There are about as many theories as to why Democrats were more successful than Republicans at winning Congressional or national offices as there are certified pundit chatterati to propound them. Political scientists and political consultants will be pouring over the results for the next two years, and their elucubrations are certain to be the stuff of which political dreams (and perhaps nightmares) are made for the 2014 cycle. Perhaps too much of what will be produced might be safely dismissed.
We Coulda’ Had A Contender?
The statisticians have yet to apply their fine-toothed combs to the 2012 election results, but the Republican Party, should it not wish to join the Cotton Whigs as a chapter in ancient U.S. History, may want to devise a political platform less oppositional in nature. However, like their predecessors in Whig-dom, the Republicans are currently offering little more than the same kind of anti-government, fundamentally oppositional, philosophy which informed the opponents of Andrew Jackson. Reagan’s “government is the problem” strategy combined with the Southern Strategy could be characterized, at least superficially, as the logical extrapolation of Whig thought. If the combination was powerful enough to work in previous elections, then why didn’t it work in 2012?
One element of the answer is that in order to be a contender a candidate must represent a vision of America which Americans find appealing. While negative advertising works tactically, a negative strategy is more difficult to sell. Reagan’s genius was to turn populism on it’s head — reframing the discussion from how to utilize the government to protect middle income and working Americans into a discourse about how to restrict government “intrusion” into a generalized notion of private life. Several specific issues lent themselves to his formula — desegregation, gun control, and a broad attack on “welfare,” defined as any form of government benefit or assistance. However, there is a shelf life for specific issues, and just as items in the refrigerator ought not be eaten after they’ve had an opportunity to become bacteria cultivators for four days, political issues get either stale or toxic.
Republican candidates for national offices were saddled with a 1968 Southern Strategy combined with Reagan anti-government rhetoric mixed with the Rovian calculation that a coalition of evangelical voters and Wall Street executives and bond traders could be sustained. Why did they still think this would work?
Because it once did, a notion rather like believing that at one point in time the macaroni salad in the refrigerator was safe for human consumption. Let’s not be too hasty to draft the obituary for the Republicans, they still have a fundamentally sound philosophical pantry. It’s the left overs in the refrigerator that are giving them problems.
The notion of limited government does resonate with the American public. Where the campaigns deviated from this concept is the point at which the Republican contenders were reduced to pretenders.
When Republicans sought to appeal to their evangelical base, especially the most conservative anti-abortion voters, they faltered badly. The GOP controlled House of Representatives expended an inordinate amount of time and effort in the 112th Congress on anti-abortion bills; while the public waited for ‘jobs’ legislation. Republican candidates who commented on “rape” invariably found themselves on the losing side of the ledger. Dissonance, which might be acceptable within the party, became cacophonous when individuals not heavily invested in party identification tried to reconcile individual privacy and limited government with trans-vaginal ultrasound procedures and definitional contortions concerning what constitutes a rape.
When Republicans sought to appeal to their financial sector base, with a perfect candidate in that realm, those working in the ‘real economy’ were horrified by the headline, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” In financialist terms allowing the automobile industry to be liquidated would have made perfect economic sense. In mixed economy pragmatic terms it would have made for a perfect disaster. In practical political terms it was a buzz killer of the first water.
Another feature of the Republican problems of 2012 is that they are marginally reminiscent of the controversies in early church history. One of the problems associated with confessional orthodoxy is that the larger the congregation the greater the propensity of the members to behave more like squirrels in a wheelbarrow than soldiers on parade. A confession of faith requires the conformation of the Apollinarians, the followers of Docetism, the adherents of Donatism, the advocates of Eutychiaism, and the proponents of both Monophysitism and Monothelitism. The point is that the narrower the definition of “membership” the smaller the number of members. While this certainly prevents heresy in the body of the church, if the process isn’t curtailed in politics the results are predictable, without requiring extensive polling.
As long as Republican candidates must pass muster in primary elections and caucuses with a political base intent upon eradicating political heresy, then the candidates risk being out of step with more and more voters. Do candidates have to pass the heresy test before receiving support from the national party? If the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’ then the number of potential candidates is reduced, and if the number of possible candidates is restricted then the appeal to the general populace is as well.
The Democrats had similar problems in the ’80’s — being defined by the opposition as ‘big spenders,’ and ‘big government’ heirs of the Great Society. They, too, have their problems in the wake of the 2012 election.
You Never Step In The Same River Twice
The worst use of political postmortems would be to believe that the past is not only prologue but predictive. Republicans who thought that the 2012 election would look like its 2004 predecessor were very disappointed. Democrats who believe that the strategies, tactics, and issues of 2012 will be the same in 2014 are asking for trouble.
Some precepts are timeless: Identify your opponent before he or she can self-define; or, the ground game is the best game in town. However, there are some elements which are not static. A good issue or policy position is one for which the ground has been prepared.
Same sex marriage, once used as a wedge issue to drive GOP base voters to the polls, is an example of a River Change in American politics. An openly gay person will be serving in the U.S. Senate for the next six years, and members of the LGBT community have achieved offices during the last elections. The activism of the community prepared the ground such that what was once a wedge issue is now a non-issue in much of the United States.
It’s easy to campaign on the “economy,” everyone does it; but, to conclude that the 2014 elections will be driven by the same kind of economic issues which were in the forefront in 2012 is problematic. One bit of ground being plowed to greater effect is the revision of the Supply Side theory — once the darling of the business media (and still a strong force in public debate) — this notion has taken a beating in the aftermath of the Recession of 2007-2008. It may take a further beating if the austerity measures enacted in Europe continue to create lower rates of economic growth than in the United States which has not adopted austerity based economics.
This optimism should come with a warning label: Ground does not plow itself. Those who believe that only austerity based policies or only growth based economics are the sole solutions are likely to be disappointed in a mixed economy. Fiscal restraint is a good thing. So is government spending to secure automatic stabilizers, to add value to our national infrastructure, and to prevent too many citizen consumers from falling into abject poverty. The consultants (already planning their next gigs) would be well advised to look not to “what worked” in terms of policy based positions in 2012, but toward what are likely to be the newer issues of 2014.
Are we sufficiently attentive to plowing ground to secure popular understanding and support for the renovation of our national infrastructure? Are we making furrows and seeding greater comprehension of climate change or immigration issues? Are we aiding popular understanding of educational and technological innovation issues?
Those individuals who think that the election results of 2012 mean we don’t have to discuss austerity economics because “the President won” may be very disappointed if the opposition does a better job of communicating a resurrection of Trickle Down economics… or if the current misapplication of “Makers and Takers” definitions persists. If we aren’t telling the neighbors that Makers are workers who provide goods and services then we ought not be surprised when the Wall Street definition of “Maker” as a hedge fund manager speculating in derivatives becomes a popularly accepted political term of art.
Never Read Your Own Press
If Governor Romney was truly “shell shocked” to discover that he wasn’t winning the election, then he was probably trapped in the Faux News cycle of self referenced self informing self justifying self satisfying information. One of the oldest adages for any business which deals directly with the public is — The only good news is bad news.
The adage’s implications are obvious. A company will never improve its products, or never improve its services, if it never finds out anything that might be wrong. A company which ignores customer complaints about its product shouldn’t be surprised to see declining sales. A firm which ignores customer dissatisfaction with its level of after sale service will awake — preferably before bankruptcy — to find the customers have gone elsewhere. The adage is just as true for politicians and the citizens they serve.
The politician who only listens to members of his Country Club should not expect to get increasing support from middle income constituents. Nor should a politician who understands only the perspective of labor leaders expect to comprehend the needs of local retail business owners. Likewise, a person whose exclusive sources of news are highly polarized may find that like the Apollinarians of faded memory they belong to a marginalized cult rather than a broad element of the body politic.
Polarized information comes in various forms. We have a spectacular example of a propaganda corporation (Fox News) the sole purpose of which appears to be to fire up whatever portion of the base needs to be manipulated to serve opposition purposes. They’ve created a relatively fact free zone. However, it’s only slightly less deleterious to create a zone in which selective facts are provided, without acknowledging that other, more unappealing, elements also need to be considered. Half baked arguments come from half informed advocates.
Meanwhile Back In The Real World
In an era in which information and data are immediately at hand there is no excuse for the perpetuation of myths which serve the polarization and misinformation now on display. Our political discourse will be improved when we decide to speak plainly and as accurately as possible.
It is high time to rid ourselves of the myth of the Welfare Queen. She served her purpose 40 years ago, when she was the mistress of racial animus. It is also time to stop using euphemisms for privatization. We could also do with fewer references to collateral damage — a drone strike is a deadly drone strike. Its time to stop lumping all forms of government assistance as entitlements — Social Security and Medicare are entitlements because we’ve already paid for the programs. No one is “entitled” to TANF or SNAP benefits; families have to meet qualification standards to receive them.
Part of the improvement of our national discussions should be promoted by our media, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We will get what sponsors think we want — and if we want euphemisms, code words, dog whistles, and conflation that’s what we’ll get. If we want sharks, bears, and freaks, we’ll get sharks, bears, and freaks.
In short we need to be contenders, never pretending to accept orthodoxy for its own sake; we need to accept that if the past never even past then we’re trapped in our own preconceptions; we need to avoid reading and believing our own press; and, we need to clean up the language in which we converse with one another. We have some work to do before 2014.