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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall writes, “In a paper that came out in June, “Explanations for Inequality and Partisan Polarization in the U.S., 1980 — 2020,” Elizabeth Suhayand Mark Tenenbaum, political scientists at American University, and Austin Bartola, of Quadrant Strategies, provide insight into why so much discord permeates American politics: “Scholars who research polarization have almost exclusively focused on the relationship between Americans’ policy opinions and their partisanship. In this article, we discuss a different type of partisan polarization underappreciated by scholars: “belief polarization,” or disagreements over what people perceive to be true….” Suhay, Tenenbaum and Bartola cite data from American National Election Studies and the Pew Research Center to track the increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats on various questions, which require respondents to agree or disagree with statements like these: “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance”; “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard”; and “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”….In 1997, 68 percent of Republican and 43 percent of Democratic survey respondents chose “have it easy,” a 25-point difference. By 2017, 73 percent of Republicans said the poor “have it easy,” while 19 percent of Democrats shared that view, a 54-point difference.”

Edsall continues, “There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines….Nathan Lee at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth, Jason Reifler at the University of Exeter and D.J. Flynn at IE University in Madrid argue in their paper “More Accurate, but No Less Polarized: Comparing the Factual Beliefs of Government Officials and the Public” that while “political elites are consistently more accurately informed than the public,” the “increase in accuracy does not translate into reduced factual belief polarization. These findings demonstrate that a more informed political elite does not necessarily mitigate partisan factual disagreement in policymaking.”….Lee, Nyhan, Reifler and Flynn assessed the views of elites through a survey in 2017 of 743 “elected policymakers, legislative staffers, and top administrative positions in local and state government in the United States.” Three-quarters of the sample held elective office. The survey tested belief accuracy by partisanship and elite status on eight issues including health care, the share of taxes paid by the top 1 percent, climate change and voter fraud.” Edsall adds, “I asked Nyhan about the consequences of the findings and he wrote back by email: “The most important contribution of our study is to challenge the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more. Elites are better informed than the public on average but Democrats and Republicans still are still deeply divided in their beliefs about those facts. In some ways, the conclusion of our study is optimistic — government officials are better informed than the public. That’s what most of us would hope to be true. But the findings do suggest we should avoid thinking that people becoming more informed will make the factual divides in our society go away. Belief polarization is a reality that is not easily overcome.”

Edsall also explores the role of racial attitudes in a more generalized political polarization and notes, “In their January 2022 paper, “The Origins and Consequences of Racialized Schemas about U.S. Parties,” Kirill Zhirkov and Nicholas Valentino, political scientists at the Universities of Virginia and Michigan, make an interesting argument that, in effect, “Two parallel processes structure American politics in the current moment: partisan polarization and the increasing linkage between racial attitudes and issue preferences of all sorts.”….Racial attitudes, the authors argue persuasively, “are now important predictors of opinions about electoral fairness, gun control, policing, international trade and health care.”….There are, Zhirkov and Valentino note, long-range implications for the future of democracy here: “As soon as ethnic parties start to compete for political power, winning — rather than implementing a certain policy — becomes the goal in and of itself due to associated boost in group status and self-esteem of its members. Moreover, comparative evidence suggests that U.S. plurality-based electoral system contributes to politicization of ethnic cleavages rather than mitigates them. Therefore, the racialization of American parties is likely to continue, and the intensity of political conflict in the United States is likely to grow.” No doubt, de facto racial segregation of many neighborhoods in American cities and the absence of African Americans in many rural communities plays a significant role in polarization. As MLK once said, ” We have to be together before we can learn to live together.”

In “The Ads That Won the Kansas Abortion Referendum: Avoiding progressive pieties, the ad makers aimed at the broad, persuadable middle of the electorate,” Bill Scher writes at The Washington Monthly: “Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the group that led the campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment intended to permit abortion bans, developed a messaging strategy that resonated across the political spectrum and eschewed purity tests….“We definitely used messaging strategies that would work regardless of party affiliation,” Jae Gray, a field organizer for the group, told The Washington Post. The results validated the strategy, with the anti-abortion constitutional amendment losing by some 160,000 votes, even while Republican primary voters outnumbered Democrats by about 187,000….What did the abortion rights campaign say to woo voters in a conservative state?….I reviewed eight ads paid for by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. One used the word choice. Four used decision. Three, neither. The spots usually included the word abortion, but not always….To appeal to libertarian sentiments, the spots aggressively attacked the anti-abortion amendment as a “government mandate.” To avoid alienating moderates who support constraints on abortion, one ad embraced the regulations already on the Kansas books….And they used testimonials to reach the electorate: a male doctor who refused to violate his “oath”; a Catholic grandmother worried about her granddaughter’s freedom; a married mom who had a life-saving abortion; and a male pastor offering a religious argument for women’s rights and, implicitly, abortion.” Scher provides six ad videos used by the successful campaign, including these two:

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