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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Building a Democratic Majority: Strategy and Demographics

Summer of the 2006 election year is now upon us and folks everywhere are asking the question: what are the Democrats going to do differently in 2006?  That is the question at hand.  

Whether it's the testing ground of the imminent California primary election, or prognostications and critiques from journalists, authors and bloggers: we're all looking for a formula: what new strategy will prove most effective for Dems in 2006?

In the last couple essays I've talked about a) overhauling completely the way Democrats communicate  b) understanding the role and limits of the activist base in building a "tipping point" and c) honing the overall effectivess of party strategy by dropping the losing mindset of "the carp" in favor of the tactical effectiveness of the "dolphin" and the "connector." (The links above are to essays as they appeared on dailykos.com.)  Uniting all of these pieces has been one principle:  the Democratic party has got to invent a new and more effective way to prove its relevance to the American public as a whole...to cross the chasm and win a majority.

In an election year, this will only happen if we look squarely at the demographic reality we face.  Strategy is great, but elections are where the rubber hits the road.  Hence, what I'd like to do now is to propose a really simple, stripped-down portrait of the American electorate, and explain how the ideas I expressed above...overhauling Democratic communication, the role of the Democratic base, and revamping the Democratic strategic mindset...come together on the demographic playing field in the only political battle that matters: winning votes.

To start, lets break down the American electorate into six basic components:

Group A = liberals, Democratic issue and labor activists

Group B = labor, African-Americans, working families, low income seniors, urban Latinos and Asians, singles

Group C = middle class suburban and exurban families and seniors

Group D = working class rural, suburban, and exurban families and seniors

Group E = high-income professionals and business people, fiscal policy-based Conservatives

Group F = religion-based Conservatives, Republican issue-activists

This breakdown should come as no suprise; it's part of the "mental map" that most of us who discuss politics use as a shorthand for describing the American electorate.  (This particular version of the breakdown is influenced by the work of political scientists John Milton Cooper, Jr. and Henry Brady from the very worthwhile The Unfinished Election of 2000.)  In fact, these six categories can be grouped together and collapsed further to form three distinct and familiar groups:

Groups A/B: the Democratic base

Groups C/D: "the American middle"

Groups E/F: the Republican base

For better or for worse, this "collapsed" view of the American electorate...with the two party's bases on either side competing for the demographic "middle"...is the dominant model for how we talk about, and hence, strategize, elections.  What's significant about this situation right off the bat is precisely how "the middle" gets defined: the "middle" in American politics is defined by voters who live in suburbs, exurbs and rural areas.  In particular, the "middle" tends to get defined by families with children who live in those areas.  If you live in a city (or are single or Black), according to this model, you are, per force, not a part of the American "middle."

Now, it would be simplistic to say that this "definition of the middle" by itself describes the core dynamic in American electoral politics today; on the other hand, it's hard to overemphasize how powerful this dynamic is, especially in how it dovetails with another significant demographic feature of the political landscape.  

According to CNN exit polls, 28% of the electorate in the 2004 Presidential election were "married with children."  George Bush won that demographic 59% to John Kerry's 40%.  Among the other 72% of the population, John Kerry actually won 51% of the vote to George Bush's 48%.   I mentioned this at the time, I'll mention it again.  This is the most salient feature of the political landscape today, this is the core nut to crack.  On some very powerful level in American politics, the party that wins the votes of families with children IS the majority party.

So, right off the bat we have a situation where "the middle" and the votes of "families with children" are currently defined in ways that favor the GOP.  This is a structural barrier to winning Democratic majorities. If you want the single most powerful explanation why Karl Rove has seemed so overconfident about the outcomes of recent elections, I would say this dual dynamic is it: the Repulicans currently own the "middle" and "families with children;" they have bridges that cross the chasm to these groups.  This is an enormous natural advantage that is only compounded by Republican attacks that isolate Democrats.

You see, on top of this structural advantage, the GOP has very successfully branded group A as "outside the middle." (Heck, they even brand our politicans from Groups C and D as belonging to A.) This has the effect that many Americans think they have to "become like liberals" in order to vote for a Democratic candidate with whom they agree.  To use the above framework the GOP base (groups E and F) have persuaded the suburban/rural middle (groups C and D), that in order to vote Democratic you have to become "like" or "join" group A, liberal activists.  

Given that, it doesn't matter how successfully you "slice and dice" the rest of the electorate, political appeals that appear to come from group A to the "American middle" in this context will fail so long as the GOP successfully brands the Democrats as standing on the wrong side of the chasm.  Now, the "American middle" might well be persuaded to vote Democratic by politicians who are powerful connectors (or in the face of GOP corruption);  but groups C and D will never be persuaded to think of themselves as members of group A.   As I've pointed out previously, the middle never thinks of itself in this way.

In essence, political parties win majorities only by building bridges to the middle. Healthy political parties win the votes of families with children...the constituents most enmeshed in the political system at all levels...and keep those votes by delivering on policy. If the Democratic party is to retake the majority in any meaningful way, it needs to work at the task of building bridges to the middle and winning the votes of families with children.  That is the chasm we need to cross.

Now, that does not mean, as the DLC has defined it, that the proper course of action is to join the GOP in attacking groups A and B.  That's "carpism" of the highest order.  "Gee, my opponent is attacking me, so, to make myself stronger...I'll join the attack."  Bad idea.  It also does not mean, as so many in the netroots have hoped (the "Dean dream"), that we will EVER succeed in persuading by sheer argument a majority of the American public to join group A, the ideological base of the Democratic party.  As I've pointed out in my previous essays, that's not gonna happen.  

Think of it this way, the Republicans succeeded in winning a majority not by converting groups to join E and F, but by building bridges from groups E and F to groups C and D.  In effect, by redefining the "middle" and making it "okay" to think of oneself as "conservative" the GOP was able to persuade and connect with a majority of American voters.  In doing so, of course, they also grew their base. That is how a group of ideologically rigid and oftentimes religously-motivated conservatives managed to win ever more votes from what used to be a Democratic majority.  They built bridges from their side and they emphasized the chasm on our side. They redefined the middle and put our base outside it.

The Democratic response to this situation starts with understanding the dual nature of the challenge we face.  First, we find ourselves on the wrong side of a chasm from most of the electorate.  No matter how much the party changes its "posture," so long as it is isolated, both by our own actions and the work of the GOP, within the "liberal" identity of Group A we are in trouble.

In regards to this challenge, the DLC and the netroots have agreed in assessment, but differed in proposed remedy.   Basically, the DLC advocates "triangulation" and a "distancing" from liberal views; the netroots tends to advocate a "backbone" and "stand proud of our ideals" approach. In my view, even as someone who advocated for the original meaning of "fighting Democrats," neither approach is the answer to this problem.

The answer to this first challenge, the "liberal" chasm, will only arise out of addressing the chasm that separates Group B from Groups C and D.  The GOP has defined the "middle" in such as way so that the core of our base, Group B (labor, African-Americans, working families, low income seniors, urban Latinos and Asians, urban singles) has been cut off from the rest of the American electorate. In my view, crossing this second chasm is the core challenge facing the Democratic party. It will only be in solving this more essential challenge that we might significantly address the first as well.  In effect, we have two chasms to cross and to cross them will involve redefining the middle in American politics to include Groups B and C and D.

In essense, what I am proposing is that Democratic activists and leaders understand that the task of the Democratic party boils down to this:  we need to build bridges from Group B to Groups C and D. We need to redefine the American "middle" by reconnecting these three groups around issues and policies that matter to them...kitchen table issues, economic issues, bread and butter policy.  To do this, we must forge a new language long on specifics and relevent details and short on bloviating. We can't be seen as "slicers and dicers" saying things we seem to think some folks want to hear; we need to speak with the same voice to everyone and, importantly, we need to be seen as speaking with the same voice to everyone.  

In a nutshell, so long as voters in Groups B, C and D do not see themselves as facing similar issues and challenges, we lose.  Our job is to highlight the common ground between these demographic groups and forge a new way of doing politics that connects blue to purple to red...that connects city to suburb to rural hamlet...that unites ALL families (and singles I might add) around common concerns and principles. In a nutshell, this is how we will define a Democratic middle. 

To me, it is a crime and a crying shame that a family in Oakland votes differently than a family in Tracy when there is so much that unites them.  The task of the Democratic party is to bridge this gap.  In fact, in my view, some of our energies should be committed to literally bringing these people together.

It will only be through bridging the chasm between Groups B and C and D that we will also bridge the chasm between Groups A and C and D. The Democratic leadership will cross the chasm that separates Group A from the body politic only through building effective bridges from Group B to Groups C and D.  It is when Democratic leaders are seen as bridge builders and connectors to the majority, especially when they do so acting on the basis of shared ideals and principles, that the Democratic party breaks out of the "liberal" box.  Imo, Democratic leaders succeed when they do two things: a) communicate ideals and sentiments that bring people together  and b) deliver the goods on policy. This approach, rather than any kind of ideological repositioning or purity, is what will allow the party to cross the chasm to the majority and reclaim our mandate. There is so much common ground; our job is to stake it out in the broadest possible manner.  In fact, that is the core task facing our party today.

Finally, if there is an "offensive strategy" that the Democrats should use to "fight the GOP" it's not the offense of outrage and anger so prevelant in the discourse among the netroots.  That works to energize the base; it doesn't work in our broader task.  Nor should our offensive strategy embrace the "dry powder" tactics of the DLC.  Instead, as we work to build bridges to the majority and win votes, our job is to relentlessly point out that the bridges the GOP built from their base to the "middle" are not as sturdy as they promised.  In a word, they don't deliver.  

In fact, that is the weak point of the entire GOP project.  They have failed their own "contract" with America.   They have not only created a cesspool of corruption in DC, but they have failed in the execution of policy after policy...from fiscal discipline to social security ...from NCLB to the Medicare drug plan. In the end, they haven't even made us more "safe."  As a result, voters in the middle are simply "not sure" about choosing the GOP in 2006.  The bridges to the middle that have been the key Republican strength must become their key weakness.   We need to take advantage of that in 2006.

In sum, Democratic strategy for 2006 involves the hard work of building bridges across the dual chasms we face, and the savvy creation of doubts about the handiwork of the GOP.  

As always in an election year, there is much to do. This summer will be our proving grounds.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sharks, Carp and Dolphins: applying a model from business to politics

From where I stand, it is encouraging to read essays expressing creative and critical ways to think about Democratic strategy in what is shaping up to be a significant election year.  Thereisnospoon has served up another solid challenge (always welcome) to Democratic assumptions...and bmaples addendem to that diary (including a nice summary of some thoughts from Markos) extended the idea of a  "broad assault" on conservatism that I (with many others) advocated in the wake of Katrina with flipping the rock.

What I'd like to do with this essay is adapt a paradigm from the world of business strategy that I think applies to the Democratic party in 2006.  I think you'll find these ideas dovetail with the above essays, and, I hope, will prove useful tools for thinking about Democratic strategy in 2006...

Dudley Lynch's 1989 book Strategy of the Dolphin: Scoring a Win in a Chaotic World divided business strategy into three competing paradigms:  that of Sharks, that of Dolphins, and that of the Carp.  (Wiki has a nice summary of Lynch's analogy.)  Business writers like Peter Stark have extended Lynch's analysis by applying it to negotiating tactics. (Follow the links to see the book and analysis this essay is based on.) Let's take a look.

Peter Stark's description of "a shark" is one that I think both introduces the concept...and can easily be adapted towards understanding the strategies currently used by the GOP:

Sharks believe in scarcity. Their perception is that in all negotiations, there must be winners and losers. To ensure that they won't be the losers, sharks "move in for the kill," striving to get as much as they can in every case, regardless of the cost.

[Sharks] feel comfortable only when they are in total control, so one of their characteristics is a tendency to use crises to confuse the other party. A second characteristic of sharks is to assume that they always have the only possible solution to any negotiation. They have a desperate need to be right 100 percent of the time and will go to any extreme, including lying, to cover up their failures and shortcomings.

It is difficult to negotiate with sharks because they lack the ability to use creative strategies. They are unable to try anything different or learn from their mistakes. Their attitude of scarcity dictates their actions and reactions.

If you find yourself negotiating with a shark, you need to be constantly on guard. One bad move and you will be eaten alive....

This description describes to a "T" the mindset of the GOP juggernaut that  has dominated Congress and the Executive branch.  Republicans play politics in a world where there can only be winners and losers, where attacking the weak points of one's opponent is the ONLY way to guarantee success.  Tom DeLay's adventure in Texas redistricting, the 1998 attempt to impeach President Bill Clinton, GOP strategy during the Florida recount, and the use of "Swift-Boating" against Democratic veterans like Max Cleland, John Kerry and John Murtha are pure shark.  Further, the consistent unified chatter of GOP think tanks, talk radio and TV news following the lines of the day's "talking points" from Karl Rove exemplifies shark tactics;  it's an inflexible, almost robotic strategy, but GOP sharks are deadly effective because they unerringly and relentlessly go for the kill.

Here is the critical point to remember: Sharks don't care what they do to the "climate" or to their "working environment" so long as they can be sure that they dominate that environment.  They are not beyond lying to cover up their failures or to get their way.  Winning is paramount and can only come at another party's expense.  That's politics.

Now, on the other end of the strategic spectrum, are the Carp.  It's sad to say, but Stark's description of the Carp mentality could be used to sum up Democratic strategy for the last two decades:

Like sharks, carp believe in scarcity; but unlike sharks, carp believe that in a negotiation, they can never be the winners. Because of this belief, they focus their efforts on not losing what they currently have.

Carp do not like any type of confrontation, so their normal response in negotiating is to give in or get out. Neither of these responses, when used repeatedly, leads to positive outcomes. People who always "get out" and avoid negotiations become cut off and isolated. The "give in" strategy is even worse--people who constantly give in eventually have nothing left, and are eaten alive. [emphasis mine.]

Central to this definition of the worldview of a Carp is the dual belief in both "scarcity" and "the imminent loss of what you already possess."  Ring a bell?  From the current debate over the 50-State strategy, to the legendarily careful tactics of the DCCC and the DSCC, to the timid efforts of the Kerry/Edwards campaign to go out of their way to offend absolutely no one in 2004, to, yes, the Gore/Lieberman's failed tactics in Florida in 2000...Democratic strategy has been anchored for decades now in the concept that there's little out there for us to win and much for us lose.  Of course, the mindset that says, "better not lose what we've already got" in the face of relentless attacks from sharks is a sure way to lose even more.  (For more of this debate, try this discussion on MyDD.)

I can't think of a better summation of the frustration that DNC Chairman Howard Dean's supporters expressed in the last Presidential election or the rage that spreads through the netroots every time the Democratic party seems to fall back into this mode of thinking.  It's clear that the current Democratic Party believes in scarcity; we're afraid to lose and we're sure that "making mistakes" will only lead to further losses.  We're acting like Carp!

Now, it would be EASY for Democrats, continuing to believe in "scarcity" and "the dangers of imminent losses" to simply convert to using "shark tactics."  We've seen this mentality in the "gung-ho, just win baby" mindset that courses through the netroots out of disgust at the carp-like actions of the leaders of the Democratic Party.   This approach might work in the short run and in specific cases.  Heck, if the country really is "poised to vote Democratic,"  (and thereisnospoon is eager to warn us it isn't) we could use "Shark tactics" to roll the GOP right out of power.  Of course, as you might guess, I don't think the answer is that simple.  The point of this essay is that there's another way.

Which brings us to Dolphins.  To introduce the strategy of the Dolphin, just for fun, let's start with this quote from the Busch Gardens website linked above:

Dolphins live and travel in groups called pods, often family groups. In some species, individual dolphins enter and leave the pod over time. But others, like killer whales, have a stable group. Sometimes, several pods may join together to form a temporary herd. Several hundred individuals have been seen traveling in a single herd...

Although they sometimes feed by themselves, dolphins most often hunt in groups. Dolphins that live in the open ocean may swim in tight circles around a school of fish and take turns dashing in to catch a bite to eat. Closer to shore, a group of dolphins often herds fish into shallow water, keeping them trapped while group members feed.

Clearly, cooperative, environmentally adaptive strategies are the core of Dolphin tactics.  Dolphins in the wild even can intimidate sharks, as this zoologist from the MadSci.org website notes:

Q: Is it true that where there are dolphins there are no sharks? A. No, this is a fallacy. Although dolphins and sharks do not seek each other to attack, they appear to have a mutual respect. Normally, a shark will only attack a lone dolphin, a sick dolphin or a calf that strays from its mother. In Port Phillip Bay, the large male dolphins that usually live outside the bay come inside at the beginning of October, which is the same time that the bronze whaler sharks come into the bay to mate and give birth. Male dolphins form a guard around the females and young to protect them during this time. Sharks usually keep their distance from the dolphins.

Peter Stark has this to say about Dolphins as negotiators and strategists:

Lynch and Kordis chose the dolphin to illustrate the ideal negotiator because of the animal's high intelligence and ability to learn from experience. When dolphins do not get what they want, they quickly and precisely alter their behaviors in sometimes ingenious ways in pursuit of what they are after.

In negotiation, dolphins have the ability to successfully adapt to any situation they encounter. If one strategy is unsuccessful, dolphins respond with other possibilities. They learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. Dolphins believe in both potential scarcity and potential abundance. Because they realize that both are possible, they learn to leverage what they have and use their resources superbly. [Emphasis mine.]

That gets to the core of it.  The "Dolphin strategy" is different from Carp and Shark modes precisely because it relies on analyzing specific situations; when you ground strategy in analysis, you create tactical flexibility.   Because Dolphins do not see the world simply in terms of win/lose dynamics, they can defend and attack at the same time...Dolphins have proportionality.  Dolphins see the downsides of "failing to act decisively" and yet they don't give up pursuing long term strategic actions that serve their best interests. Dolphins are poised to take advantage of situational weaknesses in enemies who would attack them at the same time as they work together to protect the long term core intests that benefit their "pod"...ie. unlike Carp and Sharks, Dolphins target abundance that others can't see rather than fight mindlessly.

Much of the debate within the Democratic Party since the losses in the 2002 and 2004 elections have centered around the win/lose, scarcity-obsessed nature of Carp/Shark dynamics. (ie. should we or shouldn't we pursue 50 state strategy...???) What Democrats haven't done enough, is to understand that our situation demands a more sophisticated approach than simply "defending" or "attacking." Yes, Democrats need to both attack and defend...and with alacrity...but more strategically, the Democratic Party needs to, like a Dolphin pod, attack and defend in a concerted tactical manner that works in the best interest of our "Pod/party" all the while enunciating a negotiating position that advances the best interests of the nation as a whole. (If we weren't talking about Dolphins, I'd call this a 'walk and chew gum approach.')  We need to insist on strategies of attack and defense that, instead of obsessing on narrow "Shark/Carp" dynamics of winning and losing single battles, broaden the playing field and expand the terms of the debate.  We need to work together towards both short and long term interests. Simply put, we need to be like Dolphins.

Take the oft-noted failure of the Kerry campaign to respond to the Swift Boat attacks.  It wasn't simply that John Kerry needed to respond to the GOP sharks immediately. Nor was it as simple as the Kerry campaign eventually enunciating the seemingly opposite "counter-message" of patriotism and service.  What needed to happen was for Democrats, the entire "pod" acting in a concerted manner, to defend ourselves from an unjust attack and to bring the debate swiftly back to the terms of our core message: we are the political party committed to finding solutions that work for everyone.

Now, politics is a winner take all proposition.  I can understand that many will see an analytical strategy adapted to business negotiations, at building so-called "win-win outcomes," as failing to apply.  The exact opposite is true.

It is precisely because politics is a battle for winning a majority in a zero sum environment that political parties can only build long term success by speaking to that majority.  I argued in my previous two essays (here and here) that the Democratic party needs to change the totality of how it communicates.  I reiterate that point here and add this:  by acting in a concerted "pod-like" manner to consistently bring the national debate around to our vision of the national good, a good that represents the interests of Democrat, Independent and Republican alike...we will win the struggle for the majority.

Yes, a shark-like GOP can "batter" a carp-like Democratic party mercilessly.  That's what they've done for two and one half decades despite "triangulation" and "capitulation."  But what's important to learn is that this "battering" (at the polls, in the press) has precluded Democratic success...not simply because it has made us appear weak and defensive...but because it prevented Democrats from clearly enunciating a message of abundance that works for everyone.  In doing so, we have failed in our "negotiations" with the only "negotiating partner" that matters in American politics, the political majority of American citizens.

Hence, the Democratic party needs to be like Dolphins not simply in how it defends itself from the predation of GOP sharks, but, more importantly...in how it "closes the deal" with the American public.

There are a multitude of ways in which the sorry "carp-like" past of the Democratic party could be elaborated.  I am sure you can add a ton of examples in the comments below.  Further, I think we can all agree that the Democratic "Pod" needs to learn how to defend its interests aggressively from the Swift-Boating sharks of the GOP now and going forward.  Carpism must end.

What interests me, however, and what I think is vital to the future of this nation and the Democratic party, is the other side of this analysis.  As Peter Stark expressed in this quote about Dolphins:

Unlike sharks, who spend the majority of their time trying to control their counterparts and expect to conclude any negotiation with a definite winner and loser, dolphins spend the majority of their time building trust and rapport. Knowing that negotiations are usually most successful when both parties' needs are met, they consider the other party's goals and foster an atmosphere of cooperation. And when one negotiating strategy fails, they try other strategies to enhance the possibility of achieving a win/win outcome.

In my mind, the Democratic Party will only "break through" when we understand that we are in negotiations with the majority of the American electorate.  Our job is to effectively communicate to that majority how our vision for this country is a vision that benefits every single citizen.  In effect, the Democratic party needs to enlarge the pod with an inclusive message of abundance that puts equity and fairness at the centerpiece of politics.

Yes we have to defend ourselves from GOP Sharks along the way, but nothing should come between us and the critical task at hand: reclaiming leglislative majorities in Congress and State Houses by winning the votes of a majority of our fellow Americans. We do that by strategizing and cooperating like Dolphins.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Energize America

This strategic energy plan, drafted with the help of the dailykos community and authored by Jerome a Paris, Meteor Blades, George Karayannis and Mark Sumner is a worthy policy document.

This is exciting stuff. The kind of stuff that makes you want to take back Congress and get started.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ready Return: a good idea versus business as usual...and how you can help

Making paying taxes easier for working people and improving government efficiency may not seem to be breathtaking issues in the grand scheme of things; in politics, however, sometimes it's the "small" and "local" issues that stand in for the bigger battles.  In fact, I'd argue that it's often with a program like the one I'm about to tell you about, that a party makes its reputation for standing up for the people and for what's right.  

People remember the small things.

With Ready Return, California State Democrats have a chance to do the right thing and to help the little guy.  Read below to find out what stands in the way and how you can help.

The link you are about to click on below is to a page that lists the feedback of real California citizens regarding a State pilot program called Ready Return:

* The program is innovative.

* The program would increase California State Tax revenues.

* The program would increase government efficiency.

* The program puts into action the principle of citizen access to government information.

* The program makes the lives of everyday taxpaying citizens less complex.

* The program eases the burden of filing taxes for thousands of taxpayers who aren't good at reading forms or doing math, some of whom actually don't file tax returns for that very reason.

* Finally, this program is poised to become law.

Legislation written by a Stanford Law Professor and endorsed by a diverse range of Californians...from former GOP Congressman (and current Dean of the Haas School of Business) Tom Campbell to the Labor Union SEIU...would make this innovative program a part of our California State Law.

But, there's one more thing you should know before you click on the link and read the citizen feedback below: unless something happens to change minds in Sacramento, this program has little chance of passing.

Read citizen feedback for Ready Return.

Have you ever read comments like that about any government program before?   Much less one that deals with TAXES?  Yes, there is honest feedback about minor difficulties, but, for the most part, people who've tried it love Ready Return.  Simply put, everyday citizens...taxpayers... found that Ready Return made filing their taxes easier.   They used this program and they liked it.

Now, there's a reason for that.  For the majority of wage earners with basic taxes, people who receive standard paychecks from one employer, the State of California already has all the information needed for them to file an accurate return.  The principle behind Ready Return is straightforward:  instead of making these taxpayers come up with their tax information independently...ie. do the math and paperwork on their own...why not send them the accurate information the government already has?  Why not let them file their return right then and there on their home computer?  It's a simple and elegant solution in a zone, taxation, where simple and elegant solutions are hard to come by.  More than that, it's a government program that works for working people.

What on earth would stop the California State Legislature from passing the Ready Return bill into law?

If I told you that a consortium of business interests representing the Tax Preparation industry had made an alliance with both the GOP and a segment of the Democratic caucus in the California legislature, would it come as a surprise?

Be surprised, be very surprised.  As Lawrence Lessig wrote in Wired magazine:

Soon after Ready Return was launched, lobbyists from the tax-preparation industry began to pressure California lawmakers to abandon the innovation.  Their opposition was not surprising: if figuring our your taxes were easy, why would anyone bother to hire H&R Block?  If the government sends you a completed form, why buy TurboTax?

But what is surprising is that their "arguments" are having an effect.  In February, the California Republican caucus released a report highlighting its "concerns" about the program-for example, that an effort to make taxes more efficient "violates the proper role of government."  Soon thereafter, a Republican state senator introduced a bill to stop the Ready Return program.

Inefficiency has become a virtue in government-and not just in California.  Last year, the US Senate passed a funding bill with an amendment prohibiting the IRS from developing its own "income tax electronic filling or preparation products or services."

Ready Return is a great idea, but it lacks a natural constituency to fight for it in our State House.  Working people work, and, let's be frank, when it comes to the powers that be in Sacramento, there aren't many champions of the little guy.  

Ready Return's author, Stanford Law Professor Joseph Bankman has made passing this bill a labor of love.  He's even hired his own lobbyist in hopes of opening doors in Sacramento.  When I asked him what would be the most significant step everyday Californians could take to help pass this legislation, his answer was simple:  call or write your State Representatives and tell them you support Ready Return in your own words.

(Here's a link that tells you how to locate the name and website of your California State Senator and Assemblyperson by entering your zip code.)

In the face of GOP opposition and powerful industry lobbyists working both sides of the aisle, Ready Return will need every Democratic vote it can get.  

Business as usual in Sacramento shouldn't be allowed to block a great idea that works.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Mavens, Persuaders, Connectors and Us

A week ago I closed the first essay in this two-part series with a take of how Malcolm Gladwell's concept of "Connectors,"  ie. people innately skilled at translating the Democratic message for the Majority, applies to our current political situation.  At the end of the essay, I invited readers at dailykos.com to highlight folks they see as Connectors.

Kossacks put forward this brief list:  Brian Schweitzer, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Russ Feingold, Rev. William Barber, Andrew Duck, Ed Schultz, John Edwards, John Murtha, Howard Dean, George Lakoff, Molly Ivins, Alex Sanders.

Now, the above list is an interesting...though not in the least complete...snapshot that helps prove a point I'm going to make below:  if you want to know something, ask a Maven.

What's a Maven?  In this essay I will address just that, and take the analysis begun in the first essay (using Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point) and apply it to the netroots.  In particular, I will show how political activism on the internet is most effective when we understand the nature of the role we play.  Understanding that role, and political models based on Gladwell's framework, helps point to the task at hand for the Democratic Party and the netroots in 2006: connecting and persuading.


1. Bloggers as Mavens


My dailykos userid, the number that appears at the end of the field in the status bar when you drag your mouse over the name kid oakland, is 2046.  

Sometime on October 17th, 2003, at the end of the week that Markos switched the already popular blog, dailykos, over to scoop, I created userid 2046, better known as "kid oakland." In doing so, I followed some 2045 other kossacks, a mix of "Innovators" and "Early Adopters," who had joined the new "scoop" version of the website.  (One might think of Markos' implementation of scoop and the initial surge of kossacks registering there as a kind of "mini-Big Bang" that shaped the character and structure of what we now know as the dailykos universe.)  

You can say many things about the group of people who signed on at dailykos in the early days of scoop, but, in a nutshell, it's safe to say that we were, like kossacks today, obsessed with knowing the latest political news and prognostications and we were eager to talk about it.

Markos has rightly characterized the readers and users of dailykos.com as "political junkies."  That seems self-evidently true; political news is what draws us there.  We are also, I would argue, using Malcom Gladwell's terminology, pretty universally Mavens.  Here is how Gladwell describes Mavens:

The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.  In recent years, economists have spent a great deal of time studying Mavens, for the obvious reason that if marketplaces depend on information, the people with the most information must be the most important. [snip]

...although most of us don't look at prices, every retailer knows that a very small number of people do, and if they find something amiss--a promotion that's not really a promotion--they'll do something about it.  If a store tried to pull [a deceptive] sales stunt too often, these are the people who would figure it out and complain to management and tell their friends and acquaintances to avoid the store. [snip]

The critical thing about Mavens...is that they aren't passive collectors of information.  It isn't just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on a can of coffee.  What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too.

Sound familiar?  Clearly, bloggers are Mavens; the whole phenomenon of rapid information sharing here in the blogosphere involves the work of thousands of Mavens who have found in the internet an amazing medium to spread the news, to "tell other people."  Most of us did this already, to one extent or another, in the offline world; blogs, however, magnified both our access to information and the scope of the audience we could share that information with.  Blogs also brought us into contact with many other fellow Mavens we might never have "met." We've created a community of Mavens here online.

Political bloggers, then, are Mavens who are obsessed both with knowing the latest political news and talking about how that news impacts politics. That dual interest is what inspired Markos and Jerome to build these incredibly "sticky" communities, and what inspired those of us who have joined those communities.  Together, we've built the online haven for political Mavens that many call the "blogosphere." (Or, as skippy calls it, "blogtopia".)  

This reality, as I implied in my first essay, has both upsides and downsides; if we use Gladwell's Tipping Point to undertand what makes the political blogosphere tick, we can understand our strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, if we intend to maximize our effectiveness we have some obligation to do so.

Political Mavens, like all Mavens, are obsessed with incontrovertible facts; whether that fact is a poll result, an impending scandal, a court decision or any other bit of political news. Among political Mavens, facts are the coin of the realm.  The less well known, the newer, the more significant and, even, the  more controversial, the incontrovertible fact, the  more our radar goes off.  Think of the diary list on dailykos; it's like a running scroll of alarm bells for political Mavens that screams:  "New Fact here!"  "Incoming!"  "BREAKING."

There are two components to our obsession with facts (ie. news).  First, the facts themselves; and second, what those facts seem to imply when applied to our shared set of values.  We bloggers are uniquely skilled at pointing up all sorts of new and overlooked facts and, like all Mavens, we are obsessed with what those facts imply about the future and the status quo, their perceived usefulness to ourselves and others as Mavens.

The point of my first essay was that we "Early Adopter" Mavens are often not so good at understanding the distinction between how facts appear to us versus how the majority understands those same realities. We are invested in our interpretations. This happens naturally and is in some ways inevitable.  We in the "early Adopter" netroots fail to understand how our world view interacts with the world view of "the Majority," and this happens as a function of being "early Adopter Mavens."   We're great at sussing out facts, but we see those facts in terms of the start points, obsessions and assumptions that made us Mavens in the first place.  "This poll is great news for John Edwards!"  "Bush's speech last week is directly contradicted by this news out of Iraq!"  "George W. Bush is Toast!"

The exact same reality that political Mavens see in one light...while still remaining an "incontrovertible fact"...while still being "true" and "important"...is not seen in the same light by the very people we seek to persuade and connect with in the majority.  That does not, in the least, diminish the power of any given "fact" or our role in discovering and promoting it, but it should, I think, cause all of us in the blogosphere to stop and think for a second about that reality.

In a nutshell, "Mavens" and "Early Adopters" are necessary but not sufficient forces in the process of creating a tipping point that crosses to a political majority.  A "community of Mavens," such as the one we have built at dailykos.com and elsewhere...is an extraordinarily powerful tool for sharing facts, debating their significance, and building community among ourselves and outwards somewhat.  This "community of mavens," however, is not in-and-of-itself a political movement, nor are our start points and assumptions all that useful when trying broaden and translate our political views so that they can win the support of the majority.  

People don't vote simply based on facts.  (Reality, as Stephen Colbert insists, "has a well-known liberal bias.") Further, as I argued in the first essay, most people won't vote to endorse a world view that they perceive they don't share.  No amount of "Maven"-sourced facts and persusasion alone will change this reality.

By and large, Republicans have understood this reality and executed around it...and, lately, Democrats haven't.

2. the Persuasion model versus the Connector Model:  2004


What was the single most salient and surprising factor in the 2004 presidential election?  I would argue that it was the Republicans use of "person-to-person" and "community-based" Connectors, and "Connector issues" to generate massive turn-out among their base.   George W. Bush won reelection not by "persuading" independents...John Kerry, in most instances, won more of the independent vote...George W. Bush won reelection by creating, on any of a number of levels, the feeling and perception of a "shared world view" among people most likely to turn out to vote for him and then successfully turned those people out to vote.  

In effect, Karl Rove was so confident of the power of "Connection," of this "shared world view," that he drove right over the need to "appeal to the middle" or "persuade" and won on the strength of Connection with very little persuasion or facts at all.  (As thereisnospoon pointed out in a great essay referring to the Overton window; the GOP very successfully moved the chasm in American politics.)

The 2004 election was a battle between a "Persuader model" and a "Connector model" for crossing the chasm.  Clearly, the "Connector model" won.  While this simplifies things a bit much (especially since I don't think John Kerry was necessarily a fully successful "Persuader"), the contrast bewteen the two concepts gets at the core my argument.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the critical role of "the Salesman" in creating tipping points.  Gladwell's "Salesmen" are gifted, if not "mesmerizing" communicators who "have the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."  Translating that to politics, I am going to call Gladwell's Salesman: "Persuaders."  Persuaders are our politicians, our candidates, though they might also be us.

Simply put, the "Persuasion" model for crossing the chasm relies upon using facts and rational argument to persuade the Majority of the value of a political idea or candidate.  We may, per Lakoff, hone our arguments in support of those facts...ie. craft our fact-based message with frames that "appeal to the majority."  (And, as Lakoff points out, the GOP has done this going the other way for 25 years now.)  However, at the end of the day, the Persuasion Model is centered on rational argument that highlights the role of the "Persuader," or candidate, in making the case.  The Persuasion Model puts facts and persuasion at the center of politics (where they should be, if you ask me) and puts a high burden on the candidate, or "Persuader," to see those arguments through.  

Now, if our Persuader is William Jefferson Clinton, a candidate gifted at "Connecting" and a "Maven" extraordinaire (Clinton's innate skill at presenting facts was awesome), the Persuasion Model can seem to work like a well-oiled machine.  All three of Gladwell's critical factors are present: "Sales/Persuasion" "Connection" and "Facts."  If, on the other hand, the Persuader is a candidate with less skill at "Connecting"...someone like Michael Dukakis...no matter how persuasive a Maven that candidate is, in the absence of other forces that might help create "Connection", even with a candidate as highly skilled at persuasive presentation as John Kerry, the Persuasion Model will have great difficulties overcoming the challenge I mentioned above:

People won't vote for a world view that they perceive they don't share.

Republicans have known and used this insight for a long time now.  It's the core of their under-the-radar Connector approach.  Connection works off of building a "shared world view."  It is extraordinarily powerful.

George W. Bush won reelection based neither on persuasion or the facts.  He won reelection without even being a highly-skilled connector outside his base.  George Bush won reelection because the GOP created a grassroots Connector model that buoyed Bush despite his weaknesses at persuasion and on the facts.  Karl Rove knew that appealing to "conservative identity" was a powerful way to connect with voters in states that George Bush had to win, and did so.

In effect, the GOP moved the chasm, and out-Connected the Democratic party in 2004.  Persuasion alone was not enough to defeat this tide.  

3. Conclusion


How do we change that in 2006?  In particular, how do we in the netroots play a role?  These are the questions before us.

I am not going to offer any pat aswers.  I've got ideas, as I'm sure you do and welcome your thoughts below.  But I would like to link the two halves of this essay together with this thought.

Mavens are incredibly powerful forces in the marketplace.  Facts are powerful.  We in the blogosphere who are lucky enough to participate in this "community of Mavens" have a vital role to play.  We need to understand and enhance that role.  Blog posts can take any of a myriad of forms (humorous, wonky, outraged, worried) and still fulfill the core function of effective communication: crossing the chasm.  I am convinced that good writing can persuade and connect.  And I think that's what everyone who's ever written a diary here or a blog post elsewhere has sought: to communicate effectively.  That's our job.  We seek to start, even if on a small scale, to use Gladwell's words, "a word-of-mouth epidemic that leads to a tipping point."

We must recognize, however, the validity of the truism that people come to the net both to learn facts AND for confirmation of what they already think, to find like-minded company.  Knowing this, its unlikely that the internet alone will ever prove to be an effective tool at "Connecting" across chasms.  Our online "community of Mavens" will not, by itself, cross the chasm.

As someone, however, committed to "persuasion" and "fact-based" argument, I think the blogosphere can greatly enhance our effectiveness on and offline if we understand and hone the role we do play.  The blogosphere has proven to be a powerful testing ground for sharing ideas and facts.  One or two of these stubborn facts have had very real consequences for the powerful. It has also proved to be a powerful meeting place, where we are continually innovating new ways to organize ourselves.

It seems to me inevitable that the Democratic party will have to retake the majority with an approach that incorporates fact-based persuasion.  That's the situation history has given us, and the facts are on our side.  Further, I do not think the blind promotion of "charismatic connectors" or "talking about values" to the exclusion of "fact-based persusasion" is the answer. That's too simple.  We have to use all the tools at our disposal: connection and persuasion.

That means that all of us, bloggers, candidates and party, have an obligation to attempt to understand the chasms that impede the effectiveness of our communication.  We need to learn what the factors are that lead people to tune us out despite the facts.  That was the entire point of my first essay.   Connection and persuasion are the task at hand.

Historically, the Democratic party succeeded at creating "connection" through an appeal to the shared ideals that underly the founding values of our nation.  We need to do that again.  That is one point I think this "community of mavens" can agree on: we seek connectors in that vein.  We seek powerful communicators who can persuade and appeal, who can unite the persuasive use of facts with powerful connection building.

Personally, I think the list of Connectors that dailykos readers responded with to my last post is promising, yet incomplete.  Like many of you, I would like to think that we are in the midst of expanding that list with every passing day.  Regardless, there's one thing I'm sure of:  as these new leaders emerge, you'll here about them in the blogosphere first.

What a bunch of Mavens.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

the Nukak-Maku

I post a link to this story by Juan Forero in the NYT without intention of making too much comment on the author or paper's point of view or presentation. You can read it, look at the pictures, and figure out what you think for yourself.

My point in bringing this article to your attention is this: stories like this get more and more rare. The world's indigenous peoples and the ecosystems they live in are daily encroached by...well...us...directly and indirectly. At the same time, stories like that of a group of Nukak-Maku who "decided to leave" (ie. were driven from) their land and way of life have a kind of sad predictability. It's not easy to imagine a satisfactory outcome to the journey these 80 people undertook.

I don't think it's possible to judge, from the position of the comforts of a Western lifestyle, whether it would be preferable to be a hunter/gatherer in the rainforest or, making the choice that these Nukak-Maku have, to live a semi-dependent life with access to a very few modern amenities. Simply put, it seems any statement from distance would presume too much. We can't know.

I do know that we in the West have invested, since Jean-Jaques Rousseau, what we call a "primitive" lifestyle with a kind of romantic, if not philosophical nobility. For our own reasons, we are deeply invested in that image and fail to realize how much that image is a by-product of the needs of our own civilization more than anything else. This romantic vision of "primitive culture"...with both negative and positive aspects...tells us more about ourselves than the people we look out at. And, if we start from this world view, it does seem a "natural" thought to wish that the Nukak-Maku might never have been driven from their land, that they might live undisturbed by "us" into the foreseeable future...to seek neat and reassuring boundaries.

Of course, it's not that simple. Nothing is.

I had the privelege of briefly meeting a group of Baka people who had come to San Francisco to perform with Alonzo King's Lines ballet. From the stories told me by the friend who introduced me to them and who had collaborated with them for the previous two weeks it was clear that a sudden immersion into the modern world was...just no easy thing. Something as simple as a door handle could pose an insurmountable obstacle. A mechanical object as complex as a cheap bicycle could be the occasion of immense novelty and joy. But the most basic experience the Baka seemed to have was one of dislocation. Nothing was easy, except, it seemed, vices. Cigarettes, alcohol, a Western diet full of processed foods...were just as appealling to the Baka as they are to many of us. The group was certainly, from a health perspective, not better off at all in the modern world...at least in their initial visit.

One thing, however, that my friend had told me proved true. The Baka dance troupe would break into song at the drop of a hat...seemingly spontaneously. It seemed that singing was their way of coping and "hanging together." They sang both because they clearly enjoyed it...but also for other reasons that I could only guess. It made me think of how rarely, if ever, you hear anyone sing in our society. And it filled me with a kind of wonder at how dislocated we have become from something that seems so basic and pure: communal song.

Which brings me to my final point.

While my own wonderment and surprise at the singing of the Baka falls directly into the tradition of Rousseauian thinking I mention above: it also, however, highlights my own dislocation from traditions that could hardly be called "primitive" or "indigenous." Like the Baka, my grandparents sang. I know my parents sang in the house when I was a child. In truth, before we became surrounded by machines that sang for us...most all the world sang at different points in the day...together. We have become removed from something that is much closer to us than any "state of nature" in a rainforest.

In fact, we here in "modern civilization" are dislocated not so much from an idealized Eden as we are removed from our various inherited cultures, traditions and histories, from the reality of our ecosystems and, in many ways, from our own bodies which we ply with sugars, medications and stimulants as if its going out of style. In sum we are dislocated from ourselves. That may well be why we invest so much "nobility" into a romantic world we feel we've lost; it's easier to wonder about the Nukak-Maku's world than to examine the fruits of our own.

In this sense, the story of the Nukak-Maku is a mirror. The same choice that, from the comforts of a Western lifestyle, I said was impossible to make for the Nukak-Maku...is one that we ignore in our daily lives, just grossly inverted.

Simply put, our unchecked overconsumption of resources is ruining the world for our children and our grandchildren. (Inconvenient, but true.) Most of us think nothing of getting in our cars and driving, buying a new home appliance and tossing the last one to the curb, purchasing the latest piece of new computer technology, shopping at supermarkets filled to the brim with packaging and the products of non-sustainable agriculture..the list goes on. We have to do these things...just like this group of Nukak Maku used to have to walk long distances and hunt all day. How could we or they do otherwise?

Our Western way of life, however, isn't just destroying the world for the Nukak-Maku, we're destroying the world for everyone, and, frankly, we're so busy doing so that we don't have time to give it much of a second thought.

In this sense, our dislocation is profound...and our sense of "distance" from the Baka or the Nukak-Maku reeks of our own inability to look squarely at ourselves.

If we did, we'd see that we are all in this together. Our situation is more like the Nukak-Maku's than we might think.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cartel of Defiance

Cartel of Defiance is a group blog that mixes political and cultural observation oftentimes by quoting texts by other people. With a few others, I'm an occasional contributer...but awol and wendellgee do the heavy lifting.

Awol has a really interesting post up tonight...it's a simple transcript of three moments of political speech. As you think about it, however, you realize that the "slip of the tongue" awol caught and preserved for the record...is also the byproduct of GOP talking points delivered straight through our TVs by supposedly "neutral" public figures like David Gergen and Tim Russert.

Hint to Sunday Morning Talk Shows: you've reached a new low when your delivery of GOP innuendo is so rote and careless...that you can't even figure out which prominent African-American Congressman you're demonizing.

Monday, May 08, 2006

crossing the chasm: creating a tipping point in 2006

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little things can make a Big Difference blazed to the top of nonfiction bestseller lists by introducing sociologist Mortin Grodzins concept of "the tipping point" to popular audiences through the use of cogent real world examples and elegantly drawn conclusions that made it a joy to read and hard-as-hell to put down. Subsequently, the concept of the "tipping point," the moment at which a trend breaks out of the confines of its "early adopters" and into mainstream prevalence, has become one of the "buzz concepts" of the decade.

The emerging conventional wisdom from pundits of all stripes has constructed a narrative for the elections of 2006 that presumes a tipping point in the Democrats favor. The argument of this essay is that, while 2006 does represent a great opportunity for the Democratic Party, the presumption of a tipping point that favors Democrats in 2006 is premature.  

In fact, in order to create conditions for a tipping point that leads to electoral success in 2006, the Democrats need to break through a fundamental fallacy that has held the party back.  To do this, the Democratic party need to transform the totality of how it communicates with voters.
November 2004, in the aftermath of the elections,  I wrote an essay entitled To be a fighting Democrat. That essay was inspired by the movement to reform the Democratic Party from the "grassroots up" exemplified by Howard Dean, DFA and election reform advocates.  (My view then, as it is now, is that a "fighting Democrat" is any Democrat who is willing to stand up and be counted in the fight for our people, for our values, and for reform of the Party.)  

While a "rallying" point of view is a necessary start point for any movement, what works for motivating a grassroots movement is not the same as what will work for that movement when it attempts to broaden its appeal.  It is crucial that Democratic activists understand this gap. To highlight this, I'd like to use an insight from Gladwell's the Tipping Point.

Malcolm Gladwell describes what he calls a "chasm" between the enthusiasm of "early Adopters" and the wants and needs of the next phase of the public to accept a trend, the "early Majority:"

...the attitude of the Early Adopters  and the attitude of the Early Majority are fundamentally incompatible.  Innovations don't just slide effortlessly from one group to the next.  There's a chasm between them.  All kinds of high-tech products fail, never making it beyond the Early Adopters, because the companies that make them can't find a way to transform an idea that makes perfect sense to an Early Adopter into one that makes sense to a member of the Early Majority.

...what {Early Adopters} were looking for in fashion was a revolutionary statement.  They were willing to take risks in order to set themselves apart.  But most of us in the Early and Late Majority don't want to make a revolutionary statement or take risks with fashion at all.

Gladwell's analysis, while addressing "fashion trends" and "technology," adapts itself directly to our political situation. "Early Adopters" in the grassroots will embrace the rhetoric of the "fighting Democrat." To win a majority of the broader public, however, that "revolutionary" spirit needs to be translated into a language and a framework that appeals to the majority.   What appeals to early adopter Democratic activists by its very nature will not, in its unadulterated form, appeal to the "Early Majority" much less the "Late Majority." We have to translate our message to cross the chasm.

Last January I wrote a piece that is an example of a failed attempt at "crossing the chasm."  We are the change you're looking for was an effort to create a translation of the "fighting Dem" spirit into a message that would "make the jump" to the broader public.  At the time, it seemed to me a way to temper the anger with Bush into a positive and forward-looking message about change: Democrats: We are the change you're looking for. Now that I take a step back from it, however, I see two fatal flaws.

1. The slogan is about "us"  (What if a voter wants change but doesn't much like "us?"  What if a voter isn't much interested in joining the culture of the "early adopters?"  What if a voter just wants to vote for the policies and not the party?)

2. Second, the slogan assumes that "change" (instead of, say, "building solutions that work for my family" or "fixing government") was the highest value on the priority list of voters.  It puts our values over the voters' values.

In essence, as I see it now, that slogan does not cross the chasm.

In fact, I fell into what I'd call the fundamental fallacy that afflicts the Democratic party and the major obstacle to creating a "tipping point" favoring Democrats in 2006.  I played into the belief that the reason that the majority have not voted for us or our ideas lately is that we simply haven't enunciated our values clearly enough.  

We in the base cling to this fallacy even though polls show that voters not only know our values but that clear majorities often share those values and share our grave reservations about the status quo.  

If you take anything away from this essay it should be this: We don't lose elections because the voters don't know what we think; we lose elections because of the totality of how we communicate.  

The brutal truth is that Democrats will not even in the most favorable political climate build a majority without breaking out of our current communication patterns. To create a tipping point for the Democratic party in 2006 we have to translate our activism into consistent language that can be understood from the majority's point of view; we have to build bridges to the "early Majority;" we have to gain the ability to join in coalition with voters who agree with us but don't necessarily share our style or all of our convictions.  We have to "lose" our old ways of mixed messages, and find and cultivate "connectors" who are skilled at bringing our message to the majority outside our core base.

Despite this reality, Democrats still tend to create messages and hone themes that work best for...our base.  We create a vibe, whether intentional or not, that we aren't interested in translating our message for the middle (and by that I mean talking in no nonsense terms about ALL our positions including liberal ones) or putting ourselves in someone else's shoes.  We act, in effect, like "Early Adopters" who insist that the "Early Majority" become "Early Adopters" too.  We don't seem to mind if we are offputting to someone who doesn't share our anger and concerns.  And amongst ourselves, we often go to the wall to insist that any adaptation or moderation of our message is a betrayal when, in fact, adaptation of our message may be the best hope for the broader success of our ideas.  

In effect, instead of following the arc of Gladwell's "tipping point" ie. transforming our message so it can cross the chasm to the majority, we've insisted that the majority "come to us" and see things from our point of view.   We fail to understand why they don't do this.  With this failure we have allowed the very real impression to stand that in order to vote for a Democratic candidate, you have to, on some level, become a "liberal Democrat."  Worse, on issues from health care to public transportation, from gay marriage to global warming to the war in Iraq, many of us have left the distinct impression that we aren't interested in what or how the majority thinks and can't be bothered to translate our "self-evident views" so that they appeal to the broader public.  (Of course, once we do that hard work we uncover just how many people there are who agree with us but don't share our style or start points.)

In a nutshell, while the first major obstacle to the success of the Democratic party has been that we've allowed some voters to think they have to become "liberals" in order to vote for a candidate of ours that they agree with, the second, and more deadly, obstacle is that in refusing to, per Gladwell, "translate" our message for that majority, to build bridges, to reach out, to seek connections, we've given many voters the impression that we just don't and won't see things from their point of view.  You can overcome the first chasm sometimes, and many candidates do; the second chasm, however, is a way to consign yourself to electoral oblivion.  

Paradoxically, our perceived lack of interest in crossing the chasm has meant that our leading national candidates are caught speaking a language that combines the worst of both worlds; it has neither the backbone of a fighting Democrat nor any real popular appeal.  It panders and swerves between the two and amounts, effectively, to the slogan: Democrats, we're not Republicans.

Further, in this context, it is a brutal fact that oftentimes the byproducts of the very forces that have reenergized our base...anger at Bush, opposition to the war, a sense that America lost touch with it highest values at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay...are misused by the GOP to alienate many in the "Early and Late Majority" from the Democratic Party.  The Rove/Hughes branch of GOP understands this dynamic to a "T."  

Added together, the above trends represent the totality of how the Democratic Party communicates.  It's also why we lose votes and lose elections.  People know what we think. They definitely hear what we are saying.  All of it.  They just don't like what it adds up to...the net effect of the messages we are sending.

We cannot change this dynamic with business as usual no matter how many scandals fly through Congress, and no matter how outrageous the conduct of this president.  We need to create our tipping point, not fall into one.  You cannot fall into a majority, you have to build it.

We do that by crossing the chasm, by making connections.  We don't do that with a new, highly-spun "message" so much as with a whole new way of building coalition and communicating.

My point is simple, the Democratic party needs make a priority of reaching out to voters who agree with our policies but who do not match our "style."  We need to hone in on the voter who agrees with "us" but perceives, rightly or wrongly, that they would not want to be "us."  These are exactly the voters we need to listen to, to understand, to build coalition and connections with, to invite to a seat at our table with the rest of us.  These are the voters we need to be honest and consistent with.  

These voters aren't going to believe that John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are not liberals.  They are.  Everbody knows that.  But folks also know full well if the Democratic party, from the local to the national level, is listening to them or not.  People aren't idiots. They don't like mixed messages, and they like to feel that someone's at least made an attempt to see things from their point of view.  That's true for all of us.

Gladwell's analysis points out that within the group of the "Early Majority" that there are voters and candidates who are uniquely gifted at this kind of translation and adaptation, at this kind of connecting; he calls them "Connectors."  There are folks out there already who know, in effect, how to cross the chasm, how to build a bridge, how to simplify and hone and sharpen our message.  They do so every day.

The Democratic Party needs to locate and emphasize these "connectors", to rally around those already hard at work on this project.  We need to have our leadership reflect and include the style and insights of these connectors.  If you have any folks you think fit that bill, you should mention them in the comments below.

A system-wide change in how we communicate is how we build a tipping point that wins a majority in 2006.  That's how we "get our groove back."  It's not magic, in my view, just lots of hard work and understanding that folks have been hearing us all along...loud and clear.

Friday, May 05, 2006

the Porter Goss resignation

The sudden resignation of Porter J. Goss from the CIA today, while inspiring spirited discussion of Republican scandal and insider speculation as to why Goss resigned, drives a different train of thought in my mind.

All the evidence from Washington points to, to use Congresswoman Jane Harman's words, not simply a "freefall" at the CIA but also raises deeply troubling questions regarding the Bush administration's use and abuse of United States' intelligence gathering as a whole.

For one, Goss's resignation marks the second markedly abrubt resignation of a CIA director in the space of two years. In the wake of 9/11, the Plame scandal, and in the midst of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now seen two CIA directors leave suddenly, neither providing much explanation or, significantly, time to provide for a smooth transition for a successor in a time of crisis. There is no way to spin this in a positive light. This is disturbing stuff from an oftentimes already disturbing agency. Either the agency is in freefall, or it is subject to behind-the-scenes machinations that make it look that way...and perhaps both. Either way, this kind of "bush league" turbulence spells trouble.

In the meantime, the creation of the Cabinet level position of Director of National Intelligence, a position currently held by former ambassador to Iraq, and Iran/Contra figure, John Negroponte, is hardly common knowledge. It's worth a look.

It may come as a surprise to most Americans that the President now receives his daily intelligence briefings from DNI Director Negroponte, whose oversight of the United States Intelligence Community is hardly clear, even from their own less than impressive website. (Click on this link. As a citizen, does that web page make you feel safer or better informed? The words "hardly reassuring" come to mind. This wiki link is slightly more informative.)

As it stands, U.S. citizens, almost five years after 9/11, and in the midst of a war in Iraq whose central questions continue to revolve around the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence, stand witness to a CIA in revolving door freefall. And while we have little knowledge of the man and the institution giving the President his daily intelligence briefings, we have even less sense how DNI Director Negroponte might be held accountable to us. That's relevant.

With reports that the President is poised to nominate, at Negroponte's suggestion, General Michael Hayden, one of the central figures in the domestic spying scandal, and someone who may well have lied about it to Congress, to replace Porter Goss at the CIA, at this point, viewing the Goss resignation simply in terms of GOP scandal seems to me myopic.

To abuse a phrase.....something is rotten in the state of U.S. Intelligence. The challenge facing this country is to determine what exactly the Bush/Cheney administration is cooking up behind the scenes with the DNI and exactly how far the freefall at the CIA has gone. What would a "health report" of the nation's intelligence read in May of 2006? It's long past time to open the windows and have a thorough accounting and Congressional oversight.

We have a right to know and they've told us less than nothing. Which could just about be a phrase that sums up the Bush administration as a whole. General Hayden's emergence....just after the wires closed for tommorrow's papers...stinks to high heaven.

When it comes to the Bush administration's use and abuse of U.S. Intelligence, it goes without saying: if you're not concerned, you just haven't been paying attention.

zen cabin

Ripley of zen cabin has got a nice reflective post up now....about...rrr...life...called "I used to be a rock star."

Springtime, you know, the other depressing/hopeful/reflective time of year.

I vote for hopeful.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

one small victory against high fructose corn syrup

An agreement reported in the New York Times today means that soda pop will be removed entirely from most public elementary schools.

Count that as one small victory in the battle against a national and global epidemic of obesity.

While I support the companies taking this action and thank President Clinton and Governor Huckabee for working this deal...let's get real: processed sugar drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup have no place in the human diet. Period. End of sentence.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

a pyramid of schemes

It's become a bromide to talk about "the lies" of this administration.

Dick Cheney's lies. Condoleeza Rice's lies. Karl Rove's lies. Colin Powell's lies. Donald Rumsfeld's lies. Scott McClellan's lies. Scooter Libby's lies. George W. Bush's lies.

This talk of lying, however, hides an underlying truth; from the very beginning, this cabal of prevaricators has used lies as their m.o....they've schemed. And, like con-artists on the run from the inevitable collapse of their con, the Bush Administration in 2006 is now caught up in scheming how to outrun its own burgeoning pyramid of schemes.

What was "compassionate conservatism" but a ruse to get George W. Bush elected? What was Dick Cheney's selection for Vice President anything but a pre-ordained way to graft big Oil and big Guns onto the candidacy of the Boy King Bush? What is the current current talk of "turning a corner" once again in Iraq? Or the pledge of a $100 "rebate" on gas expenditures? Or Bush's posturing on singing the national anthem in Spanish? (Click on that link, to an excellent diary by jsamuel at dkos, for the latest in Bush hypocrisy.)

These are all schemes to avoid responsiblity, to skirt the truth, to cling to power and the appearance of being "forthright"...all the while doing nothing, if not, quite often, the opposite of what it seems.

It's one thing to lie out of convenience...simply to cover up embarassment or malfeasance; it's another thing to found one's governance on the principle of saying one thing with the intention of doing completely another...irrespective of reality on the ground or sound policy.

No Child Left Behind. A scheme.
WMD in Iraq. A scheme.
Mission Accomplished. A scheme.
Attacking Valerie Plame. A scheme.
Fiscal responsibility. A scheme.
"Fixing" Social Security. A scheme.

It's not that this administration has, at times, lacked sincerity and transparency; this administration is devoid of sincerity and transparency. The standard m.o. invented by Karen Hughes and Karl Rove is this: brazenly wrap yourself in lamb's wool and dare your opponents to call you a wolf.

Now, if it were as simple as stating this reality and letting the public decide for itself the real state of affairs, the depths of this con...we might have had a different outcome in the elections of 2004.

But the con artists got greedy and won. They schemed...knowing the depths of their own corruption, their own burgeoning indictments and scandals...to spin the American public for one more go round. Trouble is, the American public has begun waking up an smelling the coffee in 2006.

Here's the operative question. Are there any consequences for this mountainous pile of cons?

Will the schemers have to pay when the truth sees the light of day?

Or, like so many victims, will "we the people" be left to holding the bag after the inevitable collapse of this pyramid of schemes?

Monday, May 01, 2006

May 1st Solidarity...and "Law Day"

I'd like to post in solidarity with the millions of hard-working immigrants staging a peaceful nationwide day of boycott and protests today.....May Day. This principled stand for civil rights and labor rights is also a way of communicating to the rest of the nation a salient fact: immigrants are tired of being treated as second-class.

That should not be too hard to understand, but many don't.

Now, George Bush, as is his wont, has chosen to emphasize a more recent holiday...Law Day. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of this president advancing the concept of "respect for the Law"...it's not hard to guess why.

Here's what Law Day's founder, Charles Rhyne, said about his motivations in founding the holiday:

The immediate inspiration for a May 1 celebration of law was directly related to the Cold War. For many years the American news media gave front page headlines and pictures to the Soviet Union's May Day parade of new war weapons. I was distressed that so much attention was given to war-making rather than peace-keeping.

My idea was to contrast the United States' reliance on the rule of law with the Soviet Union's rule by force.

So, Law Day has always been an anti-May Day holiday...and a holiday that defined May Day not by any of our own longstanding national traditions of May 1st as a day to celebrate labor empowerment, but by using Soviet militarism to red bait and marginalize those traditions. Whatever the 'peaceful' notions of Charles Rhyne...call me dubious...there's little doubt that George Bush and Karl Rove are attempting to revive, ahem..."Law Day"...for reasons that have nothing to do with peace and respect for the rule of law, and everything to do with throwing a bone to their anti-immigrant base: all 32% of Americans who still endorse this president and his policies...ie. folks who support the legislation passed by the GOP House majority that would address the immigration issue by making millions of hard-working immigrants felons at the stroke of a pen.

That's what they mean by "Law Day."