The Default Democratic Party Strategy and What Should Replace It (Part 2)

May 6, 2004

[Or: Five Little Words — Don’t Piss Off Potential Allies.]

[Part 1 of this continuing series is here.]

[UPDATE 5/6: The penultimate paragraph— the one beginning “First of all…”—was extended to clarify both the prose itself and the argument underlying the prose.]

We now come to the big question: For what should the Democratic party stand?

In this regard, the following essay by Robert Reich posted on Brad Delong’s blog is especially timely. Given that Mr. Reich was Labor Secretary under President Clinton, Director of the Policy Planning Staff for the Federal Trade Commission under President Carter, an Assistant to the Solicitor General under President Ford, as well as co-founder and chairman of the notable liberal monthly The American Prospect, I’m reluctant to disagree with Mr. Reich in any significant way. However, in one significant way, I am afraid I must disagree with him.

But before getting to that unpleasantness, let me first highlight where we agree (and where he says my sentiments better than I could). Let’s start with the very beginning of Mr. Reich’s essay, as it’s a very good place to start:

Even if John Kerry wins in November, the right will remain in control of America. Democrats have almost no chance of winning back the house or Senate. Most state governorships and legislatures are also in the hands of Republicans, which gives them power to draw the lines of future congressional districts and thereby keep hold of congress. Right-wing conservatives now claim most of America’s airwaves – they are in full command of “talk radio” and “yell television.” They run most Washington think tanks. They inhabit some of the most influential positions on Wall Street and in American corporate boardrooms. Radical conservatives are, in short, America’s new governing elite.

We failed because we failed to build a political movement behind us. America’s newly ascendant radical conservatives do have such a movement, which explains their success. They have developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote, but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They have devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them are: it’s your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same worldview and who vote accordingly. And they have a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the south and west, and big business.

Beyond a quibble about using the adjective “coherent” to describe any ideology that unites evangelicals, secular blue-collar whites, and big business, I cannot deny the critical advantage Republicans possess by virtue of their far better organization. As a telling, recent example of how the lack of organization can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, behold the following Gallup poll perfomed in early March that asked about the open letter on “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking” sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists in mid-February, which numbered 20 Nobel Laureates among its many prominent signatories.

“Recently, a group of prominent scientists charged that the Bush Administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence concerning the seriousness of environmental problems such as global warming. How much have you heard about this criticism before now: a great deal, a moderate amount, not much, or nothing at all?”

Great Deal: 8%
Moderate Amount: 26%
Not Much: 40%
Nothing At All: 26%

“Who do you tend to believe in this matter: the scientists who claim that the Bush Administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems, OR, the Bush Administration, which denies ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems?” (Options rotated randomly so none enjoys the benefit of always being the first listed)

Scientists: 59%
Bush: 32%
No Opinion: 9%

[Margin of Error: 3%; Source:]

Or, if you’re willing to take slightly longer sad strolls down memory lane, behold the examples highlighted by Mr. Reich:

Democratic centrists, like the Democratic Leadership Council, attribute the party’s difficulties to a failure to respond to an electorate grown more conservative, affluent and suburban. This is nonsense. The biggest losses for Democrats since 1980 have not been among suburban voters but among America’s giant middle and working classes – especially white workers without four-year college degrees, once part of the old Democratic base. These are the same people who have lost the most economic ground over the last quarter-century.

In 1994, when battling for his healthcare proposal, Clinton had no movement behind him. Even though polls showed support among a majority of Americans, it wasn’t enough to overcome the conservative effort on the other side. By contrast, George W Bush got his tax cuts through Congress, even though Americans were ambivalent about them. President Bush had a political movement behind him.

So where do I disagree with Mr. Reich? Quite simply, I feel our guiding principle should be “Don’t Piss Off Potential Allies.” The importance of these 5 little words should be painfully obvious by now: launching “crusades” where “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” may possess the pluses of being simple and indeed stirring, but it has the major minuses of being inefficient, if not utterly unaffordable.

I don’t mean to imply that Mr. Reich is proposing a public posture for our domestic policy as condescending and clumsy as the one the Bush Adminstration has taken for our foreign policy, but I do wish to object to calling ourselves a “populist movement to take back democracy from increasingly concentrated wealth and power.”

First of all, there are many Americans—many Republicans—that are quite cognizant of the unfairness of present public policy, but they object to “populism” as it’s presently conceived and perceived as a cure worse than the disease. In this regard, I find it actually heartening—and not depressing—that a Harris Poll from June 2003 measuring support for the 2003 tax cuts observed twice as many Republicans saying these tax cuts were “generally unfair as to how it is divided between the rich, middle class or poor” (32%) as ultimately concluding the tax cuts were a “bad thing” overall (16%), which note was a discrepancy made even more shocking by the fact a vast majority of Republicans said these tax cuts would help them personally “only a little” (60%) or “not at all” (25%). Granted the glass ain’t half-full. It’s only somewhere between one-sixth and one-third full. But that’s more than enough. If we Democrats play it right (no pun intended—after all, I’m contending that these Republicans agree with us on the proper ends of domestic policy, they merely disagree with us on the proper means), then we could convince many of these Republicans that they should vote for us and not for the current incarnation of the Republican party. That’s all we’d need for a substantial governing majority.

Second of all, there is no need to alienate major chunks of the business community by implying that our policy proposals will fundamentally realigning the burden so that it is more fairly shared (read: “more fairly shared than your past 4 years on Easy Street, you avaricious bastards!”) Instead, one thing we should do is highlight every instance we find that being good to your workers can actually be good for your bottom line even if government policy were not to change. In this regard, behold the following beautiful comparison between Costco and Wal-Mart from Business Week [the exact citation eludes me at the moment]:


Another thing we should do is realize that our tax code is riddled with perverse incentives that tempt businesses to shortchange workers. [Sidenote: Framing the issue as the temptation of moral men, rather than the actions of amoral or immoral ones, is probably a better way to win friends and influence people, too.] Major, revenue-neutral tax simplification could be embraced by many businessmen, if only because it would give them an avenue to accrue benefits without being vulnerable to continued extortion by the Republican “K-Street Project” (see, for example, Nick Confessore’s article “Welcome to the Machine” from the Jul/Aug 2003 Washington Monthly). Revenue-neutral tax simplification can be done in ways that can bring a smile to the faces of both economists who fervently believe in the necessity of the lowest possible marginal tax rates and common folk who depend on each and every paycheck. [For more, see the links in my April 24th post “Ideas for Destructive Procrastination”… the ones about “radical centrist reform of government” and not the ones about “interpreting quantum mechanics without going insane,” though those too are excellent fonts of inspiration into which one can dip when one is feeling confused about the world today.]

One Response to “The Default Democratic Party Strategy and What Should Replace It (Part 2)”

  1. Aaron Swartz Says:

    Believe it or not, Republicans do have a single ideology which unites evangelicals, secular blue-collar whites, and big business. George Lakoff describes it in Moral Politics. It’s hard to summarize in a sentence, but believe me it’s there. (Luckily, the Democrats have a similar unifying ideology, but it’s far less developed.)

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