Democrats To Be Saved By Learning From Republicans
by Chris Bowers, Tue May 29, 2007 at 09:20:09 AM EDT
One of the nice side effects from our great electoral success in 2006 is that the tide of books, speeches, and studies by progressives with conservative movement envy has been significantly reduced. No more do we have to hear about how great Republicans are at virtually everything political: language crafting, staying on message, voter identification, GOTV, paid media quality, free media booking, etc. Now that Republicans and the conservative movement have been historically trounced on the electoral front, their political sophistication no longer appears all that profound. We beat them at the height of their fundraising prowess, the height of their early voting programs, the height of their voter contact programs, and basically the height of their everything. Republicans did not lose in 2006 because of mistakes. In fact, their machine was working so well that supposed uber-genius Karl Rove was convinced that Republicans would do just fine in the 2006 elections.
I, for one, am quite glad that we are no longer wallowing in conservative envy. I was tired of hearing just how smart Republicans were on the electoral front, and how stupid we were, even though the peak of Republican electoral power in 2002 still only netted them a 5.1% victory among the national electorate. Granted, there is a danger in my attitude. When you lose a campaign, generally speaking people criticize everything you do, and look to improve on every aspect of your political machinery. However, when you win, often people are too quick to praise everything you did, and lose some of the impetus to turn a critical eye on elements of your infrastructure and strategy that could be improved. A better attitude should always be to realize that even in defeat, there are probably things we did quite well, and even in victory, there are things we could have done much better. Further, it is important to remember that the differences between the worst electoral defeats and the biggest electoral victories are pretty marginal on the national stage these days. Even a realignment ultimately means, at most, a more or less permanent swing of about 7-8% of the national electorate, which roughly represents the margins of the 1988, 1994, and 2006 national elections. The vast majority of voters take actions independent of the decisions and output of any campaign or political machinery. More often than not, consultants, analysts, and other political operatives are just working to improve on the margins.
To wax Yoda for a moment, improve we still can. The key, I think, is to just have some perspective on the amounts we can improve. Consider, for example, a triple book review in the New York Times focusing the use of language in our national political discourse. One of the books reviewed is The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation by Drew Weston, a professor at Emory. Reviewer Michael Tomsky is clearly quite excited about the ideas present in the book:
Westen's central insight is both obvious and simple: Democrats, he writes, have generally assumed that voters make their choices based on reason, and this leads to failure because "the political brain is an emotional brain." The Democrats' belief in "the dispassionate vision of the mind" has an honorable lineage going back to the Age of Reason and is useful for other purposes in life. But Westen suggests that electorally, it's a total loser:First, I think that Weston is generally right, and that Republicans have developed more emotionally resonant messaging than Democrats over the past twenty-five years or so. However, I don't think it is correct to argue that Democrats have been developing messages that are entirely based within a rational discussion, late Enlightenment, Age of Reason mindset. I think there is a tendency for Democrats to lean on the rational more than Republicans have done, but it is not as simple as a clear binary opposition between entirely emotional and effective Republican messaging and entirely rational and ineffective Democratic messaging. For example, during the 2004 campaign, even John Kerry, that paragon of supposedly stiff messaging, occasionally quote the Bible, read Langston Hughes poems, and often engaged in a "help is on the way" call and response. And, lest we forget, there were times when John Kerry was ahead during the campaign as well.
Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs, and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.
In his early chapters Westen discusses the physiology of the brain and the different ways in which we respond to rational and emotional stimuli. Whatever the views of other experts on these neurological matters may be, I can say that, for electoral politics, Westen's analyses almost always seem to me correct and something that Democrats need desperately to hear.
Further, there are other factors that impact messaging effectiveness besides the content choices we make. In his review of Weston's book, Tomsky cites a few concrete examples of where Westin argues Democrats could have improved their messaging: the Swift Boat incident, the 2002 Iraq war debate, and on combating robocalls in the final few weeks of the campaign. In every circumstance, the messaging advice Weston offers seems like it would have been an improvement on what Democrats did at the time. However, I have to seriously wonder if improving our messages during those times would have made much of an impact given that Republicans are still largely in control of the channels through which those messages are delivered. During the Iraq War debate, virtually no one critical of the drumbeat to war ever appeared in larger, national news outlets. How would have a more effective anti-war message have changed any of that? During the Swiftboating incident, it would have been pretty easy for established news outlets to demonstrate the bogus nature of the charges against Kerry, as well as the nefarious motivations of many of the groups founders. However, they never did, and instead kept giving the swiftboaters tens of millions of dollars in free, unchallenged air time. Finally, how are Democrats going to distribute messaging that would supposedly inoculate the electorate from robocalls in the final two weeks of the campaign? Is CNN going to cut to a Democratic press conference on why robocalls are a dishonest form of campaigning? Not bloody likely.
In summary, my point is three fold. First, while Democrats still face a messaging gap on Republicans, in terms of content that gap is not as severe as we have often thought. This is both in the sense that our messaging is not quite as bad as we have assumed, and that Republican messaging is not as good as we assume. Second, no political fix exists in isolation. Even if we improve on something like our messaging content, we still need better spokespeople to deliver it, and better channels on which to distribute it. Third, none of this moves as many people as we often assume it does, and we need to keep some perspective on who we can reach even with the best messaging, best spokespeople, best media channels, and best voter identification. We are not going to cut directly into the heart of the 30% Republicans base anytime soon, for example.
Also, as the Iraq-fueled, Republican collapse has shown over the past two years, even the best messaging system can't cover up policy that people truly despise. Political messaging and political infrastructure changes can only go so far in altering the way people view reality. Our ideological perceptions of the world come form many sources, and a truly thoroughgoing ideological revamping of America is a task way beyond simply re-writing our speeches and improving our GOTV. If you want to truly change the country, then you must fundamentally change all of the ideological apparatuses that construct our reality: family, work, school, worship, and media. And even then, as the regular collapse of ideological one-party states has shown throughout history, most people still see through the bullshit. There is something to be said, in the end, for reality. Perhaps that is one way in which Republicans need to learn from Democrats.