Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Sectionalism on the internet(s)

There's a lot of invective and humour regarding red state/blue state differences out there in the blogosphere, from the Declaration of Expulsion to the eloquent Fuck the South to the questionable statistics showing election results correlated with IQ. Actual insight is hard to find, but one blogger shows that the free state/slave state cultural difference is A Very Old Story indeed. The bad news is that there really may be nothing the Democratic party can do to crack the South. The good news is that....wait, there's no good news, unless it's that a fundamentalist Christian group may be working toward the resecession of South Carolina.


Blogger Justin said...

There may be nothing the Democrats can do to crack the South?? That's a horribly defeatist attitude and one that's not backed by evidence. The Democrats took the South when they ran Clinton (twice) and Carter. Pundits keep pointing out that these were Southern governors, but the important characteristic in my mind was that they knew how to talk to Americans in both the red and the blue states.

When Clinton and Carter spoke, they sounded authentic. Part of that was that they were both comfortable speaking about religion, but it's a lot more basic than that. When you listen to either one of them talk, you knew where they were coming from. Even when Clinton was lying (badly), you sympathized with him because you understood why he was lying and what he was lying about. When Kerry, Gore, Dukakis, etc spoke, they were anything but comfortable speakers.

The Democratic message also needs major tweaking. In particular, they have nothing that appeals to the self-reliant streak of a huge chunk of America. When every plan involves the government at the center, you're going to turn off a lot of red staters. Clinton won a lot of votes be "ending welfare as we know it". But you can also make some minor changes to democratic proposals to make them more appealing.

For example, one of Kerry's plans was that the government would cover part of the cost of catostrophic health care by rebating money to insurers who would lower premiums for employers who would then lower insurance premiums by up to $1000 per family. Can anyone other than a major policy wonk think this is an appealing idea? Would anyone be shocked to learn that middle america suspected that the money would be absorbed by one of the three or four middle men in this process? If the goal is to make health care more affordable, why not give a $1000 tax credit for health insurance related premiums? It's simple to explain, easy to understand, and it freaking makes sense to middle America. Clinton worked this strategy to perfection a decade ago-- how freaking difficult is it for the Democrats to figure this out?

The Democrats also have to stop muzzling the left wing of the party on matters of policy. Right now, the Democrats suffer from Lieberman's disease-- they're selling Republican Light. If there was a vocal left wing, though, moderate Democratic proposals would seem much more like moderate proposals rather than far-left ideas. And a vocal left wing would also allow liberal ideas to mature and find their way to more moderate proposals-- a lot of Republican proposals started life as very right-wing think tank ideas and matured to more palatable ideas for a general election. As the Republicans have demonstrated, catering to your base only energizes your base further and brings a few million more out of the woodwork.

On the other hand, they have to muzzle the left wing when it comes to matters of style. Having Michael Moore dig into Bush and having dozens of Hollywood big-wigs express support for Kerry is a major turn-off to a lot of voters. Having Democratic pundits argue that voters were duped into voting for Bush against their interests doesn't make Republican voters feel that they are respected by the Democrats-- talking down to voters is a bad plan. Having a bunch of poorly groomed college students protesting the WTO with puppet shows also isn't likely to endear the left-wing to anyone other than the hard left.

11/10/2004 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

You're absolutely right regarding whom the Democrats should nominate. We've proven conclusively that when a wonk runs against a chimp, chimpy wins. As a Dean supporter, I was dismayed to see him get clobbered in the primaries. Sure, the Republicans might have been salivating at the chance to run against him, but he had a real message and he connected with the voters. He might not have done better than Kerry, but he certainly couldn't have done worse.

I do think the Deep South is a total write-off. If you look back at all the presidential elections since World War II, the Deep South consistently votes several points against whatever candidate is supported by the North and the West Coast. Excepting elections that are a national sweep (e.g., 1984), the Deep South's electoral votes go in opposition to the North, to the extreme of even voting for third-party segregationists (1960, 1968).

As a son of the South, Clinton did better in the South, although he was also helped a lot by the third-party candidacy of Perot. But Clinton lost South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama both times and Georgia once.

Looking to the future, the Democrats have been losing ground in the Deep South and Texas (as well as Florida, the Great Plains states, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming). Those states are tending more partisanly toward the Republicans at the presidential level. Down-ticket, the Democrats are losing representation in the US Congress, governorships, and state legislatures in the South. That's not necessarily an indicator of how those states will vote at the top in 2008, but it does indicate a shift in sentiment of the voting populace against the Democrats. Furthermore, Republicans control key offices that determine how smoothly elections will go. (Note the long lines of Democratic voters in Ohio and Florida, both states where the officials in charge of voting are solid Republicans.)

The news isn't all bad. Democrats didn't do that badly in either statewide elections or the presidential election (popular vote differential) in North Carolina and Virginia, which gives hope that these states may turn blue in the near future. The mountain West (Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico) was much closer than the Republicans would have liked, and even Arizona and Montana are showing signs of improvement. Pennsylvania is solidly blue, and New Hampshire has seen the error of its former ways.

11/11/2004 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

4 years before the next election, abandoning the deep south strikes me as a recipie for failure... If you give the Republicans 200 electoral votes just for showing up, you are counting on a whole lot going your way, particularly when the red states are growing in population faster than the blue states. The Democrats gave up on the South the last two elections and what happened? They failed to elect an incumbent during a prolonged economic boom and failed to beat an incumbent during a prolonged economic downturn. That seems to point to a fundamental strategic error.

If you ignore middle America for the next 3.5 years, particularly if you go beyond ignoring them to deriding them, nothing the next candidate does will sway the states in the South (or many of the red states). If you start appealing to them now, however, I'd argue that you have a good chance.

Someone needs to take the Democratic leadership into a room and shake some sense into them. First, Pelosi needs to step down-- she has the charisma of a slime mold and could not pass my 8th grade speech class judging from her rebuttal to the last State of the Union. Second, the Democrats have to take a page from the Republican playbook and make a Contract with America 3-- no more than 10 policy positions, each of which has to be expressed in a couple of sentences and none of which requires the creation of a new government agency. All the positions need to fall under a common theme and the democrats have to name that theme in 2-3 words-- if the Republicans are the party of personal responsibility, what are the Democrats the party of? Come heck or high water, the Democrats have to pursue that agenda for the next 4 years.

If they do this, assuming they pick reasonable positions (hint: not abortion), they can build up a certain amount of credibility with the moderates in the red states. If they nominate someone who can connect with the voters, that person can draw on that reserve of credibility for reassurance.

As an example, many of the Republican microeconomic programs appeal to me. Health insurance premiums too high? Here's a medical savings account-- saves my employer money and gives me money to spend at the same time. Cool! Increases on IRA and 401(k) contributions? Cool! Privatizing Social Security? I have no confidence it will be around when I retire, so I'm more than happy to have at least some of my money in individual accounts, particularly when the recipients of Social Security are, on average, wealthier than those that are paying into Social Security. Whatever nimrod the Republican party choosed to nominate has some built-in credibility with me because I can extrapolate that the programs they are going to offer will give me more control over my money and surmise that I will like many of them.

What do the Democrats have on the other side? They're really good at saying what they're against, but then they come out with these hugely complex programs that everyone knows could never pass, so you never really know what principle they're going after. I have some idea what the Republicans will trade to get some amount of Social Security privitization through-- the government may match contributions at the lower end, they might agree to increases in the payroll tax cap, they might limit investment options-- but I can understand the kernel. If Kerry's health care plan was submitted to Congress, does anyone have a clue what would happen to it? What would they compromise on? What would they hold to? What underlying rationale would they use to figure out what the "nice to have" features are versus the "must have" features?

What I'm talking about here isn't just getting better slogans-- though that is a side effect. It is all about finding and enunciating a coherent philosophy of government. "We hold these truths to be self-evident-- that all men are created equal" is a nice slogan, but more importantly is that it communicates a philosophy that gives you a level of comfort about how decisions will be made.

People trust Bush not because they think he'd never cheat on Laura. They trust him because they have some insight on how he makes decisions and have some faith that that is a reasonable way to operate. If the Democrats could build up the same sort of trust-- that there are a set of principles that cannot be negotiated away, a set of principles which guides the decisions of the politicians, they can connect with red state voters and they can at least contest states like Georgia and Mississippi.

11/11/2004 05:21:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Time. Democrats have two good points for eventually winning Southern states, but both will take time. One is sipmly the growing urbanization and suburbanization of the South. Between naturally growing cities and immigration from other states, I'd expect the number of both urban and suburban voters to increase. The other advantage is that the younger population (which also leans democratic) will be replacing the older population. Quick fixes will be quite difficult, but maintaining their current supporters (as Justin said, this precludes dismissing, ridiculing, and taunting them) and waiting for the population to naturally age and grow is something that shouldn't be that hard.

11/15/2004 09:57:00 PM  

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