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The Politics of Definition, Part III

By Ruy Teixeira

Part III of The Politics of Definition, my new paper with John Halpin, has now been posted on The American Prospect website. Part I was posted last Thursday and Part II this Monday. The concluding Part IV, which discusses how a politics of definition might be articulated, will be posted on Friday.

Part III, the current installment, takes aim at the two approaches that generally dominate progressive strategy today, the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation, and shows how each is inadequate to the challenges facing progressives. Only a politics of definition, we argue, can successfully appeal to both the base and centrist voters the progressive coalition needs.

Here are some excerpts from part III, but please take a look at the entire discussion--I do think you'll find it provocative and useful.

The portrait of the progressive coalition’s strengths and weaknesses laid out in parts I and II is enlightening. The progressive coalition clearly has tremendous potential strength -- in many ways, it is a sleeping giant, containing as it does so many large and rising political forces. These groups, even though progressives have recently been underperforming among them, are potent enough to have kept progressives knocking on the door of a governing majority and competitive in a remarkably large swath of the nation.

Progressives’ weaknesses, on the other hand, tend to be among groups whose weight in the electorate is stable or declining. Conservatives and the GOP have built their current majority on creating ever-wider leads among these groups, compensating for their diminishing size. But even these very wide leads have only yielded the slimmest of majorities, leaving them vulnerable in most of the nation outside the Deep South and the most thinly-populated mountain states.

Progressives can therefore turn the GOP’s slim majority into a solid and growing progressive majority by doing two things: (1) remedying their underachievement among strong constituencies like Hispanics and single women; and (2) simply reducing -- not eliminating -- their wide deficits among weak constituencies like the white working class....

...[T]he data review....indicates there is little contradiction between the twin tasks. What is dampening enthusiasm for progressives among core constituencies is, by and large, what is driving voters away from progressives among weak constituencies: a sense that progressives don’t know what they stand for, lack core principles, and have no clear ideas for solving the nation’s problems. Therefore, articulating a “politics of definition” is potentially a way for progressives to accomplish both tasks and move forward toward a governing majority.

Of course, this is a controversial assertion. Progressives are far from united that a politics of definition -- or anything even close to it -- is the road forward. Indeed, at this point, progressives are more likely to embrace strategies that, for the sake of parsimony, we categorize as falling into two camps: the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation. While both offer important insights and recommendations that should not be ignored, neither in totality offers what the politics of definition does: a viable strategic framework for developing a clear identity among the electorate that can appeal to both the base and more centrist voters.

The politics of mobilization can be summarized roughly as follows:

* Rally the progressive troops and maximize base turnout;

* Grow the base by finding nonvoters and drop-off progressives rather than appealing to the center;

* Take a no-holds-barred approach to the opposition that is highly critical and contrastive; and

* Fight for every progressive priority equally.

On the plus side, the politics of mobilization addresses a clear need to strengthen and respond to those core supporters who provide the blood and sweat of progressive politics. The progressive base is clearly fed up with politics as usual -- particularly as the other side pursues a strategy of straight conservative mobilization. The perception of Democrats among their own faithful is weak and needs to be solidified if we are to maintain high numbers and strong turnout among core supporters.

Similarly, the no-holds-barred approach to politics has been essential to keeping conservatives off balance and bringing to light the numerous transgressions, scandals, incompetent acts, and ideological chicanery of the GOP majority....

However, as others before us have noted correctly, the politics of mobilization suffers from a severe numbers gap. Despite what activists may believe, only one-fifth of voters classify themselves as “liberal” -- a pattern that has been relatively unchanged since the late 1960s. As Galston and Kamarck argue in The Politics of Polarization, “[I]n an electorate where conservatives outnumber liberals three to two and where ideology so closely predicts voting behavior, Democrats cannot win the game of ‘base’ ball, except in those rare circumstances in which conservatives are discouraged and demobilized.”

We need to look no further than the past two presidential elections to see the limits of a strategy of mobilization. In 2000, Al Gore received the highest vote count in Democratic history, winning the popular vote but not the Electoral College (putting aside the Florida recount and the Supreme Court intervention). By 2004, John Kerry in turn received the largest vote count for a Democratic candidate in history, yet managed to fall short of President Bush by nearly 3 million votes....

As another example, depending on which data source one uses, 21 percent to 23 percent of voters in 2004 were minorities, up from 19 percent in 2000. So Democrats were reasonably successful in getting minorities to the polls. But exit poll data indicate that Hispanics supported Kerry (58-to-40 percent) at lower levels than they did Al Gore in 2000 (62-to-35 percent).

And even more consequential for the election, the exit polls showed that Bush widened his margin among white voters to 17 points (58-to-41 percent), up from a 12-point margin (54-to-42 percent) in 2000. Weakened support among Hispanics and, especially, a bigger deficit among whites (still 77-to-79 percent of voters) was more than enough to cancel out the effect of more minority voters going to the polls....

Progressives must be cognizant of staying principled while defining what “progressive” means in ways that can bring support from the left to the center. Leading with our chin on every issue and policy is not the way to build a stable governing majority in a country that is four-fifths moderate to conservative and concerned primarily with big problems like health care and jobs.

The second major strategic approach advocated today is one we label the politics of inoculation. The basic parameters of this approach are as follows:

* Appeal primarily to the median voter;

* Downplay or repudiate liberal policies;

* Create distance from the progressive base;

* Anticipate criticism and move to shore up perceived weaknesses, primarily on social, cultural, and national security issues; and

* Push a clear centrist agenda focused on fewer governmental and more market/individual solutions to problems; fiscal discipline; “common sense” cultural positions; and a Truman-like national security posture that puts the war against terrorism at the core of the progressive project.

The advantages of this approach are fairly obvious. Starting with Anthony Downs, political scientists and strategists have for decades taken the median voter theorem as axiomatic. In a two-party, winner-take-all system with one dimensional ideological distribution, candidates looking to win will converge on voters at the median of the voter distribution. Finding ways to win those at the center of the ideological bell curve then is essential to building majority support.

Appealing to the center requires a level-headed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses among these audiences. The politics of inoculation rightly recognizes that voters in the center tend to be culturally traditional, concerned about terrorism and national security, and skeptical of ideologues of all stripes....

The politics of inoculation suffers from three serious failures, however, that limit its usefulness in the current political context. First, proponents of this approach are far too caught up in combating the progressive base and fail to recognize the importance of a strong and active core of voters in carrying out political change....

Second, the politics of inoculation elevates issues like national security to the top of the progressive agenda but then offers solutions that make progressives indistinguishable from the other side. Thus, the strategic recommendations coming out of this camp end up reinforcing our core vulnerability as a party and movement with no known identity, conviction, or vision.

For example, Galston and Kamarck implore progressives to “stop hiding behind domestic policy and honestly confront the biggest issue of our time: national security and especially the use of military force.” 4 This is neither an unreasonable nor misguided request. However, after calling for a strong internationalist positioning that accepts the premise that U.S. military force can be used for good in the world -- a sensible and historically consistent position for progressives to hold -- the authors then proceed to chastise critics of the Iraq War as failing to “be coherent on this issue in a time of war.” But how coherent are they, themselves, when it comes to the front-rank issue of Iraq? The authors offer no clear recommendation on how to address this ongoing debacle, leaving one to conclude that they believe the right position on Iraq is to embrace the war in some capacity....

Third, even with the governing successes of Bill Clinton, the political track record and long-term political impact of this approach has been poor to abysmal. The politics of inoculation has arguably been the guiding mantra of Democratic politics for the last 15 years, yet progressives today find themselves in a worse position nationally than they were in 1989, the time of Galston and Kamarck’s important piece, The Politics of Evasion.

You can chalk this up to bad candidates, the failure to embrace Clintonism, 9/11, or a masterful right-wing noise machine, but it is clear that the politics of inoculation has played a substantial role in the failure of progressives and Democrats to present a common set of beliefs that are responsive to the needs and desires of average voters today. More of the same is not the solution. The politics of inoculation had its uses and its day in the sun. But that day is past.