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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


A Brief Note about the So-called “Conservative Movement” and the Democratic Party

As the eulogies for Bill Buckley give way to more cerebral discussions of modern day conservatism, it is worth stopping for a moment to insist upon a basic fact – one that Democrats should never allow the mainstream media (or themselves) to forget.
Despite the frequent use of the term “movement” by the press, the “conservative movement” that has provided the Republican Party with its basic ideology since the Reagan- Gingrich era is profoundly different from the two major social movements whose viewpoints are deeply embedded in the basic outlook and philosophy of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s economic perspective comes not simply from the legislation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, but from the epic struggle of the American trade union movement in the 1930’s. Equally, at the heart of the modern Democratic Party’s social philosophy lies the historical experience of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King.
These two social movements had three things in common. They were struggles of profoundly disadvantaged and oppressed groups for basic social and economic justice, they were grass-roots, bottom-up movements in which leaders emerged from the rank and file, and they were led by dedicated militants who made huge personal and human sacrifices.
Both trade union and civil right organizers lived with the constant fear of death, vicious beatings, or imprisonment and both movements had many famous martyrs killed in the struggle (the Haymarket victims and Joe Hill for the trade unionists; Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Three, (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) and the children of the Birmingham bombing for the civil rights movement). Many of the leaders of both movements spent significant time in jail — it was, in fact, a proud badge of honor and a symbol of their commitment to the cause.
Sadly, for many people under the age of 40 these realities — which everybody knew perfectly well at the time — now sound like melodramatic exaggerations. But they are not; they are simple statements of fact.
The modern “official” conservative movement on the other hand – although in some respects indeed a social movement – was and is to a significant degree a movement of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and as a result has never had any of the three characteristics above.
The modern conservative movement was heavily subsidized by foundations and wealthy individuals from its beginnings. By the 1980’s there was a substantial network of think-tanks, book publishers, house-organ magazines, scholarships and internships that recruited and financially supported young conservatives. Communication with ordinary people was overwhelmingly conducted by very sanitary, “no getting the hands dirty” methods – largely direct mail and television (particularly televangelist programming) – rather than by any actual door-to-door, grass-roots organizing.
Now to be sure. there have indeed been a number of genuine right-wing, grass roots activist movements since the 1970’s. There have been skinhead/racist/survivalist groups (like “The Order” and “White Power” in 1980’s, the militia movement in 1990s, the Minutemen today), and also broader grass-roots movements to fight local gun control initiatives, to infiltrate local school boards to mandate creationism and to conduct civil (and also very uncivil) disobedience against abortion clinics.
All of these movements shared two characteristics – they were authentically bottom up, grass-roots movements and they were all treated like embarrassing, party-crashing, beer-drinking, trailer park trash phenomena by the official beltway conservative “movement”.
On the other hand when the current generation of “official” conservative spokesmen – the Gingrichs, D’Souzas, Laffers, Murrays, Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Coulters– were in college in the 70’s and 80’s, the worst injustice most of them suffered was having to listen to pompous tenured radicals talk endlessly about Foucault and Germaine Greer rather than Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
It is important for Democrats to point this out whenever the media casually equate the modern conservative “movement” with the genuine social movements that underlie the Democratic coalition because it creates a false equivalence between the moral authority of the two. It artificially imbues official “inside-the-beltway” conservatism with connotations of a genuine grass-roots social movement – traditions of altruism and self sacrifice, identification with the struggle for justice and solidarity with the underdog.
Let’s face the facts. The conservative movement indeed recognized and capitalized upon a number of genuine and sincere grievances of working-class and other ordinary Americans. But the middle-class and upper-class, white American men who compose the official conservative movement have never in their “custom-tailored-suit- and- tie”, “better-side-of town” lifetimes been the oppressed victims of systematic social injustice.
This is illustrated by an ironic fact. Genuine grass-roots social movements of the oppressed always have songs and anthems that express their deepest social ideals. At the end of every union organizing meeting trade unionists would always sing “Solidarity Forever”. Every civil rights rally concluded with the singing of “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome”.
There is nothing remotely comparable in the well-funded, “inside the beltway” conservative so-called “movement”. In fact, it is hard to even visualize exactly what kind of spiritual anthem could properly express the social philosophy of the audiences who attend meetings of groups like the Conservative Political Action Council, the Heritage Foundation, the College Republicans or the US Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, wait a minute. Come to think of it, there is one. All these groups could kick off their conferences with a few lusty choruses of “Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, A Pirates’ Life for Me”. It would fit them like a glove.

Psychology for Democrats — Resisting the Trap of Seeing the Primaries as War

James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include major nonprofit institutions and high-tech firms.
Although social psychology is a central source of laboratory research on attitudes and persuasion, among many down-to-earth marketing and advertising specialists many of its findings are not considered particularly practical. One longstanding tongue-in-cheek definition of the field, in fact, is that it is “the discipline that conducts unconvincingly artificial experiments to reveal generally tenuous statistical correlations between variables whose relationship no-one really doubted in the first place”.
Despite this, however, one of the most solidly – indeed mind-numbingly – validated facts in the social psychological literature is that when people begin to play a particular social role – even one they do not wish to play – their attitudes gradually adjust to correspond with their actions. This effect is so powerful that even being explicitly reminded of its effect does not prevent a change in attitude from occurring.
Right now one can see this process playing out with a vengeance inside the Democratic Party. Six months ago the most common opinions about the leading candidates among ordinary Dems was that “They are all good choices”; “I could vote for any of them” and “Every one of them is ten times better then any of the Republicans”. Back in the summer it was impossible to find large numbers of average Democrats bitterly describing Hillary as an utterly conniving cynic or Obama as the superficial leader of a political youth cult.
Now, on the other hand, the intense and emotional stresses of primary campaigning has lead many rank and file Democratic activists to an increasingly polarized re-definition of the candidates, one that lurches deep into caricature – Hillary as hopelessly conservative and amoral Lady Macbeth, Obama as modern day snake-oil salesman seducing the gullible and naïve. Across the internet and in private conversation there is an increasingly evident tendency to exaggerate differences in policy and overstate defects of character in order to psychologically validate the huge investment of effort and passion that so many grass-roots Democratic activists have made in their chosen candidates.
The Republican media, of course, gleefully feeds this story line and it is also reinforced by the many superficial members of the mainstream political commentariat – a breed exemplified by the infallibly pathetic Maureen Dowd for whom no lurid, “fight to the death” metaphor can possibly be too infantile, superficial, operatic or sanguinary.
To some degree this polarization is inevitable as the candidates are pressured to make more personal attacks on each other in hopes of gaining an advantage. But, particularly for rank and file democrats, the problem is deeply exacerbated by the dominant “definition of the situation” – the general media characterization of the primary campaign as a war between opponents rather then as a competition between aspirants or contenders.
There is a way for Democrats to combat this mental trap, however, one that is difficult but not impossible. It is based on the fact that, even when people are locked in a particular social role, they can nonetheless consciously redefine or “reframe” a situation if they choose to. In this case, the key is to recognize that the “war between opponents” conceptual paradigm is simply wrong for the current situation and to consciously replace it with a more appropriate one.
An excellent alternative metaphor is available — the athletic competition for the U.S. National Olympic teams that occurs every four years. American sports fans do become passionately dedicated to one or another competitor – especially in individual sports like gymnastics and figure skating. But they do not end up bitterly deprecating or demonizing the other contenders. On the contrary, while they may fervently believe in the superiority of their own chosen athlete, the other participants continue to be seen as entirely admirable and even inspiring figures who only seek to demonstrate that they are the best possible representative of their country. Even at the most agonizing moments of the final competition, the opposing contenders are not redefined as enemies.
In the coming months rank and file Democrats must consciously strive to conceptually re-frame this years’ Democratic primary process in order to help reduce the antagonism inevitably generated by the electoral competition. A primary campaign is of necessity intensely competitive, but it need not be visualized as an intra-party civil war. The stakes are far too high to let the wrong definition of the situation lead us astray.

Democratic Strategy and the Ambivalent Public Opinion Data on Iraq

Ever since General Petraeus testified before Congress several weeks ago Democratic strategists have faced a complex challenge in interpreting the subsequent opinion polls on Iraq. On the one hand polls asking if the number of troops should be “decreased” or the troops “withdrawn” or if “deadlines” should be imposed continue to receive majority support. Yet at the same time, solid majorities of the electorate also offer their “support” or “approval” of the plan put forth by General Petraeus.
Now for many routine political purposes – campaign stump speeches, e-mail fundraising letters, rousing sermons to grass-roots supporters – ambiguous data like this are easy to handle – one just dismisses the incompatible poll data as a “distortion” and not the “real” public opinion.
Here’s how it’s done. Every politically aware person starts with a very firm gut feeling that he or she knows what the average person “really” thinks. We say to ourselves “If I could just talk to that average guy for 10 minutes across a kitchen table, I know he’d agree with me that the troops should come home. As a result, it’s obvious that adding the name of a General like Petraeus into a survey question just artificially biases the outcome. Poll questions without any well-known names included in them are a better measure of what the public “really” thinks about withdrawal”.
This kind of logic seems entirely reasonable until we happen to overhear the other side doing exactly the same thing. They say “I know if I could talk to that average guy for 10 minutes, he’d agree with me that he really doesn’t want America to lose this war. Vapid, hypothetical questions about when people wish the troops could come home are meaningless. They don’t indicate the consequences or describe the price of pulling out. The only “real” measure of public opinion on withdrawal from Iraq is the number of people who support or oppose the Petraeus plan.”
In practice what actually happens when poll data is ambiguous like this is that both sides just cherry-pick the polls and use only the data that supports their particular view – a process which ends up being more than slightly tedious. Politicians and commentators relentlessly throw opinion data at each other like World War I doughboys lobbing hand grenades across the trenches. Fortunately for the Dems for the last year or so the polls have generally contained as much or more data that that suggested support for prompt withdrawal as against it, making these rhetorical “poll wars” more or less a draw.
But for the serious formulation of Democratic political strategy, on the other hand, cherry-picking the data is not an acceptable solution. To make plans for the coming elections the Dems have to try to understand what the contradictory polling data actually indicates about the state of American public opinion and what the real balance between anti-war and pro-administration opinion really is.
Fortunately, last week Gallup released one of the methodologically clever studies they periodically pop up with – a study that goes a long way toward providing some useful answers.

It’s Time for the Dems to Recruit Some Generals of Their Own.

In the movie “A Few Good Men” the rookie JAG lawyer played by Tom Cruise cleverly exploits his own lack of military experience and bearing by using it to provoke a deep contempt in the crusty general played by Jack Nicholson. In response to Cruise’s skillful baiting, Nicholson explodes in an on-the-witness-chair meltdown that leaves him sputtering futilely and blurting out the critical evidence of his own misconduct.
“A Few Good Men” is not the only Hollywood movie that ends with a similar meltdown of a military “bad-guy” at the hands of a quintessentially liberal journalist/attorney/citizen (one who invariably has only “the truth” on his or her side). Kirk Douglas, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott and a bunch of other A-list actors have all played the heavy in this particular bit over the years.
And amazingly, in real life as well, exactly the same thing has happened… let’s see…….um, well, gee, when you get down to it – Never. Not once. Not in this bloody universe. Not even close.
On the contrary, military men testifying before Congress invariably come off better then their interrogators – William Westmorland, Oliver North and now General Petraeus never even break a sweat while the legislators questioning them probe and thrust haphazardly like rookie public defenders who misplaced their case notes and are bluffing their way through a cross-examination, hoping the cop they are questioning will suddenly develop amnesia or some other miracle will fall in their lap.
Now the truth is that everybody knows perfectly well that this is the way it always works out in real life and everybody — not just communications specialists — knows exactly why.
It’s not just the uniform, although that’s profoundly important. A military career obviously suggests a vast range of admirable messages about the person and his values – patriotism, self-discipline, bravery, technical mastery, cool-headedness, a commitment to something larger then money (Politicians, in contrast, generally embody…. Oh never mind).
But even more important, a high-ranking military officer testifying before Congress is presenting something more then just a particular viewpoint or opinion. He is outlining a military strategy – a coherent plan that includes the goals and objectives being sought, the general plan for achieving them and the results of technical analyses and feasibility studies drawn from a whole series of sub-fields – logistics, transportation, force structure, intelligence, and many others.