Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.

Politics Is Not Rocket Science

Lately, we have been inundated with statistics based projections for November. Though I do love statistics and modeling, what underlies the data is something very simple. In order to win elections, you must turn out your base and persuade a certain number of movable voters to vote for you. It really is that simple. Obviously, the number of movable voters you need depends on a few factors- size of your base, size of opponent’s base, estimates of turnout, and potential anomalies.

Herein lies the problem for Democrats as November approaches- our base is not motivated, and neither are a good chunk of our 2006 and 2008 movables. Most polling shows very close races when using registered voters. However, when the screen of likely voters is used, Democrats are faring quite horribly.

This enthusiasm gap is the product of several factors. It is hard to ignore the disappointment some activists Democrats feel towards the administration and the Party in general. But I think some of this is overblown and results, at least in part, from the netroots’ echo-chamber. (Full disclosure- I count myself among those who are disappointed and online.) The average non-activist/non-netroots Democratic voter is not turning away from voting in November because Harry Reid can’t get Obama’s judicial nominees through the Senate.

Instead, Democratic voters are disappearing because they expected more to be done on the economy. Sure, some may be disappointed by the compromised health care reform bill, but what they really want are jobs and economic stability. (I’ll leave aside the discussion of how realistic it is to fix eight years of damage in twenty months.) I would argue, too, that a prime reason Democratic voters are not enthusiastic is that they do not perceive the threat of a GOP takeover.

It is a far easier task to rally the base for change than it is to maintain that momentum over the course of three elections. Change is infinitely more appealing, on an emotional level, than stay the course. So the task at hand for Democrats is to energize their base by explaining the very real dangers to progress that a Republican House and/or Senate would be. And, they must make clear to movables that there has been progress over the past twenty months, that the economy is getting better, and that but for the stimulus we would be in much more dire straits. (In a normal year, Democrats could also try to suppress Republican turnout. I do not think much of that is possible this year.)

Over the past two weeks the administration has shown they get it. And while I wonder if maybe it was too little, too late, it is hard to argue with the team that ran one of the most technically proficient presidential campaigns in my lifetime. It will take a combination of the White House political team, with its agenda setting power, and other Democrats stepping up, with a helpful assist from the teabaggers and their extremist candidates, to craft a winning strategy for November. There may still be just enough time to save us.

Premortem

It remains to be seen just what Tuesday will bring here in Massachusetts as well as the country. Though I still think Coakley can/will eke out a victory, my own prediction of her closing strong and winning by close to double digits seems quite absurd. But I think there are two valuable lessons to be learned.

First, not only do voters turn away from what they perceive to be coronation campaigns, but it is damn near impossible to change their minds once that perception has been cemented. The past couple of weeks here in Massachusetts have been filled with messages from prominent Democrats and their allies for Martha Coakley. And while there has been some re-engagement among the party’s base, the independent voters do not seem to be responding. In fact, these appeals may be having a negative effect as it feels as if the political machine is circling the wagons for one of its own, which plays into Brown’s (dubious) claim of independence.

The other lesson here, and one that is sure to be missed by Democrats in DC, is that the party cannot fail to deliver on its promises of the past two elections and expect its base to remain engaged, committed and active. Unfortunately the folks in DC will take the closeness of this race as evidence that the party needs to trim its sails. But scaling back their agenda, whether on the economy or environment, will only serve to alienate not only the base, but the independents who gave Democrats both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If Democrats do not make some substantial progress towards their goals, November is going to be a very, very bad month for the party.

Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya

Before people get too worked up about Parker Griffith, the party switching Congressman, I have to wonder just why Griffith was ever a Democrat. That is not to say that the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, ought to have some sort of strict ideological litmus test for its members. A political party is at its strongest when it includes more than just a narrow band of true believers.

But Griffith ran in a somewhat Republican district, opposed most (all?) major Democratic legislative initiatives, and stated that he would not vote for Speaker Pelosi the next time around. So what did Griffith get from running as a Democrat? I mean, aside from the over one million dollars poured into his race by the DCCC.

Premature Eruption

I am now of the mind that the rage against the health care reform compromise was premature. Not only has it caused unnecessary fracturing of the liberal/progressive/netroots/whatever the hell you want to call it coalition, but it has put those folks in position to receive all the blame if the bill ultimately fails. The reality on the ground, as it were, is that there is no bill. Senator Reid has yet to corral 60 egotistical narcissists Senators to support whatever it is we’re arguing about.

The latest in the line of ridiculous arguments against compromise (version 15) is Ben Nelson’s concern about Medicaid. He insists that it’s an underfunded mandate, despite the fact that the federal government picks up 93% of the cost. This is, of course, on top of his monomaniacal obsession with abortion. Nelson has stated that he’s willing to derail any health care reform bill that does not, by and large, eliminate Roe v. Wade rights for anyone who gets even a penny’s worth of federal dollars (Hyde Amendment on steroids). There are some who think Reid should call Nelson’s bluff, but I’m not convinced Nelson won’t join a GOP filibuster.

Given the trajectory of health care reform, it’s only a matter of time before one of the other creepy “centrists” pipes up with his/her own demands. And, why shouldn’t they? Surely they saw how willing Senator Reid and the White House were to acquiesce to Holy Joe’s demands not merely in the first instance, but at every illogical twist and turn. I fully expect Bayh, Landrieu and/or Lincoln to find something else objectionable.

And that is why the collection of folks who have vociferously opposed the latest compromise should have held their powder. The bill will invariably get worse before it’s voted upon, if it ever even makes it to the floor. And when the near inevitable failure occurs, the opponents could merely sit back and say that they told you so while avoiding recriminations or assigning of blame.

Political Cowardice Is Not Pragmatism

A great deal of ink and pixels has been spent over the health care reform debacle in the Senate. And there is a real debate to be had as to whether or not passing such a denuded bill is good or bad. But regardless of the eventual outcome of the process, one thing needs to be made clear- the distinction between political cowardice and pragmatism.

Many health care policy types are of the opinion that this weak bill is better than no bill at all. They claim that it at least provides some reform that can serve as a jumping off point in future years. This argument does have some merit, if one is willing to accept that future Congresses will have any appetite for further reform. Given this year’s debacle, that may be an unfounded assumption.

Beyond that, there are very real political consequences for passing a bad bill. An individual mandate without either a public option, Medicare buy-in or some other form of competition for the private insurance companies means forcing people to purchase a product they may not be able to afford, or suffer the consequences of a fine. Not to mention the political fallout from the Democratic base and even independents who expected substantive and substantial health care reform. In some ways, it would have been better to fail spectacularly than to incrementally succeed.

With that said, there is still the chance that reform fails. There are no guarantees that Lieberman won’t have new demands prior to a vote. Or that Ben Nelson doesn’t decide rolling back Roe v. Wade is more important than providing health insurance to millions of Americans. And we can’t rule out a conference committee report that brings back some form of public option, which would die in the Senate (or that absent a public option, House progressives won’t abandon the bill).

But what is lost in the whole policy versus politics debate happening now is the underlying problem of political cowardice exhibited by Senator Reid and President Obama. I say cowardice because this is not pragmatism at work. Pragmatism implies that two (or more) sides come together, and each make compromises in order to reach an agreement. Absolutely zero concessions have been made by ConservaDems or Lieberman. In fact, all of the concessions have come from the supporters of the varieties of a public option. Senator Reid and President Obama refused to negotiate in a way that would require compromise from the other side. Instead they played a game of give-away with Lieberman.

The responsibility really lies with both the President and Senator Reid. From the beginning, the President failed to articulate a specific policy proposal, instead relying on vague parameters. He spent little to no political capital to fight for a stronger bill. And his administration has made it abundantly clear that having a bill before the end of the year was more important than having a good bill.

For his part, Senator Reid allowed the charade that was the Gang of Six to take up most of the oxygen in the Senate debate over health care reform. His unwillingness to rein in Senator Baucus’ foolhardy attempts at compromise with an intransigent GOP was only the beginning. Reid also took reconciliation off the table, even though it was his strongest chip at the bargaining table. As Ezra noted yesterday, a bill that went through the reconciliation process would be far more liberal than a compromise bill passed through the normal process. But Reid gave away that bargaining chip and went to the table with no leverage whatsoever. Bargaining with a sociopath is difficult even when you hold leverage, without any you can forget about compromise and head straight to capitulation.

So what we have witnessed is a perfect storm of political malpractice disguised as pragmatism. It’s too late to rescue a good health care reform bill now, but hopefully the Democrats will learn from this colossal failure. Otherwise, progressives can give up hope now for any major policy reform during the Obama administration and can look forward to the GOP retaking Congress sooner than later.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Generally speaking, political parties are comprised of two somewhat distinct groups of voters. There is an activist group, which will not only support the party’s candidates but will volunteer, donate and organize. The other group consists of the universe of party registrants who are not, at least at that moment, part of the activist base. There is movement between the two groups, driven by factors such as particular candidates or causes or (for the activist base) fatigue.

The core group of activists tend to be more committed to not only the party, but to the ideology to which the party is linked. However, I would argue that within the universe of activists there is a further distinction. There is a party’s base that may or not be activist, but generally the former, and then there are less ideological partisans. This is where I find a lot of political reporting and punditry to be lacking. In my years as a politician and a consultant, I came across a fairly sizable number of partisan Republicans who were neither conservative nor ideological. They were simply partisan Republicans. (For the Democratic side, see Markos’ many non-ideological Democrat, but partisan Democrat writings.)

In a well-functioning political party the partisan not base group, along with the party registrants who are not activists, serve as a moderating influence on the activist base. For most of the 20th century, both parties fit this description. Prior to the past couple of decades, the Republican Party had a sizable number of moderate (Rockefeller) Republicans while the Democratic Party included its share of conservative (Southern) Democrats. The broadness of each party ensured that its activist base would not come to dominate either party.

During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s the Democratic Party came to be controlled, by and large, by its liberal base. It was unable to win presidential elections, but maintained its grip on the House and (sometimes) the Senate. The DLC and one of its stars, Bill Clinton, pulled the Democrats back from the brink and broadened the party to include moderates and conservatives again.  In a way, the party apparatus under Clinton was able to push aside some of the crazier elements of the Democratic Party and assert adult leadership.

And while pundits now portray the netroots of the Democratic Party as some sort of bastion of dirty f*cking hippies, the reality is that many are partisan Democrats, not activist base (liberal). Just look at the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into moderate and conservative Democratic campaigns by the netroots and the mantra of more and better Democrats. I also think the political reporters miss something crucial when they portray the current fight against Blue Dogs and Senate “centrists” as some sort of ideological purge. Of course, there are some elements of that out there, but the majority of those calling for some backbone, especially on health care reform, believe that support for HCR and a public option is actually part of a winning strategy for 2010, not just good policy.

In many ways today’s GOP is where the Democrats were before Bill Clinton. Their activist base has not only exerted control of the party, but has managed to elect more than a few of its members into positions of power (Senate, House). While there were fringe elements of the Democratic Party in Congress in the past (some would say now, as well), they never held the sort of power now in the hands of the teabaggers and their supporters. Certainly, some of those espousing crazy Beck/Palin/Limbaugh talking points in the halls of Congress are not true believers, but are political opportunists. However, it’s fairly easy to come up with a list of those who are not only parroting the crazy, but believe the crazy. In short, the inmates are running the GOP asylum.

There is simply no adult supervision of the current Republican Party. And rather than resisting the calls for even more ideological purity, GOP leaders are echoing it. This goes beyond silly loyalty tests and chants of RINO to leading Republicans literally saying their party has no place for anyone but far right base activists. How bizarre is it to see someone with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating over 75 being raked over the coals for not being pure enough?

Way back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was an acknowledgment by many in the Democratic Party that things had to change. That the party had to distance itself from some of its fringe elements, as represented by some of its base. Not everyone agreed with this assessment, but it was not some radical idea either. Just look at the 1992 primary field and its coterie of moderates- Clinton, Wilder, Tsongas, and Kerrey.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Republican field. Where are there moderates? Pawlenty was the closest thing, but he’s gone full wingnut lately. Heck, we’re even now hearing rumors of Dick Cheney running!  It’s the perfect storm of ideological rigidity, hubris and stupidity. And it spells a long time in the wilderness for the GOP.