The Politics of Definition, Part III

Editor's Note: In Part I, the authors discussed the general nature of the dilemma facing progressives and Democrats today, with special attention to the “identity gap,” and then went on to analyze demographic and voting data showing progressive strengths. In Part II, they analyzed the data showing progressive weaknesses.

With Part III, the authors begin to move toward the more prescriptive parts of their paper. They begin with critiques of the two current and common types of advice given to Democrats and progressives: from the left, to mobilize the base; from the center, the need to reach the median voter—and to show active disdain for the base.

This is where it really starts to get interesting!

-- Michael Tomasky

The portrait of the progressive coalition's strengths and weaknesses laid out in parts I and II is enlightening. The progressive coalition clearly has tremendous potential strength -- in many ways, it is a sleeping giant, containing as it does so many large and rising political forces. These groups, even though progressives have recently been underperforming among them, are potent enough to have kept progressives knocking on the door of a governing majority and competitive in a remarkably large swath of the nation.

Progressives' weaknesses, on the other hand, tend to be among groups whose weight in the electorate is stable or declining. Conservatives and the GOP have built their current majority on creating ever-wider leads among these groups, compensating for their diminishing size. But even these very wide leads have only yielded the slimmest of majorities, leaving them vulnerable in most of the nation outside the Deep South and the most thinly-populated mountain states.

Progressives can therefore turn the GOP's slim majority into a solid and growing progressive majority by doing two things: (1) remedying their underachievement among strong constituencies like Hispanics and single women; and (2) simply reducing -- not eliminating -- their wide deficits among weak constituencies like the white working class. Together, these changes would likely push most of the pure purple and purple-leaning red states into the progressive camp and put the red vulnerable states into serious play.

In spatial terms, progressive domination would likely spread outwards from the city and inner suburbs to include the mature suburbs and make emerging suburbs a real competitive battleground. The reliable conservative vote would be reduced to the solid red states and America's rural areas and most far-flung exurbs.

But all these desirable outcomes are predicated on accomplishing the twin goals of remedying progressive underachievement among core constituencies and shaving progressive deficits among weak constituencies. How can this be done?

Here again the data review is helpful, since it indicates there is little contradiction between the twin tasks. What is dampening enthusiasm for progressives among core constituencies is, by and large, what is driving voters away from progressives among weak constituencies: a sense that progressives don't know what they stand for, lack core principles, and have no clear ideas for solving the nation's problems. Therefore, articulating a “politics of definition” is potentially a way for progressives to accomplish both tasks and move forward toward a governing majority.

The Limits of Mobilization and Inoculation

Of course, this is a controversial assertion. Progressives are far from united that a politics of definition -- or anything even close to it -- is the road forward. Indeed, at this point, progressives are more likely to embrace strategies that, for the sake of parsimony, we categorize as falling into two camps: the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation. While both offer important insights and recommendations that should not be ignored, neither in totality offers what the politics of definition does: a viable strategic framework for developing a clear identity among the electorate that can appeal to both the base and more centrist voters.

Mobilization Politics

The politics of mobilization can be summarized roughly as follows:

  • Rally the progressive troops and maximize base turnout;
  • Grow the base by finding nonvoters and drop-off progressives rather than appealing to the center;
  • Take a no-holds-barred approach to the opposition that is highly critical and contrastive; and
  • Fight for every progressive priority equally.

On the plus side, the politics of mobilization addresses a clear need to strengthen and respond to those core supporters who provide the blood and sweat of progressive politics. The progressive base is clearly fed up with politics as usual -- particularly as the other side pursues a strategy of straight conservative mobilization. The perception of Democrats among their own faithful is weak and needs to be solidified if we are to maintain high numbers and strong turnout among core supporters.

Similarly, the no-holds-barred approach to politics has been essential to keeping conservatives off balance and bringing to light the numerous transgressions, scandals, incompetent acts, and ideological chicanery of the GOP majority. The fervor of the base is not just therapeutic for activists; it is also essential to prying loose weak GOP supporters by relentlessly focusing on conservative failures and extremism.

However, as others before us have noted correctly, the politics of mobilization suffers from a severe numbers gap. Despite what activists may believe, only one-fifth of voters classify themselves as “liberal” -- a pattern that has been relatively unchanged since the late 1960s. As Galston and Kamarck argue in The Politics of Polarization, “[I]n an electorate where conservatives outnumber liberals three to two and where ideology so closely predicts voting behavior, Democrats cannot win the game of ‘base' ball, except in those rare circumstances in which conservatives are discouraged and demobilized.” 1

We need to look no further than the past two presidential elections to see the limits of a strategy of mobilization. In 2000, Al Gore received the highest vote count in Democratic history, winning the popular vote but not the Electoral College (putting aside the Florida recount and the Supreme Court intervention). By 2004, John Kerry in turn received the largest vote count for a Democratic candidate in history, yet managed to fall short of President Bush by nearly 3 million votes.

Democrats put great stock in mobilization and the ground game. And Kerry did do better in many areas where there was intensive mobilization but not enough to succeed.

For example, in Ohio, Kerry carried Franklin County (Columbus) by 41,000 votes, compared to Gore's margin of just 4,000 in 2000, and carried Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) by 218,000 voters, compared to Gore's margin of 166,000 in 2000. But these gains were mostly cancelled out by Republican mobilization in conservative rural and emerging suburban areas. So Ohio, in the end, was only slightly closer (2.5 percentage points) than it was in 2000 (3.5 points).

As another example, depending on which data source one uses, 21 percent to 23 percent of voters in 2004 were minorities, up from 19 percent in 2000. So Democrats were reasonably successful in getting minorities to the polls. But exit poll data indicate that Hispanics supported Kerry (58-to-40 percent) at lower levels than they did Al Gore in 2000 (62-to-35 percent). 2

And even more consequential for the election, the exit polls showed that Bush widened his margin among white voters to 17 points (58-to-41 percent), up from a 12-point margin (54-to-42 percent) in 2000. Weakened support among Hispanics and, especially, a bigger deficit among whites (still 77-to-79 percent of voters) was more than enough to cancel out the effect of more minority voters going to the polls.

Numbers alone are not the only problem for a strategy based principally on mobilization. There are also clear limits to anti-Bushism and hard-edged critical politics in general.

John Kerry had much to say that was very critical of Bush and certainly there was much to criticize in the areas of the economy, tax cuts, Iraq, health care, energy policy and so on. These criticisms were directed at genuine weak points in Bush's record, and there is good evidence that most voters shared at least some of these criticisms. Bush was not, and is not, a particularly popular incumbent, so attacking his record was an inevitable and important part of Kerry's campaign.

The problem, however, was that Kerry never managed to convince many of the same voters who shared his criticisms of the Bush administration that he could and would do a better job in the areas he criticized.

To cite just one example from the 2004 exit poll, voters were asked if they trusted Bush to handle the economy: 51 percent said no and 49 percent said yes. Not so good for an incumbent. But voters rated Kerry even worse: 53 percent said they didn't trust him to handle the economy, compared to 45 percent who said they did.

And all through the campaign, up to the very end, there was abundant evidence that voters did not think he had a clear plan for Iraq or, for that matter, for the country in general. His campaign was notable for lacking signature themes and proposals that typical voters could easily grasp and identify with. Does anyone seriously believe that many voters knew or understood Kerry's plan for Iraq? For health care? For the economy? How many voters knew the one or two thematic phrases (if they existed) that summarized what John Kerry stood for?

The final limitation in mobilization politics lies in the mistaken assumption that all progressive values, agenda items, and policies should be treated the same in a public setting. Consequently, the mobilization approach has a tendency to elevate a set of issues and positions (e.g. a host of anti-Bush issues, abortion, the Roberts and Alito nominations, impeachment etc.) that are less relevant to target audiences than other progressive issues that have broad appeal (e.g. universal health care, efforts to reward work, checks on corporate abuses, the Iraq War and just use of military power through cooperative means). To be clear, these issues are important and critical to our basic beliefs, and we should fight hard to uphold our values. But the unfortunate reality is that many of these battles are reactive and tend to take progressives off-track when it comes to elevating an alternative governing agenda.

At a minimum, progressives should learn from the successful battle against Social Security privatization and the Abu Ghraib scandal over the past few years that some reactive fights do more to advance a long-term progressive agenda and vision than others. In both of these cases, public opinion turned decisively against the position of Bush and conservatives and the progressive opposition produced clear statements of principle -- guaranteed security for the elderly and zero tolerance for torture and prisoner abuses.

In contrast, the efforts to derail the Roberts and Alito nominations required enormous energy and resources but produced few, if any, gains in terms of the composition of the Supreme Court or perceptions about liberalism. Progressives had little opportunity to stop these nominations, short of a filibuster that was called for in the 11th hour of the Alito nomination fight rather than in the first hours after the nomination was announced. In the end, all the hard work that went into these efforts left few public doubts about the nominees and potentially reinforced an image of progressives as overly political rather than principled. NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling shows that support for Alito went up 12 points from November 2005 to the end of January 2006, while opposition to the nominee increased by only 5 points. A majority of Americans in January 2006 Gallup polling believed Alito's views were “mainstream” rather than “extreme.” And as The National Journal reports, Alito's numbers prior to the nomination hearings were the same as those for Chief Justice Roberts, who was confirmed in the Senate 78 to 22.

Progressives must be cognizant of staying principled while defining what “progressive” means in ways that can bring support from the left to the center. Leading with our chin on every issue and policy is not the way to build a stable governing majority in a country that is four-fifths moderate to conservative and concerned primarily with big problems like health care and jobs.

The Politics of Inoculation

The second major strategic approach advocated today is one we label the politics of inoculation. The basic parameters of this approach are as follows:

  • Appeal primarily to the median voter;

  • Downplay or repudiate liberal policies;

  • Create distance from the progressive base;

  • Anticipate criticism and move to shore up perceived weaknesses, primarily on social, cultural, and national security issues; and

  • Push a clear centrist agenda focused on fewer governmental and more market/individual solutions to problems; fiscal discipline; “common sense” cultural positions; and a Truman-like national security posture that puts the war against terrorism at the core of the progressive project.

The advantages of this approach are fairly obvious. Starting with Anthony Downs, political scientists and strategists have for decades taken the median voter theorem as axiomatic. In a two-party, winner-take-all system with one dimensional ideological distribution, candidates looking to win will converge on voters at the median of the voter distribution. Finding ways to win those at the center of the ideological bell curve then is essential to building majority support.

Appealing to the center requires a level-headed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses among these audiences. The politics of inoculation rightly recognizes that voters in the center tend to be culturally traditional, concerned about terrorism and national security, and skeptical of ideologues of all stripes.

In practice, this approach has produced some important results. President Bill Clinton's choices on the economy in the 1990s produced widely shared gains for Americans, restored fiscal responsibility to governing, and helped to reposition Democrats in the public's mind as effective fiscal managers and stewards of the economy. Clinton's embrace of new technology, international trade, and market solutions to problems modernized the Democratic Party in significant ways that should not be ignored. Clinton also managed to connect deeply with voters on a personal level, through his upbringing, faith, and straightforward communications style that reflected his background as the man from Hope.

In purely electoral terms, the importance of moderate voters continues to grow, particularly as conservatives pursue their strategy of straight mobilization. Al Gore and John Kerry both lost to George W. Bush despite winning a majority of ideological moderates in both the 2000 and 2004 elections (52-to-44 percent and 54-to-45 percent, respectively). Barring significant shifts in underlying coalitions, Democrats in the future will need to win even greater percentages of moderates if they are to remain viable.

The politics of inoculation suffers from three serious failures, however, that limit its usefulness in the current political context. First, proponents of this approach are far too caught up in combating the progressive base and fail to recognize the importance of a strong and active core of voters in carrying out political change. For many disciples of the inoculation camp, the progressive base is viewed with deep antipathy and aversion. Among many of these political elites and strategists, the base is viewed as nothing more than a collection of activists that need to get fired up every election cycle for phone calls and turnout efforts. The most flattering thing Galston and Kamarck have to say about the base in their new report is that “the new activists are an enormous financial boon to Democrats.” 3 This is, to put it mildly, a counterproductive stance.

Had a politics of inoculation been the guiding principle in past eras, a host of 20th-century reforms that are commonplace progressive victories today would have been viewed skeptically: the fight for better working conditions and increased unionization; efforts to provide cleaner air and water and more protected lands; expanded voting rights; the creation of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and the embrace of the civil rights movement. None of these reforms would have been possible without support from the base of progressive activists. Even in a polarized political world with only 20 percent of the electorate identifying as liberal, the notion that we should ignore or jettison deeply held progressive beliefs in search of a transformed, mainstream public persona is politically obtuse. Politics is about far more than national positioning.

Second, the politics of inoculation elevates issues like national security to the top of the progressive agenda but then offers solutions that make progressives indistinguishable from the other side. Thus, the strategic recommendations coming out of this camp end up reinforcing our core vulnerability as a party and movement with no known identity, conviction, or vision.

For example, Galston and Kamarck implore progressives to “stop hiding behind domestic policy and honestly confront the biggest issue of our time: national security and especially the use of military force.” 4
This is neither an unreasonable nor misguided request. However, after calling for a strong internationalist positioning that accepts the premise that U.S. military force can be used for good in the world -- a sensible and historically consistent position for progressives to hold -- the authors then proceed to chastise critics of the Iraq War as failing to “be coherent on this issue in a time of war.”
But how coherent are they, themselves, when it comes to the front-rank issue of Iraq? The authors offer no clear recommendation on how to address this ongoing debacle, leaving one to conclude that they believe the right position on Iraq is to embrace the war in some capacity.

This avoids the real issue at stake. Even though plenty of thoughtful internationalists (who are not “Michael Moore Democrats”) believe the war in Iraq is a strategic and tactical blunder of the first order -- one that has left the United States less safe and, in fact, heightened the possibility of terrorist attacks on its people and land -- the leading proponents of the politics of inoculation can't bring themselves to say so, apparently wanting progressives to embrace what they know to be wrong and strategically dangerous as a means of showing “patriotism, strength, and resolve.” 5

Third, even with the governing successes of Bill Clinton, the political track record and long-term political impact of this approach has been poor to abysmal. The politics of inoculation has arguably been the guiding mantra of Democratic politics for the last 15 years, yet progressives today find themselves in a worse position nationally than they were in 1989, the time of Galston and Kamarck's important piece, The Politics of Evasion. 6

You can chalk this up to bad candidates, the failure to embrace Clintonism, 9/11, or a masterful right-wing noise machine, but it is clear that the politics of inoculation has played a substantial role in the failure of progressives and Democrats to present a common set of beliefs that are responsive to the needs and desires of average voters today. More of the same is not the solution. The politics of inoculation had its uses and its day in the sun. But that day is past.

John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, as well as a Fellow of the New Politics Institute.

Coming in Part IV: Erasing the identity gap through the politics of definition and securing the common good.

**** References ****

1 Galston and Kamarck, “The Politics of Polarization,” p. 8.

2 Data in this and subsequent paragraph from authors' analysis of 2004 NEP exit poll and 2004 CPS Voter Supplement.

3 Galston and Kamarck, “The Politics of Polarization,” p. 6.

4 Ibid, p. 60.

5 Ibid, p. 61.

6 William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck, “The Politics of Evasion,” PPI, Washington, D.C., September 1989.