Democrats To Be Saved By Learning From Republicans

The Democratic Party is in the midst of a severe electoral crisis. Right now, we only control the US House, the US Senate, the majority of Governorships, the majority of state legislatures, and we lead in only seven out of the eight top-tier matchups in the 2008 general election. Our future prospects look equally dim, as those leads in the 2008 general election are only coming from trendlines showing us down by double digits. Further, we hold slender, barely double-digit lead in generic congressional ballots, and we have to defend fully twelve of the thirty-three Senate seats up for re-election in 2008. (That's nearly 40%!) Also, Democrats only hold a net 25-30% edge on Republicans in the favorable / unfavorable ratio, and have only increased their partisan self-identification advantage by a rate of only three points a year for the last five years. While we now hold a fundraising advantage on Republicans for the first time in decades, we, um, uh... ok, I'll just stop there.

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:

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.
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.

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.

Tags: Culture, Democrats, Media (all tags)

Comments

18 Comments

the message gap

I agree with every word.  We'll eventually close the message gap, the "master narrative" that explains liberalism, the need for an active government that provides security, justice, and ensures opportunity -- and greater freedom - for individuals and the private sector alike.

The R's managed to pull an inside straight by winning several consecutive cycles by very small margins.   And this was the mighty and wealthy Conservative machine vs. the poor and hapless liberal coalition.

This is why I have no tolerance for pessimism.

by Andmoreagain 2007-05-29 09:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats To Be Saved By Learning From Republi

Great post.

Exactly my thoughts.

by GregNYC 2007-05-29 09:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats To Be Saved

Chris, I agree with some of your comments, but unlike the people above, not all.  

Yes, we should certainly "stop wallowing in conservative envy."  We have had a lot of success lately and it's heartening.  But if you don't think that Republicans are still better than Democrats at "language crafting, staying on message, voter identification, GOTV, paid media quality, free media booking, etc.," please think again.  That might continue to improve with fundraising success, but that success right now might just be based on BushCo Fatigue.

Republicans are dogged, they are relentless, they will never stop standing there with a net ready to capture any and all shallow thinkers who waver in their devotion to the liberal message (which is most Americans).  People coast-to-coast have had it with the Bush Crime Family -that doesn't mean they're willing to vote blue for years to come.

I just got finished writing a strategic plan for a local Democratic Club so they can apply to the state party for funds to train precinct committeepersons in a legislative district that was until this election cycle heavily Republican.  That's the kind of action that will win elections in the future, but I still don't see many Democrats who are willing to put that level of effort into small elections.

Yes, there's success.  Yes, there's plenty of hope for the future.  But hard work on the ground is what ensures victories not just fervor and passionate messages.

by jukesgrrl 2007-05-29 09:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats To Be Saved

What no one seems to be talking about yet is that Mike Bloomberg is considering running in 2008 as an independent and has already set aside a campaign account of $1 Billion (yes, billion with a B) for his campaign. If Bloomberg runs, all hell will break loose. I know that I personally would be very tempted to vote for him.

by bowiegeek 2007-05-29 10:45PM | 0 recs
I kind of disagree

Now that Democrats have this impressive resume, the pace of the handwringing over the superiority of Republican operations can surely slow.  But we ignore their continued superiority in the important infrastructure areas at our own peril.  It may not be strictly accurate to say that every Democrat was conducting his or her campaign line by line out of Anthony Downs, but there we were, clearly broadsided by the fact that Republicans could win elections based on policies that were (seemingly obviously) much worse for just about everyone.

Westen also had a great article in last December's American Prospect about how Harold Ford could have better combated the racism of Corker's ads in the TN Senate race.  Westen suggested getting Bill Clinton in immediately to make a strongly worded speech about how Tennesseans are too smart to fall for that kind of racism.  You see, norms around racism have been changed so much that even the most backwoods hick in TN doesn't want to think of himself as racist.  Racist ads can only succeed as long as they are kept below the surface of consciousness, and I thought Westen made a great suggestion for how to bring it above.  Maybe not every suggestion he has is that practical (e.g. the robocalls), but I don't think it's wise to discount Westen.

Also, for reference: I believe they are spelled Westen (not Weston), Tomasky (not Tomsky), and New York Review of Books (not New York Times).  Sorry to be a jerk about that, but I love precision.

by I voted for Kodos 2007-05-29 10:03AM | 0 recs
Democrats To Be Saved By Learning From Broder
The Democratic Party is in the midst of a severe electoral crisis....

What, David Broder was here and we didn't even bother to serve him any cocktail weenies?
by Michael Bersin 2007-05-29 10:07AM | 0 recs
Don't Overlook Lakoff's Latest

Don't overlook Lakoff's latest: "Whose Freedom? the battle over America's most important idea." (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.)

This one is more substantive than "Don't Think of an Elephant",  but far more approachable (and shorter) than Moral Politics.  Using the family models paradigm which is developed at length in Moral Politics, this one focuses on the conceptual underpinnings of the conservative notion of freedom vs. the progressive (traditional American) concept of freedom.  For those who haven't read that earlier work, the  introductory chapter of Whose Freedom is virtually a "Cliff's Notes" version of it.

The next to last chapter is an enlightening deconstruction of GWB's 2nd Inaugual which should be must reading for anyone trying to get a handle on the rhetoric and conceptual framework that can bring swing voters ("biconceptuals")over to(or from) the dark side of the Force.      

by nycounsel 2007-05-29 10:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats To Be Saved By Learning From Republi

Shorter version of one of your main points: messages are mediated.

The politician's immediate audience is often the media. Assault on Reason has more to say, obviously.

by demondeac 2007-05-29 10:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats To Be Saved By Learning...

Overall I think this is an excellent post. I would like to comment on the thought about "ideological apparatuses that construct our reality: family, work, school, worship, and media."

Conservatives have, for the last 30-40 years, systematically infiltrated all of these institutions (leaving aside family, which they do indirectly by infiltrating the others). Academia, media (including entertainment), and finally government are, I would say, the big three. (They already had business, which has funded their covert efforts.) They have used every bit of power they've gained to bring in others, spread their web of connections and power, and then use this network to broaden the infiltration. Not only are there reams of evidence, circumstantial and documented, to this point, but I have seen it up close.

Not knowing precisely what it was, I applied for and was accepted into a summer program a few years ago that was nothing short of an indoctrination camp for libertarians. Not just civil libertarians here, we're talking the whole shabang. To give you a taste, they disseminated articles charging a gonvernment conspiracy to make tobacco look unhealthy. Not kidding.

In any case, the program was free for all who attended, with room, board, and several lectures a day given by professors from distinguished institutions - Duke, U. of Virginia, etc. The program itself was was at George Mason University, through an entity called the Insitute for Humane Studies. The purpose of this program was and is to infiltrate powerful institutions to make them ideologically friendly. My program was funded by Robert Scaife, Pete Coors, the Koch brothers, and other anti-government moneybags. It was very clear that the most important aim of the Institute and its programs was to indoctrinate young people into a radical form of economic libertarianism, with a secondary focus upon self-centered social libertarianism (for instance, "smokers' rights"  got plenty of attention, while gay rights received none).

Naturally, these folks had no clue about philosophically defensible versions of libertarianism, but they sure had been drinking the kool-aid. Disturbingly, the professors who lectured were hacks, with absolutely no shred of scholarship in their "research". They drew all kinds of inferences that were unfounded by evidence or unentailed by their previous premises. Yet they were employed by the most respected insitutions in academia. Perhaps their incompetence and their status should come as no surprise: they themselves were products of this cycling system of growing institutional power. You see, the professors themselves had been supported by these radical institutions, and now they were giving back, in an exponentially growing but covert (and most definitely hostile) takeover.

by PhilosopherKing 2007-05-29 10:18AM | 0 recs
VERY Interesting!

I'm always interested in hearing critical first-hand accounts of these sorts of operations.

Please tell me you've blogged about it!

Or that you will!

The creation of such pseudo-academic institutions is really one of the most insidious developments of the last 15-20 years.  Anyone who's been to college has had the experience of a professor whose reasoning skills leave one wondering how s/he graduated college, much less got an advanced degree.  But when you get a whole coterie of them together, all making similar (or even identical) self-reinforcing errors, it can be truly frightening, as well as maddening.

Late in 2005, for example, there was a study released by a UCLA PoliSci professor.  You can read UCLA's press release here.  The press release itself is a give-away.  The second sentence says it all:

The Drudge Report may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans left.
Any normal person reading that sentence would think, "Something wrong with your methodology, mate!"

I blogged about it at the time here at MyDD, and Media Matters wrote a comprehensive critique that included some mention of the authors'  intellectual pedigree:

None of the outlets that reported on the study mentioned that the authors have previously received funding from the three premier conservative think tanks in the United States: the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), The Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Groseclose was a Hoover Institution 2000-2001 national fellow; Milyo, according to his CV (pdf), received a $40,500 grant from AEI; and, according to The Philanthropy Roundtable, Groseclose and Milyo were named by Heritage as Salvatori fellows in 1997. In 1996, Groseclose and Milyo co-authored a piece for the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, titled "Lost Shepherd," criticizing the then-recently defeated member of Congress Karen Shepherd (D-UT) and defending her successor, Enid Greene (R-UT); when the piece was published, Greene was in the midst of a campaign contribution scandal and later agreed to pay a civil penalty after the Federal Election Commission found (pdf) that she violated campaign finance laws.

I also glanced at his CV and noticed this:

Dissertation Fellow, Center for the Study of Public Choice, George Mason University (Spring 1991).

But I was more interested in how he got his farrago of nonsense published.  He did it was in an econometric journal, where none of his howling methodological errors (or even the lack of a literature review) raised any eyebrows.  Indeed, he was doubtlessly applauded, since his most egreggious methodological errors were simply an exercise in the extension of the economtricians intellectual imperialist project.

Buda-bang!  Buda-boom!

But I always wondered about the George Mason angle.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-05-29 04:50PM | 0 recs
Humor is an emotion


Democrats are generally earnest, well-meaning people.  They often come across as Lisa Simpson.  They would do better to model their style on BART Simpson: an irreverent wise-ass, cruel enough to laugh AT, not with, the pompous and the stupid.

We need to get the country LAUGHING at the Republicans, folks.  We need to make their shibboleths into punchlines.  A belly-laugh can sway people more effectively than a sermon.  Not the people being laughed at, of course, but we already outnumber THOSE people.

In any of the last three elections, an effective bumper-sticker slogan might have been:  "Vote Republican -- Paris Hilton needs another tax cut."  Would that be cruel to a poor put-upon heiress who did not CHOOSE to be born rich?  Sure :-)  

Stewart and Colbert can teach Democratic "consultants" a thing or two.

-- TP

by Rethymniotis 2007-05-29 10:32AM | 0 recs
Re: Humor is an emotion

Be more like them, hmmm,... and then who are we?
I am not sure that dismissing Enlightenment values completely is the way to go. Appeals to sentimentality, underlying prejudice, innuendo, outright lying are provably the tactics of the Repugs, who use right-wing populism to destroy enlightenment goals. Lie and then get born again to repent,  deny science, uphold fake traditional values, covertly support selfish me-first, me-only (juvenile) libertarianism in order to destroy any notion of the commons... shall we emulate this sort of things as well? If so, why object to Hillary's (or Kerry's) bible quoting, abortion bashing, gay marriage bashing etc etc. Now, Bubba had plenty of this in him and hoped to transcend his own rhetoric in order to govern rationally. Nope. Didn't work.
Laughter and mockery ARE more effective  and even laudable than another version of emotional manipulation in combating hypocrisy and arrogance. A more persistent problem is the laundering of  endless disinformation by the formulaic mediations of the media.
(and why would we want a progressive Reagan? He is the more successful [than the present fool incumbent] model of the lying liar and puppet of paleo-corporate (!) robber barons...
in sum, if we follow their antiEnlightenment spinmeisters, we have no reason to govern other than rank power hunger.
 I won't argue Adorno/Horkheimer Enlightnment-as-Mass-Deception here, nor would I presume to suggest that people ACT RATIONALLY (yes, yes, Herr Nietzsche). (That point exactly, that reason is not enough, was my argument to a roomful of headscratching comm profs during the first Gulf War, who couldn't understand why their students DID NOT GET IT after having explained everythingVERY CLEARLY.
But  I generally think people do tend to vote self interest more than Tom Frank's picture of Kansans. We have to try to strike a balance of policy and persuasion without sliding down the slippery slope to motivational research style advertising.Don't we?
 I doubt Lakoff (or Erving Goffman, who developed Frame Analysis) or the other discourse analysts are in favor of ditching the enlightenment or adopting populist rabble-rousing.

I think the analysis here, and the tactical implications, need further attention. The tropes of the right are not neutral.

by brooklyngal 2007-05-29 08:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Humor is an emotion


In proposing greater use of humor as a weapon, I am NOT proposing that we "become more like them".

There's a big difference between winning elections by fooling the voters, and winning elections by persuading the voters.  Consider the famous Kerry gaffe:  "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it."  Republican operatives are not stupid.  They knew perfectly well that what Kerry MEANT was:  "I voted for the $87 billion before Bush insisted it had to be borrowed money."  They knew that their difference with Kerry was over TAXES, not over "funding the troops".  But they pounded the "flip-flop" line to fool the voters.  An honest GOP (if such an animal were theoretically possible) would have put their case to the voters honestly.

So, I don't want Democrats to use humor (or anything else) to FOOL voters.  Acquiring power by fooling the voters is like obtaining your pilot's license by cheating on the exam.  It's a "win", but only in a limited and foolish sense.  I want my party to PERSUADE voters like Frank's Kansans, by (among other things) getting them to laugh at puerile Republican slogans.

-- TP

by Rethymniotis 2007-05-29 11:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Humor is an emotion
hey, rethymniotis, I was AGREEING with you. My argument was with most of the rest of the posters, and the original post itself. That's why i posted my comment as a comment appended to yours, because i thought it was more reasonable and (ahem) honorable.
Sorry the way I wrote it obscured that point.
by brooklyngal 2007-05-30 06:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Democrats and Republicans

While Republicans have a built in edge in some areas (the media, fundraising, message manipulation, talk radio), Democrats have a huge advantage over the present crew:  our message is aimed at improving the lot of most voters; theirs is aimed well within the top 5% of the economy.

First, we can work at removing barriers to electoral participation.  This includes removing lifetime bans on felons voting, combating id paranoia, substantial penalties imposed on individuals trying to discourage voting (jail time for these scum), vote by mail, until then more voting machines provided in all districts (particularly in minority districts), making "challenges" to long time voters harder and providing jail penalities for their frivolous use, and I can go on.  Above all, vote by mail (free mail, at that).

Second, we can work at reaching voters in ways that the media moguls can't alter.  Each generation has needed to come up with its own answers: FDR's fireside chats on radio, JFK's witty press conferences, and previously a cacophany of slogans, parades, and rallies supplemented by visits from local precinct captains.

Third, we need to realize the effectiveness of the Republican machine in the last few years.  lest we forget, John Kerry got something like 7 or 8 million more votes than Al Gore despite everything.  A basically unlikeable, incompetent Republican somehow pulled in 10 million more votes than he did four years earlier.  What the hell was going on?  Lest we forget, in 2000, Democrats were the ones with the turnout machine;  Republicans developed their turnout muscle in four years or less.  This is doable.  Rove's own powerpoint presentation indicated that Republicans 72 hour machine saved the day: preventing the loss of another 15 or 20 seats.

Fourth, investigate the hell out of their war, particularly the contractors.  Their is a lot of incompetence here and tons of money.  Most Americans don't know that we are scrimping on the troops and paying uber bucks to 100,000 war profiteers on the ground.  Going after these guys is as American as applepie.  George Washington battled investigations by the Continental Congress.  Abraham Lincoln suffered immensely from his own party in Congress and the Committee on the Conduct of the War.  harry Truman conducted a professional war on fraud and abuse and in his own words saved enough to fund the rebuilding of Europe after the War.

We need to know how the money is spent, who gets it, and get a firm handle on the contractors.  These are the very people running the interrogation program at Abu Gharab; Lyndie England et. al.  were simply the peons basically carrying out a stupid and expensive program.

And yes, we need to ram this down their throats as Exhibit A concerning the evils of "privatization" e.g. looting the tax payers.

Fifth, we need to teach a lot of history about the free ride that corporations and billionaires are getting and how taxes (including payroll taxes) are increasingly being paid by the little guy.

by David Kowalski 2007-05-29 12:41PM | 0 recs
It's not so much about the messaging

as it is about the messenger. With spokespersons like Hillary Clinton Democrats will inevitably fail to connect with ordinary people.

by Populism2008 2007-05-29 03:49PM | 0 recs
It's The Hegemony, Stupid!

I couldn't agree more with this statement:

If you want to truly change the country, then you must fundamentally change all of the ideological apparatuses that construct our reality...
This is, after all, precisely what Gramsci was talking about when he described the workings of hegemony and fighting a war of position.

But the post that you link to in that very passage quotes from a piece by Ruy Teixeira that is seriously messed up in its criticism of Lakoff, as explained at some length in this comment.

I won't bore folks with repeating it.  That's what links are for.  But since it was posted way back in May of 2005, I just can't help quoting myself about how we could win back the House in 2006:

Actually, I think Democrats could win back the House in 2006 with a national counter-infection stategy: run a whole shit-load of Iraq War veterans against GOP chickenhawks.  And run them on all the things that the GOP has neglected hiding behind their hypocritical yellow ribbons, all the things that Iraq War veterans and their families (not to mention those who didn't make it back) really need--health care for all, real opportunity, real investment in communities, in energy security (the Apollo Initiative again), a real multi-lateral strategy for eliminating terrorism, etc., etc., etc/
Okay, that's not how we did it, for the most part.  But it would still be a good idea for 2008, IMHO.  Remember: We need us another House wave election to make a realigning presidential election happen.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-05-29 05:06PM | 0 recs
This Seems a Little Old Hat
I mean, Obama and Edwards, to name two,
clearly have an emotional appeal at the center of their Presidential campaigns.
by SteveWFP 2007-05-30 07:00AM | 0 recs

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