In the last few months a new populist consensus has dramatically emerged within the Democratic coalition. It includes a major focus on inequality as a central social issue, a renewed priority on reducing high unemployment and a commitment to developing a firm and comprehensive progressive economic agenda for the elections in 2016.
President Obama’s December speech on inequality and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s participation in Bill deBlasio’s inauguration this month highlighted the degree to which this new populist consensus now extends to all sectors of the Democratic coalition.
The complex challenge Democrats must now face is to convert this broad consensus into a set of specific programs and policies and a coherent political strategy that will be capable of convincing a majority of Americans to vote Democratic once again in 2016.
The Democratic Strategist is therefore pleased to present the following significant TDS Strategy Memo, the first of a series that will address this central challenge. A Successful Populist Strategy Will Require More Than Just Progressive Economics. It must also Include a Populist Approach to Overcoming the Widespread Distrust and Hostility Toward Government.
You can read the Memo HERE
We believe you will find the memo extremely useful and important.
The Democratic Strategist
As Election Day 2012 draws near it will become more and more apparent that the white working class is a pivotal group whose electoral choice will largely determine the outcome. If the percentage of white working class support for Obama remains where it is today, in the low to mid 30’s, an Obama victory will be almost impossible. If Obama’s level of support rises reasonably close the percentage he received in 2008, Obama’s victory becomes almost certain. As a result, in the weeks between now and November 2nd there will be a huge outpouring of analyses seeking to explain the opinions and likely electoral choices of white working class voters.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these analyses will be fundamentally wrong.
The reason is simple. The conventional way of examining the opinions of white working class voters – a group that is generally defined as those with just a high school diploma or those who have less than a four year college education — is to note their views on a variety of subjects and then compare those opinions with the opinions of white voters who have graduated college or gone on to post-graduate educations.
The results are predictable. Aside from certain “pockets” of populist views on subjects like corporations, Wall Street and profits, across a wide range of issues white working class voters’ opinions consistently appear to be more conservative than the more educated. On this basis, analysts and commentators invariably proceed to create a composite stereotype – a “typical” white worker who is significantly more conservative than his more educated counterparts across a wide range of issues. Based on this political composite columnists and pundits then quickly conclude that winning the support of this typical white working class voter requires “moving to the right” and appealing to his or her basically conservative views.
This cliché of “the typical white worker as a conservative” has a long history in political thinking. In its modern form it first appeared in 1970 in Scammon and Wattenberg’s book, The Real Majority in which a fictional 40 year old machinist from Ohio took his place alongside similar clichés about “conservative Hard Hats” and the TV character of Archie Bunker. Since that time it has survived largely unchanged as “the Joe Six-Pack vote,” “The Bubba vote”, “the NASCAR vote” and “gun-rack on the pick-up truck vote.”
But on the most basic level, this is simply the wrong way to think about white working class people.
For one thing, very often the differences between more and less educated white voters on specific issues are not large – often as little as 10 or 15%. This kind of difference is simply not enough to justify maintaining a stereotype of one group as being fundamentally more conservative than another. When comparing the views of two different groups of 30 individuals on a particular topic, for example, a 10% difference between the two groups will only represent a difference in the views of three of the 30 individuals. This is hardly enough to reasonably characterize one group as basically “conservative” and the other as “liberal” or “progressive” Three Kinds of Workers
Far more important, however, is the fact that the stereotype of the “average conservative white worker” fails to capture the most important fact about these voters – that most are not “average.” On the contrary White working class Americans are profoundly split into three distinct groups.
To read the memo, click here
A note from Ed Kilgore:
Rick Santorum’s recent comments on religion have elevated a number of core ideas of the religious right to a central place in the current national debate and have presented progressives and Democrats with a formidable challenge to their views.
In response to this challenge I am pleased to offer the following thought-provoking study of Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy as well as a companion communications campaign that illustrates how to put the study’s conclusions into action.
The Republican primary campaign has provided a foretaste of the bitter and divisive super-PAC driven media tactics that will be used against Obama in the fall. The fundamental and inescapable fact is that Democrats will be on the receiving end of a propaganda campaign of a scope and ferocity unparalleled in American history. Democrats must begin planning now how they will respond.
The attack will be three pronged:
First, there will be a “high road” attack directly sponsored by the Republican presidential candidate – now almost certainly Romney – and the RNC. It will be based on sanctimoniously accusing Obama of having “failed” — that he has not fulfilled his campaign promises and that his policies have proved ineffective. The media has already reported on this planned campaign and how it will reduce the need for Romney to attack Obama personally by using Obama’s own words against him.
This part of the three-pronged approach does not represent any major departure from the practices of past campaigns. Where it will significantly differ is in the use of bogus “facts” and statistics on a scale that would have been previously unacceptable. Years ago statements such as “the stimulus did not create any jobs” and “unemployment has risen under Obama” would have been dismissed as simply false by the media as soon as “mainstream” economists objected. In the modern “post-truth” Fox News world, on the other hand, even the most unambiguously false charges will be described as “debatable” rather than nonsense.
The second prong of the strategy will be a feverish invocation of the culture war narrative — one that will far excel Sarah Palin’s sneering and divisive “we’re the real, the good America; they are the degenerate coastal elites” framework that she used in the 2008 campaign.
The ads – which will come from Super-PAC’s more than official sources — will be ugly and distasteful: they will portray Obama as deeply “un-American” – foreign and alien to the heartland values and daily life of the “real” America. Romney and the Republicans have already made this the centerpiece of their “hardball” attack. Obama “goes around the world apologizing for America.” “He wants to turn America into France.” “He is a socialist who hates free enterprise.” The third-party ads will repeat these same accusations but with an overt appeal to prejudices that will be more accurately described as xenophobic rather than racial. The ads will identify Obama not with ghetto hoodlums or Black Panthers but rather with foreign ideas and ethnicities — “commies”, “America-hating Muslims” and “illegal aliens and foreigners,” all of whom support his goal of undermining America.
The most important and destructive change in 2012, however, will be in the vastly expanded dissemination of a third, flagrantly dishonest and utterly propagandistic “low road” attack – one that will be conducted both above and below the radar.
In 2008 the low road attack on Obama was conducted largely outside the official candidate and Republican party media or the major PAC’-s (one clumsy ad by the McCain campaign that attempted to make a “dog-whistle” suggestion that Obama was the anti-Christ was a notable exception). Most of the 2008 low road attacks circulated under the radar – through distribution to informal e-mail lists and comment threads, through micro-targeted direct mail, through robo-calls and through phone banks run by shadowy outside firms. Within these closed communication channels the claims were widely circulated that Obama was a secret Muslim, a radical/communist, a sympathizer with domestic terrorist bombers, and that he was behind a range of “Birtherist” and other conspiracies. Media Matters for America made pioneering attempt to map these “below the radar” attacks during the 2008 campaign and to outline how they were circulated and amplified within the various conservative communication networks, but the study was discontinued after the elections.
Observers were at first uncertain how important these sub-rosa attacks would be in the 2008 election but the absolutely pivotal role they played became very clear as the passion and enthusiasm of the Republican base became largely driven by these “disreputable” views rather than the more policy-based attack made by McCain himself. The real energy of the Republican base in 2008 was reflected in the almost fanatical Sarah Palin supporters whose enthusiasm vastly exceeded any support for McCain himself and whose signs and shouted slogans reflected the “disreputable” rumor-based views rather than opposition to Obama’s actual platform or priorities.
(The influence of the rumor-based attacks reached a dramatic climax when McCain – in the most honorable single action of his campaign – explicitly rejected the claim of a woman who asked why he didn’t tell voters “the truth” – that Obama was a Muslim terrorist and a traitor during one rally in September. McCain tried to reason with the woman, arguing that Obama was not a terrorist but simply an American with whom he disagreed but the crowd howled its fierce disapproval of his conciliatory remarks.)
Democrats should not assume that Romney will behave as honorably in 2012 as did McCain in 2008. While Romney will hold himself personally aloof, there is little or no chance that he will explicitly disavow the massive low road campaign that will be launched on his behalf.
In 2012 this low road attack – which will once again circulate in large part “under the radar” by e-mail, phone, mail and social media –will have three key characteristics:
In the coming days the Occupy Wall Street movement faces an extremely complex and difficult series of decisions about its strategy and tactics. It cannot simply repeat the initial tactic of occupying public spaces that it has employed up to now but it has not yet developed any clear alternative strategy for the future.
In debating their next steps the protesters – and the massive numbers of Americans who support them – will turn again and again to the history and example of the civil rights movement for guidance. Martin Luther King’s closest advisors including Jessie Jackson and Andrew Young have noted the clear historical parallels that exist between the two protest movements and both activists and observers will urgently seek to find lessons in the struggles of the past.
The discussion, however, will be hindered by the profoundly oversimplified vision that many people today have of how the victories of the civil rights movement were actually achieved. Most Americans have little more than a series of impressionistic images of the civil rights movement – police dogs and fire hoses unleashed against the demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, dramatic marches attacked by police in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and, across the south, sit-ins and freedom rides that rocked the region in the early years of the decade. In this vision, dramatic confrontations with the authorities appear to have been, in effect, the movement’s entire “strategy.”
But, in fact, behind every major campaign of the civil rights movement there was actually a very organized and coherent three-pronged strategy. To seriously seek guidance for the present in the struggles of the past, it is absolutely indispensible to understand the basic socio-political strategy that the movement employed.
The civil rights movement’s three-pronged strategy combined:
(1) Civil disobedience
(2) Grass-roots organizing and voter registration
(3) Boycotts and economic withdrawal
In every single major campaign of the civil rights movement – Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma — these three elements of the overall strategy were employed in a coherent, mutually supporting and reinforcing way. In contrast, no part of this coordinated approach was ever successful in isolation.
Seen in this light, there are indeed reasonable comparisons between the civil rights movement and the initial phase of Occupy Wall Street. OWS represents a modern application of civil disobedience, the first component of the civil rights movement’s three-pronged strategy. The essence of civil disobedience (also called “nonviolent direct action”) is the use of dramatic protests that disrupt normal activities and usually violate the law. They are designed to call attention to the existence of injustice and win public sympathy through the demonstrators willingness to risk danger and injury and to go to jail for their cause.
A number of recent national polls have shown remarkable levels of public support for the Occupy Wall Street protests. In two recent surveys, solid majorities have said that they either “agree” with the protestors or “view them favorably.” Perhaps even more striking are the results for groups who would ordinarily be expected to react with hostility. As Greg Sargent has noted, a majority of the non-college educated, working class whites in these surveys expressed clear support for the Wall Street protests. Adding icing to the cake, these same polls show that Occupy Wall Street is substantially more popular than the Tea Party
Looking at these results, progressives can be forgiven for feeling almost giddy. It is no longer unreasonable to seriously ask the questions: “Has the long night of conservative ideological hegemony finally reached its end? Has the long-sought populist holy grail been discovered at last?”
As with all polling data, however, one must be cautious about jumping too quickly to conclusions. When the question was posed simply as “is your opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement favorable, unfavorable or haven’t you heard enough about it” in a recent Quinnipiac survey the results were less encouraging. Only 30% of the respondents were favorable, 39% were unfavorable and 30% had not heard enough. Even when the questions include enough information for most people to formulate opinions, the questions end up probing general attitudes about Wall Street and the banking and financial industries rather than gauging the level of support for any specific agenda or strategy of the protests. The Time survey question, for example describes the protestors as opposing policies that “favor the rich, the government bank bailouts and the influence of money in our political system.” For many years now – well before the 2008 meltdown – surveys have shown that there is a very broad current of “populist” distrust and antagonism toward these same economic actors, policies and institutions. The problem has always been that this cluster of attitudes never found any meaningful outlet for practical social or political expression.
A more important reason for caution in interpreting the recent polls, however, becomes apparent when one looks more closely at those surveys that use a variety of different question wordings — wordings that more closely track the actual contours of today’s ideological and partisan debate between progressives and conservatives and that use the actual language employed by the two sides.
The most recent opinion survey by Democracy Corps asked a number of questions with these key characteristics. At first glance, the results seem solidly encouraging. Here are three statements that received strong majority support in the D-Corps survey:
Recent events ranging from the massive recall and repeal campaigns in Wisconsin and Ohio, the protests in the streets of downtown New York and the broad progressive coalition meeting in Washington to jump-start the “American Dream” movement have all dramatically raised progressives’ hopes that a new independent progressive movement might be emerging – one that will be able to successfully challenge the hold of Fox News and the Tea Party on ordinary Americans.
The hard and inescapable reality, however, is that any progressive organizing effort will quickly find itself grinding to a halt if it does not honestly and immediately confront a critical problem – the existence of two profoundly condescending and deeply destructive assumptions about ordinary working Americans that are widespread in the progressive world.
The assumptions are these:
1. That progressives naturally understand the “real” issues that face ordinary Americans without having the need to do any serious “field” research to find out how ordinary people themselves define, understand and think about the issues.
2. That ordinary working Americans are basically gullible and can be easily manipulated by the messages they get from the media.
In combination, these two assumptions repeatedly sabotage all progressive attempts to build an independent social movement that gains the support of ordinary working Americans.
Stated this bluntly, most progressives would quite indignantly deny that they actually hold these two views. But these opinions are rarely expressed this directly. Instead, they operate as unstated and often unrecognized underlying assumptions behind other kinds of assertions that are far more widespread. An example
A recent Huffington Post article presented a typical example of how these views are expressed in progressive commentary.
Here is how the article expresses the first assumption – that progressives already know what ordinary Americans consider the “real issues” without needing any data:
[Democrats] have become convinced by the new conventional wisdom in Washington, that Americans aren’t really concerned as much about jobs as they are about the deficit. If you stop and think about it for a moment, that notion is absurd on the face of it. Is it really possible that Americans who have lost their jobs or fear losing them are more worried about an abstraction — the budget deficit in Washington — than about the realities of their lives — that they face a budget deficit around their own kitchen table at the end of every month when they’re trying to pay their rent or make their mortgage payment on their rapidly depreciating home?
Set aside for a moment the verbal sleight of hand by which “Americans” in one sentence becomes “Americans who have lost their jobs or fear losing them” in the next. The article’s implicit argument is that “common sense” alone is sufficient to prove that the American people can never genuinely view deficits to be of equal importance to unemployment. The alternative can be summarily dismissed as “absurd”
Polls or other empirical data, on the other hand, can simply be “rigged” to provide any answer the pollster wants.
Can a pollster who believes or wants to show that Americans are as or more concerned about the national debt than jobs or the economic insecurity they face every day write questions in such a way as to get what he or she is looking for? Sure. Does this reflect what working and middle class Americans feel as they watch their economic security disappear? Not in a million years.
Many progressives will be deeply attracted to this point of view on an emotional level. But when one steps back to view it more dispassionately it becomes clear that the basic assumption underlying this line of argument is that progressives can know what ordinary Americans consider the “real issues” they face by a process of simple introspection and logic. Data is unnecessary because any alternative hypothesis can be summarily dismissed as “absurd on the face of it” and could not be true “in a million years”
This view has its roots in the post-World War II conviction among both progressives and Democrats that, as the advocates and representatives of the “ordinary guys” and “Average Joe’s” of the 50’s, they were naturally able to understand the “real” — essentially “kitchen table” economic — interests of working people and reliably distinguish between the “real” issues working people faced and the social and cultural issues that conservatives continually exploited to manipulate them. A recent and particularly lyrical version of this “real issues” versus “false consciousness” notion was expressed in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas”
The problem with this perspective is that it too easily leads to the rather arrogant notion that progressives can “know” what working people really want and care about by a process of deduction from what are defined as their “real interests” rather than through open-minded field research and investigation.
In a TDS Strategy Memo that got fairly wide attention last week I argued that “a very strong anti-Keynesian perspective on job creation is now widespread among American voters” and that therefore “simply repeating the traditional Democratic narrative — regardless of how frequently or emphatically — will not produce significant attitude change.”
In the process of being paraphrased and restated by other commentators, these two statements became transformed into two quite distinct assertions (a) that a “majority” of American voters no longer accept Keynesian measures and (b) as a result, Dems can no longer win their support for further action to create jobs.
Neither of these revised statements is correct. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, as far as how many Americans actually accept the explicitly anti-Keynesian view that cutting spending would really produce jobs, polling specialist Ruy Teixeira points to the following “forced choice” Washington Post poll as particularly revealing:
Do you think large cuts in federal spending would do more to create jobs or do more to cut jobs in this country?”
More to create jobs – 41%
More to cut jobs – 45%
Neither (vol.) -7%
Unsure — 7%
This is as close as one can come to an absolute, “gun to the head” forced-choice -the wording of the question doesn’t even offer the respondent a “neither” option — and even so 15 percent either said “neither” or that they just didn’t know. So, at the very best, only a minority of 40% of the American people really support the explicitly ideological anti-Keynesian position that cutting spending will create jobs.
On the other hand, however, the textbook Keynesian view that “cutting spending destroys jobs” also falls short of a majority. So, on this poll, Keynesians and anti-Keynesians seem roughly tied and neither has an absolute majority.
But look at what happens when respondents are given a third choice.
“If the government makes major cuts in federal spending this year in an effort to reduce the budget deficit, do you think these cuts will: [randomize] help the job situation/hurt the job situation, or not have much of an effect either way?”
Help – 18%
Hurt – 34%
Not have much of an effect either way — 41%
In this case the explicitly ideological anti-Keynesian view drops very dramatically to 18%. In contrast, a larger group of about a third of the sample takes a “Keynesian” view that spending cuts would hurt job creation while the remainder feels that spending cuts would “not have much of an effect either way”. The number of Americans who genuinely and passionately believe that massive spending cuts would really create millions of new jobs is therefore likely closer to the 20% figure in this poll than the 41% “forced choice” figure in the previous poll.
But what about those 41% in this second survey who say cuts would not have much of an effect either way?
A professor teaching a traditional Economics 101 course would say that people who think cutting spending during a deep recession would not have any effect at all are not only factually wrong but are also technically expressing an “anti-Keynesian” view. But many of the people choosing the “not much effect” option are not really making a serious macroeconomic forecast (i.e. “I predict that the net effect of major spending reductions on the unemployment rate will be zero”) but rather a view that is more accurately viewed as basically “skeptical” or “cynical” as opposed to ideologically anti-Keynesian.
One of the most exasperating Democratic failures of the last two years has been the Dems inability to turn high unemployment into a winning political issue. To many progressive Democrats the failure seems literally incomprehensible. After all, millions of Americans are deeply and painfully affected by job losses and opinion polls show with absolute consistency that voters strongly accord “creating jobs” a higher priority than deficit reduction. This holds true across an extraordinarily wide variety of different polls and question wordings.
Given these two facts, many progressives conclude that the only plausible explanation for the Dems failure is their timidity and fear of challenging conservative myths with sufficient boldness. Had Democratic candidates and officeholders displayed sufficient passion and commitment on this issue — and championed genuinely aggressive action to create jobs — many progressives and grass-roots Dems argue that they would surely have been able to mobilize the huge latent well of support that the opinion data shows must exist within the electorate.
It is easy to sympathize with the intense frustration that motivates these views but the reasons why Dems have had less success with the jobs issue than seems warranted are more complex than simply a lack of sufficient passion or commitment. It’s important to understand these deeper causes because they suggest more effective strategies for the future. Why the opinion poll data is less clear-cut than it appears.
The key problem that must be recognized is that the apparently unambiguous support opinion polls suggest for creating jobs is actually extremely misleading. While creating jobs is indeed consistently given a higher priority than reducing deficits, how this particular fact fits into the larger pattern of public attitudes is far from obvious.
As Democratic pollster guy Mark Melman notes:
It is in the connection [of deficit reduction] to job creation that Democrats misunderstand the tenor of public opinion. Economists, Keynesian and otherwise, along with Democrats, mostly recognize that federal spending creates jobs. Not so voters, at least many of them.
In (a recent) Bloomberg poll, by a nine-point margin, Americans said the better way for the government to create jobs was to cut spending, while smaller numbers opted for “invest[ing] in projects such as high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet,” etc. Indeed, several polls suggest that voters judge cutting federal spending to be the single most effective step government can take to create jobs.
So when Democrats argue that the GOP is focused on spending cuts at the expense of job creation, most Americans shake their heads in disbelief, seeing those cuts as exactly the kind of “stimulus” we need.
For most progressives, who generally have at least a nodding acquaintance with the basic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, it seems almost impossible to believe that substantial numbers of voters can seriously accept this genuinely wacky notion. It appears simply irrational. But when one listens to enough focus groups and other real-world discussions it becomes clear that this view is indeed incredibly pervasive. People will frequently say that “Only private business creates “real” jobs. Government just takes money away from the private sector and transfers it to government bureaucrats and lazy civil servants”. The fact that this view is objectively false does not make it any less common or deeply held. Another leading Democratic pollster, Guy Molyneaux, seconds Melman’s point:
The public-opinion data on this point, unfortunately, is unambiguous…To be sure, voters do still put jobs and the economy ahead of the deficit in a head-to-head contest of their leading concerns. However, such poll questions assume a choice — reduce the deficit or improve the economy — which voters do not actually perceive. Instead, the public believes deficit reduction is an important step for growing the economy. Indeed, other polling Hart Research conducted in February showed that by a margin of 50 percent to 40 percent, voters believe that reducing the deficit and cutting government spending is a better way to improve the economy than investing in America’s infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and new technology.
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.