7/5/17

Why Are Democrats Still Losing Elections?

           In an open letter to Thomas Friedman re-posted to these pages (American Counterpoint 6/21/17), Keith poses a challenge. Keith implores Mr. Friedman to use his influence among fellow liberal journalists to tone down their monolithic vitriol a bit  in favor of a more analytic rendering of Republican positions on the issues of the day. Motivating Keith’s suggestion is his own rationalism and a belief that rational arguments usually prevail in fair debate, which in turn is a precondition for sound government. As a partisan Democrat, of course, Keith believes that his party holds the natural advantage in this process, by virtue of its superior ideology, and he rejects unneeded help from a press trying to keep its thumb on the scale. Keith, to his credit,  wants and expects to win fair and square.

               To remain a viable form of government, democracy must eschew censorship in any form. The underlying theory is that open debate will, more often than not, reveal the best ideas from among those competing for control over the levers of political power. Then the voting public will, again more often than not, recognize these ideas and elect people capable of putting them into force. I would carry the theory further and argue that ideas coming from both sides are invigorated by the competition. As a result, whichever side emerges in control of government will be more capable of doing so effectively than it would have with nothing more than its own preconceptions upon which to base policy.

               It’s my own opinion that this vital dynamic largely explains the staying power of liberal democracies, most prominently the United States, in the face the authoritarian systems. Such governments, right and left, have over the years assumed seemly insurmountable power in various countries, only to reveal themselves as in fact too fragile to survive crisis.

               I don’t know whether Keith would express himself in quite these terms or not, but I’m pretty sure he agrees with my basic thinking here. It is, more or less, the meeting of the minds we had several years ago when we agreed to start this blog.
High-Tech Tribalism
               Unfortunately, I fear that both of us may be whistling in the wind in the current political environment here in the United States. Or to employ a more ominous metaphor, maybe we’re whistling past the graveyard. The problem is that effective governing ideas no longer appear to be the objective of our national dialogue. In the article to which Keith was responding in his letter, Thomas Friedman observes that in America today we seem to be descending into a kind of latter-day tribalism in which tribal identity counts for more than ideology. In primitive tribal societies, people don't much care what members of another tribe "think" about anything, only their intrinsic status as friend or foe. While our developing modern tribalism keys off shared biases rather than kinship ties, a lack of interest in what the other side thinks remains as the common denominator. Ideas matter only in so far as they reveal the more visceral underlying attitudes that identify him or her as one of "us" or of "them".

               This binary world view harkens back to orthodox Marxism, which used "class conflict" as the universal lens by which believers could reduce their world to its simple and mutually exclusive elements.  Marxists divided the entire late nineteenth  and early twentieth-century society around them down into Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, with a person's class identity counting for everything and determining what he or she thought on any subject. Since the two classes were  considered inherently at war to the death,  this mental construct was a spiritual cul-de-sac from which violence was the only possible escape. Debating the enemy served no purpose because there was no alternative ground on which accommodation could be reached. Orthodox Marxists believed in violent revolution and dedicated their lives to accelerating the process. This is how the Russian revolution came about and all the dark history that followed from it.
               In twenty-first century America, we seem to be drifting back towards something akin to this form of political interaction,  albeit without the outmoded Marxian pedantry. Where is it leading us?

Portents
               Signs of an answer are starting to appear. On May 30, comedienne and anti-Trump provocateur Kathy Griffin posted an on-line picture of herself holding up in effigy the President's bloody severed head. Her stunt was roundly denounced by almost everyone, including  people on the Left, but she initially tried to defend herself by explaining that it was the job of comedians to move lines and then boldly to cross them. Two weeks later, as if on cue,  the line she violated  was moved and crossed again when James Hodgkinson, a former campaign volunteer for Bernie Sanders, opened fire on a contingent of the Republican Congressional leadership who were gathered to practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. This event has been a friendly bi-partisan tradition in Washington since early in the last century. Mr. Hodgkinson was apparently initially unsure of who was on the field at the time,  and he unleashed his attempted massacre only after receiving assurance the ballplayers were indeed Republicans.

               Bernie Sanders immediately and, I believe, sincerely condemned the attack. But doesn't he understand his own movement well enough to know that his incessant casual use of the term "revolution", however benignly he himself might imagine it, promises bloody red meat to certain of his followers?  It was Chairman Mao in revolutionary China who once, poking fun at some of his own bourgeois supporters,  drolly pointed out to them that revolution isn't a dinner party.

De-Humanization Of The Enemy
               In the background to all this is the so-called "antifa" (for anti-fascist) agitation that has been gaining momentum since Trump's election. This is the movement driven by the guys is the ISIS-style black coats and full face masks who keep popping up in various places to shout down conservative speakers or intimidate Trump supporters. Fascism was actually a discrete political movement among radical Italian nationalists prior to World War II. The Communists of the day, however, generalized the word and eagerly took it up as a catch-all epithet with which to tar anyone perceived as standing in the way of their road to power. Even moderate Social Democrats, more-or-less equivalent to our modern-day American liberals, found themselves labeled, incomprehensibly, as "Social Fascists". The enemy could never be seen as human.

               In twenty-first century America, the hard left has modernized in many respects, having mustered a glitzy social media presence for example, but its adherents have retained the old-fashioned heavy-handed tactical style of their political forebears,  as well as their odd love for the indiscriminant word "Fascist". Trump is, of course, a "Fascist".
               It's not being lost on too many people, certainly no Republicans, that for all the talk about Trump's supposedly incendiary style, most of the true incendiary behavior during the past year has been coming from the Left. During  the Presidential campaign, it was Trump rallies, not those of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who were repeatedly disrupted by abrasive outsiders. The media tried to blame Trump himself for most of this, but people could see what was happening and quietly stored away their thoughts.

Is The Liberal Media Inadvertently Destroying The Democratic Party?
         Democrats still can't quite seem to understand why they're losing elections. The same pollsters who stroked them with promises of Hillary Clinton's impending landslide in 2016 have ever since been reassuring them with data about Trump's deepening unpopularity. And as during the campaign,  the liberal media keeps dropping these data points into its echo chamber and magnifying the sound into a roar. Yet Democrats continue to come up short whenever actual votes are tallied.

               Most recently, Republican Karen Handel won the special election held for the Georgia Congressional seat vacated when Tom Price stepped forward to join Trump's cabinet. This election had been widely heralded as a referendum on Trump's presidency, and Democrats were breathless in anticipation of good news, especially after pouring in enough big money from outside the state to turn the contest into the most expensive congressional election in the nation's history. However, the costly hot thrust was all for naught. Furthermore, this was only the latest in five special elections that have occurred since the onset of Trump's reign, and the Democrats have managed to lose every one.

               What's going on? Trump's weird and disordered Presidency should be a golden opportunity for Democrats emerge as the adults in the room and bring back some balanced dignity to American politics. It should be easier than ever for them to start winning elections again. Instead, they seem to be pandering to their Hollywood faction and tolerating if not encouraging fringe elements like BLM and radical LGBT activists, the antifa people, and  the monomaniacal Trump-haters.
               Liberal dominance of the mainstream media, that should be an asset for them,  has instead become a liability because it's making them look like bullies. CNN sounds like Pravda in its 24/7 blaring of the anti-Trump party line. The impeachment process started before Trump had even assumed office,  like a show trial getting underway ahead of any crime. Amazingly, the media is allowing Trump actually to bring credibility to the ludicrous victim's posture he often affected during the Presidential campaign.

               Well-heeled voters in places like Georgia's sixth district, by no means the heart of "Deplorables" country, had to have been appalled by all this. Traditional Republicans, independents, and even moderate Democrats must be wondering what the two parties are even about anymore. Only the Trumpites and Bernie's people seem to think they know. People are getting caught up in the tribal passions and voting, increasingly it seems against Democrats,  without even understanding why. Politicians on both sides are no longer addressing our minds. They are speaking to our ids, and the appeal is subconscious.

It's A Matter Of Time
               Meanwhile, people like Keith and myself sound increasingly quaint trying to engage one another in rational debate, as though policy still mattered.  We'll keep at it, however, even if no one much cares. If, as I suggested above, a vigorous democratic process is key to national survival in the face of crisis, then our politicians had better break out of their dysfunction and pick up  the ball. There are enough existential threats lurking in the world right now that advent of serious crisis of one sort or another is only a matter of time. If our nation then is still locked in its present state of paralysis, the world's oldest continuous constitutional democracy will at last be consigning itself to the history books.

5 comments:

  1. Mark says that effective governing ideas no longer appear to be the objective of our national dialogue. Instead, it is a matter of “us” or of “them” winning. I find this bleak, despairing perception to be mistaken, despite its current popularity.

    It is mistaken for two basic reasons: first, because although the political teams do indeed operate from basic ideologies, they are not necessarily inconsistent; second, because the dynamics that determine team membership are rather complex.

    Ideologies.
    The psychologist and political analyst Drew Westen determined that Democrats and Republicans share the same set of values, but they differ sharply in the importance they give to those values. For example, Republicans value patriotism very highly, while Democrats place more weight on kindness to others. So, historically, Republicans have proposed welfare improvements, Democrats have supported military expansion, and both ideologies have espoused environmental protection. Both parties favor freedom, innovation, self-help, and hard work. So the differences between the parties are not so large or unbridgeable.

    Team Membership
    Undeniably, the Republicans, allied with Fox News and Limbaugh-like talk radio, have created a team brand, with very strong team spirit. A NY Times op ed by a Nebraska news manager expressed, in stark terms, how dominant Fox News is there, and how impenetrable the Republican voters of Nebraska seem to be as a result. He wrote that whatever Fox says is gospel to Nebraskans, and only Fox can turn them against Trump. Arie Russell Hochschild’s book about Republican voters in heavily polluted Louisiana tells much the same story.

    But as Westen keeps arguing, the team gap is so large not because they are totally opposed to each other in real life, but primarily because one of the teams knows how to play the election game, and the other doesn’t. If they were football teams, the Red team would use passes, running, blocking, and tackling to make their scores, while the larger, stronger Blue players would just dance and shout. But when the Blue team had coach/players like FDR and Bill Clinton, they were not only larger and stronger players, but their leaders knew how to play.

    Westen points out in his The Political Brain (2007) that voters “tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for… ‘How do I feel about the dandidate’ party and its principles?’ ‘How does this candidate make me feel?’ ‘How do I feel about this candidate’s personal characteristics…?’ and ‘How do I feel about this candidate’s stand on issues that matter to me?’” p.418 The GOP, steeped in commercial efforts to persuade people to buy goods and services, start from the top. Democrats, apart from candidates like FDR and Clinton, start from the bottom. The Republicans pick attractive candidates and frame their candidacies in emotionally appealing terms. The Democrats only sporadically adhere to those political disciplines. Instead, like Dukakis, Kerry, Gore, and Hillary, they spend most of their energy on logical and complex answers to the last and least important question. I am not disparaging logic and complexity. Voters need and understand both. But I am saying that policies must be presented, through the medium of attractive candidates, in value-oriented, emotionally compelling, and comprehensibly logical ways.

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    1. Keith - Interesting comments. I would offer the following counterpoints:

      I think your description of bridgeable ideologies makes an excellent case for why American democracy has been able to function well in the past. I'm just not sure it's positioned to go on working that way in the future. The ability to broker compromise used to be considered a political virtue, and it indeed took advantage of fundamental values share by both sides. Now the art of compromise is more likely to be viewed as a betrayal, and its practitioners are getting eaten alive politically.

      Fox news has achieved the dominance it has not by telling people what to think but by reflecting back at them in a coherent package what they're already thinking. This is still, of course, a corruption of what responsible media should be about, since the legitimate role of media is to reflect as objectively as possible the environment we live in, which is always changing and ALWAYS contradicting what any of us is thinking at any given time. You're attributing far too much power to Fox and overlooking the fact that its corruption is mirrored exactly in the behavior of CNN, NYT, Washington Post, etc. which make up what's thought of as the mainstream liberal media. Furthermore, with respect to Trump, Fox has never been an active supporter of his and has been more aligned with the Bush wing of the Republican party. Megyn Kelley was still working for Fox at the time she tore Trump to shreds during the first of the Presidential debates last year. She could not and would not have done this without the tacit support of her network at the time.

      While I'm not going to go into it here, the idea that Republicans win because they field such clever, attractive candidates vis-a-vis the Democrats is very hard to fathom. I would suggest that you give further thought to this and then re-consider.

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  2. Your description of tribalism and dehumanization resonates with me.

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  3. To be sure, Fox News doesn't explain everything. But the fact that it did not support Trump in the primaries, yet he still won, doesn't prove much. What Fox and the radio talk jockeys purvey is not purely a feedback of what their listeners already believe, but also a paranoid world view that colors everything about public affairs for those listeners. Within that world view, there is certainly room for choice among different politicians. Trump and Cruz, for example, emphasize different parts of the same set of values and the same picture of the world.

    Where I really disagree with you is the "false equivalence" you see between the information Fox purveys and that which the liberal media purvey. Most of Fox's broadcasters, although not all of them, are notorious for their false factual assertions and their distorted reading of religion, law, economics, psychology, evolution and other disciplines we use to understand how things work. The talk show people are worse, if anything. There are certainly both mistakes and excessive opinionizing on the liberal media, but nothing like what the wing nuts offer. The liberal media makes a consistent, serious, and well resourced effort to be accurate in its statements of fact, and to clearly distinguish between opinion and fact.

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  4. Keith - I agree with you that efforts of the liberal media are well-resourced, but beyond that, not so much.

    The "paranoid world view" purveyed by Fox is a little more understandable in light of the stories like the Congressional baseball game shooting and the Kathy Griffin grotesquerie I mentioned in the original post. Tellingly, both of these stories quickly disappeared from liberal airways after the initial coverage they got.

    By contrast, the "Russian Election Hack" story, so far full of innuendo but almost entirely devoid of factual information, is being elaborately drawn out. This story is obviously meant to keep slowly gathering media steam and is intended to be with us until the Dems can somehow get Trump's impeachment process underway, probably after the mid-term elections have bettered the odds.

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