Sunday, October 09, 2005

Beyond Polarization

Last week a sequel appeared to one of the great classics of political analysis--Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck's 1989 paper, The Politics of Evasion. The previous report was published by the Progressive Policy Institute; the latest, entitled The Politics of Polarization, by the folks over at the congressionally-focused group Third Way (which is friendly with the DLC, but is a completely independent organiztion).

This is a 71-page report chock full of findings and recommendations, so my first suggestion is that you read the whole thing, and don't rely on the Cliffs Notes version reported in the newspapers, or on the generally carping references to it in much of the blogosphere, based largely, I suspect, on the Cliffs Notes version. Yes, Galston and Kamarck argue that the real gold in American politics is in the ideological center, and they will annoy some of you who think counter-polarization is the key for Democrats. And yes, they claim that Democrats haven't developed a credible consensus on national security issues, and that will annoy others of you who think a position favoring withdrawal from Iraq will do the trick (for the record, Galston and Kamarck both opposed the invasion of Iraq in the first place).

But the real value of the paper is that it hammers home three fundamental realities of contemporary partisan politics that cannot much be denied: (1) the GOP-engineered polarization of the two parties along ideological lines has made Democrats much more dependent than Republicans on sizable margins among self-identified moderate and independent voters (and thus more vulnerable to base/swing conflicts) (2) George W. Bush's 2004 win was produced as much by persuasion of a sizable minority of moderate voters (particularly married women and Catholics) as it was by mobilization of his conservative "base;" and (3) a changing issues landscape has reinforced the importance of Democratic efforts to deal with chronic negative perceptions by voters on national security and cultural issues--efforts which fell short in 2004.

If that sounds familiar to regular readers, it's because it's pretty much the lesson the DLC took away from the 2004 elections.

Galston and Kamarck place special emphasis on "candidate character" as a significant voting factor for "values voters," and like many other post-election analysts, think John Kerry was fatally wounded by voter perceptions that he was on both sides of not one but two wars (Vietnam and Iraq). But they also make it clear that Kerry's problem wasn't simply inconsistency, but the suspicion that his "real" positions were out of line with mainstream sentiments. In other words, it's not enough to avoid "flip-flopping;" attention must be paid to the political impact of choosing "flip" over "flop," or vice-versa. This extremely simple point is one that a lot of Democrats, in an understandable mania for clarity and partisan differentiation, sometimes miss.

If I have one criticism of The Politics of Polarization, it's that it fails to say much about the Democratic opportunity to make enormous gains with "values voters" by drawing attention to the incredible and ever-growing pattern of ethical lapses and dissembling by Bush and the GOP.
There is little question that Bush's current dive in support, particularly from independents, is attributable in no small part to buyer's remorse among voters who thought he was, if nothing else, a man of simple virtues and basic honesty (we tried to tell them otherwise in 2004, to little avail). And there's little question the only way Democrats can be sure to benefit from this vulnerability is to support a reform agenda designed to help repair the damage the GOP is inflicting on our institutions and our national interests.

Still, there's plenty of great value in the Galston-Kamarck analysis, including a number of fascinating studies of changing perceptions of the two parties over time. One example: as late as 1986, six years into the "Reagan Revolution," a comfortable plurality of voters considered Democrats rather than Republicans as the party of "traditional family values."

Like I said: read the whole thing.
-- Posted at 11:24 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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