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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Democratic Strategist

Bad Advice, Good Television

For inspiration tonight, I type this while watching Carrie Bradshaw type her column on Sex and the City reruns. I’m going to try to end with something facile yet pithy, just like her.
OK, a big reason I became involved with the Strategist is because I believe the Party is getting bad advice from various quarters. On a completely unrelated note, I am on record as questioning the analysis of American Environics, a new consulting firm founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, authors of the influential The Death of Environmentalism. Nordhaus has a background in environmental activism and consulting. Schellenberger, a public relations consultant, helped launch the group behind the New Apollo Project. That’s almost enough to make me forgive him for opening his bio with, “Michael Shellenberger specializes in synthesizing ideas from a wide range of fields in ways that create social change breakthroughs.”
Where was I? In February, The American Prospect published a much-discussed article touting American Environics’s research findings. It painted a picture of Cro-Magnon attitudes toward gender roles, tolerance of violence, plummeting civic-mindedness, and an every-man-for-himself ethos. This portrait seemed far too…hellish to me, and some of the statistics seemed implausible. For example, AE found that a majority of Americans believed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” and 40 percent said that “men are naturally superior to women”.
It’s too late to make this long story short, but Ruy Teixeira and I independently checked some of their claims against data from the American National Election Study. To put it simply, we found very few of their claims that we could examine were supported by our data, and their response was pathetic.
Yesterday I found an abbreviated survey on the website of the partner company (Environics) responsible for the data AE uses that promised to place me in one of twelve “tribes” defined by two values dimensions (social vs. individual orientation and modern vs. traditional attitudes). Turns out I’m an Autonomous Post-Materialist, which sounds right (and harks back to my post from yesterday). But their description of the tribe seemed rather off the mark. For instance, it claimed my “icons” were people like Dennis Rodman, “dot-com millionaires”, and “computer hacker Mafiaboy”, none of which describe this rather inhibited, law-abiding grad student. In general, the characterization seemed a collection of exaggerated traits describing multiple groups with little in common other than their location on the two value dimensions.
In the Prospect piece, American Environics described a similar mapping of Americans onto two values dimensions – authority vs. individuality and fulfillment vs. survival. And again, the characterization of their location on these axes was exaggerated and oversimplified. Rather than emphasizing the personal choice aspect of “individuality”, it is “anomie-aimlessness” and an “atomized, rage-filled outlook” that are highlighted. And how does the “survival” end of that dimension encompass fatalism and apathy as well as acceptance of violence and sexism?
Don’t get me wrong, the Prospect article itself – written by the estimable Garance Franke-Ruta – made a number of insightful points about class and the economy and how moral values are prioritized in places where there appears to be a threat of these values being eroded; our criticism was of AE rather than her. Having subsequently read the details of AE’s methodology on their website, I think they are collecting an impressive amount of data and analyzing it creatively. I even think their approach – identifying values that swing voters share with progressives to win them over even when they disagree on some other key value – could be quite valuable.
But their basic data seems to have problems (perhaps a non-representative sample, potentially as a consequence of who does and does not agree to participate in the survey). Some of their value dimensions seem too imprecisely defined (“individuality” as choice and as rage-filled) and poorly labeled (“survival” as encompassing apathy). And Nordhaus and Schellenberger seem to describe traits in the most extreme way possible. Finally, as far as I can tell, Environics doesn’t include questions on policy or political preferences in their survey, since it was and is primarily collected for corporate clients. Their sole politics-oriented paper appears to make a number of contentious claims based on a lit review and…intuition? That means that AE can say which values are the right ones to target, but their data can’t say anything about which policies to promote in order to reflect the right values. At best, they can suggest an effective rhetoric for politicians. But not until they iron out their other problems.
So I beg you, Center for American Progress, DLC, NDN, Third Way, and EPI — please don’t hang your hats on what American Environics is peddling.
In conclusion, being single in Manhattan makes you constantly face the question: can bad data give politicians good advice about good values? And if American Environics doesn’t value good data then how can they provide good value to bad politicians? (I tried…I’m no Carrie Bradshaw.)

Gary Hart’s “New Ideas”: Use the Best of “Old” Ideas

Former Colorado senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart has posted an abbreviated version of his recommended approach to the problem of “new ideas”. Presumably the book will be able to go into slightly more detail, but he clearly advocates taking the best of the twentieth century Democratic tradition as a way to clearly distinguish the Party from Republicans.
Those of you disappointed with the current Democratic leadership will also want to check out his post on HuffPo today.

Tax and Spend?

One of my obsessions lately – other than banana crème frappuchinos – is the question of just how big a government Americans are willing to pay for. More specifically, how much are we willing to spend on social programs? To look at polling data from conventional surveys, you could be forgiven for thinking that we live in Sweden. Americans, according to results that have been replicated time and again, prefer spending more money than we currently do on health care, education, anti-poverty programs, child care, social security, and pretty much any other budget item other than welfare and foreign aid.
On the other hand, Americans think their taxes are too high, and a slight majority approved of the Bush tax cuts when asked before the 2004 election. That was true despite the fact that only a minority of Americans believed that the average worker benefited from them. (These and subsequent uncited figures are from my analysis of the American National Election Study.)
Furthermore, when people are forced to choose between raising spending on domestic programs, cutting taxes, or reducing the budget deficit, the number of voters who consistently choose spending increases over both of the other options indicates much more tepid support for spending increases than implied by questions that don’t pose trade-offs.
What would be particularly useful would be to ask people how they would allocate federal budget dollars. That is what a February 2005 survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks did. This poll suffers from some real shortcomings. It didn’t allow for tax increases or cuts as an option, and while it allowed deficit reduction, participants were not given information about the size of the deficit. What is more, the survey only examined how respondents would allocate discretionary spending, so participants were not given an accurate picture of how much the federal government really spends in different areas. Excluding entitlement spending leaves out Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are three of the most expensive federal programs. Had entitlements been included, the allocations respondents would have given might look entirely different.
These weaknesses aside, the results of the survey are revealing. First, Americans would make deep cuts in defense spending in order to reallocate money to other priorities. Survey respondents would have cut defense spending by 31 percent relative to the 2006 budget Bush initially proposed – freeing up $134 billion. They would also have allocated $30 billion from the request the Administration made in their supplemental budget for expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. These preferences are fairly remarkable given that Bush won the 2004 election largely on the issue of terrorism.
Second, Americans would increase spending on education, energy conservation, job training / employment, medical research, and veterans. They would decrease spending on the space program, science research, transportation, and administration of justice. While they would increase spending the most in dollar terms on education, they would raise energy spending to 12 times the amount Bush requested. The saving from cutting non-defense programs is basically negligible – less than the increase in education or energy spending.
Finally, given existing spending levels, Americans would prioritize the deficit over new spending – even without being given information on the size of the deficit relative to spending. Respondents would have devoted one-third more to deficit reduction than to education.
It is likely that if respondents had been told that the 2006 budget deficit was projected to be $400 billion – nearly as large as the defense budget – they would have directed even more of their dollars to deficit reduction rather than raising spending. And had Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security expenditures been given to respondents, the defense budget wouldn’t have looked quite as big, so defense cuts in service of domestic spending would have been smaller as well.
But the respondents to this survey couldn’t increase taxes in order to raise spending while at the same time reducing the deficit. As I noted above, American swing voters generally think they pay too much in taxes. However, they believe even more strongly that the rich pay too little. Taken together, this implies that a majority of adults would cut military spending and raise taxes on the rich in order to reduce the deficit and increase domestic spending.
This conclusion is likely not to sit well with many voters at all. Liberals will be frustrated that deficit reduction is prioritized above spending increases. Centrists will be uncomfortable with defense cuts and with the potential trouble that might be raised by calling for tax increases (even if just for the rich). The thin preferences for spending and deficit reduction over tax cuts mean that calls to roll back the Bush tax cuts are vulnerable to strategic framing by the Republicans. Finally, conservatives will be unhappy about a tax increase on the rich, defense cuts, spending increases, or perhaps all three.
The most important conclusion from this study, however, is that we need to improve upon it and get a more meaningful picture of the ideal budget voters would produce. This is a fairly basic question that we apparently can’t say much about.

Navel-Gazing And the Values Debate

You might not expect to find strategy-relevant information in a paper by a Dutch sociologist that has the title, “The ‘Second Demographic Transition’ in the U.S.: Spatial Patterns and Correlates” (pdf). But as it turns out, Ron Lesthaeghe and his co-author Lisa Neidert have uncovered some fascinating evidence that clarifies what the “culture wars” in national politics are all about.
L&N start with 19 demographic indicators. They then examine the correlations across U.S. states between these indicators and identify two underlying dimensions that the indicators tap into. The first of these – call it lifestyle modernism – has to do with delay in marriage and childbearing, cohabitation (opposite- or same-sex), fertility, and abortion rates. The second is related to teen and nonmarital fertility and might be thought of as childbearing conventionality. Divorce rates play into both dimensions.
Still with me? If you thought that was the interesting part, just wait…
What emerges starkly from their results is that blue states tend to have modern lifestyles (delayed marriage and childbearing, relatively high abortion and low fertility, high levels of cohabitation) while red states tend to have traditional ones. How strong is this relationship? Social scientists use a measure of association called the correlation coefficient, which can range from -1 (perfect negative association) to 1 (perfect positive association), with 0 indicating no linear relationship. This economist found that the correlation between the share of a state’s vote that went to Bush in 2004 and the share of the state’s voters “regularly” attending church was 0.20 – quite low. Compare this to the correlation between modernist lifestyle (a combination of the above demographic indicators) and the 2004 vote for Bush: -0.87.
In English, this means that differences in lifestyles – in terms of when people get married and have children, how many children they have, how common cohabitation and same-sex households are, and how high abortion rates are – are far more strongly related to presidential voting patterns than church attendance is. Indeed, when L&N controlled for the share of a state’s population that was Evangelical and the share that was Catholic, the correlation between lifestyle and the vote only declined to -0.76.
Ready to be even more impressed? The association is strong even at the county level. Take a look at these maps showing the Bush vote by county and cohabitation (same- or opposite-sex) by county (from page 25 of L&N’s paper).
What to make of these results? One conclusion might be that the cultural/values divide between blue and red states is bigger than religion. It is fundamentally about modernism versus traditionalism, about deference to authority. L&N write that lifestyle modernism is associated with secularism, anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism, moral libertarianism, high valuation of self-actualization, tolerance for moral ambiguity and unconventionality, and a preference for friendships over civic involvement. The quest for fulfillment has led modernists to be more picky about taking a spouse and to think twice before commiting to children in young adulthood. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Ron Inglehart has noted that as more and more Americans became economically secure in the post-WWII years, the growing middle class could worry less about the materialist concerns of the New Deal era (how can I afford to feed my family?) and could focus more on “post-materialist” issues (how can I feel fulfilled in my job?). This argument implies that with opportunity and economic security come blue-state values. Absent that, many red state voters will not have the luxury of such navel-gazing, and they will seek meaning and refuge in traditional institutions, ways of life, and attitudes toward authority. And they will vote Republican.
If Democrats can successfully implement a progressive economic agenda, we may see the values debate become marginalized. But in the meantime, modernists need to respect – or at least address – the traditionalists and their deference to family, religious, and state authority. There are undoubtedly things we can do in this regard that do not require us to abandon core Democratic values. But that’s a post for another day.

Left Behind?

I’d like to start the week off with what I’ll call…Data Day! (Cue the Monty Python illustrated montage, with majestic trumpets, ending in flatulence.)
Last week I mentioned that my read of the evidence is that Americans are right-leaning. This is an incredibly important question in strategy debates among Democrats. What drives many of us to heretofore unseen levels of profanity and exasperation with professional Democrats is the discrepancy between our poor electoral fortunes and the idea that we live in a Fifty-Fifty Nation. If the parties are at parity, why can’t the Democrats (frame/motivate our base/stay as united/enforce discipline/defend our principles) as well as Republicans? And the answers that lend themselves are that we have inept candidates, incompetent consultants, unprincipled elites, or ineffective framing.
It’s certainly true that we live in a Fifty-Fifty Nation when it comes to partisanship, even though that is an indicator of erosion in Democratic support since the post-Watergate ’70s. The following chart shows the Democrats’ share of party identification among adults who identify as either Democrats or Republicans (based on Gallup data I tabulated):
But the fact that the country is evenly divided in terms of partisanship doesn’t mean that it must be evenly divided in ideological identification. For that to be the case, liberalism would have to be as common among Democrats as conservatism is among Republicans. But it is not.
According to the 2004 American National Election Study, liberals were a majority among Democrats (56% versus 33% conservative). But conservatives dominate the Republican Party to a much greater extent, accounting for over 80 percent of their party members compared with just a 5% share for liberal Republicans. Nationally, there are 40 percent more conservatives than liberals. This was also true in 1972, the first year the NES asked respondents this question. In the Gallup data, where it’s impossible to allocate “leaning” moderates to the liberal and conservative groups, liberals look much scarcer.
The following chart is analogous to the previous one, except this time I show liberals as a share of those calling themselves either liberal or conservative. This chart is a bit disjointed because Gallup did not construct the ideology questions consistently from year to year. All of the data points listed were from questions providing at least three categories (liberal, moderate, or conservative), and most of them provide five. Question and category wording varied however, so I show each consistent series in the same color. Finally, I tried to be as consistent as possible in choosing the month in each year the survey was conducted.
I’ll stop here and let you all comment on the questions all these data raise. How meaningful are the labels “liberal” and “conservative”? How can we account for the timing of the changes in the data? If self-identified ideology is meaningful, what are the implications for various electoral strategies prescribed for Democrats?

Pleased to meet you

Welcome to The Daily Strategist, the blog of our new magazine. I’m Scott Winship, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and blogger-in-chief. I will typically be posting once a day in the late evening. Why only once a day you ask? Well, in addition to running the magazine, I am (in theory) writing a dissertation in social policy. I’m also involved in a couple of other outside projects which you can easily find if you google me and have too much time on your hands. Which you don’t because you haven’t read the whole premiere issue yet, have you?
In The Daily Strategist — I lobbied to call it The Strat-o-caster but wiser heads prevailed — I hope to augment the monthly publication cycle of the magazine with information relevant to Democratic national political strategy. Some days that will mean highlighting news from other outlets. Other days it will mean provoking other bloggers or responding to their provocations. Still other days I will summarize academic and think tank research. And Fridays I will likely make unconvincing attempts to pass off reviews of VH1’s evening schedule as relevant to political strategy.
In a very real way, you (dear reader) can help make this a better blog by passing along links to articles or studies that I can deconstruct. I know that sounds like I’m pushing my work off on you, but hey, Josh Marshall does it so why can’t I? (Incidentally, if anyone out there knows Stata, I’d love to push my dissertation work off onto you too. And if you live in D.C., let me know if you’re interested in doing my laundry.)
Before I sign off, you deserve to know a bit about my own ideological predispositions. First and foremost, I am an empiricist, so I try to the extent possible to rely on evidence, data. My read of 20th-century American political history and the analysis I’ve done of electoral data lead me to believe that, unfortunately, there are not enough voters out there who are as secular or fiscally progressive as I am. And there are not enough who are as anti-nationalist as many of you are. As such, I am of the view that Democrats must make (modest) efforts to accomodate those who are to the right of progressives.
At the same time, I part ways with most progressives in a number of policy and political debates. I am essentially a chastened Peter Beinart hawk. I believe in a social policy that both promotes opportunity but demands responsibility. I’m sympathetic toward market-based policies. The point is, in some regards I have a real affinity for moderate Democrats rather than simply being pragmatic.
Can I win you back if I say that in my perfect world we’d have universal health care, a higher minimum wage, gay marriage, more progressive taxes, no creationism in schools, more generous family leave, more legal immigration, preschool for all, tougher fair housing laws, and – uh – polar ice caps?
Stripped of blind ideology, policy — and political strategy — is complicated. The trick is to always treat one’s views as provisional, grapple with evidence, and let the chips fall where they may. We all have to be prepared to say we were wrong, myself included. I’d like to think that’s the spirit that will guide The Democratic Strategist as we collectively search for the keys to building an enduring Democratic majority.
Talk to you Monday!