Wednesday, November 03, 2004

What Now 

Earlier today, I posted a story talking about bad ideas leading to more bad ideas as desperation sets in. With the results of the 2004 election behind us, there's obviously a lot of thought about what comes next for the Democrats. They've gotten their asses kicked in the past three major elections. If you widen the window of time that you are looking at, it starts to look more like the Republicans are achieving a long-term dominance the way the Democrats did in the middle of the 20th century (Bill Clinton being the 8 year respite that corresponds to Eisenhower's 8 years). Eventually, the Democrats will come back. But how long is it going to take for them to figure out what it's going to take (and perhaps, for enough of the old die-hards to die off)?

Two articles I really liked on this topic are this one, by William Saletan, and this other one, by Timothy Noah. Chris Suellentrop also has worthwhile thoughts.

Timothy Noah points out that the democrats have problems on all sides. He says that they can't move rightward, can't move leftward, and can't sit still (but you'll have to read his article to get the reasons). Sitting still is not a good idea, and it's motivated only by wishful thinking. I get the feeling that there was some of that this time around: Al Gore really won 2000, they think, so we just have to get our rightful result this time. It didn't work out that way. The world has changed.

Similarly, moving leftward won't work. Despite the great hopes for the youth voter turnout this year, I always held private doubts about whether that would materialize. If youth voters can't get up the self-interest and discipline to stop their grandparents from screwing them with debt, I can't imagine what would. Having lived on or very near a college campus for most of the past 6 years, I've seen the attempts of the highly motivated student organizations to do something, anything. Even with local politics that seriously affected Isla Vistans' ability to party, nothing happened. Riots in Seattle, Eminem videos, war that many think threatens a new draft (an exceedingly unlikely development, but nonetheless one which many young voters honestly believe is possible)...nothing seems to turn these voters out.

No, despite turnout attempts, treating turnout as exogenous in this situation seems to always be a more reasonable assumption to work with. For most of our lives, there have been those that vote as a bloc, and those that don't, and realistically, you have to work within that. This leads me to my criticism of Noah's piece.

Noah says that moving to the right is not an option, because moving to the right has no endpoint, and only pushes the Republicans further rightward beyond reason. I believe this is wrong. The median voter theorem states that politicians will more or less move to the position of the median voter. Any voter to the left of the most left politician still votes for him, and any voter to the right of the most right politician still votes for the rightmost polician. Thus, there is no gain to moving away from the center, because it allows the other guy to hug your position but stay just a little to the other end of you, grabbing more of the votes. Obviously, this is a major simplification, but I think this construction captures the basic observed features of politics remarkably well (ie, third parties never win because they're too far to the sides and only catch that tail of the distribution that is at least as extreme as they are, while major parties both resemble each other in the center and tend to win only by luck in close elections, and so forth).

If the Republicans are winning elections by moving to the right, it is because the distribution of voters is changing so that the median voter falls farther to the right. In this case, the best response actually is to move farther to the right, but not quite as far as the other party. This is where Saletan's article comes in. Saletan makes some good suggestions that I agree with, and I think his proposal for a grand vision makes sense, and I think the reason has to do with what's causing the shift away from Democrats.

The political spectrum is not a single line across which people fall, it has a more complex structure than that, especially with the electoral college. The parties sustain themselves by drawing together strong, disciplined voter blocs (this leads to such strange alliances as highly religious social conservatives and socially liberal libertarians voting for Republicans, and rich, highly educated coastal whites voting with middle class labor in the midwest for Democrats). For Democrats, their base groups are being rearranged, as Republicans learn to appeal to minorities better (it was only a matter of time before Republicans figured out that minorities, which are often very religious and entrepreneurial, would make great Republicans), and the long-term US decline in manufacturing weakens the labor unions. Painful as it may be for the party faithful, in order to get back in the game, Democrats have to move on from their current positioning, and find some new alliances, either by finding new voting interest groups, or taking some from Republicans. Saletan's proposal is about as plausible an idea as I've seen for that so far, but it's gonna take more than that.

In immediate, practical terms, Saletan suggests Edwards for 2008. Though I harshed on him earlier, I don't think that's implausible. What he's going to have to do is spend the next four years learning a lot about policy so that he doesn't have to dodge easy questions that he should know the answers to. And he needs to get better at debating, so he doesn't freak out so easily. It can be done.

Superficially, he's good: young, good-looking, doesn't have a long, embarassing senate voting record, is Southern and comes from the middle class. However, we'll have to see if he can overcome the stigma of failure and if he can overcome the intellectual, leftist urges of the party faithful in the primaries in 2008 (not to mention another potential candidate with more red state appeal). The game in 2008 is entirely about turning one or more red states blue. I haven't seen enough of Obama in action to form an opinion of him, but I'll have to be convinced that he could turn a southern or midwest state to the Democrats. Similarly, I have my doubts that Hillary Clinton could do it either. This is that talking with sincerity about moral values thing that Saletan talks about; I agree that it's essential, but she doesn't have it.

In fact, let's just stay away from senators in blue states altogether next time.

Update: Just wanted to add this link to another interesting article, A Functional Party No More, by Reason's Tim Cavanaugh.

Robert Wright also has some thoughts on Slate, Why Americans Hate Democrats.

Musil breaks down some of the minority voting numbers.

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