Tuesday, September 16, 2003

While David Brooks' latest column begins with a wholly unconvincing argument that Dean would be an easy target for Republicans, he eventually abandons this partisan opening to write a somewhat-interesting piece about, well, partisanship.

Now, there is a Democratic liberal mountain and a Republican conservative mountain. Democrats and Republicans don't just disagree on policies — they don't see the same reality, and they rarely cross over and support individual candidates from the other side. As Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, has shown, split-ticket voting has declined steadily.
Brooks fails to point out, unsurprisingly, that this partisan shift is at least partially due to the heavy (and profoundly ideological) partisanship of legislators themselves, and that is due to a spectrum shift over the past 20 years, where Democrats have moved a little bit right and Republicans have moved a long way right, leaving a new "center" and the current divide. He also misses the fact that the anti-RINO movement is much stronger than the anti-DINO movement, by orders of magnitude.

The basic point is accurate, though, and he goes on:

The question is whether this evolution changes the way we should think about elections. The strategists in the Intensity School say yes. They argue that it no longer makes sense to worry overmuch about the swing voters who supposedly exist in the political center because the electorate's polarization has hollowed out the center. The number of actual swing voters — people who actually switch back and forth between parties — is down to about 7 percent of the electorate. Moreover, the people in this 7 percent group have nothing in common with one another. It doesn't make sense to try to win their support because there is no coherent set of messages that will do it.

Instead, it's better to play to the people on your own mountain and get them so excited they show up at the polls. According to this line of reasoning, Dean, Mr. Intensity, is an ideal Democratic candidate.

The members of the Inclusiveness School disagree. They argue that there still are many truly independent voters, with estimates ranging from 10 to 33 percent of the electorate. Moreover, the Inclusiveness folks continue, true independents do have a coherent approach to politics. Anti-ideological, the true independents do not even listen to candidates who are partisan, strident and negative. They are what the pollster David Winston calls "solutionists"; they respond to upbeat candidates who can deliver concrete benefits: the Family and Medical Leave Act, more cops in their neighborhoods, tax rebate checks.

By this line of thinking, Dean is a terrible candidate. His partisan style drives off the persuadable folks who rarely bother to vote in primaries but who do show up once every four years for general elections.
I agree with Brooks' description of the two "camps" (in general), but I think he (and the inclusionists) miss a few key points:

First: What the "intensity" school and the "inclusionary" school define as an "independent" can be and are very different things. Many (if not most) supposed "independents" are heavy "leaners"... although they can theoretically cross over, they're generally pretty loyal to one party or another, especially if their ideology or perceived interests makes it difficult for them to embrace the idea of voting for the "other party". It is possible to attract them, but at the cost of having to move either directly to the center or even over to the "other side". Even then, it's not a guarantee. The lower figure of 7-8%, I believe, better describes the number of true leaners.

Second: while it's certainly sexy within American political culture to describe oneself as "anti-ideological", it runs smack into the brick wall of reality: everybody holds an ideology. What one calls "ideological" usually refers to "ideology you don't support", and you're right back to the "heavy leaners" again. Brooks' advocacy of "solutionists" misses the point that almost every politician has a solution to whatever problem you care to name. The question is whether or not people will support that solution. Brooks' cited "solutions" are be unpalatable to those who don't share his ideological foundations, and their solutions would likely be unpalatable to him. (Arguing that "more cops in the neighbourhood" is a "solutionist" idea presupposes that the cops themselves aren't the problem. They can be, and often are. Just ask a few visible minorities.)

Third: Not all Americans vote. In fact, many don't vote. Brooks doesn't address the problem of the base "staying home", which is a serious danger when one is chasing swing votes. Ruy Teixeiras argued that trying to increase turnout isn't successful, and if one approaches it from such a global perspective, it may well be true; the idea is to increase turnout of groups that will vote for you, and the importance of that is undeniable. Coupled with the fact that the base pays attention to politics and swing voters often don't, this can make "chasing swing voters" a very poor decision; enough swing voters may be attracted to something as emphemeral as "personality" to make them a non-issue, but the attempt to attract them may alienate the base enough to have them stay home en masse.

Besides, Brooks forgets something: Dean's relatively centrist, and his supporters are fully aware of this. Brooks also forgets (or ignores) that Democrats can easily say that it is the Republicans that are acting partisan, not Democrats, and bring up a wealth of information to support the charge. Bush is more vulnerable now than he's ever been, and the mask of bi-partisan consensus that veiled Bush's partisan reaction to 9/11 is long dead.

Brooks' last mistake? Here:

The weight of the data, it seems to me, supports the Inclusiveness side. And the chief result of polarization is that the Democrats have become detached from antipolitical independent voters. George Bush makes many liberal Democrats froth at the mouth, but he does not have this effect on most independents. Democrats are behaving suicidally by not embracing what you might, even after yesterday's court decision, call the Schwarzenegger Option: supporting a candidate so ideologically amorphous that he can appeal to these swingers.
Aside from the fact that he doesn't explain what (if any) data "supports the Inclusiveness side", and the enormously questionable assumptions placed throughout this paragraph (again, unsupported by anything like proof), he managed to pull one enormous boner:

Schwarzenegger is losing.

Not much of an option, now, is it?

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