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How to Limit the Number of "Whither the Democrats" Articles You Have to Read

In the weeks ahead, there will be hundreds of essays, blog posts, sonnets and sestinas on the perennial question of "Where the Democrats Should Go Next" or "How to Save Liberalism." I expect to write a few of them myself. You can't read all of them, so here are two tips to pare back your reading:

First, whenever you see an analysis that begins with a phrase similar to, "We need to find a way to convince low-income/rural/evangelical whites to stop voting against their own self-interest," stop reading. If we start from the premise that we know what people's interests are better than they do themselves, that's part of the problem. People have many interests and motivations. If what liberals want them to do is put their economic interest above others, they should be clear about that, and explain why we should prefer people to prioritize their economic interests over others.

Second, the prerequisite before reading anything else is to read the fifteen-year-old essay, "The Politics of Evasion" by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. Forget that it is one of the founding documents of the Democratic Leadership Council. It does not have the divisive tone that characterized the DLC in the 1990s.

Consider how relevant some of their points seem today:

Democrats have ignored their fundamental problems. Instead of facing reality they have embraced the politics of evasion. They have focused on fundraising and technology, media and momentum, personality and tactics

Some of its conclusions have either been disproven or are obsolete. And I don't recommend it because I agree with it completely. But it's like reading a little Machiavelli or Marx. It's one of the basic texts from which all modern arguments about the party and liberalism flow and its arguments must be understood.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2004 | Permalink


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A comment that speaks to this post and the last one on religion. I'd say: we need to figure out why religious fundamentalism is so popular both in the US and abroad. There are some common features underlying these retreats to religious fundamentalisms: a reaction to the destruction of traditional identity (now summoned in some nostalgic, mythic version), a fear of an unbounded amoral commercial marketplace, humiliation, and a despondent economic outlook. This (like many other ironies of late) unites many young white blue collar American males and all those radicalized unemployed 18-25 Saudi men. Hence the need for a rigid (spiritually guaranteed) form of identity, the need to find some scapegoats, the conservatism on sexual and gender identity, etc. This is why the Dems need a candidate (indeed candidates) who know how to (sound familiar?) "feel their pain". So: it isn't a matter of policy (or policy only...though there is so much to be done here too). It's a matter of personality but not just in some derogatory sense of that word (though one can hardly underestimate personality if one wants to win in this tv soundbite celebrity obsessed culture). It's a matter of emotional intelligence and knowing how to identify with people, not just policies, facts, reasons and arguments -- it's about knowing how to connect and relate to people. In fact, surely we have just been given unarguable proof of the fact that it is not just about having the truth or the best positions. So I would prescribe two things:

1) No more *reserved* *know-it-all seeming* (or easily capable of being spun that way) upper or upper middle class north-easterners (we really do have that group on board). (Sorry well-to-do northeasterners; I mean no offence.)
2) Understand, acknowledge and respond to these worries about moral authority and cultural change as well as the economic issues.

Are there any decent potential midwestern candidates? I'm convinced the next Rove-style goal will be to turn the midwest into the next South.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 5, 2004 6:06:02 PM

I powerfully, intensely agree. I think Thomas Frank understands some important things about why and how things are the way they are, and completely, utterly, disastrously misunderstands what the response to it ought to be. Anything that begins from the perspective that all we have to do is connect with people about what their real interests are is doomed, not just pragmatically, but philosophically.

People have voted the way they have for reasons that make sense to them. Any road forward has to involve asking, with an open sense of curiosity, what is on their minds, and with a deflector-screens down attempt to say, uncompromisingly, "This is how I see the world". Not "Let me tell you why I'm smart and you're dumb", more "Let me tell you why I think I am right and you may be wrong, but also what I think you're right about and what I'm wrong about".

It's not a matter of the right leader, the right pitch, the right advertising. It's about figuring out what of the things that some concrete social group of our opponents are asking for we can plausibly concede to them in a way that is politically and philosophically coherent in return for similar concessions in reverse.

One way or the other, we need a truce in the culture war, and there are some structurally sound and stable ways to achieve that. The one way that will not do is Thomas Frank's line of attack: "We actually agree on everything--they just need to be awoken to their real interests".

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Nov 5, 2004 7:26:32 PM

"It's not a matter of the right leader, the right pitch, the right advertising."

This is *extremely* hard to believe. Of course --it's not only this. But "not a matter of"? At all? To think that they matter is not to sell out. But it is to adjust to reality. The right have been fantastic at seeing the importance of the above: in this case at least they have been more "reality-based" than the left.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 5, 2004 7:47:39 PM

I would have hoped that Tom Franks was utterly discredited by this election, but alas, he is ascendent. Let us hope that cooler heads prevail, because economic populism is a really bad idea on the merits. I'd almost prefer some of the religious stuff to throwing up all kinds of tariffs or what have you.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 5, 2004 8:46:17 PM

Well, I guess I'd be inclined to agree with Thomas Frank's emphasis on the importance of the notion of social class (in far more than the socioeconomic sense) in understanding the rise of the right. But, yes, the cure for the problem is not economic populism. I return to the point that the issue is not just about policy. Having said that, what has been crucial to the right is how they have developed a popularized version of a bigger right wing philosophical/policy vision. Limbaugh, O'Reilly, "It's your money!", etc. Progressives need to find ways to defend progressive taxation, for instance, in response to flat tax visons of fairness. But while there are philosophical defences of liberal views of progressive taxation what is lacking is some practical connection between these philosophical justifications and appealing popular expressions of them. Ultimately we need to find a whole set of popular easily expressed phrases that serve as shorthand for more developed philosophical positions -- we need the liberal equivalents of "it's your money" and "death tax" and so on. The right really understand (as one might perhaps predict) that a view has to be *sold*. And we do need some more regular folk (or at least people who can connect with regular folk) doing the sales for our side.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 5, 2004 10:31:47 PM

Not to give in fully to my elitist impulses, but seriously. When you read things like these (admitting that some are probably bogus replies), or this...I can't help but think that there may be no rational winning argument. (Or also see Brad DeLong's anecdote on what he found was the most convincing tack on Nozick.)

Posted by: ArC | Nov 5, 2004 11:35:39 PM

Yes, I know how you feel. I guess I'm trying to present an approach that recognizes some room between the rationalistic 'power of facts and arguments approach' and, say, a deceptive campaign that relies on dirty tricks. I think that part of a rational approach to people involves recognizing the fact that rationality is only a part of people...

Posted by: Dan | Nov 6, 2004 12:57:12 AM

C'mon now, ArC. This country was more progressive when it was far more religious than it is now.

What we need to do is promote progressive ideas within the context of traditional American values: fairness, family, hard work, etc.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 6, 2004 1:32:23 PM

Sure. I'm not mocking religion; I'm a Christian myself. But I worry about how casually some voters make their decisions. (The anecdote about one Kerry voter doing so without even knowing which party Kerry was, just that Howard Stern told him to vote for Kerry, is an example that Dems aren't 100% the victim of this, of course. But my guess is that they currently lose more than they gain on irrational arguments.)

Posted by: ArC | Nov 6, 2004 4:18:42 PM

Well put. The Franks op-ed in the Times was a recipe for disaster for the party. It is unbelievably patronizing to say that people do not know what is best for them. This attitude alone costs the Democrats votes in national elections and must be excised from the perception of Democrats nationwide.

Posted by: Stuart | Nov 6, 2004 7:45:15 PM

I found this comment by Mark Schmitt fascinating:

“If we start from the premise that we know what people's interests are better than they do themselves, that's part of the problem.”

Do you really believe, Mark, that people always know which courses of action will serve their best interests?

Back in the 1930’s sufficiently large numbers of Germans believed that Adolph Hitler’s sense of direction was in their best interests. Gee…do you think it is possible that they were actually mistaken? Do you suppose it might actually be possible that people can be manipulated into misperceiving their best interests by clever politicians?

The question that you and the DLC are utterly dismissing is this: When are voter perceptions of self-interest accurate and when are they misperceptions created by clever marketing campaigns? Everything hinges on the answer to that question.

If voter perceptions of self-interest as expressed in ballot boxes can always be assumed to be accurate, then perhaps Democrats should hand over the leadership of their Party to the DLC, or better yet, simply join the Republican Party and accede to their demonstrated ability to tap into the “true will of the people.” Others, like myself, would suggest that the more important variable we need to consider is the observable historical fact that clever politicians are able to manipulate many voters into supporting policies that are actually likely to harm them.

One of the sneakiest ways to do this is by invoking Patriotism. Many politicians have understood that patriotic oratory can imbue many struggling members of the working class with very good feelings about themselves, through their identity with their country (or their race, in the case of racism). These citizens may not be aware of the risks that are actually involved in supporting their Fuhrer’s use of the Armed Forces to defend the pride of their nation because they lack knowledge of relevant history.

Do you see the salient point here, Mark? If the Democrats have been losing elections since Ronald Reagan primarily because Republican strategists have been cleverly misleading Average Americans into voting against their own best interests (something you seem to arbitrarily dismiss out of hand) then the answer for Democrats is not to constantly change their positions on the issues, but to effectively counter Republican misinformation strategies.

Please tell me that you are able to comprehend this…

James J. Kroeger


Posted by: James J. Kroeger | Nov 7, 2004 7:50:31 AM

"The question that you and the DLC are utterly dismissing is this: When are voter perceptions of self-interest accurate and when are they misperceptions created by clever marketing campaigns?"

Hi James...we keep running into each other!
...and I agree with you 100%. I'm not gonna bash the dlc, but let's consider a few points of their rationale for existence.

Founded in the wake of the Reagan revolution, these were mainly Southern Conservative Dems. They pushed the idea of realignment, with little understanding of just what realignment was all about...it's not like there's a ton of data available from a historical standpoint. They knew not how long it would last, how it would effect the party as a whole, how to fight it tactically...and they brought their own very strong biases.

They certainly didn't like to be associated with those nasty Northern libs, it made it harder to run at home when their opponents could point out people like Jesse Jackson in the party. They also didn't like 'interest group' politics much. Take those nasty unions, for instance. They argued that they were both too influencial at the same time while noting their membership was declining. Rather then focus on doing what could be done to regrow union membership(which they weren't gonna do...their southern constituents weren't exactly keen on Unions)they realized that power would come from bidness interests and set out to court same. After all, if you marginalize the interest groups at the time: unions, women, envirnmentalists, minorities...just where the heck was the money gonna come from?

The premise from the start was to cede that you could move public opinion, and the only way to fight back was to move the party to the center....so we did. We've marginalized our most liberal, become 'fiscally conservative', adopted the death penalty, ran from the Liberal label and relabeled it 'new dem', voted for a few wars to be tough on defense, took business money to be more friendly to them thru deregulation schemes, ad infinitum.

So, where has this gotten us? Majorities in congress? A nice run in the White House? Have we taken those issues 'off the table'? Don't think so.

Now we are told that we need to be more 'moral', and need to move that direction. Never mind it's bullshit propoganda, we're suppossed to suck it up, we internalize it and become self loathing, and we'll move that direction now, only to find there's another major fault we'll possess in the next election....because as long as there are issues to spin, we'll be seen as not 'X'-enough, and there will always be an issue. And we'll forever fight the last election.

Isn't it time we quit being reactionaries? Isn't it time that maybe we do need a little propoganda apparatus of our own, so we don't need to run away from the Liberal label and rebrand it in a failed effort to hide from it? Aren't you sick of being defensive and accomodating without anything to show for it? Of being painted into an ever tighter corner?

Posted by: jdw | Nov 7, 2004 2:42:41 PM

Clearly it is not just about having a candidate who can connect but rather how the media shows the person as connecting (or not). There's obviously a considerable amount of truth in this. But given how the right wing machine uses social class so effectively in their anti-liberalism there is a kind of silliness in the Dems not acknowledging that it might be a bad idea to go with candidates who can so easily be spun as emotionally reserved, know-it-all-seeming, aloof etc. Of course, the reality is that we had 2 blue-blood bonesmen to choose between. But the Dems will counter the culture/class card a lot better if they pick some candidates who are more representaive of the average American -- or who at least (as W undeniably does) can transcend his class background better than, say, a Gore or a Kerry. Dems might not like to hear this but part of learning from this election involves learning the right lessons (even if unwelcome to some).

Posted by: Dan | Nov 7, 2004 3:00:36 PM

Bunk! The republicans don't view their candidates that way. They start with a person, then construct that person into a candidate.

Got a slow-worded dolt? Well, remake him as a 'genuine' man. Got an effete cheerleader? Make him into a 'rancher'. Got an unaccomplishged drunk? Make him 'born again'.' Got someone inarticulate? Make him loveably genuine, just like you and me, a guy we can have a beer with.

Ad infinitum. Every one of these illusions was created outa whole cloth using very good marketing skills. And we're suppossed to nitpick our guy? Spare me.

Posted by: jdw | Nov 7, 2004 3:22:24 PM

Well, I did say the lesson would be unwelcome!

Anyway, do you at least agree with the following:

But the Dems will counter the culture/class card a lot better if they pick some candidates who are more representaive of the average American.

Presumably not given how you think the media determines absolutely everything and could presumably make William Buckley jr a blue collar guy...

Posted by: Dan | Nov 7, 2004 3:31:46 PM

"But the Dems will counter the culture/class card a lot better if they pick some candidates who are more representaive of the average American."

Uh, yah. Like the son of a President, who went to Ivy Leagure colleges on rich man's affirmative action, whose grandfather was a Senator and whose brother is a governor, who vacations 4 months a year at a swank seaside family compound or a 'ranch' that has no cattle or horses, who hobnobs oil sheiks, who was part owner of a baseball team.

Yea, that guy IS JUST LIKE ME.

Posted by: jdw | Nov 7, 2004 3:50:23 PM

I share your anger. I don't think you're being charitable to what I am saying. But I understand the anger.
For what it is worth, Kerry strikes me a really decent guy and I don't mean to 'nit-pick' his candidacy. I'm sorry if I haven't made that clear (I probably haven't). I'm extremely angry and disappointed about his loss.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 7, 2004 4:23:36 PM

Don't mean to be noncharitable, just feel its way past time to stop internalizing republican bs about our side as some sort of character defect.

I'm proud of who I am, proud of the party and proud of our candidate. Just sick and tired of being led around by the nose by some reactionary twits that tell us if we just do thisandthisandthis we'll win. Especially when they pretend to have only our best interests at heart.


Posted by: jdw | Nov 7, 2004 4:46:22 PM

Agree very much. Last thing we need is to be more right-wing. Peace to you.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 7, 2004 6:55:15 PM

The problem for you all is the american people will never view that it is in their best interests to cede their power to make decisions about their money family or workplace to the government. You may be convinced that that's what's best for them but they instinctively know different. As long as the democratic party's economic philosophy is rooted in socialism, it's cultural philosophy based on moral relativism and it meets its detractors with condescension and disdain, it is doomed to failure.

With all that said, I encourage you all to move further left and to proudly declare your liberalism so that we can stop all this nuanced double-speak that your candidates engage in to court the center while still appealing to their radical base. I think you would all feel better if more of you would just openly say that the majority of America is inferior to your intellect and should therefor yield to your wisdom in planning their lives (not that many of you already aren't). Just please be sure to encourage the media to come out too. No one buys their "objectivity" anymore anyway.

Posted by: Lloyd | Nov 9, 2004 6:58:12 AM

Really interesting comments. I am troubled though that we seem to think that the message doesn't count for a whole lot--either that we need a better messenger or some way of manipulating the public like the Republicans do.

It would be nice if we could blame the loss on either Kerry’s style or the limitless gullibility of the American people. If we were a bit more clear-headed, we might even blame it on the fact that too few people trusted Kerry to handle Iraq and terrorism, which is a problem originating with the candidate’s own public stands. But while Kerry’s loss can be explained on the basis of any and all of these factors, the Republican consolidation of federal power cannot.

What Democrats need is an improved message. Kerry (and Gore) campaigned almost entirely on the policies they were going to implement or improve. Neither of them had a coherent story rooted in the egalitarian drive of the Democratic party. Imagine what a powerful message it would have been if Kerry had attacked “riches without sacrifices,” “the empty pursuit of wealth and power,” or the “corruption of greed” that runs the corporatist (cf. “elitist”) Republican party. What a powerful counter-narrative to the “liberal establishment” bogeyman or the “class warfare” idiocy the Republicans have depended on.

This is about values—-but values that are not just positions, but stories about our country that people relate to and that can give them hope in a better future.

Posted by: Ben | Nov 9, 2004 3:15:48 PM

Thanks for your post, Ben.

If we were a bit more clear-headed, we might even blame it on the fact that too few people trusted Kerry to handle Iraq and terrorism, which is a problem originating with the candidate’s own public stands."

Is that the reason, Ben? Or isn't it just possible that the reason why many voters didn't "trust" Kerry on these issues (the ones who voted for Bush) is because of the way that Republican politicians mis-characterized his positions? or misinterpreted his statements? or because they suggested that he might constantly change his positions because he is---at his core---indecisive?

If Kerry had attacked “riches without sacrifices,” “the empty pursuit of wealth and power,” or the “corruption of greed” that runs the corporatist (cf. “elitist”) Republican party, there is little doubt that Republican strategists would have quickly "defined" those who make such statements as darkly threatening to America. They would have loved ridiculing such "un-American" ideas.

It's the same old thing, Ben. If you don't know how to play their game, you're going to lose.


Posted by: James J. Kroeger | Nov 9, 2004 4:42:13 PM

Or they would have pointed out that Kerry's own wife only paid a rate of 12% on her income taxes because she could afford the best tax accountants and to shelter all of her money in tax free municipal bonds. They would have further pointed out that no matter what the tax rate was the super rich (like the Heinz-Kerry's of america) will find away around it whereas the small business owner could not. Facts are stubborn things but those are facts that "Gullible Americans" grasped pretty well.

I'm really curious about the mis-characterizations of Kerry's policies that people keep referring to. Would someone care to list 5 for me? The way it sounds there should be hundreds but I'll settle for any that you come up with.

Posted by: Lloyd | Nov 10, 2004 7:02:06 AM

See what I mean, Ben?

Posted by: James J. Kroeger | Nov 10, 2004 10:15:40 AM

James, where is the "mis-characterization" in that? Have I "mis-interpreted" the Heinz-Kerry tax returns that were made public? Have I "defined" the situation "as darkly threatening to America"? All I've done is pointed out the contradiction in Kerry's tax policies as being good for the goose but not the gander.

The fact that the uber-rich can avoid paying a high amount in taxes is not the point, the fact that the aspiring, hardworking small business owner can't avoid them is. Or do you disagree?

Posted by: Lloyd | Nov 11, 2004 10:12:11 AM