Monday, July 12, 2004

Boston Review Forum on the Democratic Party

The Boston Review has a new forum on the future of the Democratic party. The lead essay is by Rick Perlstein and it includes a variety of responses, including one from me. If you want to understand the current thinking of Democrats and liberals about the party, this is a great source since the responses range from Bill Galston to Adolph Reed.

The purpose of Rick's essay is to spur Democrats to think seriously about the party's current state and its prospects for the future. According to Rick, the Democrats are guilty of short term thinking and a consistent pattern of downplaying economic populism. He goes on to argue that the Democrats need to rethink themselves and their long term goals.

For my money, the best responses are from Adolph Reed and Larry Bartels. Here's Reed on the role of consultants in the Democratic party and the perverse effects they have on campaigns:

Consultants don’t much care, of course: they get paid win or lose, and they have a product to sell—which in this case is partly the idea that their services are a better alternative to political mobilization. To that extent the apt medical analogy may be iatrogenic disease. Not only does pursuit of a technicist, consultant-driven strategy beget electoral failure; each failure becomes evidence for the need to depend even more on the presumptions of the failed strategy.

In some ways Adolph underplays the importance of consultants. They are the Democratic party. They are the ones who run the campaigns, the ones who signal what the party stands for, the ones who decide what candidates and elected officials are worthy of support. Yes, elected officials need votes, but these days to get votes the also need the help of consultants. In fact, one of the first things candidates do is try to line up the big name consultants. Once a candidate has a consultant, it signals to others that this is a serious candidate, worthy of money, press attention, etc.

Larry Bartels is also very good, but in a different sort of way. He argues that the idea that the Democrats can refashion consciously refashion themselves as a dominant party is fanciful:

[T]he idea that any policy platform concocted by pundits and public intellectuals can provide the blueprint for a “dominant political party” is far-fetched. Dominant parties are, as it happens, quite a rare thing in American political history. Since the 1830s there has been only one instance of a party winning three consecutive presidential elections by as much as ten percentage points. (That party was the Republicans in the 1920s.) FDR’s New Deal coalition, which Perlstein takes as his model of what a dominant political party can be, was a product of voters’ responses to New Deal policies in action--certainly not a prospective endorsement of anyone’s long-term plan. (FDR ran on a balanced budget platform in 1932, precisely the sort of political trimming Perlstein is at pains to castigate in today’s Democrats.) And Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 in spite of the principled conservatism he inherited from Goldwater, not because of it.

My essay falls along the same lines as Bartels. I argue that the Democrats aren't in that bad of shape and that much of the change in party politics over the last 25 years is the result of the ideological sorting of the parties:

[Since the late 1970s] conservatives have shifted heavily toward the Republicans, more than offsetting Democratic gains among liberals. Thus, despite Perlstein’s analysis, recent Republican gains have had little if anything to do with the Democrats abandoning their economic liberalism. Instead, the American public has become more conservative and those new conservatives were more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party.

I also argue that any effort to rethink the Democrat party is probably futile:

Elections tend to turn on such unpredictable and uncontrollable events as wars, recessions, and scandals. Indeed, but for a semen-stained dress and confusing ballots in Palm Beach County, it would be the Republicans and not the Democrats who would be undergoing this bout of introspection, self-criticism, and self-flagellation.

Furthermore, if elections are hard to influence, party identification is even worse. As Perlstein mentions not once but twice in his article, party identification is a stable and long-lasting aspect of social identity. As such, it is difficult if not impossible for a party to influence party identification absent some major event—such as the Great Depression, the Cold War, or the civil-rights movement—that causes voters to reassess their partisanship.

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