Tuesday, June 13, 2006


A Thought on the Electoral Calculus of Moderation

With recent discussion in the left blogosphere of, e.g. the follies of "Holy" Joe Lieberman and the silliness of saying "what if Scoop Jackson got the 1974 +/- 2 years Democratic nomination?", I thought I would briefly address the larger electoral calculus issue here:

The DLC, et al., argue that we Dems would shoot ourselves in the foot (as they shoot other Dems in the foot -- do you see Republican moderates attacking their right wing? no ... they just speak in a more careful code to their right wing or attack the right only when the media is looking -- and, of course, the far right doesn't believe the media anyway ... so they'll consider the attacks on them to be from the media not from the Republican) to not nominate centrist, mainstream (TM) (i.e. not necessarily representing the views of people as polling results indicate -- and here I differ with olvlzl slightly ... it isn't polling that's the problem so much as the misrepresentation of polling results by the innumerate and biased MSM -- but representing the views the MSM tells people they should have if they want to be "reasonable") candidates.

Of course, prima facie, there is a problem with the argument that Dems err in not nominating mainstream candidates (well besides the inherent anti-Democratic and anti-democratic sentament of it: we Dems are too stupid to nominate a good candidate? the electoral process is inherently inconsistent?): if a candidate cannot receive support even from fellow Democrats, from whom can that candidate receive support? The DLC, those who think Scoop Jackson could have won in 1972, et al. base their arguments on two points which themselves do not sound unreasonable (in fact they sound "pat yourself on the back clever" for opposing the more naive argument I first raised in this paragraph):

(1) no matter whom the Dems. nominate, the vast majority of people who've voted in the primary will still vote for the Dem candidate in the general election

(2) a more moderate Dem. candidate has a better chance of attracting swing voters or even Republicans

Point #1 is true as far as it goes: even if a candidate is not the optimal choice of many Dems, most will hold their nose and vote for whomever the party nominates in the general election. This kinda renders moot the naive electoral calculus: a candidate who cannot get even the majority of Democratic votes in the primary will at least get those votes in the general election. However, the key word is "vast majority", not 100%. In an environment of squeeker elections in which swing voters are by-and-large turned off by both parties and in which Republicans are generally able to turn off or turn away more potentially Democratic voters than the other way around, the vote of every voter committed enough to vote in the primary counts. Of course the argument could also be made that nominating a more liberal candidate would turn off a few moderate voters, but the fact of the matter is that the more popular in the grass-roots of a party a candidate is, the fewer voters would be turned off by nominating that candidate rather than another.

As for Point #2 -- this is assuming swing voters are swinging because they are ideological moderates in the middle of the mainstream as defined by the punditocracy. In reality, this is not the case: people are, as un-democratic as this is, looking for "strong" leadership. A clear thinking moderate is indeed more likely to win over swing voters than is a clear thinking liberal (it is a myth of the beltway chattering classes that we blogospheric liberals insist on ideological conformity to our cause -- consider our relative support of the very moderate Reid over the more liberal Lieberman: alas, you will see pundits distorting things even more as they try to make a horse-race between Murtha and that other guy in which they will paint the moderate Murtha as a flaming liberal because he has obviously reasonable, and hence dangerous to those who consider themselves to be the artbiters of un-obvious reason, views on Iraq while the paint the more liberal other guy as a moderate).

But how many moderate candidates are not so much dedicated moderates as wishy-washy folk? Or Republican-lite? Republican-lite candidates are not a good idea (cf. Truman's famous comments on this subject). And as to wishy-washy candidates: here -- in spite of the pundits' claims that people want candidates to represent their point of view (and most people are wishy-washy, so they would want a wishy-washy candidate) -- in fact, most people at least have a mindset democratically republican enough to realize they want the "best man" to win rather than a carbon copy of themselves ideologically* -- after all the role of the Head of State in a democratic republic is to do a job -- i.e. lead the nation -- and citizens in a democratic republic, like stockholders and their board, have a responsibility to themselves to hire the best woman/man for the job of Chief Executive Officer. While many American citizens are still a little unclear on this concept, I think we have stepped back from the quasi-fascist, our Head of State should be an "everyman" who serves as a front for the powers that be and gives them a human face (I hope for the sake of American enterprise stockholders and boards have also stepped back from their version of this thinking) precipace over which our nation was starting to fall. A strong moderate can win votes of swing voters ... a wishy-washy candidate will only prompt swing voters to say "if this joker qualifies to be president, well so does my idiot neighbor" ... even if such a voter doesn't vote Republican, that voter isn't voting Democratic either and so long as less than 35% or so of the voting population (and about 35% of people will vote Republican -- even some that hate Bush will continue to vote Republican 'cause they fear Dems. more ... and anyway, Bush is not running anymore, so we cannot win on merely hatred of Bush) is actually bothering to vote Democratic (i.e. a turn out of 70%, which is relatively high for our apathetic voting population, with the election split about evenly), the Republicans will win as they are motivated. Unless we have a Democratic candidate who can motivate people, whether swing voters or the base, to vote for that candidate, the Dems. will loose -- and let's face it, swing voters are, shall we say, a bit wishy-washy and not so likely to turn out as the base (something Republicans learned a long time ago).

So why not motivate the base and forget the swing voters -- at the very least, they'll respect us more if we stop pandering, even if we are pandering to them (sometimes playing "hard to get" is the best strategy). In the end, I think even after considering the truths of the DLC electoral calculus, the naive calculus wins out as being more correct (and those who dismiss naivity too blithely are themselves often naive: sometimes the tradition, the intuition of the layman, etc. are more correct than the fancy, e.g. economic, model) -- the idea that if only the Democrats would nominate the perfect moderate they would win in the general elections is simply foolish: sometimes the best candidate does win ... and if that candidate doesn't win in the general elections it isn't because we chose the wrong candidate in the primary but because we Dems need to strengthen our party more and more effectively get the word out about what we really stand for.

* Indeed, most people are very uncomfortable with their own ideology: especially on social issues. One way to explain the divergence between polling results suggesting people generally support, e.g. gay rights, abortion rights and due process of law, with election results suggesting they are afraid of "gay married terrorists having the right to an abortion" is that people do support liberal positions but find those positions "icky" (cf. Atrios on the subject) and hence do not trust any politician that too strongly advocates for the views they support but they feel politicians who take the opposite point of view must be "moral" and hence trustworthy. There seems to me, based on my personal experiences, a racial divide here: many non-Jewish whites (we Jews of any color are just weird ;) ...) tend to vote more conservative than are their personal views while many African-Americans of my aquaintance OTOH don't trust politicians whose views on social issues are as conservative as their own and who, in the political sphere, take a very pragmatic attitude on social issues -- a phenomenon often noted by frustrated Republicans and their water-carriers in the MSM to the extent of "how come more Blacks don't vote for Republicans who better match their views on social issues" but rarely pursued in any direction other than to whine about various aspects of the Democratic party in a quasi-classist (cf. the conservative put-down of Chavez in Venezuela: "those people only support him 'cause he gives them bricks and milk" -- and what's that, chopped liver?) and quasi-racist way. There are lessons here for we Democrats: we don't loose votes by not being socially conservative, so moving to the right there is not going to help us -- and may hurt us as people correctly judge us to be aprincipled panderers should we do such a thing (the very people who agree with social liberalism but get turned off by its supporters would also get turned off by those who pander for similar reasons -- the "social liberalism is 'icky'" crowd is obsessed with purity, nu?). Indeed, what is suggested is that we Dems can get people to vote for us even if they disagree with us on social issues, provided we give people another reason to vote for us. This also will help with the "social liberalism is 'icky'" crowd as it would place us as something other than defenders of social liberalism. I.e., again the DLC is wrong -- we cannot move by going to the right, only by moving to the left on economic issues so that we have a stark contrast between us and Republicans on something other than social issues in which we loose by keeping our liberalism intact but we loose even more by abandoning our liberalism (we loose what really is the moral high ground and are seen as pandering besides). But not to knock the pro-choice movement (indeed I have marched for it), but where are the marches for, to borrow a phrase from that movement, the rights of the already born (and not pregnant)? Where are the marches for the rights, e.g., of mine workers to have safe working environments, etc? If we Dems. communicate that we are not interested in social liberalism, that would be bad. But we should communicate that our party is about something other than the rights of "gay married terrorists to have abortions".

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