Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Ideological Purity the Democratic Party and Electoral Success

"I'm not a member of any organized party.  I'm a Democrat."  -  Will Rogers.


It's funny because it's true.  And the reason it's true is because the Democrats have long been a party made up of sometimes disparate coalitions of interest groups.  It's why the Republicans often get traction out of the "party of special interests" charge.  Of course one person's illegitimate "special" interest is another person's vital political imperative.  And it is also true that the bigger a party gets the more diverse these interests are likely to become.  Hopefully these diverse interests won't be directly contradictory too often but there are going to understandable differences of priority and emphasis.  

When the Republican party started to get really big in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, they started to include more diverse groups of people.  The old Republican party had its factions.  There were moderate small business advocates from the Midwest (like Ford and Dole), libertarians from the far west (like Goldwater), and progressive liberals from the north east (like Rockefeller).  To this group, Nixon then Reagan and finally Bush II added Southern white populists and Protestant fundamentalists (like Thurmond, Lott, Bush etc) many of who used to be Democrats.   This latter group has been especially successful at taking over the GOP.  They have driven out most of the north eastern liberals and the Club For Growth is going after the moderates now too (see earlier thread).  The result is a party increasingly isolated both geographically and ideologically but at least they have ideological conformity.

So what does this have to do with the Democrats?  The 2006 and 2008 elections have made the Democratic party bigger than its been since the 1970s.  It's also more diverse than its been since then.  There are some improvements however.  The social reactionaries and conservative populists from the South are not back.  But there are increasing numbers of moderately pro-business Democrats and even a handful of Western libertarians.  

Why am I bringing this up?  Because there is a risk that the Democrats could develop their own version of the Club For Growth problem.  The anonymous comment expressing outrage that Obama hasn't gone far enough on a series of his/her high priority policies and saying that Obama is no better than McCain is the kind of person that would start such a Club For Growth organization.  These are people like the Naderite folks that voted against Gore and stuck us with George W. Bush in the name of purifying the Democratic party.  

The Democratic party has an opportunity to become the party of pragmatic good government.  But it cannot do that if the left wing of the party is allowed to impose an uncompromising vision of what it means to be a Democrat.  To be successful the Democratic party must find a way to keep people like "Anonymous" in check.  This doesn't mean allowing people like Lieberman to get away with campaigning for the other party.  It does mean that if Democrats - like the Obama White House or the leadership in Congress - put some things off or compromise out of political expediency, the party should seriously consider not being outraged about it.

114 comments:

The Law Talking Guy said...

It is really important not to forget the Pacific time zone. In the 1980s, this was a dependable solid Republican/Reagan bloc. When I went to volunteer in Nevada for Obama, there was a somewhat snotty 18 year old girl (going to Hahvahd next year) working with the precinct to which I was delivered. I told her that in 1992 I had been part of the work that turned California blue. She stared at me uncomprehendingly, having been 2 at the time. To her, CA was always a blue state. That it was a 50 EV bedrock for the GOP is unimaginable to her generation. Similarly, Oregon and Washington have gone blue, and Nevada is turning blue too. Arizona would have been a battleground state but for McCain being a favorite son. Its politics are far more centrist now than they were in the 1980s.

What has happened? The GOP in all these states was taken over by social conservatives who then lost the state. I remember being in Arizona in 1986 (I think) when the GOP adopted a party plank there that America was a Christian Country and Jesus was Our Savior. An aging Barry Goldwater helped save the GOP from this disaster by embracing gay people, including the openly gay Republican Jim Kolbe representing the Tucson area. The steady growth of Christian wingnuts in the party eventually put Democrats in power.

When Dan Lungren ran for CA governor in 1998, he used the word "Jesus" more than a dozen times in his campaign-kickoff speech. He was buried.

It is the turn of the Far West to the Democrats that made it possible for the Democrats to win elections nationally without Perot on the ballot sapping Republcian votes.

Now we are seeing the Democratic party succeed everywhere in the West except in Mormon strongholds. Even Wyoming has a Democratic governor.

The success of the party in the West has been about (1) competent government (2) low(ish) taxes (3) deprioritizing social and environmental issues. It is noteworthy that Dems have a hard time capturing the governor's seat in California, because they run moderates against the Democrats' very socially liberal candidates. The only success Dems had was in 1998, when the GOP lurched too far to the right and the Dems picked a centrist.

Sorry to babble on, but my overall point is was the tectonic shift in party politics in the West that caused the even splits of 2000 and 2004. The forces RBR talks about in the midwest and northeast happened after the Democrats learned in the West how to stop being just the party of liberals.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think LTG's story of the West Coast development of the Democrats and Republicans in the last 20 or 30 years is very much in line with what I was trying to get at.

The Republicans most concerned with enforcing ideological purity within the party took their own party out of the running in one of the fastest growing parts of the country. Big mistake.

We should not assume that just because Democrats have won the last couple of elections that they can't make the same mistake.

As LTG suggests, Democrats' electoral success depends on not just being the party of the left. They must be the party of the Center-Left.

USWest said...

Both LTG and RBR make interesting points. But the conclusion isn't that surprising. Capturing and keeping the center is always the goal. That is in part what kept Clinton popular even though everyone in Washington hated him. The results of his compromises are still very much with us today for better or worse. . . welfare reform and deregualtion in the telecom sector come immediately to mind. He learned quickly that when he tried to move left (i.e. gays in the military and health care reform) he lost the public and only fed the opposition on the right.

The reality is that the common person is usually more centrist and reasonable than the party activist. The reason you get swings in either direction is, I believe, because the people who have an agenda or who are active in the party (often they are they same people), are usually more extreme than the average voter. And if those are the people pushing party platforms or developing electoral strategy, then you will get swings.

It's the squeaky wheel syndrome. You have to keep the squeaky wheel someone greased without giving in all the way. The GOP has never been able to get it's wingnuts under control.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Capturing and keeping the center is always the goal."

While that needs to be the goal for the Democrats, in 2000 and 2004 the Republicans won very close elections by really getting out the base: a massive evangelical vote was what put Bush over the top. Many Republicans apparently still believe that is the right strategy... They believe McCain failed because he was too centrist. (Palin was an important "balance," but not enough.)

Raised By Republicans said...

The Republicans lost the 2000 election and were only handed the winning result through a combination of judicial intervention and Nader sabotaging things in Florida.

In 2004 in the national exit poll results it shows that Kerry got 49% of Independents and Bush got 48%. So the advantage of the Republican base strategy was slim even under its best case scenario.
http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/US/P/00/epolls.0.html

In 2008 the national exit poll results showed a different story. Obama won among independents 52% to 44%.

Of course, Democrats had a registration advantage in 2008 that was not there in 2004 too.

My main point is that even in the best of times, the "get out the base" strategy was cutting it very close for the GOP. They were fools to think it would work in the long term.

Dr. Strangelove said...

The concept of "ideological purity" is a joke, because I have yet to see any comprehensive political ideology that is even self-consistent, let alone "pure." Even Marxist-Leninist ideology is an obvious hodgepodge. (The hyphen should be your first clue.) But the practical application of Marxist-Leninist ideology is instructive because it illustrates what the call for "ideological purity" really is: a demand for conformity and obedience. The call for "ideological purity" is nothing more than a demand that the party rank and file get back into their ranks and files.

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