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Cats Skinnable In More Than One Way

The neverending struggle continues as Harold Meyerson says Democrats need populist economics to regain the allegiance of the white working class, while Marshall Whittman counters that cultural moderation is the only way to get things done. Blah, says I to the whole thing. The reality is that the Democratic Party is close enough to a majority that there's more than one way you could go from where it is now to majority status.

Will Wilkinson, in an interesting post, has denied that my "Pundit's Fallacy" (the putting forth of one's policy preference as the solution to a problem in political strategy) is a real fallacy, and I see his point. Sort of. Nevertheless, I think it's a real problem, because you wind up with things like this Whittman-Meyerson exchange in which the real issues -- to wit: Meyerson's like of, and Whittman's dislike of, populist economics as substantive policy measures -- are being obscured. A political strategy needs to have a purpose. The thing to do is to first decide what (roughly speaking) you want to do, and then try to think of a strategy that will allow you to achieve some element of that agenda. Whether or not Democrats ought to "promote alternatives to the kind of shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended" is a substantive issue of great importance whose answer hinges on whether or not someone has a substantively appealing alternative. It would be a bit odd to go around promoting an alternative to sharholder-driven capitalism merely in order to win elections. It's kind of a big deal!

February 24, 2005 | Permalink

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» The pudit's fallacy and the creation of new realities from The Great Whatsit
My old roommate Will Wilkinson has been having an exchange with Matt Yglesias about the so-called "Pundit's Fallacy," which is when a pundit offers her favorite policy proposal as a solution to a political problem. (Will's example is a narwal-loving pu... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 11:43:20 AM

» Bring back the forty-hour workweek from Abigail's Magic Garden
Matthew Yglesias teasingly suggests that “Democrats need populist economics to regain the allegiance of the white working class,” but then says “blah.” Well I say he gave up on the idea too fast, and here’s one suggestion for Democrats: [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 2:10:23 PM

» Is the Pundit's Fallacy a fallacy? from The Bellman

In a word, yes. But Will Wilkinson doesn't think so.

"The pundit's fallacy," Will writes, "putatively occurs when a pundit sets forth his own preferences [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 4:40:35 PM

» Critic's Fallacy from Left Center Left
Matt Yglesias has coined the term "pundit's fallacy" to describe the pundit's tendency to mistake what they think is right for what is actually popular and politically savvy. I've been wondering if a similar dynamic has taken hold of popular [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 1, 2005 7:40:29 AM

» Critic's Fallacy from Left Center Left
Matt Yglesias has coined the term [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 1, 2005 7:43:05 AM

Comments

The Inverse Pundit Fallacy (putting forth one's political strategy as a policy recommendation) also has its downside. I suppose that it's simple-minded to point out that you have to do both at the same time.

The Democrats are indeed close, but a lot of the strength of the Republicans is the organization sharpness that allows them to pull off a series of close victories. I've read that Jesse Helms never won by much, but won over and over again. Seemngly they have a whole shelf full of last-minute dirty tricks and red herrings, plus a pot of money, plus good enough polling data to know where it's most needed.

It even seems to be a Rove-Helms principle that if you win by a landslide, you must not have been doing much while you were in office. If your purpose is to change things, you're going to make a lot of people mad.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 24, 2005 10:38:54 AM

Wonk. Policy is a tool to gain & hold power, not power as a tool to create good policy. We, like live in a republic or democracy here. The "shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended" has been driven by the desire for campaign funding and suburban votes, but has not actually delivered in winning elections for Democrats. Dump it.

This is of course assuming a sane electorate, in which bad policy will eventually alienate voters. One can assume a correlation of good policy and good electoral outcomes, until the evidence becomes overwhelming that no such correlation is possible. At which point you start compromising policy, not abandoning political ambition.

If the electorate is finally determined to be a psycho mob, you help build the ships and head for Syracuse. As a Democrat, you belong to them. If a Republican, you loot the treasury and seek sanctuary in Persia. You never cared anyway.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 24, 2005 10:51:09 AM

I like the Bull Moose but I think he's barking up the wrong tree here. "Cultural moderation" will not gain Democrats a single vote; the right side of the culture war really thinks it's a war, and that no compromise is possible. John Kerry's position on gay rights was not proactive or confrontational in the slightest; it was as moderate as Whittman could reasonably ask for. But all the cultural conservatives voted for Bush anyway. The only way Kerry could have peeled away any of those votes is to have pulled some really disgusting Ricky Rector-esque stunt wrt gays, and Kerry wasn't willing to go there.

Nat'l security, OTOH, needn't be the cultural issue that it has become. Undoubtedly many Bush voters line up with the Dems on every single other issue. For them, nat'l defense is a genuine concern, not merely an identity-politics rallying cry.

Of course on the merits, homeland security is a better issue for Dems to embrace than "homos are icky" or "swarthy foreigners are taking our jobs".

Posted by: ktheintz | Feb 24, 2005 10:56:30 AM

Cultural moderation might eventually win you some votes. Your problem is in thinking that you can adopt it as a guise five months before the general election, and have people actually believe you. You'd have to adopt it as a policy for at least a couple of years, so that people had some confidence you weren't going to revert to type as soon as you regained power.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 24, 2005 11:05:40 AM

As long as the Right has a stranglehold on the mainstream media, it doesn't matter if the Democrats believe in populist economics or cultural moderation as the most effective way to regain the allegiance of the working class. There is an inclination on the part of Democrats to be reflective, and wonder how we can tweak our policy positions to attract more voters. The Right didn't worry about crafting a popular platform-- they simply went out and bought a bigger megaphone; there is not even broad-based support for their policy positions, but they have been successful anyway.

Posted by: peter jung | Feb 24, 2005 11:05:50 AM

Here's a crazy idea:
When the other side is visibly cheating - take your pick, Swift Boat Vets, wearing a wire at the debates, jerry-rigging Florida or Ohio polls, etc, etc - fracking call 'em on it.

People do not respect a rube. Dean's first comments, "I don't answer blind quotes," shows the road back to respect for Democrats.

Posted by: bartkid | Feb 24, 2005 11:08:46 AM

It's not such a crazy idea; The Republicans are following your advice in King county right now, as a matter of fact. ;)

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 24, 2005 11:15:11 AM

It would be a bit odd to go around promoting an alternative to shareholder-driven capitalism merely in order to win elections. It's kind of a big deal!

I find it odd that you find it odd. If an alternative to shareholder-driven capitalism were thought to win votes you couldn't stop the Schumers of the world from proposing it. As matters stand, though, I can't think of an election that was won on, "On what fundament is our political economy based?"

As to cats, I personally blanch them very briefly in boiling water. The skin then comes off easily, and they may then be pureed and served in Bellinis, in the manner of Harry's Bar.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Feb 24, 2005 11:30:00 AM

I think that Hillary is going about this in a very sensible way, and the success of her approach is reflected in recent polls.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 24, 2005 11:31:30 AM

The answer is obvious: Tell the DLC to go shove it, and adopt sensible populist positions on economic issues (national health care, resurgent unions, ban on offshoring). Adopt a sensible moderate position on foreign policy (Afghanistan yes, Iraq no) which means that we will defend ourselves from terrorists but we will not try to set the world on fire for 'democracy'. We're not Leninists. On cultural issues, try to soft pedal. We're not going to convince anyone by lying about who we are. But I do think that framing the issues appropriately will help a lot. On abortion - Clinton's 'safe, legal, and rare' worked. Use it. Also point out that abortions actually went down under Clinton's terms and up under Bush's. On gay rights - we should advocate civil unions, but leave gay marriage up to individual states. Civil unions are better than what exists now, and while the diehard bigots won't be won over, the median voter feels less uncomfortable with this than with all-out marraige. In 20-30 years, this won't even be a controversial issue, and gay marriage laws will pass with little controversy. On gun control - ditch it. What has this ever gotten us? It's ineffective and it just pisses off working-class voters who might be receptive to an economically populist agenda. Let cities ban guns if they want, but make it clear that this isn't an area that the Democrats are interested getting the Federal government into.

Posted by: Firebug | Feb 24, 2005 11:42:33 AM

Compromise with the Religious Right is impossible. The more you give, the more they'll demand. You can't negotiate with someone who believe that they are following the will of God.

Posted by: Zelph | Feb 24, 2005 11:43:39 AM

Meyerson's and Whittman's strategy recommendations are not necessarily incompatible - in fact, I believe that both should be pursued. The Democrats are cetainly not losing elections because their economic policies are too "liberal". John Kerry's economic policies appealed to most voters than did George Bush's. On the other hand, despite denials there is abundant evidence that cultural and lifestyle issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) were significant factors in the disappointing performance of Democrats in 2004 - not just in the Presidential elections, but also in the Congressional and gubernatorial race as well.

It's also worth noting that Republicans have also been discussing whether economic or cultural issues have been more responsible for the GOP's success. Ramnesh Ponnuru argues in favor of cultural issues, and I'm strongly inclined to agree with him.


Posted by: Steve132 | Feb 24, 2005 11:53:30 AM

"Cultural moderation"? Appeasing the norms of the religious right, let alone aping them, won't moderate anyone -- it would just hand them the victory they can't win on their own and lock the country up in white-bread atavism. The first desideratum in a political program, policies and promises, should be serving the public good. "Economic populism" approximates to that. The next thing is to move public opinion in its favor, which takes a lot of positive explaining and fighting off distortions of it by the right. If we do that with candor and without condescension or compromise, we will get the votes in the long run -- because even if many of them have been reduced to a storekeeper mentality which confuses the common good with the most myopic and mistaken idea of their own individual interests, you can't fool even most of the people all the time.

Posted by: Dabodius | Feb 24, 2005 12:10:13 PM

The situation is much simpler than all this hand wringing suggests. The country is evenly divided, as evidenced by the virtual tie between Dems and the GOP in state legislative seats. If you factor in "moderate" or at least "socially moderate" Republicans in Blue states (who outnumber the few remaining Dixiecrats left in elective office)whose voters would probably vote for an acceptable Democrat if given a choice, you could make a case that we have an easily achieveable New Democrat majority already. The problem is that after 9-11 the percentage of socially and fiscally moderate males who will vote for Republicans whom they believe are more inclined to blow stuff up has increased the total Republican vote just enough to achieve narrow majority status at the Federal level. This situation is temporary, and the hubris of the GOP is almost guaranteed to tilt that party far enough over the acceptable line (see Pat Buchanan's "Culture War" speech at the GOP convention for details) that REagan Dems and even moderate Republicans will fall away.

Posted by: dan hall | Feb 24, 2005 12:27:44 PM

It even seems to be a Rove-Helms principle that if you win by a landslide, you must not have been doing much while you were in office.

Interesting optimization problem. Maximize the amount you can get away with subject to the constraint of winning a majority in the next election. Probably some truth to it.

If your purpose is to change things, you're going to make a lot of people mad.

On the other hand, if your purpose is to enact good governance, you may actually build a bipartisan base of support as a side-effect. The Rove assumption (according to John Emerson) seems to be that one's interests as a politician stand in direct opposition to the interests of one's constituency.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 24, 2005 12:40:12 PM

"The problem is that after 9-11 the percentage of socially and fiscally moderate males who will vote for Republicans whom they believe are more inclined to blow stuff up has increased the total Republican vote just enough to achieve narrow majority status at the Federal level. This situation is temporary..."

White women, too.

If you remove the political premium presently paid to the party that can slay the most swarthy folks who worship the wrong God, Democrats win, period.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Feb 24, 2005 12:41:06 PM

It even seems to be a Rove-Helms principle that if you win by a landslide, you must not have been doing much while you were in office.

Or another way to look at this is there is no limit to what you can do provided there is no limit to your willingness to make enemies.

The need for a simple majority fixes your enemies limit at 50%-1 votes. Without that constraint, this putative Roves-Helms "principle" devolves into sociopathy. I guess democracy is good for something.

But again, is it such a radical notion that you might actually find your popular support increasing with respect to your effectiveness in office.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 24, 2005 12:52:06 PM

If you think things need to be changed, then there's no conflict between changing things, and good governance.

And, yes, if you remove any critical issue that works against a party, while leaving all else unchanged, you catapult that party into power. The question is, which of the critical issues helping Republicans, and hurting Democrats, is it within the power of Democrats, who aren't in power, to remove from the equation? Surely not our being at war.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 24, 2005 12:52:59 PM

As long as the Right has a stranglehold on the mainstream media, it doesn't matter if the Democrats believe in populist economics or cultural moderation as the most effective way to regain the allegiance of the working class.

I am not so sure about the stranglehold. The Democrats simply don't have much to say, so there isn't much to report. When Kennedy said that the war was 'cooked in Texas' the media picked it up right away. When he said that it's time to bring the troops home - the media did report it.

There are many-many good and important thing the Democrats could say and get media coverage. But they don't.

The problem is that they simply don't represent interests of 'the white working class'. Or any working class, for that matter.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 24, 2005 12:53:33 PM

"Tell the DLC to go shove it, and adopt sensible populist positions on economic issues (national health care, resurgent unions, ban on offshoring)."

I disagree with all of those propsals, but I'll admit that an intelligent argument can be made on behalf of national health care and resurgent unions. You can't really believe that a ban on offshoring is good policy though, can you? It may or may not be good politics, but it is by no means a sensible position.

Posted by: Xavier | Feb 24, 2005 12:59:30 PM

Democrats need to talk about the unfair employer-employee relationship. Among other issues.

Posted by: Abigail | Feb 24, 2005 1:37:30 PM

I don't think the party has moved that far away from populist economics, even though there's a legitimate argument about free trade (and I say this as a pretty strong advocate of free trade). It's important to remember that, while the economy wasn't great under Bush II, it wasn't incredibly weak, either. Thus, there was probably no reason for many voters who would be the ones hurting under a bad economy to place economic values over cultural values. And then there's the whole issue of terrorism and national security.

I'm no expert on this, but if I had to bet, I'd say the problem is with mobilization and the delivery of the platform message. I remember reading that, even after John Kerry had secured the nomination, there still was no top-to-bottom party mobilization apparatus in that oh-so-important swing state of Ohio. That's inexcusable, no matter what the state of the Ohio Democratic Party is in. We should have had things set up even before the Iowa Caucus. This is one area where we can copy the Republicans.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 24, 2005 2:18:33 PM

I just have to know. Why does anyone need even one way to skin a cat?

Posted by: Dwight Meredith | Feb 24, 2005 2:22:19 PM

Because the hair gets in the stew, otherwise.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 24, 2005 2:45:19 PM

BullMoose strikes me as a guy who tried for a long time for the republicans to come and stand with him near the center (center-right). Having no takers, he turned around and is now asking Democrats to come with him in the center.

It seems to me that his ideal party would be something like the the current republicans but without all of the fascism and corruption. That would be my ideal *republican* party also. But it's not what the Democratic Party should be. He's a great writer with good ideas and it would be great to have a centrist party, but not without a strong left to balance the fascist right.

Thanks but no thanks, BullMoose.

Posted by: fasteddie | Feb 24, 2005 2:50:31 PM

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