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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

We Are Family?

by Scott Winship
The thought occurred to me today while pondering my place in the world that perhaps all of you were running out of patience waiting for me to finally reveal what I’m reading. Well, all that waiting has finally paid off, because today I’m going to reveal the answer:

McMahon: The Bare Truth About Chicago’s Brashest Bear
Who Moved My Cheese?
Everyone Poops

Kidding of course – those books are all crap….(rimshot)….is this mike on?….
I’m actually reading a history of the Democratic Leadership Council (Reinventing Democrats, by Kenneth Baer), a netroots manifesto (Crashing the Gate, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas), and a triumphalist history of Republican strategy (One Party Country, by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten). I’m enjoying all three, but what’s interesting is how they complement each other in a number of ways. I’ll hopefully get to some more examples in future posts, but today I want to focus on one issue the books all examine in their own way: the inability of the Democratic coalition to unify around a common strategy.
Baer’s account describes how the moderate Democrats who would come to form the core of the New Democrats relentlessly try to overcome the power of liberal activists affiliated with the Party’s most powerful interest groups. They first attempt to insert their ideas into the Party platform but are rebuffed. Next they attempt to change Party rules so that elected officials – more moderate than activists, said the New Dems, because they must appeal to diverse constituents and better appreciate electoral realities – are better represented among convention delegates.
Meeting with limited success again, they form the DLC and become involved in efforts to front-load the 1988 primaries with southern contests, which they believe will advantage moderate candidates that appeal to the more conservative South. Instead, Jesse Jackson is the big winner, winning essentially all of the African American southern vote. Dukakis’s loss convinces the New Dems to abandon the Big Tent strategy they had been pursuing, to instead sharply contrast themselves with other Democrats, and to seek out a candidate they can run in the 1992 election. This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I can’t wait to see what happens next. (My understanding is that they recruit a gregarious southern governor…)
Armstrong and Moulitsas also finger interest groups as (one) problem blocking Democratic electoral success, but their diagnosis is rather different from that of the New Democrats. Instead of interest groups being too liberal, they find them too parochial. Environmental groups, minorities, feminists, GLBT organizations, civil rights activists, and even labor (they argue) pursue their own narrow interests at the expense of overall Democratic prospects. In the end, for instance, abortion rights groups do themselves no good by supporting pro-choice Republicans because they are just strengthening an anti-choice majority. Rather than pulling in different directions, Democratic constituencies need to cooperate in multi-issue coalitions to elect more Democrats. This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I can’t wait to see what happens next. (I understand that they recommend new information technology – some system of tubes? – as a way to return power to progressives…)
In contrast to this depressing picture of disunity, Hamburger and Wallsten document the remarkable achievement of Grover Norquist in unifying conservative constituencies around the “Wednesday meeting” at the American Enterprise Institute offices. Norquist drums into his colleagues’ heads the point that their shared goal is to build and maintain a conservative majority, which requires that everyone occasionally sacrifice in the short-term. He also has a canny gift for linking issues across interest groups. Making the case to social conservatives that they ought to oppose Democratic efforts to promote fuel-efficient vehicles, Norquist tells Phyllis Schlafly, “You can’t have a whole lot of kids in a tiny fuel-efficient car.”
Hamburger and Wallsten also recount the history of the early-‘90s congressional redistricting. The re-drawing of district boundaries was driven by an unholy alliance between Republicans and African Americans who wanted to maximize their representation in Congress in the wake of favorable court rulings requiring districts that were fairer to black candidates. As a consequence, blacks experienced gains in the 1992 elections, but so did Republicans, who sliced away right-leaning white voters from formerly Democratic districts in the course of giving African Americans districts that optimized their electoral opportunities. Once again, Democratic division and Republican unity strengthened the power of conservatives – the GOP would win back the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994, in large measure because of the redistricting. This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I can’t wait to see what happens next. (My understanding is that it involves one of the parties winning control of all three branches of government…)
What can we take away from these three books? My conclusion is that there is a critical need to sort through two questions. First, are the Democrats’ electoral problems due more to being out of synch with voters or to being divided? And relatedly, why have Democrats been unable to achieve the unity that Republicans have?
I can’t say that I have the answers to these questions, but I’ll speculate here and hopefully generate some discussion. Taking the second question first, I wonder whether there is something about the Democratic coalition that makes its constituent parts more difficult to bring together. The Republican coalition basically consists of economic conservatives, who want small government and low taxes; social conservatives who want to preserve traditional institutions and promote traditional morality; and neoconservatives who are mainly concerned about how to leverage American military power to promote the nationalist interest abroad.
These groups aren’t usually inherently in conflict. Social conservatives do not advocate heavy government spending or regulation, even if many of them are sympathetic toward the poor and environmental protection. Economic conservatives are willing to tolerate large military budgets, to a point. Neocons have historically been skeptical of government intervention in the economy and in personal lives and concerned with morality. Social conservatives tend to be patriotic and pro-military, if often isolationist. And economic conservatives are (usually) comfortable with the traditionalist agenda of social conservatives, so long as the courts are there to block its more illiberal components. The point is that – until the Iraq fiasco, and now the immigration debate – it was relatively easy for these three groups to live with each other so long as each of them won some of what they wanted some of the time. Sometimes a wedge issue such as stem cell research presents itself, but not often.
Contrast the Republicans with the Democratic coalition. Social liberals include feminists, GLBT groups, environmentalists and civil libertarians who are mainly concerned with higher-order needs such as fulfillment and quality of life. Professionals and the well-educated overlap with this category but add a significant concern about fiscal responsibility. Economic liberals include labor and minority groups who are primarily concerned about their economic wellbeing. Minority groups also have their own concerns around discrimination and civil rights.
This coalition is far more problematic. Professionals who are deficit hawks are in conflict with economic liberals who want more social spending and may oppose excessive redistribution or excessively progressive taxation. Social liberals are often foreign policy doves while economic liberals are often hawks. Environmentalists and labor often have opposing interests. Economic liberals are often social conservatives and reject the modernist agendas of the social liberals, such as gay marriage. To some extent, the perceived interests of whites and nonwhites have conflicted, as busing, neighborhood segregation, and affirmative action battles have demonstrated.
Prior to 1992, the Democratic Party managed these competing constituencies by accommodating those preferences in each group that were liberal – so fiscal moderates, social conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and working-class whites competing with minorities for resources had to look elsewhere if those non-liberal preferences trumped their liberal ones (social liberalism in the case of fiscal moderates, economic liberalism in the case of social conservatives, hawks, and working-class whites). The story of Republican realignment is the story of non-liberal values in these groups trumping liberal ones. The Clinton years were a period of moderation, but since 2000 the grassroots of the Party has drifted slowly back toward uniform accomodation of liberal preferences (in a new effort at unity).
To return to the other question raised by the books I’m reading, it may be that attributing Democratic decline to either excessive liberalism or to disunity obscures how these two are related. Toeing the liberal line on all or most policies may necessarily alienate significant numbers of Democratic coalition members, who will then find a home in the Republican coalition. While Norquist needs only to convince Republican constituencies that they cannot always win, achieving unity among Democratic groups may require a Norquist-like figure who can convince each constituency that they must sometimes lose. The rightward tilt of the country might make unity more difficult to achieve among Democrats. What do you think?

5 comments on “We Are Family?

  1. Tom Miller on

    There is something about the arguments for the underlying reasons behind GOP unity that never sits well with me. Your post illustrates this. You walk through a list of issues where various components of the conservative coalition *could* be in conflict, but aren’t.
    But *why* aren’t they in conflict? Norquist may have sold a few movement leaders that they have more to gain from a common agenda, but that won’t sell the rank and file. What convinces the Wall street libertarian to compromise on civil liberties? And why do certain Democratic stances drive the working class to the GOP despite the economic costs that they pay?
    Something important is going on here, but I have yet to see a solid analysis that does anything more than mistake the symptoms for the disease.
    Not that I have the diagnosis, but I think it is primarily rooted in two things:
    1) Shifts in priorities as demographics change. The Boomer bubble is still working its way through the population. People’s priorities change as they age. The Boomer might still have an interest in social justice, but dammit, they really can’t pay those high taxes right now because they have to get their kids through college and build up a nest egg for retirement. If this is correct, I would expect to see a massive change in voting behavior as the boomers hit retirement, and a large section of the populace with an albeit fickle interest in social justice suddenly realizes they can have their social justice cake but not have to pay for it as they pay very few incomes taxes.
    2) Proxy issues. My take on how the average voter makes decisions is that they simply don’t have the time to research detailed policy proposals. So instead they make decisions based on certain moral or priority concepts that they *do* understand. If they believe the rights of criminals have trumped the rights of victims, they will look at a politician’s statements to see if they share that conviction (I think this is why Dem’s got blasted on crime in the 80s). The death penalty, and tougher sentencing, thereby become proxy issues for a candidate’s position on the current balancing of criminal v. victim rights. My take is that the Democrats got too far removed from central voter values on several different issues in the 70s-90s. It took the voters awhile to realize what was happening, but the result was a major backlash against Democrats on those key issues. Democrats end up being guilty until proven innocent on crime, national defense, and “family values”. I think that was happened is that the Democrats (with the Clintons as notable exceptions) haven’t glommed on to this, and take a knee-jerk opposition stance on Republican positions, unaware that they are being set up to appear out of touch on these issues. Meanwhile, until the last couple years, the public hadn’t yet figured out that Republicans had their own ways of being catastrophically out of touch with voters.
    I do think that there is one other key difference. The GOP has been much more astute and ruthless in exploiting wedge issues that make the Dems seem out of touch. Democrats have been rather hapless in exploiting GOP wedge issues. Why? I think this is cultural. GOP positions are going to disproportionately attract the ruthless to the party.

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  2. Dan on

    One big difference between Republicans and Democrats is that it’s easier for Republicans to find single candidates who embody their coalition. There are lots of rich white Christian war hawks, but not many African-American Asian-immigrant well-educated poor factory-worker environmentalist lesbian single parents.

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  3. Rich C on

    I think you should keep reading CTG, since you don’t seem to have gotten their point yet. Essentially, their argument is that the Republican advantage is a function of taking the party seriously, building up party institutions, and demanding significant (but not absolute) party discipline. I think that there is a lot to the argument that the decline of the Democrats since the late 1960’s is in large part a function of the atrophy of local, state, and national party organizations (obviously this atrophy is uneven).
    I would also note that one significant difference between the interest groups backing the GOP and those backing the Democrats is that the GOPs groups have tended to be growing – and committed to doing new organizing- while the Dem groups have tended to be stagnant or declining – and not particularly commited to new organizing. I think this is most clear with the labor movement, but there are good reasons to believe that feminist and environmental movement organizations have increasingly shied away from developing, engaging, and moblizing members. There are some obvious exceptions to this, but I think its been generally true at least since the late 1970’s, and it contrasts sharply with the growth of the Christain right, the libertarians, and other GOP constituents.

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  4. Chris Glaze on

    The “culture wars” do seem to keep many culturally moderate and conservative voters in the Republican fold by pinning the liberal boogeyman to Democrats. But *unifying* social issues could be very compelling, especially if they got the same traction as gay marriage (this is crucial).
    For example, if you believe that government has a role to play in supporting values, then programs like AmeriCorps, which includes faith-based organizations and just got big cuts, are very relevant. AmeriCorps promotes individual responsibility by helping in literacy, treatment of drug-addiction, ex-prisoner re-entry, among many things. Importantly, this program also promotes civic engagement, and in my experience the kind of nonprofits that benefit from Americorps bring people together from all walks of life. Just because a program is “underperforming” according to OMB doesn’t mean it should be gutted, and you could make a link between this and repealing tax cuts for the rich. As has been pointed out on this site before, large number of Americans (2/3s from what I’ve seen) think upper-income people don’t pay their fair share, although apparently some subset favors repealing the estate tax…

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  5. Eli on

    I don’t think conservative interest groups are naturally any better aligned than liberal ones. It’s not like the feminists are anti-environment or the civil libertarians are anti-union.
    And the Republican party has plenty of strange bedfellows who, frankly, don’t really have that much in common. The Republicans do seem to have better marketing and seem to be able to better target their message.
    And, sure, interest groups have an agenda, but it’s a mistake to assume that’s all they care about. I recall reading that some NAACP members were offended that Bush didn’t even mention the Middle East. As if civil rights leaders only care about domestic civil rights–and as if American foreign policy doesn’t affect everyone.
    Also, I recommend the book about the gay penguins.

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