A California Labor Union leader once described to me the 1966 campaign to re-elect Democrat Pat Brown as governor. “We had a massive campaign to identify our voters,” he said, “we contacted everyone at least twice, and we did a tremendous job of getting them to the polls on election day -- where they voted for Ronald Reagan.”
This year, labor and its Democratic allies mobilized their voters more effectively than ever before. They began early, raised lots of money, and recruited thousands of inspired volunteers who helped raise the turnout for the Democrats in the battleground states. Moreover, the political stars seemed to be in alignment: the flat economy, sky-high gas prices and health-care costs, and corporate scandals -- and the incompetence of the administration every day on issues from Iraq to flu vaccine.
“We know how to do the ground campaign,” explained a campaign official on election night, when we regrouped at a campaign headquarters in suburban Philadelphia as early reports of a big turnout in battleground states tempted us to dream that we had a blowout. “We have the people and we know how to use them,” he said. “The Republicans are way behind.”
John Kerry did win Pennsylvania (but barely, 51 percent to 49 percent). Still, as we Democrats sift through the wreckage of this last campaign, it is clear that the crash was not caused by any failure to mobilize our constituency. We turned out our people, they turned out theirs. But their campaign on the ground had something else going for it: It was built on a long investment in a grass-roots infrastructure aimed at convincing voters beyond their base. They have been at this for a while, and we continue to ignore it at our peril.
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To be sure, many of us think that our candidate was flawed and the message confused. We who cheered Kerry's debate performances in retrospect now see more clearly the stiffness, the policy-wonk language, the transparent effort to present this windsurfing Brahmin as a regular guy. We who were outraged by the charge that he was a flip-flopper still don't know what Kerry really thinks about the war in Iraq, or what he would have done very differently.
But we Democrats chose Kerry with eyes wide open. We thought his lack of clear definition and his split-the-difference moderation would make him more “credible” with swing voters. He didn't need a clear vision; imagery would be enough. He was a war hero to contrast with the draft-dodging George W. Bush. Kerry's incoherence was ours, reflecting the party's widespread lack of confidence in its own message.
In part this incoherence stems from how the message is created. While the grass-roots center-left -- labor, environmentalists, the activist nongovernmental organizations -- are expected to mobilize the voters on election day, the message they carry is in the hands of the party's Washington-based centrist managers. Heavily influenced by lobbyists, they try to formulate language that keeps the faithful motivated and at the same time does not alienate their corporate clients. Not surprisingly, the message is compromised and foggy, and neither the party's rank and file nor its leadership is able to articulate very well what the party stands for.
Under these circumstances, Democratic candidates end up with laundry lists of small-bore “good ideas” aimed at getting the support of separate constituencies while assuring Wall Street that they are for budget surpluses and low taxes. This strategy looks like political pandering, and it allowed Bush -- a habitual liar and budget buster -- to convince the voters that he was more honest than Kerry.
To use Winston Churchill's phrase, the Democratic pudding lacks a theme; it does not tell a story about how the world works. When Republicans wage class warfare, Democrats retreat, afraid to make their most convincing case: that government ought to be an instrument for fairness. In both the 2000 and 2004 debates, George W. Bush, who promotes government power on behalf of his constituencies, accused Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, of being in favor of big government. Gore hastily changed the subject. Kerry told the audience that his health-care proposal was not “government-run,” which anyone over the age of 12 could tell was not true. Never once did they turn to Bush and challenge him. Big government? What are you against, George? The U.S. Army? Social Security? The national parks? Who here wants to eat meat not inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? Should we shut down the Centers for Disease Control?
When Gore raised the class issue, his Washington advisers shut him down. When Kerry tried it, the language came out stilted and unconvincing. In an electorate with almost no knowledge of history, how many people out there knew what a “Benedict Arnold” corporation might mean?
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Our candidates will not get better at this unless we get better at it. Defining what the party stands for in clear language is too important to be left in the hands of the campaign managers, the pollsters, and the consultants. Among other things, this means broadening the responsibilities of the party's rank and file. Hard as it is, we need to take a lesson from the opposition. Democrats use their rank and file to mobilize the persuaded. Republicans use theirs to mobilize and to persuade.
Much has been written about the right-wing successes in the battle of ideas -- generously funded think tanks, infiltration of the media, takeovers of university economics departments, etc. -- but the far more important part of the advance of conservative ideology is what goes on in the neighborhoods and living rooms.
On election day I canvassed with a union activist who works in a supermarket. He lives in a Philadelphia suburb, down the street from a Republican who periodically tries to recruit him to join the GOP. “Not going to happen,” laughed my election-day comrade. “I'm union and a Democrat, just like my father was. … Still, he isn't a bad guy. And sometimes he makes some good points.”
“Has anyone ever asked you to recruit for the Democratic Party?” I asked. “No,” he shrugged. Had anyone ever asked him to explain to other people what it means to be a Democrat? “No.”
I trust my friend will remain a Democrat. And yet 40 percent of union members vote Republican. So do substantial numbers of people who we think of as being in liberal constituencies -- environmentalists, women, Latinos. This Republican neighbor will pick up some recruits and votes throughout the years. Multiply him by thousands and the mobilization task for Democrats gets harder and harder.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. For more than a decade I have seen evidence that the Republican Party and its allies have been systematically training people at the local level to proselytize and persuade. After the election, The Washington Post reported that Ohio Republican volunteers had held “thousands” of “parties for the president” in their homes, where they brought in their neighbors to listen to the case for Bush. In large halls or community-college auditoriums, audiences are passive listeners; participation means one quick question from people who are willing to stand up in a crowd. In living rooms, there is time for reflection, time to develop a sense of community. You are with neighbors.
This politics of persuasion requires patience, commitment, and a genuine interest in conversation. The Republican neighbor sees his political role not simply as cannon fodder at election time or as a check writer but as someone with a political avocation. Someone who is part of a movement.
Persuasion politics goes on all year, every year, between elections. By the time the campaign rolls around, persuasion is too late. Mobilization takes over and it is, by its very nature, short term and top down, while its style is to harangue. There is no time for conversation in a mobilization effort. Canvassers and phone bankers are instructed not to get into conversations about politics because it takes too much time. Identify your voters and move on quickly.
Exit polls must be approached with caution, but the patterns suggest that the Republicans succeeded with a politics of persuasion as well as mobilizing their base. Contrary to first impressions, we were not overwhelmed in 2004 by a massive mobilization of new Christian fundamentalist voters. Compared with 2000, Bush's big improvements were beyond his base. He gained in the urban areas more than he did in rural areas, in the Northeast more than in the South. His biggest percentage increases came from white women, Latinos, and elderly voters -- historically more Democratic-leaning groups -- who were persuaded to move to the right.
Despite the two-party system, political ideology is not clearly divided into two camps. Most people do not buy into the entire “liberal” or “conservative” packages. Within many, an inner Democrat and an inner Republican struggle for control. And the most effective way to strengthen one side -- as the Republicans have learned -- is personal one-on-one contact.
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Democrats have lost seven of the last 10 presidential elections. Since 1968, I have heard the defeated tell the brokenhearted faithful -- as John Edwards eloquently did this year in his concession speech -- that they have together begun a movement that will ultimately prevail and change America.
Then the phones are disconnected, the rented headquarters abandoned, and we all quite naturally go back to our lives, our jobs, our families. Sometimes the disorderly pile of canvassing and phone-bank sheets -- marked with information about the targeted voters -- goes right into the parking-lot Dumpster. Sometimes the crumbled material is saved in a cardboard box and put for a while in a basement or closet, where it gets thrown out the following spring.
Among the party's leaders there is much talk about the need for better language to communicate our values, to rethink the strategies, to have a broad, honest discussion, and so on. The consultants and the political directors and the pollsters go off on closed-door retreats to ponder these questions -- and start thinking about next year's mayoral race and whom they will work for in the New Jersey gubernatorial.
But the rank and file, the small contributor, the volunteer has little contact with this “movement,” except to send checks to the Democratic National Committee and new organizations that promise to lobby in their name for progressive causes. He or she is basically forgotten about until we head toward the next election. Then the fund-raising letters stream in, and the activist is “mobilized” for the next great crusade to elect someone who is better than the Republican.
Meanwhile, under the radar screen, the Republicans keep recruiting and training their people on how to argue politics and spin ideology to their neighbors, and through this process they are building a base of people beyond the hardcore fundamentalists and the chamber of commerce.
We do need new language. And the way anyone develops language is through conversation, not by giving lectures or scripting 30-second spots. And the way voters --and potential political persuaders -- will learn the language of our politics is if we go out and talk to them between elections as well as during elections. In short, we need to build a people-to-people infrastructure to challenge the Republican army on the ground.
This does not mean a headlong embrace of the Republicans message -- what they have defined as moral values or Bush's vision of Pax Americana. This would trap us further in the Republican narrative. Rather, it means learning to articulate our own narrative -- secular, rational, and aimed at engaging the public on the issues of America's future.
Democrats used to be the party of the future. Now we are perceived as the party of the past, trying to survive simply by defending a narrowing circle of New Deal programs. These must be defended. But to go on the offense we need to raise the larger, grander questions about the kind of America we want. Do we want everyone to have access to affordable health care? Should everyone willing and able to work have a job? Do we want to reduce the workweek? Do we want America to be the world's police officer? Should we root out the role of money in politics?
This is our territory. A majority of Americans do not want a theocracy, do not want government in their bedrooms -- or in bed with crony capitalists. And most want government to be on their side, and would like to see politics as an instrument to shape their future and the future of their children. Forcing the other side into a serious debate about the future can also reveal the narrowness and ultimately nihilistic core of right-wing ideology, which has nothing to say about the future of ordinary people here on earth.
Democrats who knocked on doors and worked the phone banks and stuffed the literature should be tapped and trained to start talking to their neighbors, practicing and learning the language and the arguments to convince potential Democratic voters that jobs are more important than the right to own an AK-47, that health care is a family value that might be more important than your distaste for gay marriage.
Yes, the Republicans have some advantages. They benefit from an evangelical constituency with a proselytizing tradition. And their talk-radio networks give them a well-developed echo chamber. But we Democrats also have strong institutional bases—in labor, the environmental movement, and the liberal churches (and, as of last month, we had 49 percent of the electorate as well). It's not so hard to imagine these institutions' members being encouraged and trained to engage the other side in debate. Why not develop a national network of people sharing talking points, effective language, and strategies for infiltrating talk radio? And if more of our people get engaged, our own struggling liberal talk-radio shows will have an expanding audience.
Of course, empowering the Democratic rank and file to take responsibility for debate and message is risky for the party's governing CEOs. It means giving up some control, and taking a risk that the language that emerges might be a little too populist for their comfort. Just before the election, one Washington Democrat, confident of victory, dismissed the idea as romantic. “That's not how we do politics,” he said.
It's time we learned.
Jeff Faux was the founder, and is now Distinguished Fellow, of the Economic Policy Institute.