Democrats Should Target the Limbaugh Vote, and Other Brilliant Ideas
by Chris Bowers, Tue Mar 14, 2006 at 08:30:01 AM EST
OK--you caught me: I'm joking. Obviously, Rove would be laughed out of Washington and his party if he suggested that the key for Republicans to building a lasting, unbreakable majority is to start with a group that is, by every component demographic feature (gender, region, religious, race, urban/suburban), among the least-likely to be conservative or vote Republican.
I offer this little allegory as preface to pondering why some Democrats, most notably Steven Waldman and Amy Sullivan, continue to assert that Democrats must make the equivalently absurd overture--i.e., that Dems must "get right" (so to speak) with evangelicals, who are more likely to be white than not, male than female, rural than urban, and southern more than any other region (including the Midwest). Of course, what happens when self-abnegating Democrats and Democratic-hating media muddleheads hear this advice? Without pausing a moment to think through the logical implications of this advice, or the glaring partisan double standard it implies, in near-unison they respond: "Yeah, that's the ticket!" Internalizing and following the obviously poor election strategy offered up for Democrats by pundits within the established news media is one of the greatest problems we face when trying to win elections. The basic problem is that we are repeatedly told, and repeatedly believe, that in order to win, we must not go after either swing votes or rev up our own base, but instead focus our main strategy on actually trying to win over the Republican base itself. I call this the "Democrats Must Court The Limbaugh Vote" strategy syndrome, both because we tend to follow the election advice given to us by Rush Limbaugh types, and because that advice invariably means that we must target the hard-core Rush Limbaugh audience. We have this bizarre belief that wherever we are getting beat the worst, that is where we must concentrate our resources the most. I have complained about this in the past:
If all issues are of equal importance to the electorate, and the electorate has equal swing potential on all issues, than it does not matter what issues Democrats make gains on, as long as they make gains. It is not a reasonable argument to claim that just because Democrats are losing among those who cite "terrorism" as they top issue that Democrats must focus on "terrorism" instead of, say "education." If all things were equal, developing an even greater lead on "education" would be just as useful as closing the gap on "terrorism." I should note that the problem is actually more severe that I indicated in that old article. While it is certainly true that a ten point gain is a ten point gain no matter where it comes from, it is also certainly true that it will be more difficult for us to make gains in areas where we are already doing extremely poorly than in areas where we are already doing well or areas where we are roughly even. This is because in areas where we are doing poorly, there is usually a debilitating image problem leading to our poor performance in those areas that has proved difficult to overcome and that will continue to make it difficult to make gains in that area. For example, the Democratic Party has had a long-term deficit on national security that is not going to be overcome overnight, but we have no major narratives against us when it comes to "standing for the middle class." In the short term, it will always be easier to make gains in areas where we face no major narrative and image roadblock than in areas where we face a narrative and image roadblock.
This same thinking applies to demographics. We are regularly told, even by members of our own party, that we must appeal to the absolute hardest of the hard-core Republican base in order to win: white evangelicals who attend church regularly. Not only does it make no sense that we should spend resources trying to pick off the most republican votes in the country, but this strategy is typically couple with proclamations like this from Steve Waldman:I had been making a narrower point - that many liberals carry an elitist attitude toward evangelical Christians. Lerner's indictment is far more sweeping. Is he being unfair? I think a distinction should be made between the elites and the rank and file on this. The fact is that most Democrats are religious. But secular liberals, who made up about 16% of the Kerry vote (more stats here) seem to have a disproportionate impact on the party's image and approach. How the hell (pun intended) are we supposed to win over more "values voters" when members of our own party are reifying the narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion? Not only is it bad electoral strategy to argue that Democrats must pursue votes from those demographics and psychographics most hostile to our views, but stating beforehand that we are doing so because Democrats are hostile to the views most often found in said demographics and psychographics will actually make such an attempt far more difficult.
In the end, this is why third-way politics utterly fail for Democrats over the long term, even if they might win an election here or there. Arguing that we are hostile to faith, or weak on defense, or don't stand for anything ends up simply reifying the notion that Democrats in general are hostile to faith, or weak on defense, or don't stand for anything, even if they might prop up the individual image of the person making such a proclamation. For Waldman to state that Democrats and liberals are hostile to faith will go a long way toward making him and the Washington Monthly seem not hostile to faith, but it will simultaneously make all other Democrats look hostile to faith in a way that Republicans making the claim alone never could. Statement like this close the triangle to the benefit of the individual Democrat who says them and the benefit of all Republicans in general, and to the detriment of all other Democrats. And then, after we lose again, we repeat the problems of "Democrats Must Pursue the Limbaugh Vote" syndrome, and go ahead and reify more negative narratives about ourselves.
What Waldman seems unable to realize is that secular liberals only have a disproportionate influence on the national image of Democrats and liberals because that is exactly the narrative Republicans have been trying to sell for decades. As Atrios notes, secular liberals themselves have essentially no voice in our national political discourse:Do the Democrats have a perception problem about religion? Sure. We have a political party which has been claiming to be God's Own Party for decades. We have a mainstream media which equates Christian with Religious Right most of the time, and news anchors who don't think liberals can be "good Catholics." We also have some left-leaning Christians who seem to think this perception problem is due to hostility to religion by secular liberals who (see below) have no public presence. I don't understand this. People who perpetuate right wing talking points about Democrats always piss me off especially when they have no basis.
Secularism has essentially no representation in our media or politics. I'm sure there are secular politicians and media types, but few discuss it. No one gets on tv or writes newspaper columns or in any way participates in our contemporary mainstream political discourse and praises secularism or atheism or anything similar, and certainly not in a way which denigrates religious beliefs generally. Advocates for the separation of church and state are not advocating secularism, aside from government secularism, they're simply trying to defend freedom of religion. It strikes me that the real problem Waldman and many third-way types have is that they utterly fail to recognize the way that national conventional wisdom is created. They seem to believe that if there is a national CW that Democrats are hostile to religion, then it must be because liberals and Democratic leaders are hostile to religion, not that the Republican Noise Machine is arguing that they are hostile to religion. Of course, they probably don't even know or believe in the Republican Noise Machine itself, and probably agree with conservatives that the media landscape is somehow favorable to Democrats to liberals. And so we all suffer.