Reforms

By Gary Hart
The Democratic Party has reached a stage in its evolution where it must re-identify its core principles, ideals, and beliefs. Taken from four great Democratic presidents of the 20th century, those are:

  1. We are a national community based on a commitment to social justice (Franklin Roosevelt);
  2. America’s national security must be based on democratic alliances and the security of the global commons (Harry Truman);
  3. As a republic, our citizens owe a duty of participation in the public life of our nation (John Kennedy);
  4. Our party is committed to equality and justice for all (Lyndon Johnson).

Whether liberal or not, these ideals and principles are distinctly different from those of the Republican Party which does not share them.
Democrats should base their national security policy on these and several other principles:

  1. Our government must be willing to justify its military activities and conduct its pursuit of security before the American people in the court of public opinion;
  2. We must properly understand what security means, what our objectives are, and how they are to be achieved, or all the military spending in the world will not make us more secure;
  3. Security means more than safety from attack, and each of us is more secure when all of us are more secure;
  4. To be able to finance our future security, we must fundamentally realign our lifestyles, replacing consumption with production, and invest in the elements of a strong economic base.

Our new security structures must include:

  1. An international peace-making force;
  2. An international consortium to control proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  3. Reorganization of our intelligence community to emphasize human collection and collaboration on intelligence sharing;
  4. Creation of a fifth military service which combines all Special Forces;
  5. Creation of a separate constabulary force and a civil affairs structure within the Pentagon to build and rebuild failed and failing nations;
  6. Reorganization of the “big Army” into smaller, lighter, swifter units;
  7. Adoption of military reform principles of unit cohesion and officer promotion;
  8. Recognition that we are now confronted with fourth generation warfare;
  9. Adoption of the policy that Democratic presidents will strike preemptively only where a threat is imminent and unavoidable;
  10. Assurance that Democrats will answer four questions before committing troops abroad: Who is going with us?, How long will we be there?, How much will it cost?, and What are the estimated casualties?

Gary Hart represented the State of Colorado in the United States Senate from 1975 to 1987. In 1984 and 1988, he was a candidate for his party’s nomination for President. During his 12 years in the Senate, he served on the Armed Services Committee, where he specialized in nuclear arms control and was an original founder of the military reform caucus. Since retiring from the United States Senate, Gary Hart has been extensively involved in international law and business, as a strategic advisor to major U.S. corporations, and as an author and lecturer.
He was co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century. The Commission performed the most comprehensive review of national security since 1947, predicted the terrorist attacks on America, and proposed a sweeping overhaul of U.S. national security structures and policies for the post-Cold War new century and the age of terrorism.
He is currently Senior Counsel to Coudert Brothers, a multinational law firm with offices in twenty-seven cities located in eighteen countries around the world, and is the author of fourteen books.


A Progressive Battle Plan for National Security

By Marc Grinberg, Rachel Kleinfeld, and Matthew Spence
With two months before elections, Democrats are in high spirits. As the Republican-controlled White House wages a war in Iraq that a majority of voters believe was a poorly run mistake, the Republican Party’s favorability rating has slipped to eight points below Democrats’ and falling. Polls for individual Congressional candidates are putting Democrats as many as ten points ahead of their Republican opponents.1 Americans feel our nation’s image in the world has fallen, and the country is headed in the wrong direction.2 Some are already referring to the Democratic House leader as Madame Speaker.
But this is not a description of the run-up to this November’s election. It is a troubling flashback to two years ago. At this point in the last election cycle, Democrats appeared poised for victory. But three months later, on November 3, 2004, Democrats awoke to find a government with even more Republicans in power than the day before. George W. Bush became the first presidential candidate in 16 years to win a majority of the popular vote. The GOP gained four seats in both the House and the Senate, leaving Democrats ten seats down in the Senate and twenty-nine seats short in the House.
What happened? Why did 2004 not produce the return to Democratic power that so many expected? And given that today’s poll numbers and predictions are eerily similar to those of two years ago, what can we learn to ensure that 2006 is not a return to 2004?3
In 2004, it turned out that national security was a litmus test. Voters may have expressed strong concerns about traditional Democratic issues such as jobs and health care, but when alone in the voting booth, they cast their ballot for the Democrat only if the candidate met the national security acid test–that is, if they were convinced the candidate would keep them safe. In 2004 exit polling, 49% of voters said Bush was the only one they trusted to handle terrorism–and nearly all of those (97%) voted for the President. In other words, only 1.5% of voters didn’t trust Kerry to handle terrorism but voted for him anyway. If voters listed terrorism as their most important issue, they voted for George W. Bush 86% of the time.4 Even when voters disagreed with specific Republican foreign policies, they trusted Republicans to ensure their safety. They did not trust Democrats.
Democratic leadership in the House and Senate–as well as future Presidential contenders–recognizes that it must address this national security gap, and is trying to do so. Last spring, Congressional Democrats introduced “Real Security,” a Democratic alternative to Republican policies.5 On September 7, 2006 Senator Harry Reid and nine other Democratic Senators introduced a 600-page bill, the Real Security Act of 2006. The emerging conventional wisdom is that Democrats have already begun to overcome their security deficit. A Wall Street Journal cover story earlier this month read recent public opinion data to proclaim as much. Polls put support for the Iraq War at a mere thirty percent and give Democrats an eight-point lead when asked which party will lead better both on Iraq, and in foreign policy more broadly.6 A majority of Americans feel that it is time for a change of course in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.7
Foreign Policy Is Not the Same As National Security
But a deeper problem persists. Surprisingly, while Americans disagree with Republicans on specific policies, such as Iraq, and believe that Republican foreign policy is wrong-headed, Democrats are still not winning their trust on national security. While voters favor Democrats on “soft” issues that Democrats see as tied to good national security, such as “building respect for America,” “strengthening relations with our allies,” and “advancing human rights and democracy abroad,” the American public does not trust us on the “hard” issues that many Americans see as the core of national security. When asked which party they trusted to “ensure a strong military,” “combat terrorism” and be “decisive in a national security crisis,” respondents to a recent Democracy Corps poll thought Republicans would do a “much” or “somewhat” better job by 34, 14, and 11 points, respectively.8
In other words, it is not enough to be trusted on “foreign policy.” Foreign policy might seem to be synonymous with national security to the policy elite, but voters view foreign policy issues as peripheral and cerebral–not core to their personal security.9 It is thus important that Democrats do not fool themselves into thinking our problem is solved when we see public opinion, like a recent poll by the Mellman Group, finding that 55% of Americans believe it is time to change the course on Bush’s foreign policy. Progressives should not be comforted by polling that shows 60% of Americans think it is better to work through the United Nations to share burdens and risks than to act unilaterally, and that 61% believe that other countries have begun viewing the U.S. more negatively over the past few years.10 Those beliefs are real, but they are beside the point. It is security–the vital question of who will keep Americans safe–that is the decisive issue at election time.
The Problem: Democrats’ National Security Story
The problem, in a nutshell, is that Republicans have controlled the national security narrative. They offer a simple security story: America is beset by evil enemies who are willing to use despicable tactics, abhorrent to any civilized person, to kill regular Americans. Decisive action, a strong military, and a willingness to use the greatest force possible against these enemies will protect America. Alliances are only helpful if our allies are equally decisive and willing to use force exactly as we would–and the vast majority are not. Even when Republicans give a nod to diplomacy, foreign aid, and other tools, their basic story line equates security with military action. According to this story, alliances are fine and so is a good international reputation–but neither, in and of themselves, is tied to American safety.
Democrats will not be able to capitalize on voter support for their policies until they break the Republican story line, and create an equally simple and convincing story for how their strategy will keep America safe. The test for voters is not which party can give us better and smarter foreign policy. It is far more direct: how will these policies make Americans more secure today.
Therefore, no matter how Democrats fare in this November’s election, our work will not be done. Even a decisive win in taking back Congress will not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. Rather, successfully attacking the Bush Administration’s policies is only the end of the beginning. Democrats need to ensure that the public’s increasing support for the Party on national security issues is not solely a reaction to the war in Iraq. Such support is thin and short-lived. Support for Democrats increased after past Republican failures, such as the Iran-Contra scandals–only to fall soon after it faded off the front pages.11 Republican losses do not necessarily mean Democratic gains. Rather, Democrats need to begin the long, difficult work of convincing voters that Democrats can keep Americans safe. To do so, it is not enough to attack specific policy failures. Democrats need to attack the Republican story line, while proving to America that they want, and can be trusted, to keep them safe.
Two Current Solutions
So what is our battle plan? How do we reclaim the mantle of national security leadership? Two opposing approaches have been fighting to shape Democratic political strategy–but both get us only halfway there.
In one camp, some in the Party argue we should “Stand Tall as Democrats”–that is, Democrats must adopt a national security strategy that amounts to nothing less than a complete reversal of the Bush Administration’s policies. Standing tall against the Administration is the only way to give Americans the alternative national security vision they crave and drive Democratic turnout on Election Day. For these strategists, Democrats have been losing elections since September 11th because they do not offer a clear enough alternative to Bush’s disastrous policies. Instead, Democrats who try to talk as tough as Bush on national security alienate the Party faithful and undecided voters, who see a bland choice between Republican and “Republican lite.” These voters, the thinking goes, want to see a Democratic Party that stands up for its beliefs, and comes out swinging.
This camp rightly recognizes that turning out that activist base is crucial: the last two presidential elections prove that a few thousand votes in a few key swing states can be the difference between winning and losing.12 In a political environment where the labels “elephant in donkey clothing” and “DINO (Democrat in Name Only)” are readily hurled at moderate Democrats, we cannot assume that activist voters will turn out for Democrats simply because we claim not to be Republicans.13
The second camp–those advocating we “Stand Strong on Security”–declares that the Democratic activist strategy misses a key part of the problem. For these strategists, the current national security gap was borne out of the Vietnam War. At that time, the country–even though it largely agreed with the Democrats’ policy toward Vietnam–began to lose faith in the ability (and willingness) of the Democratic Party to stand up and fight to keep them safe. In 1967, the public trusted Democrats and Republicans equally to handle national security. By 1974, over half of Americans preferred Republicans, while just over 20% preferred Democrats. A 30 to 40 point gap continued through the 1990s.14 Today, the American public still believes that Democrats care less about their safety than Republicans do.15 Democrats must face this “Vietnam hangover” which equates Democratic anti-war stands with a lack of strength on national security. Democrats cannot just attack the Administration–they must address the public’s long-term lack of confidence in Democratic strength.
If being anti-war or anti-force has become conflated in the public mind with being anti-security, the “Stand Strong for Security” school offers a clear solution: Democrats must take tough-minded security positions, and avoid “changing the subject” to Democratic mainstays like civil liberties, human rights and domestic issues. To convince Americans that our party will also keep them safe, Democrats must adopt conservative language on hard security issues like the War on Terror and the military, and must overtly oppose those in the party that shun tough-minded national security policies, particularly the use of force.
The “Stand Strong for Security” camp, however, misses a key part of credibility: passion and perceived sincerity. Certainly, it is essential to prove to the American people that we take national security seriously and that we will do whatever is necessary to defend the country. But what the strategy ignores is that, given the Democrats’ history and the emotional center of the progressive movement, when Democrats “stand strong,” voters see Democrats as pandering and insincere, speaking from poll numbers rather than their guts.16 Instead of instilling confidence, these policies ring hollow–Americans doubt that Democrats believe what they are saying, and are left wondering what Democrats would do if elected. Instead of gaining the trust of the American public, the “Stand Strong” strategy fails to resonate with security-minded voters. And in the meantime, it alienates crucial Democratic activists.
A Way Forward: “Stand Principled”
Faced with these two strategies, some have wrongly concluded that the Democratic Party is on the brink of civil war. But crafting our national security battle plan does not mean tearing the Party apart. There is a way for Democrats to overcome the security deficit without alienating our activist base.
The key is to both stand up for strong national security, while highlighting our values–including a core value that we must keep Americans safe. A “Stand Principled” strategy would bring Democratic values back into our political discussion, allowing us to develop a national security strategy and story that resonates with Democratic voters, while convincing the public that Democrats can be trusted with the country’s security.
The Truman National Security Project has begun to develop such a strong, smart, principled narrative that connects a tough-minded Democratic approach to national security with core Democratic values.
This strategy goes to the heart of who we are as Democrats. And it offers Americans more than a technocratic implementation mantra like “we will do it better.” We did not become Democrats simply because we were better practitioners of foreign policy, or smarter at getting the job done. We are Democrats because we are inspired by the values of the left. Democrats should not shy away from promoting these values. Supporting economic opportunity is a Democratic vision at home that can also create more stable and secure countries around the world. Freedom from oppression is a core liberal belief. It grounded the Democratic fight against apartheid under the Reagan Administration–we should not let the Bush administration claim the mantle of defending liberty.
A “Stand Principled” strategy can inform how we think–and talk about–the most vexing national security issues before us. Take three politically-laden security issues that come immediately to mind: keeping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, and illegal immigration. On all three, Democrats offer policies that resonate with Americans. Our challenge is to learn how to talk about them in a way that conveys both strength, and a conviction in our values.
What does it mean to bring values into our political strategy?
In the recent immigration debate, congressional Republicans immolated themselves with a self-created wedge issue, while Democrats watched the flames rise. But on the campaign trail, Democrats had to address constituents who raised immigration as a security issue. A “Stand Tall as Democrats” approach might have candidates declaring “no person is illegal” while proclaiming that the immigration issue is a political red herring that has nothing to do with security. “Stand Strong for Security” might look at the poll numbers and favor the popular notion of building a wall across our southern border because “America is a nation of laws, and we must prevent immigrants from entering illegally”.
A “Stand Principled” approach would stand against building the Berlin Wall in our backyard, and would instead suggest a position conveyed in candidate talking points such as:

Illegal immigration must be stopped. We must know who is coming into our country, and people must come in legally. But make no mistake about it–Democrats, at our core, believe that America grows stronger when we are a magnet for the best, brightest, hardest-working people in the world to come and make our nation great. For our security, we must know who is in our country. For our success as a nation, we must provide legal paths for hard-working people to come, integrate, and become a part of the American Dream.

Or take Iran, an issue on which some on the left see it as the right of Iran to gain nuclear weapons like any other country, while others on the left believe it to be one of the most dire national security threats we face. A “Stand Principled” approach might suggest a position reflected by messaging such as:

If any issue should arouse the passion of Democrats, it is the spread of nuclear weapons to a radical Iranian government. Iran is a nation that stones women, publicly executes homosexuals, suppresses its minorities, and has violated the most basic human rights we fight for as Democrats. Allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon would strengthen this government’s hand against their own people. And nuclear proliferation–which would spread from Iran to the rest of the region–poses the greatest human rights abuse of all: threatening to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident.

Finally, take the fight against radical Islamist terrorists. A candidate taking a “Stand Principled” position might use language such as that used regularly by Tony Blair.
For instance, in his speech to the Labour Party National Conference:

What we are confronting here is an evil ideology. It is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts, and minds, both within Islam and outside it. This is the battle that must be won, a battle not just about the terrorists’ methods, but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas. Not only what they do, but what they think and the thinking they would impose on others…
We don’t have to wonder what type of country [fundamentalist] states would be. Afghanistan was such a state. Girls put out of school. Women denied even rudimentary rights. People living in abject poverty and oppression. All of it justified by reference to religious faith…
We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument… that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance, and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.17

In an American sound bite, that could boil down to:

Radical Islamist terrorists don’t only threaten American lives. They destroy the values we believe in most deeply. They oppress women under medieval laws. They declare death to homosexuals, religious dissenters, and any free thinker under their sway. They refuse to tolerate the very diversity of opinion that makes us Democrats–and Americans. When we fail to fight them, we fail to fight for the dignity of our very humanity.

Standing on principle is hardly a new strategy–it is grounded in the tradition of the Democratic Party. Under Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, Democrats were the party that Americans looked to for national security leadership. These Democratic presidents took the threats of the day seriously–while voicing strong Democratic values and projecting inspiration, not fear, about the future. They convinced the country that they believed deeply in the nation’s safety and in the core values of the American left.
Ultimately, Democrats do have to establish a baseline perception that we recognize that America has dangerous and depraved enemies, and we are willing to use force against them. But we also need to do something ever harder, which is to tell a national security story in which force is only one tool that we use to protect the American people. It should be a narrative that focuses on the results of American actions, rather than the tools used to achieve those results. The use of force, after all, is a tool, which can sometimes make us safer and sometimes not. As mentioned above, the American people trust Democrats on foreign policy, but not national security. The task, then, is to convince them that the two are deeply intertwined.
Democrats can revive the Truman legacy in national security. A political strategy can both convince Americans that Democrats can keep them safe, and offer an alternative vision that can rally the party faithful–and swing voters–to action. That strategy is realizing that strength and values are not in opposition, but rather two sides of the same coin. Putting them together is central to winning not just in November–but for decades to come.
Of course, this is far from the final answer–it is instead the beginning of the debate. To kick off this conversation, the Democratic Strategist has invited responses to these ideas from some of the most serious and creative thinkers in the Democratic Party. What would a strong and principled Democratic response be to the issue of wiretapping? To promoting freedom and democracy? To Guantanamo?
We think Harry Truman might have put it best himself: “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don’t ever apologize for anything.” We should welcome the national security battle with Republican. Bring it on.

Marc Grinberg is a graduate student in political theory at Oxford University. He previously served as Congressional Fellow for the Truman National Security Project, leading its efforts on Capitol Hill and coordinating the activities of the Democratic Study Group on National Security.
Rachel Kleinfeld is the founder and co-director of the Truman Project. Rachel previously served as a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she worked on information-sharing across the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, homeland security, and trade and security issues. She has also been a consultant to the Center for Security and International Studies on biosecurity and bioterrorism response issues.
Matt Spence is the co-director of the Truman National Security Project. He is currently writing a book on lessons learned from American democracy promotion in the former Soviet Union. Matt has been a Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford University, a Visiting Fellow at the Stanford Center on Democratization, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and an elections monitor in Kosovo.

1Polling from: CNN/Gallup/USA Today, August 1, 2004 (Conducted 7/30-31/04; surveyed 1,011 adults, margin of error +/-3%); Newsweek, July 31, 2004 (Conducted 7/29-30/04; surveyed 1,190 adults; margin of error +/-3%).
2According to a Newsweek Poll from September 4, 2004, 60% of registered voters believed that the “policies and diplomatic efforts” of the Bush Administration have damaged America’s image and “led to more anti-Americanism around the world,” (Conducted 9/30-10/04; surveyed 1,013 registered voters; margin of error +/-4%). An Annenberg Public Policy Center Poll from September 2, 2004, showed that 52% of registered voters believed that “things in the country are…seriously off on the wrong track,” compared to only 39% who believed things “are generally going in the right direction.” (Conducted 8/9-29/04; surveyed 5,146 registered voters; margin of error +/-1%).
3According to recent polls, Democratic favorability ratings are nine-points higher than those of the Republicans and generic congressional polls give Democrats an 8-point lead. Polling from: Gallup/USA Today, August 1, 2006 (Conducted 7/28-30/06; surveyed 1,007 adults; margin of error +/-3%); Zogby, August 16, 2006 (Conducted 8/11-15/06; surveyed 1,018 likely voters; margin of error +/-3.1%). To be sure, there are key differences between today and the run-up to the 2004 elections. Ethics scandals (largely on the Republican side), a stronger anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the nation and, of course, the increasing discontent with the war in Iraq may swing the election for the Democrats.
4Exit Polling from ABC News Polling Unit and Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, November 9, 2004.
5This plan, released in March by House and Senate Democrats as well as the DNC, is available at: http://www.democrats.org/a/2006/03/real_security_t.php.
6Polling by CBS News/New York Times, July 26, 2006. (Conducted 7/21-25/06; surveyed 1,127 adults; margin of error +/-3%). Also see, Jackie Calmes, “Republican Advantage on Issues of National Security Erodes,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2006, sec. A. Polling cited in article from NBC/Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2006 (Conducted 6/9-12/06; surveyed 1,002 adults; margin of error +/-3.1%).
7According to an August 25, Mellman Group Poll, 55% of the country believes it’s time to change the course of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, compared to 39% who believe the Administration’s foreign policy is taking us on the right track. (Mellman Group Poll, August 25, 2006, cited on ThinkProgress, the Center for American Progress blog: “New Poll: Americans View Bolton As Symbol of Foreign Policy Failures” ).
8Polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, September 7, 2006 (Conducted 8/23-27/06; surveyed 1,000 likely voters; margin of error +/-3%). There were a handful of polls conducted in the spring of 2006 that disagree with these findings. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in April 2006, found Democrats one point ahead in polling asking who respondents trusted more in the campaign against terrorism. The poll of 1,229 adults, however, had a sampling bias towards those over 65. A Garin-Hart-Yang poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in April 2006 found that respondents, when asked who they would vote for if they were voting solely on national security, favored Democrats over Republicans by 41 to 39%. We find these numbers encouraging, and suggest here a strategy to capitalize on this growing voter sentiment. But to date, we have found more polling that points to voter disillusionment with Republicans than voter trust for Democrats on this issue, suggesting that a need to bolster our story line still exists.
9The September 7, 2006, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll for Democracy Corps found that Democrats poll 12 points better on foreign policy than they do on national security.
10Mellman Group poll, August 25, 2006.
11Loren Griffith, “What Went Wrong,” Truman National Security Project, May 2005, drawing on data collected from national polls conducted by more than 10 organizations, chiefly Gallup, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, NBC/Wall St. Journal, Harris Poll, and Fox News as well as data gathered from three proprietary databases: Gallup Brain, iPoll, and Roper Center.
12Kerry lost by less than 1% in both Iowa (10,000 votes) and New Mexico (6,000 votes), by 2% in Ohio (118,000 votes) and by only 20,000 votes in Arizona (less than 3%).
13For example, in an article in the American Prospect, “Put a Face on Your Fears,” the authors referred to Senator Max Baucus–who should be lauded as a success story of a Democrat winning in a culturally red state–as a “Democrat in Name Only.” Keith Ellison, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 5th district, recently argued, “Republican-lite has failed us as Democrats,” referring to retiring Democrat Representative Martin Sabo.
14Griffith, 2005.
15A January 31, 2006 Democracy Corps poll asked which party likely voters associate more with “security and keeping people safe.” Forty-eight percent said Republicans care “much more” or “somewhat more.” Only 31% said the same of Democrats.
16An unfortunate example of this is how Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, portrayed political strategists in its skit with Paul Hackett. In the skit, a passionate Hackett is drained of conviction by handlers, pollsters, and consultants who were portrayed as the mainstream Democratic Party. The skit’s widespread circulation on the internet and blogosphere suggest that it touched a nerve.
17Tony Blair, speech to the Labour Party National Conference, July 16, 2005.


Authoritarianism and the American Political Divide

By Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington
Authoritarianism is central both to understanding the nature of the contemporary political divide and why Republican issue appeals, which have been increasingly organized around authoritarian-inspired issues, have been so effective. A lately neglected concept in the social sciences that originally arose to explain the causes of mass attitudes in totalitarian societies after World War II, authoritarianism has gotten some attention in recent months, especially with John Dean’s bestselling new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. While Dean is concerned about the quarter of the public who are extreme authoritarians, the problem for Democrats is bigger. Republican efforts to raise people’s fears about terrorism, gay rights, and immigration make people who are not particularly authoritarian behave more like people who are. This is an important source of Republican electoral advantage. Authoritarianism embodies an entire world view that provides the connective tissue for a range of attitudes on issues that happen now to be at the center of the political fight.
Authoritarianism: A Primer
Authoritarianism has long been understood to encompass a set of personality traits strongly associated with aversion to difference and desire for conformity to prevailing social norms and proper authority. Though many scholars have linked authoritarianism to many attitudes and traits, a handful stand out: a general moral, political and social intolerance, an aversion to ambiguity and a related desire for clear and unambiguous authority.
The issues and policies that ought to engage authoritarianism are those that prompt thinking in terms of difference, like immigration and gay rights, and that engage authoritarians’ antipathy toward complexity and moral ambiguity — such as clear and simply stated solutions to vexing problems, like global terrorism. In more general terms, authoritarianism is a worldview, a set of connected beliefs animated by some fundamental, underlying value orientation that is, itself, connected to a visceral sense of right and wrong. When people say Republicans have better “moral values” than Democrats, they mean that Republicans reflect traditional, time-honored, simple, common-sense understandings of the world.
The original treatment of authoritarianism suggested it was a static personality type, but much recent work suggests that it waxes and wanes according to specific social contexts, especially levels of threat.1 When issues arrive on the agenda that engage authoritarianism, these issues will activate perceptions of threat and difference, making authoritarianism more central to shaping the terrain on which politics is contested even if, as has been true over the past decade, average levels of authoritarianism remain unchanged.
Importantly, issues likely to engage authoritarianism are among the most salient today. In 2004, gay marriage and the war on terror were particularly prominent. In 2005 and 2006, Republican elites served up constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and gay marriage, obstructed extension of the Voting Rights Act over multilingual ballots, pushed English as the nation’s official language, passed congressional resolutions resisting withdrawal from Iraq, and proposed a long security fence between the United States and Mexico in response to illegal immigration. All these issues tap, quite directly, fundamental concerns about the proper structure of the family and authority, the need to quell possible threats to social homogeneity, and the need to use whatever means necessary to protect a suddenly vulnerable-seeming nation. In short, all of these issues tap anxieties central to an authoritarian world view.
The study of authoritarianism received a boost when, in 1992, the National Election Study (NES) introduced its four item authoritarianism index. Specifically, it asked respondents to judge attractive attributes in children. Although at first blush the use of child-rearing values to measure authoritarianism may seem odd, child-rearing values reflect a fundamental understanding of how people view the world. Scholars have long argued for the political import of child-rearing preferences because bringing up children involves fundamental judgments about right and wrong.2
The NES begins its four-item battery with: “Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have.” The pairs of attributes are independence versus respect for elders, obedience versus self-reliance, curiosity versus good manners, and being considerate versus being well behaved. Authoritarian choices are scored as 5 points, while non-authoritarian choices are scored as 1 point. Responses that indicate both are scored as 3 points. The authoritarianism measure is the sum of the four response scores, rescaled so that the measure ranges between 0 and 1. Those who value “respect for elders”, “obedience”, “good manners”, and being “well behaved” score at the maximum of the scale. Those who value “independence”, “self-reliance”, “curiosity”, and “being considerate” score at the minimum
The Effect of Authoritarianism on Contemporary American Politics
With gay rights, terrorism, war, and immigration topping the issue agenda, our theory connecting authoritarianism to party choice suggests that a huge increase in its effect ought to have occurred. Since the NES has only asked these questions since 1992, our time horizon is necessarily constrained to elections between this year and 2004. This time horizon proves useful.
The 1992 presidential election was about, most centrally, the economy. Issues like health care were also important. Although gays in the military received some attention, its importance was secondary to pocketbook and economic policy issues. Importantly for our analysis, pocketbook concerns do not engage authoritarians.
Since 1992, “moral values” and, after 9/11, terrorism — a new 800-pound gorilla — have become much more important. Unlike pocketbook issues, these new fixtures polarize authoritarians and non-authoritarians. For example, issues involving gay rights — including gay marriage and gay adoption — represent a clear challenge to existing social norms, something those especially concerned about maintaining social cohesion and a traditional social order might find particularly distressing. Though concerns about gay rights and worries over terrorism might seem unrelated at first blush, what connects these issues is the clear way they divide authoritarians from non-authoritarians.
A simple illustration tells the story. Consider the difference in support for gay adoption in 2004 between those who score at the low end of the authoritarianism scale and those who score at the top (the same divisions are true on all the gay rights issues). For pure non-authoritarians, fully 87 percent support gay adoption. For pure authoritarians, only 27 percent do, a whopping 60-percentage-point difference. In fact, authoritarianism has a larger effect on support for gay rights issues than does either partisanship or ideology.
Terrorism provides another, and more obviously grave, threat to established American traditions and authority. Since it has the potential to cause chaos and uncertainty — conditions that are particularly troubling to those who desire order and predictability — it is an issue of great concern to authoritarians, who favor a muscular response, while non-authoritarians are more inclined to negotiation and multilateralism. When given the choice to either engage in diplomacy or fight in the face of a foreign challenge, we find that authoritarians favor fighting, whereas non-authoritarians favor diplomacy.
One implication of this discussion is particularly noteworthy. The same type of person who is attracted by the Republicans’ position on “moral values” is also attracted to their position on terrorism. Both positions place a premium on order, strength, established norms and suspicion — if not outright hostility — toward those who are different. When Republicans talk about one, they might as well be talking about both. Reference to the social agenda and security issues tap into the same worldview, which is embodied by authoritarianism. The same can be said for flag burning and illegal immigration — two issues that trigger authoritarians’ aversion to social dissensus and potential unruliness.
The result of this state of affairs is what we call a worldview evolution, in which non-blacks with an authoritarian worldview are gravitating to the Republican Party and people with a non-authoritarian worldview are gravitating to the Democratic Party. To demonstrate this, we predict Americans’ partisanship from a number of their characteristics, using a statistical technique called regression analysis.3 We include authoritarianism, spending preferences, and a range of social characteristics as explanatory variables. In 1992, authoritarianism barely had an effect on partisanship. Other things being equal, authoritarians tended to score about 7 percentage points toward the Republican end of the seven-point partisanship scale. By 2004, however, that 7 percentage point difference between authoritarians and non-authoritarians had ballooned to more than 20 percentage points. Other things being equal, being a pure authoritarian rather than a pure anti-authoritarian translated into a move toward the Republican end of the partisanship scale that was equivalent to 7 percent of the distance between being a strong Democrat and being a strong Republican. By 2004, however, that rightward shift of 7 percentage points had ballooned to more than 20 points.
Authoritarianism’s effect in 2004 was also strong relative to other variables. Its effect was substantially smaller than that of income in 1992. By 2004, its effect was twice that of income. In 1992, its effect was less than one-fifth as strong as the effect of government spending preferences. By 2004, the effects were much closer. It is not that the traditional left-right dimension in American politics is unimportant. What has changed is how relevant authoritarianism has become.
Who are the Authoritarians?
Contrary to the overall story of political change, racial minorities — the most resolute Democrats — are more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. Identity politics, however, trumps parental philosophy among members of these groups. Authoritarianism has no effect on their partisanship. Although the relationship of race to authoritarianism is not politically important, the relationship between religion and authoritarianism, not surprisingly, is. Authoritarians tend to be religious. This is particularly true among those who adopt a literal interpretation of the Bible, who appear to have received a double dose of authoritarianism at birth.
Besides adopting a literal interpretation of the Bible, nothing is more predictive of authoritarianism than education. This squares nicely with the parties’ recent changing fortunes. Republicans have made their biggest gains among whites who have less than a four-year college degree. Among whites, stark differences in authoritarianism exist between the college and non-college educated.
Threat and Authoritarianism: Why Republicans Can Hardly Lose
Historically, authoritarians have been the most alienated individuals in the electorate with participation rates lower than most. In 1992, for example, the average level of authoritarianism among those who reported not voting was about 0.7 (remember, all scores are mapped onto a 0 to 1 interval, with 1 being most authoritarian). Among Republican voters, the average was about 0.6. And among Perot and Clinton supporters, it was 0.5. This likely explains the nature of subsequent Republican mobilization strategies. When Karl Rove talked about mobilizing the four million evangelicals who didn’t vote in 2000, he likely had in mind authoritarians. By 2004, even as the average level of authoritarianism in the entire population decreased a bit, Bush voters still registered about 0.6 on the authoritarianism index while the average non-voter clocked in at 0.63. Democratic voters, on the other hand, had an average authoritarianism score of 0.45 in 2004. In other words, appeals to authoritarian issues are mobilizing non-voters into the Republican camp, making non-voters and Republican voters nearly indistinguishable in their authoritarianism. This formerly disaffected group has found a political home.
One might wonder why such appeals do not alienate non-authoritarians. Part of the reason is the role that threat plays in the effect of authoritarianism. Most scholarship suggests that authoritarianism is activated by threat, which is true. But the time-honored understanding, which is based on lab experiments, suggests that threat only affects authoritarians, and this is wrong.
Figure 1 illustrates the effect of authoritarianism on support for gay adoption in 2004 at various levels of perceived threat. Any number of other political preferences work in basically the same fashion. Threat is measured using a question that asks whether “The newer lifestyles are contributing to the breakdown of our society.” The measure ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating strong agreement and 5 indicating strong disagreement. We find that, when even non-authoritarians perceive substantial threat from gays and lesbians they behave like authoritarians. Specifically, when people perceive maximum threat from gays and lesbians (Threat = 1), then the predicted probability of supporting gay adoption is low (less than 25%) and constant across different levels of authoritarianism. At moderate levels of perceived threat (Threat = .5), those who score low on the authoritarianism scale might approve of gay adoption (predicted probability greater than 0.5), but those who are more authoritarian do not. When threat is eliminated entirely (Threat = 0), then those who score from the middle to the bottom on the authoritarianism scale support gay adoption. Lowering levels of perceived threat increases support for progressive goals, which in turn ought to affect Democratic fortunes.
In short, this figure is meant to illustrate the broader point that Republicans always benefit from increasing public fears, whether about gays, terrorism, illegal immigration, or anything that activates authoritarianism. It makes people who only have a little authoritarianism share the preferences of those who have a lot. The political implications of this fact for Republican fortunes are clear.
What is To Be Done?
Republicans have done a masterful job of cultivating cultural anxiety and resentment since the debacle of 1992 by making visceral appeals to people’s most basic fears and concerns. While they have, at times, tried to appeal to a broader middle as well (Bush attempted this in 2000), most often they have been determined to excite their base.
Duke’s legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski likes to tell his players that people remember 30% of what they hear, 50% of what they see and 100% of what they feel. Since Coach K stumped for Liddy Dole during her 2002 bid for the Senate in North Carolina, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be available for Democratic strategy sessions anytime soon. But, his insight is one that needs to be heeded. America has, at best, an ambivalent relationship to intellectually or rationally-based appeals. Its politics are going to be fought on an emotion-laden playing field and this is evermore true in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world characterized by evermore rapid social change. Our analysis suggests that the Democratic Party’s tendency to worry about tweaking its issue positions is misplaced. Instead, Democrats need to respond to the emotion-laden appeals of the Republican Party. And, to repeat, at the heart of that set of appeals is authoritarianism.
Knowing what we do about authoritarianism, we suggest several ideas. Perceived threat is what makes those who score in the middle of the authoritarianism distribution act like authoritarians. Democrats benefit if they can make people feel less fear. Without holding the presidency, this will be hard to accomplish. But, candidates like Jim Webb might be able to argue credibly that the nation can only achieve its potential if its citizens stop living in fear.
If it is hard to decrease levels of perceived threat, then the Democrats have to become a credible alternative in responding to threat. During the height of the Cold War, authoritarianism was often not politically decisive for Republicans because both parties needed to confront the Soviet Union. This started to change during the Reagan presidency and accelerated after the end of the Cold War. National security and terrorism appeals work because the public does not believe Democrats will keep us as safe as Republicans will. One solution might be to argue that Republican efforts in Iraq have made us less safe. In addition, it is noteworthy that the administration recently gave up the hunt for Bin Laden. Finally, Republicans don’t spend money on homeland security in the places that are most threatened. In short, Democrats might argue that Republicans aren’t doing the things that would truly keep us safe. And, in fact, some Democratic candidates have begun to go on the offensive on national security matters. Our analysis specifies whose voting loyalties might be at stake in successfully doing so.
As far as moral issues are concerned, it is important to make the Republicans’ implicit appeals to authoritarian concerns about difference into explicit appeals. In her book about the 1988 presidential campaign, The Race Card, Tali Mendelberg showed that implicit racial appeals like the Willie Horton advertisement were effective. Had Republicans made explicit appeals to racial prejudice, however, they would have failed, because we live in an era where a norm of racial equality prevails and very few people want to see themselves as racists. In fact, once Jesse Jackson made the Republicans’ implicit appeals to racial resentment explicit, Mendelberg argued, the tide of the election began to turn, though by then it was too late.
We argue that a similar strategy is worthy of consideration here. We live in an era where, generally speaking, norms of tolerance and opposition to bigotry prevail. Evidence for this norm has been clear in President Bush’s speeches. After 9/11, for instance, tolerance of religious differences featured prominently in his rhetoric. On a more subtle note, a favored Bush phrase over the past two years, in chiding liberals on standards and educational reform, has been “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s understood that tolerance is good, as a rule, and bigotry is bad.
Republicans have avoided being tagged with these negative labels because Democrats haven’t called them on it in any global way. When Republicans raise the issue of gay marriage, they raise it as a matter of defending the family and the social order. Perhaps Democrats could get traction by arguing that such appeals, at bottom, are rooted in bigotry and social divisiveness. The goal here would not be to paint with the brush of bigotry and intolerance every voter who opposes gay marriage. Rather, it would challenge as bigots those individuals who repeatedly make an issue of it. If Rick Santorum can call gay relationships the effective equivalent of bigamy and bestiality, then why not argue that Santorum’s real quarry isn’t defending marriage, but instead, fomenting hatred and intolerance more generally. Making explicit what has been allowed to remain implicit in the intolerance, fear and deep-seated pessimism under-girding the authoritarian worldview might change the terms of debate, forcing Republicans to either defend their positions on these issues in more explicit terms — “we do fear difference, and won’t stand for it” — or backing off.
Most Americans, we believe, may be ambivalent about some of the individual issues in question here — whether illegal immigration or gay marriage. The point is not to vilify them. Instead, it’s to call the Republican Party on its increasing and strategically-motivated single-minded appeals to the worst in our natures.

Jonathan Weiler is Director of undergraduate studies and a faculty member in the Curriculum in International Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. His book, Human Rights in Russia: A Darker Side of Reform, was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2004. He is a regular contributor to the Gadflyer political blog.
Marc Hetherington is associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is the author of Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. In 2004 he received the Emerging Scholar Award from the Elections, Voting Behavior and Public Opinion section of the American Political Science Association.

1Feldman, Stanley and Karen Stenner. 1997. “Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism,” Political Psychology 18 (4): 741-770. Stenner, Karen. 2005. The Authoritarian Dynamic. Cambridge Press.
2George Lakoff, Moral Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1996); J. G. Martin, The Tolerant Personality (Detroit, 1964).
3Regression is a method that allows us to estimate the effect of a set of explanatory variables on a dependent variable while holding all other potential causes constant. This is a powerful tool, especially when our explanations for various phenomena are related. For example, we know that both party identification and ideology predict how people feel about George W. Bush. Regression can tell us the effect of each, independent of the other.


Letters Never Sent

By Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler
Replying to this round of posts, we are reminded of Harry Truman’s line: “The best letters I ever wrote were the ones I never sent.”
Allow us to start with a clarification to our first round response – we did not reply to Ruy because his comments came in too late.
We found many of the points made by the respondents to be thoughtful and instructive. We found a lot to draw upon from both Winship and Whitehead; they agreed with some of our arguments while strongly disagreeing with others. More importantly, for our purposes, they each gave us some new tangents to explore. Whitehead, for example, pointed out some interesting economic numbers about single, prime-age adults that we will look into as we continue our work.
In all, we found much to agree with in the posts.
Despite our differences with our critics, we remain, well, optimistic — about the internal debate within the Party as well as the long-term prospects for the American middle class and the Democratic Party.
KSK


I Guess Walking and Chewing Is Just Too Hard

By Ruy Teixeira
I can’t say I consider the Kim, Solomon and Kessler (KSK) reply to be very responsive to the various criticisms that have been made of their argument. Indeed, KSK’s response to being taken to task for being one-sided and caricaturing their opponents is to offer more of the same. I note the somewhat exasperated tones of the titles of Bill Galston’s (“A Focus on Insecurity Is Not a Catalogue of Woes“) and Jacob Hacker’s (“Focusing on Security Need Not Be Pessimistic“) Round 2 comments. I share their exasperation. Evidently, the challenge to walk down the street and chew gum at the same time has proved too daunting for KSK.
Let me illustrate my pessimistic (that word again!) assessment of KSK’s reply by considering how their reply matches up with points I made in my Round 1 critique.

  1. I argued that some of their statistics obscure more than they clarify about who is in the middle class and the nature of their economic experience.
    KSK here are content to reiterate the data from their initial piece, along with a few additional factoids in the same vein. But they do not really answer the point I raised: if exhibit “A” on the Democrats’ middle class problem is their terrible performance among white middle class voters–which they appear to define as having between $30,000 and $75,000 in household income–doesn’t their focus on married, prime-age households comport poorly with their own definition of the problem? This is both because the majority of white voters within the $30,000-$75,000 range are either not married or not prime-age or both and because, given that the median income of married, prime-age households is $70,000 (presumably higher among whites), around half of white married, prime-age voters are probably above the $75,000 cutoff.
    Starting from these observations, let’s break this down a little further.
    A. One implication is that KSK appear to want to push up the income cutoff above $75,000 to include more of these married, prime-age households. Fine. But let’s keep in mind that only one-third of white voters have incomes above $75,000 (data here and below from the 2004 NEP exit poll).
    B. Let’s say we do include those white voters with $75,000-$100,000 within the white middle class. Given what KSK say has been the Democrats’ gloomy, security-obsessed, turn-off-those-doing-relatively-well e conomic message, you would think the Democrats would do much worse among this segment of the white middle class than among the poorer segments of this group. Not really. Kerry lost whites between $75,000 and $100,000 by 59-40. But he lost whites between $30,000 and $50,000 by a very similar 58-41.
    C. KSK are at pains to focus our attention away from the $44,000 overall median income figure onto higher figures for various subgroups. But there are some very important subgroups for whom this is a reasonable approximation. For example, 53 percent of white non-college-educated voters have household incomes under $50,000, from which I infer that the median income of this group is somewhere close to…..$44,000. (Of course, KSK would point out that this group contains many people who are not married and/or not prime-age. True–but, by definition, they all vote!)
    This is important because Democrats have been doing particularly badly among white non-college educated voters with some purchase on the middle class-voters who live modestly and whose skill set might reasonably make them feel a bit insecure in today’s economic environment. For example, among whites between $30,000 and $50,000, Democrats lost the non-college educated by a whopping 62-38, while splitting the college-educated evenly.
    D. KSK can reasonably claim that $44,000 is not a good figure to use when thinking about some parts of a broadly-defined middle class. I would never argue otherwise. But it is less reasonable to conclude that, because some white middle-class voters live in households that pull down, say, $70,000 a year, they are the “real” white middle class. Nor is it reasonable to claim that these voters, by dint of their income level, are not particularly affected by problems-dare I say insecurity?– around health care, retirement, education and childcare expenses, work-family stress, income instability and generally keeping their middle-class lifestyle afloat in choppy economic seas. A household income of $70,000 does not strike me as a sufficient economic cushion to ward off all these worries, especially when you’re attempting to raise a family with all the attendant expenses.
    In light of these data, the sensible thing is to view the middle class, including the white middle class, as quite diverse. Some are married. Some are not. Some are prime-age. Some are not. Some make $40,000 a year. Some make considerably more. The Democrats are doing poorly among white middle-class voters both at lower levels, where economic vulnerability is most obvious, and at higher levels. This is a big problem, whose dimensions are not well-defined by dwelling on the fact that married, prime-age households have a median income of $70,000.

  2. I argued that they incorrectly represent the economic views of the middle class by focusing only on their sense of personal optimism.
    I do not believe KSK attempted to refute this point, so my characterization of middle class economic views stands as initially made:

    Americans, including white middle class Americans, are optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. That is, they are optimistic about their personal economic situation and believe they will be able to get ahead, even as they pessimistically recognize that the workings of today’s economy make their struggle, and that of people like them, much more difficult than it should be.

  3. I argued that they incorrectly counterpose the concepts of security and opportunity and in doing so come up with an economic message that won’t make a great deal of sense to the middle class.
    KSK did not do a satisfactory job of replying to this point, as Galston and Hacker forcefully argued. And, as both Galston and Hacker noted, the close connection between some measure of economic security and taking advantage of economic opportunity continues to elude them or, at any rate, not to interest them much. I’d say “providing security to expand opportunity”, to use the capsule characterization offered by Hacker and myself, stands as a superior alternative to KSK’s one-sided approach.

  4. I argued that the policies they propose seem poorly suited to the actual economic situation and the actual economic views of the middle class.
    On this point, KSK punted but assured us that Third Way is hard at work on a set of policies that really are appropriate to the situation of the middle class. Good. There is room for plenty of toilers in that particular vineyard. But I worry that their one-sided conception of the middle class’s economic situation and the appropriate approach to reaching middle-class voters will lead them toward, not away from, the grab-bag of tax breaks offered in their initial contribution to this discussion. We shall see.

Let me close by saying that, if I have seemed a bit hard on KSK, it is because I agree so strongly that opportunity is a central part of the Democrats’ message. Put bluntly, people want to get ahead. But the one-sided argument KSK present runs the risk of making it harder, not easier, to incorporate opportunity and optimism into the Democrats’ message by making the whole idea sound kind of goofy. Goofy because, as they articulate the idea, it so clearly departs from many aspects of the middle class’s current economic situation and views. Goofy because they are proffering their only-opportunity-and-optimism-please approach in a context where Democrats are the out party trying to oust the incumbents in a time of considerable economic discontent. Goofy because, as John Halpin points out, the Democrat in the recent past who most successfully reached the middle class with an economic message–Bill Clinton–wasn’t afraid to talk about the economic insecurity and problems of the middle class, even as he put forward an optimistic vision of how these problems could be addressed and middle-class opportunity enhanced.
Now there was someone who could definitely walk down the street and chew gum at the same time! I suggest we emulate him.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. He is the author of five books – including The Emerging Democratic Majority (with John Judis) – and over 100 articles – including the recent series, “The Politics of Definition”, with John Halpin.


Real Optimism

By Elizabeth Warren
“It’s the economy, stupid.” Where do the famous words that propelled Bill Clinton into the White House fit in the optimism-pessimism paradigm that Kim, Solomon, and Kessler assert defines the politics of winning? Nowhere, and that’s what’s wrong with their paradigm.
Bill Clinton ran for office on a clear statement that he got it. I agree with Jacob Hacker (once again) that Clinton understood what was wrong in America, and he thought we could do better. If that were KSK’s message, then I’d be singing doo-wop backup in the chorus.
There is optimism born of realism–the “here’s the problem, and here’s how we can beat it” attitude, conveyed in the messages of “here’s what we need to unleash the potential of our young people” and “here’s how we can secure the safety of our neighborhoods.” It is the optimism that knows things are wrong and but believes that things can get better.
But something called optimism that is nothing more than trying to put a happy face on the struggles facing middle-class families in America is not optimism. Quoting average statistics of wealth that are inflated by the extraordinary gains made by those at the top is a manipulative ploy. Talking about the rise in family income without talking about the fact that the entire increase came from putting a second earner into the marketplace and that a median-earning one-earner family in America is hanging on by its fingernails to the bottom rung of the middle class is an insult. Politicians who try these sorts of good-news number scams should be called on it.
So what is the reality? Each year since Bush has occupied the White House, more people have filed for bankruptcy than have graduated from college.1 Why? Just three reasons–job losses, medical problems, and family breakups–explain 90% of those bankruptcies. Americans across the spectrum are drowning in debt, with the median family now owing a record 108% of its annual income.2 Try telling those hard-working, middle-class families that Americans are richer than ever.
I think of the people behind the data–the families fielding debt collection calls, the half of Americans who wake up at night worrying about paying their bills,3 the third of Americans who owe money they cannot pay to a doctor or hospital.4 I think about the 46.6 million Americans with no health insurance (a new record!),5 and the 21 million households that couldn’t afford to make more than a minimum monthly payment on their credit card bill.6 I think of one in four military families who are trying to serve their countries while they are tangled up in financial scams and payday loans that are running an average of 400% interest.7 I think about the 20-30% of college grads who will graduate with so much debt that experts predict their debt loads will be “very difficult to manage,”8 and the almost 20 percent of low-income high school graduates with very high math test scores for whom money is a barrier that keeps them from going on to college.9
I think we can do better. And I think that’s a message of real optimism.

A native Oklahoman, Warren graduated from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School. She is now the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches contract law, bankruptcy and commercial law. Her latest book, All Your Worth, is for people who worry about money. She posts on TPM Cafe.

1Administrative Office of the United States Courts; U.S. Census Bureau. Data calculations in Warren and Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap, Chapter 1.
2Center for American Progress, Drowning in Debt (analysis of 2004 Survey of Consumer Finance data)
3AP/Neilsen poll of 1,000 Americans December 2004, reported in “Poll: Half of Americans Worry About Debts” (December 20, 2004). The medical effects of these worries are discussed in Jean Lawrence, “Debt Can be Bad for Your Health,” WebMD (January 3, 2005); Center for American Progress/Center for Responsible Lending, “Frequency Questionnaire,” April 13-20, 2006 (33% of respondents “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being the victim of a terrorist attack, 48% “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about “not having enough money to pay all your bills”).
4Sarah Collins, Michelle Doty, Karen Davis, Cathy Schoen, Alyssa Holmgren, and Alice Ho, The Affordability Crisis in U.S. Health Care: Findings from the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey xii (March 2004) (reporting 32% of Americans aged 18-64 with incomes above $35,000 have outstanding medical bills they cannot pay, have been contacted by collection agents on behalf of health care providers, have medical debt being paid off over time or have other signs of distress in paying medical bills).
5Rick Lyman, Census Reports Slight Increase In ’05 Incomes, New York Times, August 30, 2006.
6Cambridge Consumer Credit Index, March 7, 2005 (45% of those with credit balances were making minimum payment or no payment because they couldn’t afford more); 2004 Survey of Consumer Finance, A-30 2006 (46.2% of all household carry an unpaid credit card balance).
7Summary data at Center for Responsible Lending.
8Sandy Baum and Marie O’Malley, College on Credit, Nellie Mae, 2003.
9David Ellwood and Thomas Kane, “Who is Getting a College Education? Family Background and the Growing Gaps in Enrollment,” in S. Danziger and J. Waldfogel, eds. Securing the Future. New York: Russell Sage (2000). See also Sandy Baum and Kathleen Payea, Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, 2004. The College Board, 2004.


Poles Apart?

By Ralph Whitehead, Jr.
[CORRECTION: Stephen Rose has found an important error in my originalpost. In the following passage, the assertion in the second sentence is wrong: “Granted, $44K is not the midpoint in the income distribution for prime age households. But it isn’t too far below the midpoint of the earnings distribution for prime-age white households of a particular type: those with at least two adults, neither of whom holds a four-year college degree.” The assertion holds for ALL prime-age households in this universe, but does NOT hold for white households only. Using Steve’s methodology and age range for prime-age adults, the median earnings figure for the white households only is roughly $55,000 and the median income figure for them is $61,500. The median income figure is very close to Third Way’s median income figure for prime-age households of all races and is significantly higher than $44,000. This error obviously weakens my case for the validity of the $44K figure. The post has been edited in order to omit the passage that was affected by the error.] The topic of this roundtable is well-chosen. As all of the contributors to it have agreed, the economic posture of our party is crucial, but is now at odds with both economic reality and electoral necessity. The topic is also well-timed. If November goes well, the party can begin to shift onto offense. Then, the good news might be that our economic message will be heard. But the bad news might be that it won’t be much worth hearing.
In the borderless universe of cyberspace, this debate has spread across several websites, and the roundtable is now part of a broader discussion. So this post touches on posts elsewhere, as well as the posts so far on TDS.
Third Way’s position, as it now stands, is roughly this:
Within the party, there is an incumbent definition of the middle class: households whose incomes are close to the median for all of the country’s roughly 115 million households, $44,000. But this definition should be challenged. It underestimates the affluence of the middle class. It makes its economic circumstances seem gloomier than they are. It prompts the party to hold a view of the economic standing and outlook of the middle class that is more pessimistic than the reality. The party’s expressions of this view cause the members of the middle class to wonder what economic planet the party is living on. To solve the problem, the party should adopt a different definition of the middle class, and thus a different conception of it. Using this conception, the party will offer apter descriptions of the economic life of the middle class and apter prescriptions for improving it.
FtdsLet me begin with a note on nomenclature: “Middle class” is a charged term. The country has long viewed itself as a middle-class nation, and this implies that “middle class” is synonymous with “The majority” or “The mainstream.” So a party that is out of touch with the middle class must be out of touch with the majority. In a two-party system, this is a bad place for a party to be. Because of what “middle class” implies, and because there are divergent definitions of the term (some of them have appeared in this debate)–a country that can’t agree on a definition of “class” can’t agree on a definition of “middle class”–I’ll try to use “middle class” sparingly, in favor of blandly clinical terms that are low on connotation.
To add a little perspective to this discussion, it is useful to recognize one of the effects of economic polarization. Here, I refer not to the division between the top one percent and the other 99–a division highlighted by Paul Krugman, and with good reason–but to the divisions that now exist within the 99 percent. As Democrats, we worry about this polarization, study it, talk about it, try to make sure it gets the media attention that we think it deserves, and search for ways to lessen it. Nevertheless, we don’t always get a chance to pause and note that economic polarization has been occurring for many decades now, and has advanced to a point where the distribution is now pretty divergent. It isn’t our father’s economic ladder–wide and short, hammered into shape by The Great Compression. This has consequences for our efforts to discern the shape of the playing field. For example:
To make its case for the affluence of prime-age households, Third Way mentions a particular type of household, the household with two earners, and notes its current median income of nearly $80,000. Even after we apply Professor Hacker’s point (over 10 years, $80K will average $74K) and Professor Warren’s (on the balance sheet of a two-adult household, a topline of $74K doesn’t necessarily lead to a strong bottom line), Third Way’s two-earner households are still flusher than the prime-age households whose incomes are closer to $44,000. To put it a little differently: If you have to be on an economic rollercoaster, it’s better to take its periodic plunges from a height of $74K than $44K. Thus, what we might have here–and this suggestion is made less implicitly in Stephen Rose’s post over at The American Prospect–are voters who seem to be holding a relatively good economic hand, and don’t necessarily think it has been dealt to them by the Democratic Party.
In my view, this suggestion should be viewed as a hypothesis, not an assertion, and subjected to empirical inquiry and possibly trial-and-error, not to reflexive scorn. But, even as this particular set of households is put beneath the microscope, there are a couple of other things to bear in mind at the same time:

  1. Let’s define a two-earner household as one with two adults who both work full-time and year-round, and then briefly note a bit of its history. In 1960, at roughly the midpoint of the era of the Social Contract, TV wives like June Cleaver and Wilma Flintstone weren’t doing paid work on a full-time/full-year basis, and neither were their real-life analogues. The share of prime age households who fit our definition then was just nine percent.1
    Since then, of course, the percentage of partnered women who do paid work full-time and full-year has grown. So the two-earner household makes up a larger share of prime-age households today. But this doesn’t mean that it makes up a majority of them. Its share is roughly 30 percent. This is not a majority of prime-age households, nor does it contain a majority of the prime-age adults.

  2. During those years, as it happens, another type of household has also increased its share to 30 percent. It is a household of a different kind: It has no more than one adult earner for the simple reason that it has no more than one adult. In 1960, it was 14 percent of prime-age households.

Its share of the prime-age electorate, of course, is smaller than 30 percent, just as the two-earner share is larger than 30 percent. Still, it forms the prime-age segment of the men and women who make up what has been called Unmarried America. The adults in these households are an important–and also a growing–constituency for the Democratic Party. Their median income: roughly $30K.
Thus, a 60-percent majority of prime-age households now consists of two very different household types. The income gap between them is nearly $50,000. It’s a big and economically diverse country.
Consequently, for those who will shape the economic posture of the party, the task is not only to deal with economic polarization. It is also to deal with it in light of the distribution that is marked by this polarization. This is a hard thing to do. Recognizing the nature and degree of the difficulty is one step toward making it possible for the party to do it.
Finally, on optimism and pessimism: As Third Way says, we don’t want to be seen as the party of economic gloom and doom. Also, if we want to avoid this, we have to consider the relationship between how we describe the economy and how the electorate experiences it. (Here, Teixeira’s post offers evidence and advice.) But another relationship matters, too: the relationship between diagnosis and prescription. This is because the goal shouldn’t be to express economic optimism. If it were, George W. Bush would be our model, and Herbert Hoover our ideal. The goal should be to instill optimism. Thus, I would echo the spirit of John Halpin’s post: In describing the economic experience of a particular region or particular group, and if the evidence warrants, we should feel free to diagnose like lions. This by itself won’t brand us as Doctor Gloom-and-Doom. What will do it, however, is if we diagnose like lions, but only as a prelude to prescribing like mere lambs. The worse conditions are, and the franker we are in describing them, the more pressure we put on our policy designers to come up with high-protein solutions and on our leaders to build support for them.

Ralph Whitehead, Jr., a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, is completing a book on the new distribution of earnings, how it hurts the Democrats, and how they can offset the damage.

1The data on non-college two-adult households, two-earner households, and one-adult households are for a definition of prime-age households that is slightly broader than the one used by Third Way: households whose heads are ages 25 through 62. All income and household composition data cited are from the March 2005 Current Population Survey.


The Clinton ’92 Approach: Tap Economic Anxiety and Instill Hope

By John Halpin
Quantitative data and historical evidence suggest that talking up the economy and seeking to downplay “security” policies to focus on ownership and opportunity issues alone is not a wise approach for Democrats to pursue. It has not worked for Republicans over the past few years and was not the successful model utilized by President Clinton in his 1992 victory. Voters across the income spectrum expect attention to both economic security and opportunity, particularly as the decades-old social contract between individuals, business and government continues to fall apart, leaving more middle-class voters out on their own.
According to Democracy Corps’ time series data, from March 2001 to the November 2002 midterm elections, the Republican Party held anywhere from a 1- to 9-point advantage over the Democrats on the economy. From the beginning of 2003 to the present, the GOP has steadily lost support on economic issues and now suffers a 14-point deficit on the economy–a net swing of 23-points since the GOP golden years in mid-2002. More importantly, Democrats currently hold a 23-point advantage on the economy among those with $50,000-$75,000 in total family income–a range encompassing Third Way’s conception of the typical middle class family.
What happened during this time period?
President Bush (like his father before him) and his GOP allies in Congress relentlessly talked up the economy for three years running. They passed numerous tax cuts, some of which arguably helped the shareholding voters at the upper end of the middle-class income range. They attacked the building blocks of the Democratic economic security agenda as wasteful and archaic and proposed to replace it with an “ownership society” built on education, tax cuts, private accounts and greater individual responsibility. All of this to no avail. Their economic numbers tanked and Republicans resorted to running on fear about national security.
Democrats, in contrast, acknowledged the economic truth facing the middle class over this same period and challenged Bush on his economic interpretation, his tax cuts, and his attempts to privatize key social programs. The party’s numbers rose considerably on multiple fronts, from the economy and taxes to health care and Social Security. There is scant survey evidence to suggest that the Democrats should suddenly reverse course, talk up the economy and embrace economic optimism as the best path forward.
On the historical front, the Third Way authors continually cite President Clinton as evidence for their thesis of optimism and opportunity. But as Jacob points out, Clinton got elected in 1992 by telling people the truth about the economy and “putting people first.” The 1992 campaign was won on a message of change and the issues of the economy and health care–obviously not about opportunity or middle-class optimism alone.
President Clinton in his recent autobiography described the enthusiasm for his campaign in 1992 as follows:

It represented both the common touch and forward progress. In 1992, Americans were worried but still hopeful. We spoke to their fears and validated their enduring optimism. Al and I developed a good routine. At each stop, he would list all of America’s problems and say, ‘Everything that should be down is up, and everything that should be up is down.’ Then he would introduce me and I’d tell people what we intended to do to fix it.

Worries and fears combined with optimism and hope; not one set of ideas over the other.
Clinton successfully united lower-and middle-income voters with a message that wisely recognized that economic truth can be a powerful form of identification with voters. Optimism and prescriptions for the future then helped to seal the deal for his election, but they did not replace Clinton’s emotional connection with people’s economic anxieties.
In his acceptance speech after winning the ’92 contest, Clinton stated, “This victory was more than a victory of party; it was a victory for those who work hard and play by the rules, a victory for people who felt left out and left behind and want to do better.” When the Democrats are out of power at multiple levels, why would the party want to avoid those who feel “left out and left behind” to focus solely on those seeking to do better?
Successful Democratic politics in the future will require a new version of both Al Gore’s truth-telling routine and Clinton’s optimism if the party is to address genuine concerns among middle-class voters about the fraying social contract in America.


A Focus on Insecurity Is Not A Catalogue of Woes

By William A. Galston
For the most part, the authors’ response on the question of insecurity amounts to a series of non sequiturs. It is easy to agree that “a catalogue of woes is not a path forward.” But who ever said it was? Naming a problem is the first step toward solving it. Those of us who argue that we must take economic insecurity more seriously than we did in the 1990s are hard at work crafting can-do responses. For example, collapse of defined-benefit pensions need not mean the end of pension security. Instead, we need a 21st century model that reallocates responsibilities among individuals, government, and the private sector.
Nor is a focus on insecurity an “inherently pessimistic” exercise, any more than a focus on inadequate or unequal opportunity would be. Pessimism is related, not to specific problems, but to an attitude about their solutions–namely, that there are none. But those of us who focus on insecurity do so in a spirit of optimism. There is a way forward; it’s up to us to find it and rally others to it.
The authors suggest that there is a contradiction between the quest for security and the acceptance of risk. This disregards the well-established fact that at least up to a certain point, increased security facilitates risk-taking. I will be more willing to start a new profession, and perhaps fail, if I don’t think I may jeopardize my family’s health insurance in the process.
The authors invoke FDR as an exemplar of optimism and hope, as indeed he was. But much of the New Deal was designed to address the extraordinary insecurity that economic collapse had produced. Is it really necessary to list all the programs–many of which exist today–that fall under this rubric? It is unfair to write this off as the “comforting bosom of the state.” Worse than unfair; it is implicitly to accept the conservative critique of the New Deal and everything that followed from it. I suspect that voters who still fear the “road to serfdom” will be Republicans all their lives (unless, perhaps, they start paying attention to what their party is doing in their name).
The authors conclude by invoking President Clinton, for whom I was proud to work. But that begs the question I raised: Are the problems, the solutions, and the public’s sentiments in 2006 the same as they were in 1992? It’s intellectually and politically easier to respond in the affirmative. That doesn’t mean it’s the right answer.