As many books as we write about them, our enemy is not Bill O'Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, or even George Bush. Further, as much griping as we may do about them over the next few months, our problem is not Terry McAuliffe, or Bob Shrum, or any of our candidates. Individuals are neither our enemy, nor our problem. Instead, our enemy and our problem is conservatism itself. Yesterday, John Kerry won among self-described Independents and "moderates" by greater margins than George Bush won among the nation as a whole. Yesterday, we improved on our 2000 vote by 10%, more than twice the 4.7% increase in the national population since 2000. Our activism kicked ass. Our ability to appeal to the center kicked ass. Our problem is that we are in the minority. Our mistake would be to start blaming individuals and creating scapegoats.
Instead of either individuals or the way we run campaigns, our problem is conservatism itself. Yesterday, John Kerry and our Congressional candidates, including my beloved Ginny, lost because a far greater percentage of the electorate identified themselves as conservative (33%) than as liberal (21%). Had the numbers of liberals and conservatives been equal, then John Kerry would have won with 54%+ of the national vote, and well over 379 electoral votes (Bill Clinton's highest total). Ginny would have won in a landslide. Our problem is that there are more conservatives than there are liberals.
This is not always about campaigns. This is not always about how much money we raise for candidates, how many volunteers we provide for candidates, how many news stories we manage to break, how good our media is, and how well we do in picking the most electable candidate as our nominee. Instead, this also must be about defeating conservatism itself, something conservatives long ago realized about defeating liberalism. For nearly forty years now, the national electorate has been decidedly tilted in favor of conservatives, who at any given moment have outnumbered us by anywhere from 50-80%. It has been proven time and time again that liberals can win among moderates. In fact, 1984 and 1972 were probably the only two elections over the past forty years when Democrats did not win among self-described moderates. John Kerry is a liberal, and he won convincingly among moderates. Not only does our ground game kick ass, we sell ourselves to moderates just fine. These are not our problems.
When conservatives are 33% of the electorate, and liberals are only 21%, we start twelve points down in every campaign. The solution to this problem is not to move to the center and take the left for granted. The solution to this problem is not to simply energize the base so completely that our activism and energy alone carry us over the top. Unfortunately, the debate we will see over the next few weeks and months will probably be framed by these two positions. In the end, both are unfortunately temporary and purely tactical. Also, both ignore the fact that we do an excellent job at both. However, even if one or the other occasionally works, they both fail to take account the difficulties of governing a country where we start twelve points down in every approval rating poll, and twelve points down in every legislative proposal we wish to pass.
The solution to our problems, the only solution that actually addresses our problems rather than criticizes us for not doing well at tasks where we actually excel, is to increase the number of liberals in this country at a more rapid pace than the number of conservatives are increasing. We must grow liberalism. Personally, I do not even like the term "liberal", as it has a connection to laissez-fare economic and trade policies that I find abhorrent. However, if that is the term we are stuck with, then so be it. It is a large and empty word anyway, but maybe it is something George Lakoff can work on over the next few years.
Our activism and ground game crushed Republicans this time around, even more than it did four years ago. We brought millions more to the polls than we did four years ago, largely because we had so many people on the ground. We did six points better among independents than we did four years ago. We had much more airplay than we had four years ago, due significantly to our massively increased small-donor database. According to exit polls, we sold ourselves to moderates and Independents much better than we did four years ago. However, because we decreased in size, because the Democratic advantage in name ID dropped from 4% to zero, and because the deficit of liberals to conservatives at the polls increased from 9% to 12%, we got beat. We worked much harder and much better than ever before. We sold ourselves much better than before too, but we lost because we decreased in size.
We have to define liberalism according to positive semiotic frames. We have to be willing to take these frames to every corner of the nation, and run candidates in every single race in every single district (preparation for which begins today). We have to be willing to spend tens of millions of dollars not to win elections, not to help "worthy causes," but simply to sell liberalism. We cannot be reconciliatory, since the conservative reactionaries never have been, and never will be. This has worked to their advantage. Being conservative must become a dirty word. We must become willing to insult people for being conservative. We must recognize that this struggle is permanent, and does not only happen in campaign years, and must not only be waged against specific individuals or policies. It is a permanent ideological war.
Our growing activism and ability to sell ourselves, when combined with equivalence in ideological self-identification, would make us nearly invincible against the current reactionaries in the Republican Party. If we had a 12% advantage in ideology at the polls, then Republicans would be forced to scrap their reactionary ways altogether. If 33% of the electorate had been liberal, and 21% of the electorate had been conservative, then John Kerry would have won by 20 points. He would have won not only the Dakotas, but also every southern state except Alabama and Texas (which would have been very close). That is the America I would like to see--an American where reactionary politics have no chance of national victory.
Our growing activist strength was a sight to behold this time around, and I will write more about it in part two of this "memo." However, in 2008, we could become even more active and do even better on the ground, but still lose because we have kept shrinking. We have to grow the left wing. We have to sell liberalism. We must crush conservatism itself. This will be accomplished by activism alone. This will not be accomplished by "moving to the center." In fact, this will not even be accomplished by the combination of the two. Instead, we can only win by moving the country itself to the left.
I am not sure how we do this, but our task begins now. The reactionaries have finally achieved what they have fought decades to achieve: a government that will completely destroy every last remnant of the New Deal, make us a worldwide colonial power, and be able to institute to most frightening aspects of the "culture war." Despite our best efforts, the reactionaries have achieved total victory. Prepare for hell. While I believe that selling liberalism and clawing our way out of the minority is the only way to reverse this trend, I am not sure how we go about doing that. However, I do know it is time that we at least start talking about it. We are in the minority, and that must end. It is time for us to grow.