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.