washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Debate over country song is a right-wing trap for Democrats.

The debate over the song “Try That in a Small Town” is an excellent example of a particularly devious right-wing extremist trap – one that the GOP will use against Democrats again and again in 2024. Dems need to understand what the trap is designed to accomplish, how it works and how to defend against it.

Read the Memo.

A Democratic Political Strategy for Reaching Working Class Voters That Starts from the Actual “Class Consciousness” of Modern Working Americans.

by Andrew Levison

Read the Memo

Progressives need to apologize to Oliver Anthony

He understands working people better than they do, he can talk to them better than they can.

Read the Memo.

Why Don’t Working People Recognize and Appreciate Democratic Programs and Policies

The mythology of “Franklin Roosevelt’s Hundred Days” and the Modern Debate Over “Deliverism.”

Read the Memo.

Innovative Study Offers New Insight into White Working Class Voters.

Innovative Study Provides Startling New Insight About Working Class Voters
By Andrew Levison

Read the memo.

Democrats Will Lose Elections in 2022 and 2024 if They do Not Offer a Plausible Strategy for Reducing the Surge of Immigrants at the Border.

Read on…

The Daily Strategist

September 24, 2023

Polarized Partisans (Probably)

Three weeks ago, the Senate shelved its latest election-year effort to add a ban on gay marriage to the United States Constitution. The last such attempt occurred on July 14, 2004, fittingly the same day that political scientist Morris Fiorina’s Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America entered bookstores.
(Were I blogging about Jessica Alba, I would note that The Hollywood Reporter confirmed her participation in Fantastic Four that day. But the editors said they’d “get back to me” about starting a second blog on the website.)
Anyway, Fiorina and two additional credited authors proffered the thesis that while political elites have grown increasingly polarized on cultural issues, the general population remains moderate. Unfortunately, they argued, the elite polarization produces a dynamic where voters have few moderate options to choose from and where their real concerns go unaddressed.
A recent issue of The Forum – an online political science journal available at http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/ – explored Fiorina’s empirical claims. I will discuss other pieces in the issue in future posts; today I’ll just review the lead-off piece by Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America.” (Volume 3, Issue 2 of the journal)
In Culture War?, Fiorina claims Americans are closely divided on cultural issues but not deeply divided. Abramowitz and Saunders confirm that most Americans are moderate. On an 11-point scale of ideology they constructed based on responses to sixteen policy questions, 6 (the midpoint) was the most common category, followed by 7 (slightly conservative) and 5 (slightly liberal). Nearly half of voters fell between 5 and 7 on the scale.
On the other hand, there were large gaps between Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats averaged 5 on the scale, the typical Republican scored 7.5. Thus, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats were liberal. Fully 78 percent of Republicans were scored higher than 6, while only 63 percent of Democrats were scored lower than 6. My own calculations indicate that this asymmetric polarization shows up if one looks instead at a 7-point scale measuring respondents’ self-identified ideology. While 80 percent of Republicans call themselves conservative, just 56 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal.
Also contrary to Fiorina’s thesis, Abramowitz and Saunders find that partisan polarization has increased notably since 1972, almost entirely prior to 1996. And the association between one’s party and one’s self-identified ideology and policy positions has steadily increased.
When Abramowitz and Saunders turn to geographical polarization, they find that the margins of victory in states have steadily increased since 1960 and that the number of competitive states – and the electoral votes they represent – has steadily declined. They also find, again contra Fiorina, that policy preferences differ markedly between solidly Democratic states and solidly Republican states.
Yet another of Fiorina’s claims – that polarization mainly revolves around economic interests – withers under Abramowitz and Saunders’s analyses. Instead, the authors show that religious beliefs and practices are more strongly associated with voting and partisan identification than standard socioeconomic indicators are.
Abramowitz and Saunders’s evidence is fairly compelling, although their analyses do not focus tightly on culture-war issues per se. Still, the values-laden issues they do examine fit the broader patterns they report. Like the legislators they elect, voters have become quite divided.

G-Rated Sequel to On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

Yesterday I objected to Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated on the grounds that, contrary to his assertion, it is quite possible to concisely state general but meaningful ends around which Democratic governing philosophy ought to be organized. Today I want to address Chait’s argument that “big ideas” have neither been important in the Republican ascendancy to power nor are likely to be important in reviving Democratic prospects.
Consider the forty-year realignment of the electorate toward the Republican Party. Since the Nixon Administration, the GOP has proposed a number of original and bold policy ideas that have advanced their agenda and shifted the balance of political power:

• The neoconservative confrontational foreign policy toward the Soviet Union
• Deregulation
• Welfare reform
• Supply-side fiscal policies
• Block grants to states and cities
• Faith-based service delivery

Democrats generally oppose these policies or their conservative details, but they have been successful electorally.
It is true, as Chait notes, that the Democratic Party has had no shortage of ideas themselves during this period. Many of these ideas have been both good on the merits and successful:

• Environmental protection
• Tax simplification in the mid-eighties
• Deficit reduction in the nineties
• Work supports such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Reinventing government
• Incremental health care coverage expansions

What is striking is how many of these policies tend toward the incremental and moderate. The fact of the matter is that those are the types of policies that have produced success for the Party. Consider an analogous list of unsuccessful proposals or unpopular policies:

• Universal health care
• Federal support for smaller class sizes or more teachers, national education standards
• More money for housing, job training, and unemployment
• Affirmative action and busing
• Greater international cooperation and strengthening the United Nations (though this has grown more popular over time and will likely continue to)
• Stronger regulation of business and greater worker protection
• Strategic industrial policy
• Maintaining or raising taxes on the wealthy

The point is not that these are bad ideas, just that they have failed to resonate politically or have proven enormously difficult to advance. Republicans have succeeded not because their ideas have been somehow more creative, beneficial, or up to the task. They have succeeded because popular preferences are more sympathetic to them.
Recognizing that ideological disadvantage faced by Democrats precedes tactical and candidate weakness – rather than attributing under-performance to tactics and candidates themselves – leads to a rather different prescription for reviving Democratic prospects. It points to the importance of new ideas that address electoral weaknesses while staying true to progressive principles.
For starters, the Party needs to develop a tighter over-arching vision about what it stands for. I argued yesterday that an emphasis on equal opportunity and security would be particularly effective. Democrats also should adjust their priorities, devoting more attention, for instance, to national security. Some counterproductive (and arguably non-progressive) stances and policies ought to be downplayed or even jettisoned. We also need to think about electorally viable ways to find the money to pay for programs we wish to create or expand.
In addition, the Party must propose new means of achieving long-standing policy goals. For example, many Democrats have a knee-jerk reaction to voucher-type programs such as those sometimes proposed for elementary and secondary education, social security, and Medicare. On the other hand, progressives support food stamps and Section 8 housing, which are essentially voucher programs. It is not the case that vouchers are simply always preferable to provision by the state, but there is a lot of gray here. One can propose education voucher programs limited to public institutions, for instance.
Finally, the party needs to develop new ideas for new problems. Terrorism is obviously the most important of these. Economic insecurity may also be such an issue, and the advance of biotechnology will dramatically transform debates over opportunity and values.
Ideas matter, though not in isolation from voter preferences. The story of the past forty years is one of economic, geopolitical, and social change favoring Republicans, producing a realignment that was abetted by unpopular Democratic ideas and some popular Republican ones. Democrats need not change dramatically – recent elections have, of course, been remarkably close. But new ideas that are consistent with progressives’ core values can help win over more voters and shift the electoral map decisively in the Democrats’ favor.

On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

(Parental advisory: in an effort to boost readership and move my blogging in a decidedly macho direction after references to Sex and the City and frappuchinos, I have included profanity in the following post. Viewer discretion is advised.)
I’ve thought Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated was flawed since he first made it last year [subscr. only]. With the publication of Strategist contributors Ken Baer and Andrei Cherny’s Democracy, Chait has offered an updated version of this argument, here and here. Essentially, he thinks that conservatism lends itself to big ideas and bumper-sticker slogans in a way that progressivism does not:

Conservatives venerate the free market and see smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals do not venerate government in the same way, and we do not see larger government as an end in and of itself. For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.
[snip] Everybody knows what [Republicans] stand for. They’re for lower taxes, strong defense and less spending — even if they habitually fail at the spending part and have royally screwed up the defense portion of late.
But nobody knows what Democrats stand for because you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you’re operating on a case-by-case basis.

Of course we don’t view big government as an end in itself, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no end around which we can’t organize the Party. Chait’s example of Clintonomics is instuctive:

Consider the Clinton administration. What did it stand for on, say, economic policy? Well, progressive taxation, reducing the deficit (but not at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment), expanding health coverage, investing in technology, and … you see? We’re long past the point where it can be described by a single overarching theory, and I haven’t even gotten to the scintillating proposals for sequestering the Social Security-related budget surplus.

With all due respect, whatchutalkinbout, Willis? How about this for a “single overarching theory”: equal opportunity and security. We don’t value progressive taxation except to the extent that it helps us create more opportunity for the disadvantaged. Reducing the deficit is important to the extent that it increases economic growth (promoting opportunity in this generation) or reduces the share of future budgets that go toward interest payments on the debt (promoting opportunity in future generations). Health coverage – including Medicare and Medicaid – reduces insecurity. Education and technology investment promote opportunity. Environmental protection is vital for the opportunity and security of future Americans. “Saving Social Security First” was a brilliant tactical gambit by Clinton to simultaneously pay down the debt, preempt opportunity-limiting Republican tax cuts, and (debatably) shore up Social Security for future generations.
Chait notes that Clinton switched from an economic plan centered on investing in human capital and middle-class tax cuts to one focused on deficit reduction at the beginning of his first term. But this decision was made because Clinton ultimately decided that placating “a bunch of fucking bond traders”, in the memorable phrase attributed to him by Bob Woodward, would be more successful in growing the economy than the policies he campaigned on. That is, it was the best way to expand opportunities and increase security.
And opportunity and security can serve as the basis for governing in other policy realms. In foreign policy, progressives seek to ensure national security (there’s that word again), promote domestic economic strength (opportunity), and promote opportunities elsewhere through development. On “values issues”, progressives believe that gays and lesbians should have the opportunity to marry the one they love, that women should have the opportunity to control whether a pregnancy will alter their life plans, and that all Americans should have the opportunity to practice their chosen faith – or none at all – secure in the knowledge that the state will not discriminate against it.
I have more to say about the strategic importance of ideas, but I’ll save that for tomorrow. The point for now is that, contra Chait (and Yglesias), Democrats can succinctly state their governing philosophy clearly and concisely in a bumper-sticker phrase. And there is great strategic value to doing so. Policies can then be formulated to hang on the ends that we value and thereby create a coherent approach to governing.

Getting Out the Facts on Getting Out the Vote

By Alan Abramowitz
An op-ed by Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger in Sunday’s L.A. Times gives the impression that the GOP now enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to voter mobilization. However, the evidence from the 2004 election simply doesn’t support this view. According to the 2004 National Election Study, both parties dramatically increased their voter mobilization efforts in 2004 but Democrats did a better job of contacting voters than Republicans. According to the NES survey, the percentage of voters contacted by the GOP increased from 26 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2004 while the percentage contacted by Democrats increased from 23 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2004.
Ohio in 2004 is often cited as an example of the GOP’s superiority in the ground game but, again, the evidence doesn’t support this view. Between 2000 and 2004, the Republican vote in Ohio increased by an impressive 21.7% but the Democratic vote increased by an even more impressive 25.4%.
Democrats will need to work hard to match the Republicans’ GOTV effort in 2006, but the evidence from the 2004 election shows that the much-vaunted GOP advantage in the ground game is largely a myth.

Poll Position

The title is a failed attempt to show off my NASCAR creds. More fun polysci research to start off your week…
Of all the claims that the most alienated progressives routinely throw around, perhaps the most frustrating one is that there are no important differences between the two parties, or slightly less dismissively, that the Democratic Party is the lesser of two evils. In fact, political scientists are in agreement that the parties are ideologically more polarized today than at any time in the past 30 years.
The latest study to reinforce this conclusion comes from Sean M. Theriault in the latest issue of Party Politics. In “Party Polarization in the U.S. Congress,” Theriault shows that both parties have grown more ideologically extreme since 1973 and less diverse. He arrives at this conclusion using the well-regarded Poole-Rosenthal scores, which array all members of Congress from all years on an ideological scale based on the entirety of their voting record. Legislators are assumed to lie on an ideological continuum, as are voting options (yea or nay) for every vote. Each legislator chooses the option that is closest to them ideologically. Then scores are assigned to each legislator and vote option so that the number of “errors” made is minimized (with errors occurring when a legislator votes contrary to what we would expect given the initial assumptions).
Theriault’s results shed light on the nature of growing political polarization and Republican power. In the House, the two parties were roughly equally distant from the center in 1973, but by 2003, Republicans were more extreme. Democratic senators started out more extreme than their Republican counterparts, but by 2003 the parties were equally extreme. Polarization was more pronounced in the House, and by 2003 House Republicans were more “off center” than Republican senators or Democrats in either body.
What accounts for these trends? Two-thirds of the rise in polarization was a consequence of more moderate members being replaced by more extreme ones, either as the former died or voluntarily left their office or as a result of being defeated. The key elections on the House side were in 1972, 1984, 1994, and 1996, while on the Senate side polarization due to replacement jumped in 1972, 1980, and 1992.
What is more, much of this “replacement” involved Republicans succeeding southern Democrats. About 40 percent of greater polarization in the House was due to this phenomenon, and 45 percent in the Senate. Otherwise, in the House, 24 percent of polarization growth was due to replacement of moderates by more extreme members of the same party — particularly consequential on the Republican side. On the other hand, in the Senate, 25 percent of increased polarization arose due to instances where the incumbent was defeated but that did not involve a southern Democrat losing to a Republican.
Finally, about one-third of the increase in polarization was due to individual members’ increasing extremism over time. Increasing GOP extremism accounted for about one-fifth of the increase in polarization, while growing Democratic extremism accounted for 16-17 percent of the increase. Increases in legislators’ extremism after 1980 were particularly consequential in the House. Indeed, of the representatives with the ten biggest career-spanning increases since 1973, five are current members of the House.
The take-away point from the perspective of the Strategist is that the realignment of southern Democrats toward the Republican Party is the most consequential electoral development both for political polarization and for GOP power. Indeed, it is quite possible that this replacement phenomenon actually drove the changes in individual members’ ideologies that further increased polarization. On the Republican side, greater conservative representation weakened the hand of moderates and pressured them to toe the (increasingly right-wing) line. On the Democratic side, a stronger and more unified GOP may have led some legislators to moderate their views in an effort to win back swing voters. Hence, extremism grew less among Democrats than Republicans. But it still grew, and so the likelihood of keeping (or winning back) Congressional majorities has grown increasingly uncertain over time.
The result, one might argue, is a 51-49 Nation, resting at a right-of-center equilibrium corresponding to the professed ideological position of American voters. Of course, Democrats may win back one or both chambers of Congress in November, thanks to GOP incompetence and ideological over-reach. But there is little sign of a realignment back in favor of Democrats, so close elections will continue to be the rule until one of the parties breaks out of what Stan Greenberg has called the “Two Americas” paradigm or until outside events shift public opinion decisively.

Broder vs. Blogger

We here at The Democratic Strategist are obviously thrilled to have earned coverage from David Broder in today’s Washington Post. He is right to note that in our premiere issue, the contributions are not always based primarily on empirical evidence and data, but for our premiere we were more interested in providing the broad outlines of the various debates at the heart of intra-party disputes. Future issues will make much more prominent use of data and historical evidence, though as Broder notes, this issue was by no means devoid of such empiricism.
(Somehow, in the course of nearly 800 words, Broder neglected to mention the magazine’s witty, irreverant, and data-heavy managing editor and his blog….)
At any rate, we are more concerned here with the contrast Broder wants to make between us and the netroots community, which he portrays as unproductive and irrelevant to intra-party debates over new ideas and strategy. Actually, I can’t imagine Broder really believes that the blogosphere hasn’t contributed significantly to strategic debates among Democrats. From their prominence in and around the Dean campaign’s unorthodox surge to the front of the 2004 primary horserace to their virtual invention of online fundraising and grassroots activation, it is clear that the blogging community has powerfully shaped Democratic strategy. Regardless of whether one agrees with them or not, one can’t visit any of the prominent blogs without immediately noticing their obsession with strategy. That’s why we invited Jerome Armstrong (and actually a couple of other bloggers) to contribute to the premiere issue.
And even in the realm of ideas, bloggers such as Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias are at least as sophisticated in analyzing ideas as they are in evaluating strategy, and even Kos has laid out his own public philosophy.
It is fair to say that the Strategist intends to make empirical evidence a more central element than most blogs, and we reject advocacy of strategies that are weakly supported by evidence (if at all). But you know what? The netroots may very well be right on any number of questions where their answer differs from the Beltway conventional wisdom. And the latter, let’s admit, isn’t so evidence-based either. If it were, surely it would have learned from the past mistakes that have led to presidential losses in 7 of the last 10 elections. Too many times, Party insiders uncritically accept bad advice from “professionals”, and it’s not clear that the advice from those crashing the gates would be any worse. Bloggers, like professionals, come in both insightful and hack-y flavors.
The point is that all sides in these strategic debates make important points and have important roles to play. As for the Strategist, our role is to not take sides and to subject the claims being thrown around to rigorous examination. If we succeed, netroots and Beltway insiders alike will cohere around a set of strategies backed up by evidence, and we’ll all be controlling the levers of government.

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.