Well, I thought there was a fairly strong consensus among Democrats that the 2004 elections showed we have to expand, as well as “energize” our party base. But now comes Chris Bowers on the MyDD site with the news that the University of Michigan’s National Election Project study of the 2004 results “proves” there are no swing voters, and winning in the future is all about increasing polarization and mobilizing the Democratic base. Now, before wading into this issue, let me stipulate total agreement with Chris on how we ought to talk with each other about it. He says it’s a matter of strategy, not ideology. Personally, if I could be convinced that the best way to drive today’s Republicans from their ruinous power is to polarize Democrats as much as Republicans, I’d be out there on the barricades right away. It’s sure as hell a simpler strategy than coming up with a policy agenda and message that actually meets the challenges facing the nation, and mobilization is always easier than persuasion. So I’m down with that. But I’ve seen no real evidence Chris is right on the strategic front.I don’t know if Chris is actually looking at the NEP data (maybe, like me, he’s still trying to figure out how to access it intelligibly), but his announcement that “there’s no middle” in U.S. politics seems to rely on a very selective interpretation of the initial take on the study by David Kopoian on Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising site, zeroing in on Bush’s remarkable support levels from Republicans, and Kerry’s strong but less-impressive support levels from Democrats. As Greg Wythe quickly pointed out, Chris sorta kinda ignores independents, who are a sizable bloc of the electorate (how large depends, of course, on your definition of that term), and creates a straw man wherein the “search for the mythical middle” is all about crossover voting from self-identified partisans. There’s no question that the parties have been ideologically realigned in recent decades, and that largely explains why the “crossover” vote has dropped. But it’s a logical fallacy of a very high order to go from that observation to a claim that promoting even more ideological polarization will somehow magically produce the Democratic majorities needed to win elections, which is what Chris seems to be saying. Let’s remember that the percentage of the electorate self-identifying with the Donkey has been slowly and steadily eroding, most notably since 2000. You can make an argument (folks on the Left have been making it for years) that the voters leaving the party are doing so because it is insufficiently Left-leaning in policy, or partisan in strategy and tactics. But it’s hardly self-evident, and in important respects is counter-intuitive.On that score, you should take a look at a small but remarkable John Judis piece in the current New Republic. John is not what you’d call a “centrist” in ideology or outlook, and has specifically spent a lot of time trying to show that large demographic trends are creating a strong tailwind for Democrats, whose “base” is expanding almost automatically. This point of view, of course, is very consistent with Chris Bowers’ idea that we just have to get out there and harvest these voters with a powerful partisan message. But Judis’ latest piece, based largely on a series of discussions with a leading Hispanic organizer in the Southwest, suggests that this particular element of the supposed Democratic “base” is in grave danger, in part because Republicans know how to do “deep organizing” rather than campaign- or Internet-based “parachuting,” but also because the GOP is winning the cultural argument among a growing number of Hispanic voters. He doesn’t quite put it this way, but Judis suggests that our problem in this community is not easily attributable to the failure of Democrats to advocate, say, a single-payer health care system, or to more stridently oppose Bush’s national security policies. But the other point Judis is implicitly making is that our ideas about “base” and “swing” voters are often way out of whack with reality. Ask ten Democrats about our party base, and nine of them will start talking about Hispanics and African-Americans and labor union members and anti-war activists and professional women, and so forth. Karl Rove doesn’t think like that. He views Hispanics as a “swing” group because he knows Republicans simply need to cut into Democratic majorities in that category to win close general elections. He views African-Americans as a “swing” group as well, not because half of them are “undecided” in any given election, but because getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, in part through a carefully targeted cultural message, may have won Bush re-election. “Swing” voters are individuals, whatever group they are in, who are persuadable. And we’re nuts if we don’t take the opportunity to persuade them seriously. Had John Kerry done as well as Al Gore–much less Bill Clinton–in Republican “base” areas outside the metro cores of the country, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s all about votes, every goddamn one of them, not about groups we “mobilize” or write off. We really do need to end the false choice between “mobilization” and “persuasion” and get on the with job of doing both.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:
When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.
That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.The current surge in consumer prices doesn’t necessarily change that picture; the current post-pandemic (we hope) economic environment was sure to produce a spike in wages and prices that cannot be projected into a future where something approaching normalcy will surely return (though the real-estate bubble is indeed troubling). But now I am beginning to hear echoes of the inflation panics of the not-so-distant past, which make me tremble.
Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:
“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”
Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.
Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.
But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.
The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.
Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.
As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”
Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.
Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.