Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Third Way's Bitter Pill, Part I

Yesterday the blogosphere buzzed a bit about a Washington Post article on a new report by centrist Democratic strategists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck called The Politics of Polarization. Briefly, the paper argues that in order to start winning more elections, Democrats must focus on appealing to moderates rather than relying exclusively on base mobilization. Because self-described conservatives outnumber liberals three-to-two in this country, we cannot expect to retake power at the national level unless we start making a few concessions. That's the cold, hard truth, and while progressives weren't happy to hear it, none of the leftist commentary I read managed to rebut Galston and Kamarck's arguments successfully. But I'll return to the reactions in a later post; first I want to discuss some of the report's evidence and advice on its merits.

Probably the most significant point the authors raise is that there are 50% more conservatives in this country than liberals. A recent Harris poll found an even starker ratio--two conservatives for every liberal. Galston and Kamarck use this clearly lopsided ideological distribution as the centerpiece of their argument that tending only to the liberal base while ignoring the center (the "myth of mobilization", in their terms) is a losing electoral strategy for Democrats. Because the GOP's base is so much larger, they can afford to spend more time simply getting-out-the-vote and relatively less time winning over moderates. I don't see any way around this conclusion--by accepting the ratio they cite, you've essentially conceded that some ideological compromise will be necessary to reclaim power. And yes, by compromise I do mean "rightward motion" for progressives, unsavory as it sounds.

Galston and Kamarck also touch upon the widely-discussed relevance of "values" to the electorate. They acknowledge that people interpret the term in multiple ways and that altering the content and response type of values questions in surveys produces different results. But they identify two broad categories of "values", both of which are weak points for Democrats: (1) stances on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research, and (2) personal character traits including consistency, honesty, and integrity.

On social issues the authors counsel "tolerance and common sense," i.e. leaving gay marriage up to state legislatures while opposing its enactment by judicial fiat, espousing the general right to an abortion but compromising on issues like parental notification, and trying to become more religion-friendly. These are all good suggestions as far as they go, but they don't all delve into specifics. In presidential politics, where personality takes center stage, Galston and Kamarck insist that Democratic candidates need to exude "strength," "integrity," and "empathy"--three characteristics John Kerry sorely lacked in the eyes of the majority. The point that the most thoughtful policy agenda will fail if not presented by someone Americans can trust is well-taken.

The character issue is partially tied up with the increasing influence of religion on politics. Our nation is overwhelmingly Christian (76.5%) and demands traditionally Christian traits of its leaders over and above factors like competence and intelligence. Unfortunately, while 55% of Americans view the GOP as friendly to religious citizens, only 29% think the same of Dems, down from 40% just last year. Many churchgoing Americans support Democratic positions on the economy, health care, and Iraq, but consider cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion more important--indicating that addressing these issues is a crucial component of candidate "empathy." One major reason why observant Americans may consider the Democratic Party hostile to their interests, and this is just my own opinion, is the vitriolic anti-religious rhetoric employed by many of the liberal rank-and-file against people like James Dobson and Pat Robertson. Unless Dems can counterbalance such criticism with high-profile overtures to centrist and progressive religious organizations, they'll never improve their poor image among the devout.

That's it for now--next time I'll review the liberal reaction to The Politics of Polarization and tell you how they all got it wrong.