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
It’s hard to keep up with the growing evidence of the horrors Trump plans to implement in a second term, but I wrote about one item that really struck me at New York:
There have been many credible reports that a second Trump administration would feature an assault on the federal civil-service system in order to reduce “deep state” resistance to his authoritarian ambitions — or, to use his terms for it, to “drain the swamp” — while stuffing the higher levels of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees. Those of us who are history-minded have immediately thought of this as threatening a return to the “spoils system” of the 19th century, which was more or less ended by enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 (signed into law by Republican president and reformed spoilsman Chester Alan Arthur).
But the more we know about Team Trump’s plans, this understanding of what they want to do in staffing the federal government looks increasingly inadequate and anachronistic. The spoils-system beneficiaries of the distant past were by and large party foot soldiers rewarded for attending dreary local meetings, talking up the the party’s candidates in newspapers and forums, and, most of all, getting out the vote on Election Day. No one much cared what they believed in their heart of hearts about issues of the day or how they came to their convictions. It was enough that they put on the party yoke and helped pull the bandwagon to victory.
As Axios reports, one questionnaire used late in the first Trump administration to vet job applicants and another distributed by the Heritage Foundation to build up an army of second-term appointment prospects show a far more discriminating approach:
“The 2020 ‘Research Questionnaire,’ which we obtained from a Trump administration alumnus, was used in the administration’s final days — when most moderates and establishment figures had been fired or quit, and loyalists were flexing their muscles. Questions include:
“’What part of Candidate Trump’s campaign message most appealed to you and why?’
“’Briefly describe your political evolution. What thinkers, authors, books, or political leaders influenced you and led you to your current beliefs? What political commentator, thinker or politician best reflects your views?’
“’Have you ever appeared in the media to comment on Candidate Trump, President Trump or other personnel or policies of the Trump Administration?”
Similar questions are being asked for the Talent Database being assembled by the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 — the most sophisticated, expensive pre-transition planning ever undertaken for either party.
The Heritage questionnaire makes it especially clear that being just any old kind of Republican isn’t going to be enough. It asks if applicants agree with a number of distinctively MAGA issue positions, including:
“The U.S. should impose tariffs with the goal of bringing back manufacturing jobs, even if these tariffs result in higher consumer prices. …
“The permanent institutions of family and religion are foundational to American freedom and the common good. …
“The President should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hinderance from unelected federal officials.”
One insider told Axios that both the 2020 Trump and 2024 Heritage questionnaires have a common and very particular purpose:
“An alumnus of the Trump White House told us both documents are designed to test the sincerity of someone’s MAGA credentials and determine ‘when you got red-pilled,’ or became a true believer. ‘They want to see that you’re listening to Tucker, and not pointing to the Reagan revolution or any George W. Bush stuff,’ this person said”.
This represents a really unprecedented effort to place the executive branch under the direction of people chosen not on the basis of merit or experience or expertise, and not on party credentials, but on membership in an ideological faction that is also a presidential candidate’s cult of personality. As such, it’s more dangerous than a return to the partisan habits of a bygone era.