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False Symmetry

(cross-posted on tpmcafe.com)

Like Kevin Drum, I read the new essay by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, The Politics of Polarization, over the weekend, and like Kevin, I came away intrigued by certain points but on the whole, frustrated and unimpressed.

And I say that as an admirer of both and of their great 1991 essay The Politics of Evasion, which I linked to and encouraged people to reread after the 2004 election, even though many of the myths and evasions that Galston & Kamarck identified at that time were obviously not relevant 10 years later. (For example, the Myth that Democrats can always fall back on control the House of Representatives has been shattered, I hope.)

Ironically, since I do still think The Politics of Evasion is worth reading, the new essay seems a little too caught in the spirit of the old, too focused on proving that the Democratic Party is in even worse shape than in the wake of the Mondale and Dukakis defeats. Which in some ways it is, certainly at the level of congressional politics, but not in other ways it's not. The world is in worse shape, and the Democratic Party is in bad shape but a very different kind of bad shape than back then. The Politics of Evasion was an aggressive wake-up call to a lot of people who were very complacent (the smug satisfaction of forever holding the House of Representatives is a good example). The furious debate about direction of the party, need for unity vs. diversity, opposition vs. governing, etc. that goes on at every level today was at that time a very restrained, specialized and closed conversation, to the extent that it went on at all.

In some of those debates, Galston & Kamarck take well-argued sides, such as rejecting "The Myth of Language" in both its vulgar form (we just need a soundbite or an "elevator pitch") and its sophisticated form (Lakoffian "framing").

As to their recommendation to reach out to the center, all I'll say is that those of us who are deeply and emotionally involved in the current crisis need reminders that to change the configuration of power, we have to figure out how to reach a large non-conservative population that is not as strongly motivated by passionate disgust for the Bush direction of the country as many of us are. That may be because they are moderate politically or because they do not want to devote as much of their mind and emotions to politics, particularly of the unpleasant kind. In either event, a politics of pure polarization or mobilization will be insufficient to build a majority. Fair enough point. But it's not obvious to me that there is a particular moderate ideological position that is what these voters are looking for. It may just be a matter of tone or the way Democrats reflect certain values.

But even before the bulk of the essay, I was struck by what might at first seem one of the more banal points:

Many Americans do not want to choose between a vigorous economy and a strong safety net, between individual liberty and national security, between social tolerance and moral tradition, or between military strength and international cooperation, and they resent a politics that forces them to do.

Well, sure. I agree with that as a generic statement. But which Democrats exactly are forcing those choices? I don't want to choose between a vigorous economy and a strong safety net either. And if you can show me that my strong safety net proposals would harm the economy (not like the Clinton 1993 budget package was going to hurt the economy), then I'll reconsider it. So would most Dems. But it's pretty clear to me that the #1 social safety net improvement -- universal health care -- would be a boon to the economy, even if only by making health care costs more predictable for businesses, and the only businesses to be hurt by it would be those profiting off inefficiencies in the current system. It was Bush who forced a choice between the safety net of Social Security and an alternative that promised great riches down the road; it didn't look to me like Americans had much trouble with that choice. Likewise the choice between liberty and security: even the ACLU mostly focuses on the question of whether the sacrifices of liberty actually enhance security. Military strength and international cooperation are a zero-sum tradeoff only in the mind of John Bolton. And then there's the choice "between social tolerance and moral tradition," which I suppose is Galston-Kamarck code for "that whole gaybusiness," which can indeed be an either/or choice for those whose moral tradition counsels intolerance. But this involves deeper social trends, and again, the starkest choices are being forced on voters by those placing anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments on the ballot.

That two smart and observant people can write that paragraph is in itself the Democrats' biggest problem, which is simply that Dems can be centrist or not-centrist and will still be portrayed this way. It's part of the genius of Bush's "unequal polarization" (to borrow Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's phrase): they can present choices in a stark and polarizing way -- invade Iraq or be weak on terror, to take the worst example -- so that an alternative is inherently seen as representing the opposite pole. You can do that when you control the agenda, and when the press and pundits are so naturally inclined to see the world in symmetries.

Democrats don't need to move to the center so much as to find a sharp and unmistakable way to make clear that we are the centrist party even if we don't change a thing. Ours is the party that wants the dynamic economy that only a strong safety net makes possible, that believes in the strength that can come from finding unity of purpose with other nations rather than pushing them away, etc. I could write that speech, and others have. But it's not getting through, obviously. The fact that Kamarck and Galston don't get it suggests that maybe the myth of language isn't such a myth after all.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 12, 2005 | Permalink


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Dead on! I've been saying nearly the same thing to my friends and family for a while now. But you are right that the Dems have not made the case. They have tried to say it around the margins, but they need to just come out and say it. "The Republicans think we have to have either/or (pick a subject). We think that Amewrica is good enough and deserves to have both!"

This works for any number of subjects but is particularly effective with the economy. "The Republicans say that we can't have a robust economy and a social safety net. They say that spending on social issues just increases government and slows down the economy. But we have had social safeguards for the last seventy years and look at where we are. Our economy is the envy of the world. We Democrats think different. We think that you can have both if you do it right...blah, blah, blah." You get the picture. If Galston and Kamarck think that changing the way we talk about things won't change our electoral prospects, then I don't think they have been paying very good attention recently.

Posted by: phanatic1 | Oct 12, 2005 5:39:06 PM

Isn't this:

That two smart and observant people can write that paragraph is in itself the Democrats' biggest problem, which is simply that Dems can be centrist or not-centrist and will still be portrayed this way.

Part and parcel with this:

In some of those debates, Galston & Kamarck take well-argued sides, such as rejecting "The Myth of Language" in both its vulgar form (we just need a soundbite or an "elevator pitch") and its sophisticated form (Lakoffian "framing").

Isn't arguing against "framing" based on the premise that there is actually something wrong with democratic positions?

Aren't you essentially arguing for "framing" here:

Democrats don't need to move to the center so much as to find a sharp and unmistakable way to make clear that we are the centrist party even if we don't change a thing.

I think that nicely captures the entire "framing" argument.

While there are probably issues that the Dems need to rethink, if they don't get past the point where their message is ignored any new positions are meaningless.

Posted by: Zach | Oct 13, 2005 2:11:34 AM

This is exactly what I have been thinking for years as I watched the Dems decline in influence. Republicans draw up a straw man Democrat and make the choice simple for the average voter. The Dems answer with nuanced replies in shades of gray which reinforce the Republican strawman.

One other factor I would add is a personal theory that democracies tend to find strong leadership in times of crisis. Major crisies in our nations history have produced Lincoln and FDR, lesser crisises have produced TR, Kennady and Reagan. I know every one would have their own list of strong leaders, and that is not the point I am trying to argue, I just think the war on Terror/Drugs/Safety net is just not a crisis. The average voter does not spend much time thinking about politics when the issue du jour is marginal tax rates or pin pointing the housing bubble. The Republicans, by dumb luck, have stumbled upon the way to take advantage of a leadership vacuum. Prop up a puppet and elevate non issues like Terri Shiavo and Elian Gonzalez. Campaign against the strawman and victory becomes easy.

So far, our wars have not produced a draft, deficit spending has generated economic activity, and our leadership has carefully rationed their credibility to push their agenda. We could be at a precipice that causes the nation to seek strong leadership or there may be some wiggle room the stay the course. Predicting that bubble is more difficult than predicting asset bubbles.

Posted by: normaldist | Oct 13, 2005 9:49:02 AM


Until the Demos own the media, they are sunk -- ie we are sunk. They'll swiftboat the best we can throw at 'em. And that's all the moderate center will see from the media.

You want health care -- good, but the lobbies will beat that back with a heavy stick.

One of the mani things the Repubs have accomplished is the idea that my taxes shouldn't bee used for anything like welfare (for blacks, implied) or the common good (it's okay to use taxes for corporate welfare because that creates jobs).

Posted by: degustibus | Oct 13, 2005 2:19:42 PM

"Democrats don't need to move to the center so much as to find a sharp and unmistakable way to make clear that we are the centrist party even if we don't change a thing."

EXACTLY. It is incredible to me that there are people *even within our own party* who are claiming that Democrats are not centrist in policy compared to the Republicans. What is to be done with such people? How can things not be clear even to them?

Posted by: Mstanley | Oct 15, 2005 10:00:19 PM

Do you mean false symmetry or false dichotomy? I don't see what is symmetric.

Oh, and I love the name of your blog -- though Декабристы looks much cooler.

Posted by: Earl | Oct 16, 2005 12:05:25 AM

This is so much horse crap. What the DLC just doesn't get is that it's how your issue positions are characterized by the other side, not what the actual positions are. That's what James Kroeger made clear in The Republican Nemesis. One thing you can count on is that "moderate" positions embraced by New Democrats will be demonized as "extreme" by the Repugnicans. Kroeger also points out the sober truth of the Bill Clinton legacy:

"The only reason why his centrist positions helped to get him elected is because he was able to deftly take away the ammunition his opponents were depending on to define him in a negative way. By eliminating distinctions between himself and his Republican opponent, he was able to reduce the choice for voters to "Who do you want for your President? Him or me?" With his charm, he was the obvious choice for many. As many have pointed out, the only problem with this approach is that you can only agree with your opponent for tactical reasons so many times before you actually become your opponent."

Polarization in America? That's the way the Repubnicans like it. It's their strategy.

Posted by: Linette | Oct 19, 2005 2:47:47 PM

Universal health care can be a great impact on health care system. It is unfortunate to hear so many lack health insurance. We really need to improve our health care system. Health insurance is a major aspect to many and we should help everyone get covered.

Posted by: California Health Insurance | Nov 18, 2005 5:39:12 PM