Friday, September 28, 2012

Pandering to the purists

Daniel McCarthy has written a very provocative article at The American Conservative titled Is the GOP Still a National Party? He starts off by telling some hard GOP truth.
Republicans have failed to win a plurality of voters (or a majority of the two-party vote) in four of the last five presidential elections. The single win was 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected by the lowest margin of any successful incumbent since 1828.
To explain this phenomenon, he says something that - at first - seems counterintuitive. And yet it makes perfect sense.
The GOP base is better organized and more engaged locally than Democrats are. But this actually undercuts the party at the national level. So well organized are the GOP’s ideological constituencies that they prevail in legislative primaries and push the party’s overall identity to the right...These ideological groups also have a great deal of muscle at the presidential primary or caucus level, but even beyond that, their success at the legislative level means that a presidential contender’s loyalty to the GOP brand — proof that he’s not a RINO — has to be demonstrated by professions of fealty to what is an essentially regional identity, not a national one.
In other words, the Republican Party is pandering to their purists. And that means that they're on a pathway to being a Party that can no longer win national elections.

I would propose that this presents a warning to progressive activists as well. Whenever we push our elected leaders farther left than the majority of the country is willing to go - we'll face the same kind of defeat. As a matter of fact, for those of us old enough to remember,  we know that the Democratic Party was facing the same trajectory not too long ago. The 1972 presidential election was a crushing defeat for the purists on the left.


I would propose that that election, followed a few years later by a similar trouncing in 1984, ensured that the Democratic Party gave up on the idea of base elections and started learning what it takes politically to win a national majority. Overall it means not pandering to your purists.

That does NOT mean giving up your ideals. It simply takes a different strategy to reach them. Our Community Organizer-in-Chief put it this way 7 years ago.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.


  1. Excellent post, Smartypants. I like the way McCarthy framed his argument. Yes, the GOP is way more organized at the local level, but I see that changing. The Democratic Party with which I'm familiar is tired of losing and is taking to learning from the Republican which tactics work and which don't. The President and OFA have done a great service to our Party by showing us how to organize and make change happen.

    One clear trend in my local party is that when the extremists were in control, the people who did the hard work got turned off and wandered away, neutering the extremist wing, who found themselves unable to conduct business in a climate where no adults were around to make things happen. Some strong leadership got it back on track and the people who do the work are back. Now, even though there are plenty of activists, they are of the adult variety and the party is functioning well. Ideological purity is death to any organization at every level. I think Democrats are learning that lesson across the board.

  2. As a matter of fact, for those of us old enough to remember, we know that the Democratic Party was facing the same trajectory not too long ago. The 1972 presidential election was a crushing defeat for the purists on the left.

    Uh huh. And which...impurities should the McGovern campaign allowed for that would have beaten Nixon? If you had a time machine, what "pragmatic accommodations" to the national mood would you recommend them? They needed to be "tougher on defense?" And commies?

    Overall it means not pandering to your purists.

    Actually, it means pro-choice purism and a respect for women as equal citizens. When did the Democrats go from getting routinely annihilated by Republicans like Reagan and Nixon and even Bush in 1988 to all of the sudden winning four of the last five (and soon to be five of the last six) presidential elections?

    When the Supreme Court wars of the late 80s and 90s relitigated Roe, culminating with Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Coupled with the overwhelming shift of women to the workforce, and the prevalence of single parent households in the non-college graduate demographic. And sure enough, there was young, new, "Feel Your Pain" Bill Clinton to capture that momentum against crotchety old men like Bush and Dole and Pat Buchanan and all the other faces of the national GOP.

    That's how we got to where we are. Not through "pragmatism." Not through "centrism." Through being the party of women as equal citizens. Republicans face a deficit among women voters every four years, and they have made no efforts to readjust. Their results, as such, have been poor.

    Barack Obama is running considerably to the left for his reelection than he did four years ago, and his electoral performance will be even better. The lesson there will surely go unheeded. Except probably to him. Instead we will continue to have these unresolvable ideological snipefests between the statists and the anti-statists, which is where the true fault line lies. Not in imaginary "pragmatism" vs. "purism."

    1. Darn, I wish the edit function existed. When I said "four of the last five (and soon to be five of the last six) elections" I really meant nationwide popular votes. They obviously didn't win the 2000 election because of the Florida recount fiasco and Supreme Court interference.

      2004 was the anomaly to the trend, but a weak one at that. A sitting wartime president only won by the smallest margin in a century and a half. You can't be a legitimate national party when you weigh yourself down with such extreme gender imbalances.

      Democrats don't write off the male vote. They may not always (or even frequently) win a majority of it, but they contest it. GOPers call women who don't vote for them sluts. Why do we persist in assuming their party is any good at politics anymore? They aren't and they will keep losing for it, regardless of how "liberal" the Democrats do or don't become on other issues.

    2. I think you hit on some important aspects of the historical record, but with such a narrow focus on the role of women in the Democratic Party, you miss way more than you include.

      The 1972 election came on the heels of incredible social upheaval in this country and the splintering of the Democratic Party into the pro and anti war factions. Robert Kennedy might have been able to heal that divide, but of course, he was assassinated. And so 4 years later, Democrats nominated the candidate from one side of that divide rather than do the work of trying to unite the party. Its probably true that morally, they made the right choice. But fancy lot of good that did them.

      And with your focus on the role women have played in the party, you're totally ignoring the role of African Americans and Latinos - who are even more lopsided in their support of the Democrats...which brings up the role the whole Southern Strategy has had in leading to the present.

      But whether its women or minorities, both of those groups mean that over time, the Democrats have a strategy of appealing to a majority of the population. That was my point about the problem with pandering to the purists. You have to build those majorities and THEN you can win elections on those issues. It doesn't work the other way around.

      I totally reject the idea of "centrism." That is a completely different concept than "pragmatism." Clinton was more of a centrist and Obama more of a pragmatist. It would take a whole post to get into the specifics of how very different those two concepts are.

      Finally, I'd be very interested in hearing you share some specifics of how you see Obama running more to the left in this campaign than he did last time. I don't think that jives with the facts.

    3. And with your focus on the role women have played in the party, you're totally ignoring the role of African Americans and Latinos - who are even more lopsided in their support of the Democrats.

      They are statistical minority groups. Women are the majority of the electorate. Democrats routinely win a majority of the majority of the electorate in presidential contests. That is their presidential base. And even among minority race groups, Dems do disproportionately better among minority women than they do among minority men. Of the 3% of the black vote that will go Republican, how much do you truly believe is men vs. women? How much of the 30% of hispanic vote we'll lose is men vs. women? Men will be oversampled in the proportion we'll lose, women in the proportion we win.

      Women are the great catch-all explanatory device of the post-92 shift. They transcend race and religion and everything else. You're right, it certainly doesn't tell the whole story. But it's the foundation of the story.

      Clinton was more of a centrist and Obama more of a pragmatist.

      No, Clinton was more of a centrist and Obama more of a progressive. Or liberal. Whatever. I don't know why you bloggy types still run from that word.

      When has Obama been pragmatically conservative in domestic policy? Not often. Don't say taxes. He's been beat on taxes and he knows it, so he's had to redefine victory downward. He's been consistent on that front since 2007.

      He hasn't cut entitlements. He's dramatically expanded them. He hasn't cut government, he's dramatically expanded it, while keeping spending flat by trading off corporate welfare.

      On foreign policy, he trims and hedges and wages failed wars and sells record amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia and whatever, but on domestic policy, he's as liberal as they've ever come.

      Finally, I'd be very interested in hearing you share some specifics of how you see Obama running more to the left in this campaign than he did last time.

      Gay marriage would be the most obvious one. But the even bigger one is economic populism. He's basically re-running FDR's 1936 reelection campaign. His convention speech was almost word for word FDR in some parts. In 08, he ran against undue political impact from corporate interests, without really running against corporatism itself. Allowing for exceptions like polluters and fraud and disparate impact on minorities and the like, he worked hard to convince Big Business that he wasn't culturally incompatible with their line of work. He slipped up sometimes, when he accused them of having "a poverty of ambition," but for the most part he didn't present any targets to shoot at.

      This time (and it's an ongoing part of his presidential rhetoric going back a couple of years now) he's running more harshly against corporate ethics. While maintaining his same intensity against corporate corruption of our politics, he's been saying (if you hear him right) that even in the absence of special interest lobbying, corporate ethics in themselves promote unfairness. It's all about unfairness with him. Corporations don't treat people as people, they treat people as numbers, and Mitt Romney is his posterchild. It's been very successful.

      Some of that is because his old major dollar fundraising network has abandoned him, but most of it is because that's who he's always been. He strikes me more now as State Senator Obama again, rather than the artificial US Senator Obama he played dress-up as for a couple of years.

      I'll close on this: if Congress could deliver him a bill dramatically regulating corporate governance, executive compensation, and heck, even business school education curriculum as dependent on social conscientiousness and citizenship...would he sign it?

      Damn right he would.

    4. When has Obama been pragmatically conservative in domestic policy?

      Just one quick example cause I've gotta run - he built the individual mandate into health care reform. He said long ago that he preferred single payer. But his pragmatic side knew that would never fly. So he built an alternative plan. And then when it because clear it wouldn't work without a mandate - he embraced one. That is the definition of pragmatism.

      Clinton - on the other hand - simply tried to move to the "center" politically.

      On how Obama has been more progressive in this campaign - you might have a point. But even if you do - your example is so obtuse that its escaped the notice of even moderately informed voters - much less the uninformed.

    5. Health care reform isn't a good example because you're assuming that the Massachusetts state reforms didn't pass and that the federal response was a blank slate. Your removing the context of how bills are passed in favor of an ideological vacuum.

      No one actually cares what Barack Obama thinks or doesn't think about the specifics of reform. That wasn't his job. Democrats in Washington were gifted a box with a button that said "Press Here for Universal Coverage" and that was pretty much that. Contrary to the blogworld, within the advocacy and academic sphere, there was next to no ideological throw-down on reform structure in 08 or 09. Individual attention-seeking senators screwed around on the margins, but the bill's skeleton was preordained.

      And as a reminder, when the bill first met obstruction and potential failure in the winter of 09, the first impulse was to move it to the left with the inclusion of an expansion of Medicare via the opt-in. It was an all-out offensive from every direction.

      Fundamentally, if you're trying to pretend that passing a bill with massive downward income transfer and subsidization, profit capping in the private sector, and reduction of corporate welfare in the service of universal health insurance nationwide was a conservative're selling a story. To what purpose I can't divine. I'm pretty sure you don't work for the White House Communications office. ;)

      Have a good one.

    6. Lets go back to your original question.

      When has Obama been pragmatically conservative in domestic policy?

      Now, you say this:

      No one actually cares what Barack Obama thinks or doesn't think about the specifics of reform. That wasn't his job.

      So if what Obama thinks doesn't matter - then I suppose you have removed any way for me to meaningfully answer that question. Perhaps that's what you intended all along.

      But here's the part of history you're forgetting. Both H. Clinton and Barack Obama had pretty specific proposals about health care reform during the 2008 primary. Clinton included an individual mandate in hers and Obama did not. That was one of the few places they had differences.

      Once Obama was elected and put his proposal together for Congress, he realized that the reforms he wanted to include required a mandate. And so he relented and supported it. That's my example of a time when Obama was pragmatically conservative.

      You go WAY overboard if you think that what I'm suggesting is that Obamacare - in its entirety - is pragmatically conservative. I never said such a thing.

    7. You really believe that it was a struggle and a sacrifice to accept an individual mandate? I feel like that was a pretty shallowly held disagreement, sharpened up for the primary only. What's there to be truly passionate about it one way or the other?

      It's not really liberal or conservative. It's anti-libertarian, but who cares about them? It's just regulating commerce in a way to remove the conflict with a preexisting federal mandate (EMTALA). If that's really your example (a fraction of an otherwise liberal bill), it's a bad one.

      Fossil fuel production might be a better choice. Or gun control. Actually, there it is. Gun control. That's the one. There's your pragmatic conservatism in action.

    8. Anonymous, you introduced the word "conservative" into the discussion. It was nowhere in the original post and SP's response to you was prefaced by a "quickly, I have to run" which is probably why she didn't more fully rebut your suggestion that she was labeling Obama generally conservative in any way.

      The individual mandate was a Heritage Foundation idea, it bears repeating. People like me think that universal coverage should be paid for by taxing all wealth above $1 mil. That's what I think. Take away all of the billionaires' money until they have one million left. If they can't live on that, they don't really deserve to. But Obama isn't going to take my advice, because it would result in a complete practical failure of his entire administration.

    9. He was pragmatic the whole time he's been in office. He has had some conservative domestic policies. The bailout had tax cuts as part of the deal. He passed the Jobs act last year(congress happily went along with that). The Secretary of Education is a charter school guy. There were the arrests of the medical Mary Jane people in California. He's had record deportations. He's fighting for low tax rates. I would call these things pragmatic conservative.


  3. Thanks, Anonymous for your well-reasoned comments. You're right, the conditions that existed in the 70's and 80's on the ground aren't the same conditions that exist now. Our culture has shifted in ways elections and organizing can't influence...due in huge measure to the changing status of women in this country. None of this can be simplistically analyzed by purity vs. pragmatism, but purity purges of the GOP have to be taken into account and guarded against by the Dems in the future. Especially given that the purity purges taking place at the precinct level seem destined to move the party even more far the right than it already is, if that's even possible.

  4. The difference is that the left's purists aren't as active as the right's. The left doesn't have a Grover Norquist to enforce purity. The left purists are just an annoyance. On the right you have to cater to the crazy because they have positions of consequence. On the right you have the Koch bros that haven't yet accepted that schools are multicultural. That keeps the party from evolving.