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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Karl Rove’s Strategy for Attacking Obama — How Democrats Can Respond

[Editor’s Note: this is the second item in a two-part series on Democratic communications strategy by James Vega. It was originally published on August 8, 2008]
Print Version
With the recent appointment of Steven Schmidt and several other staffers to the highest levels of the McCain campaign, the political protégés of Karl Rove have now taken almost complete control. As a result Rove’s basic political strategy has been elevated to the core approach of the campaign.
At its heart, Karl Rove’s approach for the last 20 years has been an essentially class-based attack on Democrats – one that portrays them as representing an out-of-touch, educated elite who have little in common with average Americans. In this strategy, individual Democrats are not simply wrong about specific issues; their errors all arise from deep, pathological defects in their basic values and character.
This general strategy can be traced back to the campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and 1972. But one of Rove’s distinct additions was to recognize that attacks on a candidates’ character must be psychologically plausible – they must be fine-tuned to exploit weaknesses the opposing candidate actually appears to reflect in his behavior.
In this regard, Rove has always had an exceptionally sinister aptitude (one that is reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s perverse but penetrating form of psychological insight) for being able to recognize subtle human weaknesses and frailties. For example, although Al Gore and John Kerry were both products of relatively advantaged, prep school environments and were clearly not working class “ordinary guys”, they were nonetheless quite distinct. On the one hand Gore was vulnerable to being portrayed as somewhat pompous, self-important and egotistic. Kerry, in contrast, invited the caricature of being a long-winded, detached, emotionally remote New England Yankee. The overall class-based frame worked for both men, but the political hit-man’s art lay in recognizing and exploiting the subtle variations between them.
Obama presents an even more complex challenge. Although meditative, professorial, articulate and elegant, he nonetheless does not fit the image of a typical left-wing college professor (or, for that matter, of a Black militant, a well-to-do New York limousine liberal or corrupt Chicago pol).
The solution the Rove team developed, only days after taking control of the McCain campaign, was to portray Obama as a resident of the rarified world of the “Hollywood movie star liberals” – a pampered universe of exclusive health and exercise clubs, expensive hotel suites and fancy bottled water. The implication was that, like other Hollywood stars, Obama must be “self-infatuated and effete” or “vain and out of touch” or “effete, elite and equivocal” – in short, a weak and vain man without real character; a male fashion model living a movie stars’ life and not the real life of ordinary Americans.

How to Attack John McCain–What Would Rove Do?

[Editor’s note: This is the first item of a two-part series on Democratic communications strategy by James Vega. It was originally published on August 6, 2008]
Print Version
As the McCain campaign has rolled out its new, “Karl Rove style” personal attack on Barack Obama, Democrats have begun to feel a very familiar sense of frustration.
On the one hand, for many Democrats the “high road” taken by the Barack Obama campaign in replying to the attacks until several days ago did not seem adequately aggressive. At the same time, the DNC and other third party Democratic attacks on McCain’s close financial ties to oil companies and other lobbyists and his subservience to the policies of the Bush administration seem somehow to be glancing blows that do less damage to his personal image than do his attacks on Obama.
There is a reason for this. One fundamental element of the Karl Rove approach is to focus the most visceral and aggressive attacks on the opposing candidate’s character and personality rather than his policies. The recent Democratic attacks on McCain criticize, sometimes very bitterly, his positions and actions, but the Republican attacks on Obama are directly aimed at impugning his character.
In the past, Democrats often felt that focusing one’s attacks on an opposing candidates’ character was inappropriate – that politics should be about issues and policies, not personalities. But repeated muggings by the Rove Republicans have made many, if not most, Democrats now quite willing to respond to personal attacks in whatever way seems required.
The more difficult problem is that McCain is not, at first glance, an easy target for attacks on his character. His youthful military experience as a pilot and POW and his well-cultivated media reputation as an occasional “maverick” in the 80’s and 90’s present no obvious vulnerabilities. Current characterizations of him as old, ill-tempered, easily flustered and prone to blundering, while certainly true, are also essentially trivial. Comparing McCain to “The Simpsons’” Mr. Burns or to a clichéd grouchy grandpa simply has no meaningful political effect.
But, in fact, McCain is actually profoundly vulnerable to a powerful, aggressive and damaging attack on his character. McCain’s actions in recent weeks have provided compelling evidence for three genuinely disturbing propositions about his character, core values and integrity.

1. That John McCain has become desperate to win this election and is willing to sacrifice his deepest principles and his personal honor in order to do it
2. That the John McCain we see today is only a pale, diminished shadow of the man he once was in his early years.
3. That John McCain is allowing men he once despised and held in complete contempt to manipulate him and tell him what to do – to literally put words in his mouth and tell him what to say.

At first glance these statements are so strong that they sound almost defamatory. But each is supported by McCain’s recent actions (as described below) and they fit together into a single coherent narrative of ambition overcoming integrity and moral character.
Here is how this narrative can be presented in the format of a typical 45-60 second TV spot

Obama and Iraq: A General Election Strategy

Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to publish this Strategy Memo by Bruce W. Jentleson, Professor of Public Policy Studies and Political Science at Duke University. Dr. Jentleson is probably best known as the author of American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century. This item was originally published on July 3, 2008. Here’s a Print Version of the piece.
His opposition to the Iraq war helped Barack Obama win the Democratic presidential nomination. Will it help him win the presidency?
It could and should, but isn’t necessarily helping him yet. Polls show Americans very strongly opposed to the Iraq war but not sure whether the anti-war Obama or pro-war John McCain will handle the issue better going forward. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer even issued a “bring it on” dare to “make the election about Iraq.”
Why this seeming paradox? And how can Obama translate opposition to the Iraq war to support for him?
Iraq needs to be addressed as a three-dimensional issue: (1) the war itself and the need to shift emphasis from what Obama is against to what he is for, and not just the calendar for getting out but the alternative strategy for doing so; (2) Iraq as a measure of Obama’s overall foreign policy capability, particularly passing the commander-in-chief test without getting trapped into the “I’ll bomb, too” Democratic wannabe role; and (3) Iraq as a temperature-taker as to whether this is another anti-military Democrat or someone who genuinely respects the institution, its people and its culture.
Initial General Election Poll Data
Four main points should be made about Iraq and public opinion:
First, Iraq remains a crucial issue. The economy is now issue #1, with 33% saying in the June ABC-Washington Post poll that it would be the most important issue in their vote for president. But Iraq is issue #2 at 19%, with the next nearest issue being health care at 8%. While it’s true that Iraq was the top issue a year ago, the fact that it is still as high as it is amidst the worst economic problems in at least a quarter century and despite the surge having reduced the sense of immediate crisis shows real political staying power.
Second, the public remains very opposed to the war. On whether going to war was the right or wrong decision, the numbers are 38% vs. 54%; phrased as “whether it was worth fighting,” 34% yes – 63% no. Some credit is being given to the surge with the percentage saying we are winning up from 29% in January 2007 to 38% in June 2008 (ABC-Washington Post). But the same poll showed only 41% in support of keeping military forces in “until civil order is restored” and 55% opposing. The Newsweek June 18-19 poll giving options for keeping “large numbers of U.S. military personnel in Iraq” had 45% saying bring them home now or in less than one year, 20% saying within 1-2 years, 4% 3-5 years and 26% as long as it takes to achieve U.S. goals.
Third, Democrats are faring well on party preference questions for both Iraq and foreign policy generally. When asked which party would handle Iraq better, Democrats have been pretty consistently getting a 10+ margin, e.g., 50% to 34% in an April CBS-New York Times poll. On who would do a better job generally on foreign policy, the gap in recent polls varies but favors Democrats, 51-31 the largest margin, 45-40 the narrowest. Even the narrowest contrasts quite favorably with the strongly pro-Republican pattern that largely held for many years, including 47-28 in the early Reagan years; 60-26 in October 1991 after the first Gulf War; 51-33 in March 1994 amidst the early Clinton administration failures in Somalia and elsewhere; and 53-36 at the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term. Terrorism is the one issue on which Republicans still hold an advantage. Here the recent range goes from 47-40 to 31-30, although juxtaposed with disapproval of the Bush terrorism policy (57-38).
Fourth, though, is that when personalized to the presidential candidates, the assessments are more mixed. McCain was ahead 50-41 in an April poll on who would do a better job handling the Iraq war. This was down to 46-43 in a May poll, and 47-46 in a June poll (ABC-Washington Post). Obama does better on the differently phrased question on confidence to “make the right decisions about the war in Iraq”. When asked in February their overall confidence levels were comparable (58% McCain, 57% Obama) but within that those very confident in McCain were 27% while only 20% were very confident in Obama. The following month the candidates remained even at 56% in the overall numbers but McCain’s very confident number had fallen to 19% with Obama at 17%. Still, these are quite different from issue-based preferences on which the anti-Iraq margin is much more robust.
In sum, while Iraq is not McCain’s issue, it is much less Obama’s than it could be given the issue preferences.

Winning the Hispanic Vote in 2008

Editor’s Note: The relative strength of the two parties among Hispanic voters is an enormous short-term and long-term challenge and opportunity for Democrats. Two notable academic experts on the subject–Michael Alvarez of Caltech and Jonathan Nagler of NYU–offer this timely take on Democratic prospects for winning the Hispanic vote this November. It was originally published at TDS on June 12, 2008.
Winning the Hispanic Vote in 2008
by R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler
Historically, Democratic presidential candidates have done quite well with Hispanic voters (with some exceptions, such as Cuban-Americans). For the past three decades, Democratic presidential candidates have typically received more than 60% of the votes cast by Hispanics.
But in the 2004 presidential election, Hispanic support for John Kerry was lower than the historic norm. While there has been much debate over the exact percentage of support that Kerry received from Hispanic voters in 2004, a consensus has emerged that at best Kerry might have received 60% of the Hispanic vote. But no matter what we think the exact percentage was, Hispanic voters were attracted to Bush in greater percentages in 2004 than to any previous Republican presidential candidate in recent history (See David L. Leal, Matt A. Barreto, Jongho Lee, and Rodolfo O. de la Garza, “The Latino Vote in the 2004 Election”. PS: Political Science and Politics, v. 38, 41-49, 2005; Marisa A. Abrajano, R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler, “The Hispanic Vote in the 2004 Presidential Election: Insecurity and Moral Concerns”, Journal of Politics, forthcoming (April, 2008); David L. Leal, Stephen A. Nuno, Jongho Lee, and Rodolfo O. de la Garza, “Latinos, Immigration, and the 2006 Midterm Elections.” PS: Political Science and Politics, v. 41, 309-317, 2008.).
There are two questions that Kerry’s performance with Hispanic voters in the 2004 presidential election raises. One question is why — what was it about the context of the 2004 presidential election, and the messages articulated by Kerry and Bush, that caused more Hispanics to support Bush than is normal for a Republican presidential candidate? The second question is what does this imply for the 2008 presidential election — what strategies should the Barak Obama, the presumptive Democrat nominee, pursue to insure a stronger performance among Hispanic voters in November 2008?
In this article we provide answers for both of these questions.

Democrats and Military Strategy: A Series

This year, as always, Republicans will seek to create and exploit an advantage over Democrats in credibility on national security issues, despite George W. Bush’s terrible foreign policy record and John McCain’s identification with the war in Iraq. One recurring problem is that Democrats sometimes fail to fully engage on national security issues, viewing it as a “Republican issue.” And another is that some Democrats simply don’t feel comfortable talking about the larger issues of defense and military strategy.
Strategic consultant James Vega has written a five-part analysis of the challenges and opportunities for Democrats on military strategy.
Part 1 is entitled: How the Democrats can argue with McCain and the Republicans on military strategy and
Part 2 is entitled: Iraq is not a “classic counter-insurgency;” it’s a full-blown civil war.
Part 3 is entitled: The surge isn’t “working”, it’s just “postponing” — and in the long run it’s making things worse.
Part 4 is entitled: The Republicans do have a military strategy – it’s called “Divide and Rule”, it takes at least 50 years, requires lots of casualties and – the half-hearted way we’re doing it – almost never works
And part 5 is a summary.

Understanding the White Working Class

This presidential election year has witnessed a revival of interest in the size, nature, and political preferences of the white working class, in both the Democratic nominating contest and in the upcoming general election.
Fortunately, TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira and Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz have published a definitive study on the political demographics of this issue in The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class, a Brookings Institution paper.
Teixeira and Abramowitz take a careful, empirically based look at leading definitions of the white working class, its political behavior over time, key geographical variables, and the evidence that particular issues have affected its fragile relationship with the Democratic Party.
This paper would be a “must-read” at any time, but this year, it’s a “really-must-read” paper.

Swing/Base Roundtable

The Democratic Strategist’s first Roundtable Discussion for 2008 was on the perennial controversy over “swing” versus “base” voter strategies. Who are these voters? How valuable are they? Do swing voter appeals sacrifice principle or “base” support? These are among the questions we posed to a distinguished group of commentators, including practitioners, political scientists, activists and journalists. They included Robert Creamer, Bill Galston, Chris Bowers, Al From, Joan McCarter, and Ed Kilgore (who introduced and concluded the Roundtable). (Click here for a PDF version of the roundtable in its entirety).

“Poetic License” On Complex Issues

(NOTE: This item by Ed Kilgore was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on March 26, 2008).
Yesterday we published a guest post by Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall warning that all three surviving major-party presidential candidates seem to be gripped by a primary-season focus that’s leading them to say things on certain issues they may regret in a general election contest or in office. His particular focus was on the alleged competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to demonize NAFTA and identify with an out-now position on Iraq, though McCain’s conservative-pleasing “victory” talk about Iraq drew his ire as well.
I beg to differ with my friend Will Marshall, not because I deny the primary-general tension that has always existed in every contested nomination contest, but because I think the Democratic candidates aren’t just pandering to primary voters, but are trying to address exceptionally complex issues in ways that are difficult to capture in simple campaign messages.
Iraq’s the clearest case. Will’s right that public support for immediate withdrawal from Iraq has always been low, and has sagged a bit in recent months. From my own reading of many polls on the subject, I’d say a strong plurality of Americans are pretty much where they’ve been for two-to-three years: the Iraq War was a mistake, and the U.S. military engagement there should be ended as quickly and as thoroughly as a non-catastrophic outcome will permit. Doubts about the pace of withdrawal seem to be linked to the fear of a collapse of the country into chaos; there’s not much evidence of strong support for the “flypaper” theory that the war is making America safer by “pinning down” al Qaeda militants, or for the constant GOP assertion that anything less than “victory” will “embolden our enemies” and represent a major blow to our overall security posture.
The specific Iraq plans of both Democratic candidates contemplate regularly scheduled withdrawals of combat troops accompanied by various political and diplomatic initiatives, hedged by a residual force commitment closely linked to avoidance of the very catastrophic contingencies that most Americans seem to fear. Both candidates predict that a decisive shift away from a combat role for U.S. troops will produce the international involvement and Iraqi political breakthrough necessary to maintain stability. But both candidates also refuse to rule out a renewal of more active military role in Iraq if the country dissolves into sectarian chaos, if outsiders intervene, or if al-Qaeda-in-Iraq stages a comeback. Looks to me like Clinton and Obama are nicely positioned with public opinion on Iraq, aside from their basic difference as to whether the whole Iraq commitment was a mistake in conception (Obama) or in execution (Clinton).
What seems to bug Will Marshall is that Obama and Clinton are emphasizing the aspects of their very similar plans that predict a move towards withdrawal will produce a breakthrough, rather than highlighting their residual military commitments. But while the two candidates may possibly be wrong about the positive galvanic effect of a withdrawal timetable, it’s hard to say they are being dishonest or are “pandering” to antiwar opinion or “base voters.”
Remember that both Clinton and Obama have resisted considerable and continuous pressure, from antiwar activists and other candidates, to renounce their “hedging bets” positions on withdrawal timetables and residual troops, and just flatly say they’d quickly liquidate the whole mess and hope for the best. It would have been easy for Obama–the consistent critic of the Iraq-o-centric focus of U.S. security policy–in particular to have adopted the “over-the-horizon” concept championed by John Murtha and eventually embraced by John Edwards, that would make near-total troops withdrawal from Iraq itself unconditional, while acknowledging a continuing U.S. interest in the fate of the country.
Whether or not you agree with their policies, it’s just not plausible to conclude that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making their Iraq positions contingent on embracing an implicit “out-now” posture. As for their general-election positioning, so long as John McCain continues to talk about “victory” in Iraq–and he’s made this a signature theme that he can’t abandon without seriously damaging his “straight talk” pretensions–they are far more in alignment with public opinion than the GOP candidate.
NAFTA is less important than Iraq, but probably more complicated. As John Judis clearly explains in a New Republic piece that Will cited, NAFTA in the public imagination is not the North American Free Trade Agreement in its specificity, but a symbol of U.S. confidence that virtually any market-opening agreement will redound to our ultimate benefit. It’s similar to the No Child Left Behind legislation–another policy disconnect between the Democratic left and center–where calls for repeal batten on general unhappiness with overall existing conditions rather than a specific focus on the policies and philosophies involved.
Here I would tend to agree with Will that NAFTA-bashing is a disingenuous way for either Obama or Clinton to convey their determination to rethink the U.S. strategy for dealing with economic globalization. But so long as John McCain and the GOP continue to present free trade as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, with the “losers” expected to suck it up and somehow survive, then the basic positioning of the Democratic candidates on trade and globalization may be both principled and politically expedient. Since Will is arguing that the Democratic candidates are pandering to the party “base,” I’d note that unhappiness with NAFTA and globalization goes well beyond the Democratic “base” ranks, and is probably more regional and generational than partisan.
In any event, while Will’s warning is welcome, it ultimately invites a direct comparison of the three remaining candidates. And I remain convinced that John McCain’s incoherent rationale for his various positions, along with his consistent but extremist positions on Iraq and on globalization, are a much bigger deal politically and morally than any possible prevarications fomented by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Political Poetic License

(NOTE: This is a guest post by Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, originally published at The Daily Strategist on March 25, 2008.)
It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war. But truth, and realism, also take a pretty good beating in politics—especially in nominating contests.
Consider what’s happened to two of Sen. Barack Obama’s brainiest advisors: Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power.
Goolsbee, a widely respected economist who teaches at the University of Chicago, is the Obama campaign’s top economic advisor. (Full disclosure: Goolsbee has also worked with PPI and is a friend). He was muzzled after accounts of his meeting with Canadian government officials were leaked to the media (apparently by the Canadian Prime Minister’s staff). According to these accounts, Goolsbee reassured the Canadians that Obama, if elected president, would probably not follow through on his campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Running hard in economically stressed Ohio, Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign pounced immediately, citing the reports as proof that her loathing of NAFTA is more sincere than Obama’s, even if it was her husband who signed the treaty into law back in 1993.
Goolsbee insists he was misquoted. But even if he didn’t actually tell the Canadians that Obama’s anti-NAFTA bark is worse than his bite, that’s probably the truth of the matter. After all, Canada is America’s biggest trading partner, Mexico is our third-biggest. With or without NAFTA, trade with our neighbors is only likely to grow. The idea that either President Obama or President Clinton would begin an historic, change-oriented presidency by picking a gratuitous fight with Canada and Mexico over a 15-year-old trade treaty is preposterous. And that’s not just the opinion of this pro-trade Democrat: the stoutly liberal John Judis has a new piece out today arguing that both candidates are using NAFTA as a symbol of globalization that misses the treaty’s genuine positive and negative aspects.
Samantha Power, author of a Pulitizer Prize-winning book on the Rwanda genocide, A Problem from Hell, resigned as a top Obama foreign-policy advisor for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster.” She promptly apologized and quit the campaign. But the flap obscured another, far more substantive Power utterance, namely a remark she made to the BBC in which she characterized Obama’s promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months as “a best case scenario.” She added:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.

Here, Power was telling the truth, and a very reassuring truth at that. Of course, it exposed Obama to charges from the Clinton camp that he doesn’t really mean what he says about pulling out of Iraq, any more than he means what he says about renegotiating NAFTA. In a speech last week at George Washington University marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Clinton had this to say:

Senator Obama has said often that words matter. I strongly agree. But giving speeches alone won’t end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep certainly won’t end it. In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.

Fair enough, except that Clinton is also promising more than she can deliver on Iraq. “Here’s what you can count on me to do: provide the leadership to end this war quickly and responsibly,” she said at GWU. And she reiterated her pledge to start bringing troops home within 60 days of taking office, at a rate of one to two brigades a month, according to consultations with military leaders.
The problem is, you can end America’s involvement in Iraq quickly, or you can end it responsibly. You can’t do both. Consolidating the recent security gains in Iraq, keeping relentless pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq, working to reconcile feuding ethnic and religious factions, training Iraqi military and police forces, and pressing the Shiite-Kurdish government to integrate the Sunni Awakening movement into those forces– all these tasks are going to take time, and they’re going to require a substantial and sustained U.S. military presence. As a candidate who claims superior foreign-policy experience, Clinton should know that.
The voters get it. A recent Gallup poll found that more than six in 10 Americans think the United States is obliged to remain in Iraq “until a reasonable level of stability and security has been reached.” And while voters want candidates to have withdrawal plans, 8 in 10 say they are against immediate withdrawal.
At the same time, more than 60 percent of Americans say the Iraq war has not been worth the costs. Such sentiments, however, have not kept Sen. John McCain from playing the overpromising game from the other side. Returning last week from a trip to Iraq, McCain announced that America and its allies “stand on the precipice of winning a major victory.” Such triumphalism may be catnip to hard-core conservatives, but it probably grates on the nerves of a war-weary public that has just marked five years of occupation which have claimed 4,000 American lives.
What gives? Have all our presidential finalists momentarily lost touch with the reality principle?
There’s something about nominating contests that seems to suspend the standards of veracity candidates are normally held to. Apparently, all’s fair in the fight to identify with the inflamed emotions of core partisan or “base” voters, or, in the case of NAFTA, with Ohioans who feel that trade has somehow cheated them out of well-paying manufacturing jobs. In tailoring their message to party activists and local constituencies, candidates too readily indulge in a political version of poetic license, in which accuracy and realism yield to simplistic gestures and symbolism.
Thus, bashing NAFTA becomes a way to show solidarity with working Americans anxious about the impact of global competition on their jobs and incomes. These anxieties are real enough, and voters are right to demand vigorous new responses from government—a new social contract that includes a comprehensive system of worker training, universal health care, portable pensions for all workers, a fairer and more generous college-aid system, and more. But all that is complicated and costly, and let’s face it, such worthy prescriptions don’t pack as much emotional punch as refighting the battle of NAFTA all over again.
So, at least until the primaries end, we’re likely to be stuck with candidates insisting on 100 percent fidelity to crowd-pleasing positions they must know, deep down, they will have to modify in the general election—at which point, one hopes, reality will make a welcome and overdue reappearance on the scene.
Somebody does, however, need to tell John McCain that the primary season is over, and he no longer needs to thrill conservative audiences with promises of “a major victory” in Iraq.

A Brief Note About the So-Called “Conservative Movement” and the Democratic Party

NOTE: This item by James Vega was originally published at The Daily Strategist on March 13, 2008.
As the eulogies for Bill Buckley give way to more cerebral discussions of modern day conservatism, it is worth stopping for a moment to insist upon a basic fact – one that Democrats should never allow the mainstream media (or themselves) to forget.
Despite the frequent use of the term “movement” by the press, the “conservative movement” that has provided the Republican Party with its basic ideology since the Reagan- Gingrich era is profoundly different from the two major social movements whose viewpoints are deeply embedded in the basic outlook and philosophy of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s economic perspective comes not simply from the legislation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, but from the epic struggle of the American trade union movement in the 1930’s. Equally, at the heart of the modern Democratic Party’s social philosophy lies the historical experience of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King.
These two social movements had three things in common. They were struggles of profoundly disadvantaged and oppressed groups for basic social and economic justice, they were grass-roots, bottom-up movements in which leaders emerged from the rank and file, and they were led by dedicated militants who made huge personal and human sacrifices.
Both trade union and civil right organizers lived with the constant fear of death, vicious beatings, or imprisonment and both movements had many famous martyrs killed in the struggle (the Haymarket victims and Joe Hill for the trade unionists; Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Three, (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) and the children of the Birmingham bombing for the civil rights movement). Many of the leaders of both movements spent significant time in jail — it was, in fact, a proud badge of honor and a symbol of their commitment to the cause.
Sadly, for many people under the age of 40 these realities — which everybody knew perfectly well at the time — now sound like melodramatic exaggerations. But they are not; they are simple statements of fact.
The modern “official” conservative movement on the other hand – although in some respects indeed a social movement – was and is to a significant degree a movement of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and as a result has never had any of the three characteristics above.
The modern conservative movement was heavily subsidized by foundations and wealthy individuals from its beginnings. By the 1980’s there was a substantial network of think-tanks, book publishers, house-organ magazines, scholarships and internships that recruited and financially supported young conservatives. Communication with ordinary people was overwhelmingly conducted by very sanitary, “no getting the hands dirty” methods – largely direct mail and television (particularly televangelist programming) – rather than by any actual door-to-door, grass-roots organizing.
Now to be sure. there have indeed been a number of genuine right-wing, grass roots activist movements since the 1970’s. There have been skinhead/racist/survivalist groups (like “The Order” and “White Power” in 1980’s, the militia movement in 1990s, the Minutemen today), and also broader grass-roots movements to fight local gun control initiatives, to infiltrate local school boards to mandate creationism and to conduct civil (and also very uncivil) disobedience against abortion clinics.
All of these movements shared two characteristics – they were authentically bottom up, grass-roots movements and they were all treated like embarrassing, party-crashing, beer-drinking, trailer park trash phenomena by the official beltway conservative “movement”.
On the other hand when the current generation of “official” conservative spokesmen – the Gingrichs, D’Souzas, Laffers, Murrays, Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Coulters– were in college in the 70’s and 80’s, the worst injustice most of them suffered was having to listen to pompous tenured radicals talk endlessly about Foucault and Germaine Greer rather than Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
It is important for Democrats to point this out whenever the media casually equate the modern conservative “movement” with the genuine social movements that underlie the Democratic coalition because it creates a false equivalence between the moral authority of the two. It artificially imbues official “inside-the-beltway” conservatism with connotations of a genuine grass-roots social movement – traditions of altruism and self sacrifice, identification with the struggle for justice and solidarity with the underdog.
Let’s face the facts. The conservative movement indeed recognized and capitalized upon a number of genuine and sincere grievances of working-class and other ordinary Americans. But the middle-class and upper-class, white American men who compose the official conservative movement have never in their “custom-tailored-suit- and- tie”, “better-side-of town” lifetimes been the oppressed victims of systematic social injustice.
This is illustrated by an ironic fact. Genuine grass-roots social movements of the oppressed always have songs and anthems that express their deepest social ideals. At the end of every union organizing meeting trade unionists would always sing “Solidarity Forever”. Every civil rights rally concluded with the singing of “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome”.
There is nothing remotely comparable in the well-funded, “inside the beltway” conservative so-called “movement”. In fact, it is hard to even visualize exactly what kind of spiritual anthem could properly express the social philosophy of the audiences who attend meetings of groups like the Conservative Political Action Council, the Heritage Foundation, the College Republicans or the US Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, wait a minute. Come to think of it, there is one. All these groups could kick off their conferences with a few lusty choruses of “Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, A Pirates’ Life for Me”. It would fit them like a glove.