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June 03, 2005

Against Incrementalism

A few days ago, Matt made a point I've seen elsewhere, and long meant to comment on. Call it the 50%+1 theory:

Democratic performance in the past few elections has been good enough that one could envision a lot of difference paths to victory. Indeed, there's always a temptation to oversell defeats. After the Pistons last two losses to Miami, I've read a lot of articles about how Detroit needs to figure out how to contain Dwayne Wade. Certainly that would be a nice thing to do, but the reality is that they would have won with Wade uncontained if they'd just hit more free throws. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with their game -- they're just messing up some little things.

That strikes me as exactly the wrong way to look at recent defeats. For one thing, our electoral coalition, which is already proving inadequate, is marching in the wrong demographic direction. The states that are growing vote Republican, in a few years, the same votes that brought us within a stone's throw of a win will amount to crushing defeats.

But demographic defeatism is only half the story. To continue on with sports metaphors, teams don't practice to gain incremental strengths, they train to become crushing juggernauts. As a football player, you may spend a day or two learning how to contain a star player or run a particular play for a specific game, but you spend the vast majority of your time trying to get so good that incrementalism is rendered unnecessary, you can just beat the other team outright. Calming ourselves with the mantra that our fading coalition could have won if only we'd had a slightly quicker reaction to the Swift Vets or a stronger answer on Iraq isn't particularly useful: the demographics aren't in our favor and, in any case, we don't want to be locked in a death battle for another percentile point, we want to figure out how to capture an easy majority.

Now, certainly that's easier said than done, but it should be the goal nevertheless. And one thing it demands, specifics aside, is to think big. Small programs and targeted appeals to specific constituencies may help bring in another percentage point, but they don't change the electoral landscape. We need big ideas and the conviction to sell them, and that means we have to stop thinking like a majority-party-in-exile and instead focus on becoming a majority party in power. Many in the party are doing that already, but such projects can always be hijacked by those promising that we're really good enough already and just need some better language for our proposals. We don't need better language or a new play, we need a new gameplan.

June 3, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink

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» No easy majority from Dadahead
51% looked at the last 4 years and said, Thank you sir, may I have another? I don't know how to reason with fundamentally irrational people. I don't know what gameplan could possibly convince them to switch to our side. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 3, 2005 2:16:44 PM

Comments

You are flat wrong about demographics favoring the GOP, and you've made this mistake before. You need to learn this. That said, demogs are not *necessarily* favorable to the Democrats either. Everybody who says so misreads Teixera.

You also seem to assume that when a state votes one way,the trend continues indefinitely, and that there is no lag between population growth and political shifts within a state. Note that California 15-20 years ago was far more conservative. Texas will likely shift as California did, perhaps not to quite the same extent. New York doesn't seem to be shifting...yet many of it's population emigrees is heading to Florida, right? Why isn't Florida consistently and firmly drifting right? It sure is growing.

You are right in saying that it's not really about demographics, it's about ideas. But you should stop talking/thinking about demographics this way.

Posted by: Buford P. Stinkleberry | Jun 3, 2005 11:15:28 AM

Oddly enough, the points on CA and TX were made, by me, in the original post I linked to...follow the links. Nevertheless, you're incorrect that demographics don't favor the current GOP coalition. Evangelicalism is rising, Hispanics are increasibly entering higher income brackets (which renders them more likely to vote GOP), suburbs are rising...you do see a certain amount of froth and shift over time as patterns change, but it's foolish to think that voters, anymore than districts, are immutable and not influenced by newer, more Republican surroundings. In any case, the trends are certainly not in our favor, and that means we should be very cautious about resting on our current constituencies.

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 3, 2005 11:43:53 AM

I have to take issue with your metaphor, Ezra. The "average" pro-athelete (and I use that term loosely, since those dudes are in no way average) really isn't that much better than the guys who just barely fell shy. The ones that do make it spend a lot of time trying to get incrementally better- learn a new move, shot, or play, gain an inch of vertical leap, a tenth of a second on a sprint, 5 lbs of fast-twitch force, etc.

On second thought, maybe I'm wrong and your analogy is apt- and you're talking about Tiger Woods completely changing his swing in an attempt to become TGOAT...

In that case, we should prepare to be governed by the republicans for a goodly while longer (reworking your game entirely puts you at a huge disadvantage until it gels, no?).

One other thing about incrementalism- it all depends on which increments you shoot for. If the increment is demographic, we may indeed have problems. But if the increment is a political unit- a state- then there's a simple strategy: stronger, more popular democratic parties in the states. Make them happy at the state level, get a democratic congress. And you already pointed out the power of the state-as-increment.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 3, 2005 12:13:39 PM

I should have said "that metaphor."

Posted by: TJ | Jun 3, 2005 12:26:38 PM

It is not "demographics" which favors Republicans, as much as organization, ruthlessness and recent history. The "demographics" of Florida and Ohio would give those States to the Democrats, if the respective State Democratic Parties were not so weak. Texas, on the basis of "demographics," ought to be competitive, but, instead, Democrats have been competing with Republicans for conservative voters, a losing proposition for Democrats.

What makes Florida and Texas, and to a lesser extent, Ohio, an uphill fight is that Democrats have to recast themselves as progressives in those States and work for change, against vested interests. That's an uphill fight on money and on media; it requires more organization in States where Democrats are far less well-organized that Republicans. And, to win, Democrats have to generate more than majority support, to overcome the Republican thumb on the electoral scales in the form of electronic voting and gerrymandering and the like.

Sadly, I think the Democrats in 2004 lost the BIG one, and will not recover in my lifetime. If the Republic survives (which, itself, is doubtful), the Republican Empire will last until the late 2030's or so. Look for a Democratic Majority to emerge circa 2040.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 3, 2005 12:27:12 PM

Incrementalism is like playing not to lose. I follow a team with this mantra, the Boston College Eagles. My experiance does not reccomend incrementalism.

You have to play to win and win decisively. Otherwise you are sitting there with 30 seconds to go with only a 50% shot to win, at best, and more often than not you lose and settle for the old empty 'moral victory.' Thats not good enough with so much on the line. The Dems should be trying to run away from the Repubs in a blow out. They need to flip an entire type of voter back to them. Maybe suburban white guys isn't that group, but there has to be some oddly Repub voting group out there to be had.

Posted by: Neil Paul | Jun 3, 2005 12:29:44 PM

Evangelicalism is NOT rising in the U.S. anywhere near in the numbers necessary to overcome the growth in more secular immigration.....which most definitely does not click in ideologically with GOP (unless that party changes).

What we've really seen in the last few elections is an unprecedented political activation of evangelicals....not some great wave of evangelical population growth.

And in general, caucasians -- i.e. the bedrock of Republicans -- are decreasing as a percentage of the population. No amount of evangelical 7-child families will reverse this.

Who is saying, "Rest, liberals!" Who is saying, "Don't worry, the GOP has no appeal to anyone other than religious wack jobs? Latinos are guaranteed to join us! They must!" The reality is the GOP will make some inroads with that demog. But how significant and how long lasting? If their church outreach and tokenism works with Latinos, we can do outreach among seculars and promote our own (worthier) Latinos. We've got one governor already. Etc. Etc.

The electorate is pretty mutable, and people are not as partisan as us wonkonerds. And journalists write dumb stories based on specious analysis. The Reagan Democrats, once upon a time, were "never coming back." A Democrat would never again be elected President, the GOP had an "electoral lock." Things change.

Posted by: Buford P. Stinkleberry | Jun 3, 2005 12:30:31 PM

the growth in more secular immigration.....which most definitely does not click in ideologically with GOP (unless that party changes).

Do these people really vote though?

Posted by: Adrock | Jun 3, 2005 2:16:41 PM

I started to say that I think "better language" qualifies as a new gameplan, or a critical part of one. If, as the data I've seen suggest, people who vote against us agree with the far left on many issues, then finding a better way to talk to them seems like a good place to start. But then, that may not help unless our actions match our words. People who agree with the far left presumably disagree with the Democratic Party.

Posted by: Omar K. Ravenhurst | Jun 3, 2005 2:46:30 PM

There are a couple of other wholly different problems with the small incremental theory. One, it can backfire really badly if you are up against an opponent who is willing to "bend the rules" (but it doesn't matter because they would have won anyway say the kool kids). Secondly, if the biggest problem is disaffected voters who don't bother to come out, how do you know you're not alienating more voters than you're shaving off from the other side?

Posted by: gord brown | Jun 3, 2005 7:59:49 PM

Matt and Ezra are both right. The Democratic Party came very close (less than 300K votes in Ohio) to winning the last election, under what were in widest, macro scope more than slightly adverse conditions (running a Northeastern liberal against a conservative in war-time, post-9/11). Neither the 2002 and 2004 Senate losses, nor the 2004 House losses were as bad as they seem. So there's no real need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We're closer and we're bigger than the Tories in Canada or the UK, for example. They're really screwed. For all Rove wants to talk about a permanent GOP majority, it doesn't exist, and it won't.

At the same time, there's not much point to politics, and specifically American politics, if your cause and party aren't working towards some big, national historic goal. And the right has clearly got us beat on that front, at least since Reagan won (and we're still, a quarter of a century later in the same Reagan+New Deal template). So how does the modern Democratic Party lose their status as dry and technocratic compared to the militaristic and messianic Republicans? I sure don't know. I can think of some ideas; energy independence and real pushback against global warming and, rebuilding the military into a force that can "win the peace," expanded social welfare for families (daycare), defense of individal rights against creeping corporate control (ie no more DMCAs), smart growth policies, promoting the American image abroad in a way that hasn't existed for some years now, stopping the loss of native industrial production capabilities (support for GM and Ford by kicking them in the seat of the pants?). Equalized funding for schools across property taxes. National health care, with a big wellness component. More stem cell and genetic research. Some sort of appeals on the culture war front (promoting Latino civic assimilation as an answer to the immigration question? promoting shared civic values as a general answer to everything?). Compared to that an agenda of tax breaks for the rich, fag bashing, and losing wars doesn't look so great, does it?

Posted by: SamAm | Jun 4, 2005 4:28:38 AM

Oh yeah, can't forget a real commitment to homeland security (like overhauling the TSA and Patriot Act), a crackdown on corporate welfare, controlling the bloated defense budget, pushing the tax burden back off the middle class, and enforcing and expanding rules protecting unions.

The specifics don't really matter, the point is the Democrats have got to start acting like they're representing imperatives the size of the Rockies. It's easier to get people's attention that way, and it puts the other guys on the defensive. If the Republicans can act like malpractice reform and the judicial filibuster are the most pressing issues of the day, I think we can get excited about energy independence and universal healthcare.

Posted by: SamAm | Jun 4, 2005 4:41:18 AM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 10:49:08 PM

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