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July 19, 2005

What Democrats Want

Over at Early Returns, Ken Baer is using Matt Bai's article on Lakoff to lash Democrats for lacking a "public philosophy". Generally speaking, I'm fine with the Lakoff part. Matt Bai's criticism of him, at least the part that Baer quotes, is exactly the criticism I wrote a few months ago, and I'm always excited to see the NYT plagiarizing from my site. But then Baer goes on to say this, and all my warm fuzzies fly away:

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Democrats. We lack an overriding argument or a clear public philosophy. That is, the outlook on politics and government that informs one's stances on the central issues that face a country: from its role in the world to how its goverment should work and how its consensual values should be put into practice.

I don't understand people who say this. Generally, when confronted with public policy X, people know which side Democrats are going to come down on. That predictability is informed by a basic understanding of the values that motivate progressive politics. It's not the sort of thing that lends itself to pithy repetition, but neither is it hard to pin down. Democrats like social programs that help the needy, they like government regulation that protects consumers, they think business needs watching if capitalism is to function well, they think health care should be provided -- or at least guaranteed -- by the state, they think international legitimacy is important, they're uncomfortable with the use of force but still willing to wield it, etc. These haven't been jammed into a 10-word formulation, but neither do you need a decoder ring to figure them out.

The issue here is that the GOP's "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, and family values" isn't a public philosophy. No sir. Sorry to disappoint. It is pithy and effective and fun to say and a host of other things, but it's not some sort of coherent world perspective that plays a large role in informing their policy decisions. Everyone believes in strong defense, the GOP just believes in more defense spending; everyone believes in free markets, the GOP just eschews regulation; everyone wants lower taxes, the problem is Democrats actually pay for their social programs; everyone wants smaller government, the problem is the GOP reliably enlarges it while advocating the opposite; everyone wants family values, the problem is no one knows what they are.

Every time we invoke those 10 words as some mystical artifact that we can just reverse engineer for political success, we lose. Those 10 words are a political construction. A good one, to be sure, but still a poll-tested method of presenting a GOP platform voters won't reject. If it was anything more, the Republican party wouldn't constantly contravene its tenets. If the GOP were truly concerned about low tax rates, they wouldn't be pushing for huge expansions of social programs. If they really worried over small government, they wouldn't legislate to make it larger. If they really believed in free markets, they wouldn't pass the Millennium Copyright Act or shackle generic drug makers or stop reimportation from China.

The GOP has assembled a list of policy specifics that Democrats don't support, that the public, in theory, does, and that Republicans follows when it's convenient. And yes, the Democrats should do the same. Not with Lakoffian boilerplate, but with five policies that we support, the GOP doesn't, and the country does. Democrats can be the party of universal health care, a livable wage, universal day care, corporate regulation, and international moral leadership. Or they can be the party of five other things they support and Republicans don't.

Once they do, they can publicize the list, talk about it, build elections around it, and have their very own pithy statement of intentions that defines them. But don't mistake a summarized agenda for a philosophy. The trick is realizing this is a messaging issue, not a deep philosophical quest to find the true nature of the progressive project. And if you ever need help telling the difference, remember: coherent public philosophies, in a world that includes everything from health care to stem cells to Sudan, take more than 10 words. Anyone who tells you different is just trying to get elected.

July 19, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink

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Comments

Sorry, Ezra, not everyone believes in free markets. In fact, virtually nobody really does. And I don't believe in them not just in that I think they don't work. I don't believe in them in the sense that I don't believe in Santa Claus. I don't think they exist.

The whole free market thing is something that Republicans started railing about so they could accuse anyone to their left of communism. But since they could only do that by eliminating distinctions between mixed economies and Marxism, they had to also publicly reject mixed economies themselves. A narrow strip of people fell for it and really believe that America's fundamental economic problems come from steep regulation. But this portion is infinitessimally small. As such, the Libertarian Party is also tiny.

Rather, what Republicans typically do now is attack any progressive intervention in the market as socialism. Their interventions -- which typically involve handjobs for CEOs -- are described as common sense.

The fundamental problem with the Republican reduction sauce line that you laid out is that it is a complete and total lie. The only real defense they can offer for repeating it is that they don't know any better. I for one don't think they are that stupid.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Jul 19, 2005 11:48:50 AM

No Matt, I believe in free markets. Because when I, and most, say "free market", we don't mean the ideal free market that exists only in Hayek's head, we mean the general concept that market forces play an important role in economic life, we mean mixed markets. May not be the technical definition, but I'd wager it's the one most use. As you say, it means "not-communism". And Republicans, with their many sbusidies and so forth, generally mean the same. Their mixed markets tilt away from government regulation towards giving business the power to set the rules, mine move in the opposite direction. I disagree with them on that, but there ya have it.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 19, 2005 11:56:34 AM

I'm always amused by this talk about the need for a "public philosophy" or whatever. I have this mental picture of the DLC attacking Howard Dean for thinking that people would choose the maximin distribution behind the veil of ignorance. Of course, that's not what they're actually talking about.

When Republicans defend free markets, they typically don't do it in some highflown economic theory kind of way. They say stuff like "Do you want some bureaucrat in Washington telling you what to do?" and make their "socialized medicine" noises. Unfortunately, this resonates fairly well with ordinary people.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 19, 2005 12:10:44 PM

Yep. It's about being for things your opponent has to oppose. They can't oppose universal health care, but they can oppose socialized medicine. We must oppose socialized medicine but support universal health care. It's all about drawing lines that put you on one side, your opponent on the other, and the majority of Americans on your half of the Court.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 19, 2005 12:30:47 PM

everyone wants smaller government

Um, no. Lots of people think they want smaller government. They're quite often wrong.

Posted by: djw | Jul 19, 2005 12:42:30 PM

It's all about drawing lines that put you on one side, your opponent on the other, and the majority of Americans on your half of the Court.

I think you mean this as a "framing" issue. The Progressives look at everything as an issue to be manipulated or "framed" to incorporate their pet philosophies instead of seeing these issues for what they are. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and I think the Democrats have learned this on gun control and are currently learning this on the homosexual marriage issue.
Be smart and give the voters what they want and not what *YOU* want if you wish to get their votes.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 19, 2005 12:47:57 PM

The Progressives look at everything as an issue to be manipulated or "framed" to incorporate their pet philosophies instead of seeing these issues for what they are.

HAHAHA! Great laugh. Have you SEEN any RNC memos lately? Thats all they DO is talk about the framing of the issue! Why? Because THEY are the ones that can't sell their ideas on the merits.

The Progressives talk about framing NOW because we believe our current approach of "our ideas are just better and people ought to understand that" doesn't work. We've tried the honesty approach. People don't respond to it. It needs a nice, shiny package with a bow on top for anyone, including the mainstream media, to give it attention.

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 19, 2005 1:09:00 PM

The Republican elevator pitch according to Matt Yglesias is "low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military," This fits well with a point I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. There are three kinds of Republicans.

First, there are the Falwellian masses who vote on Republican because of the reasoning mocked here. They own the second verse in the triplet above, although I would hypothesize it came first in the original.

Then there are the libertarians who vote for Republicans because they have been hypnotized by Ayn Rand, Von Mises, Von Hayek, or Nozick. They like the first line.

Then there are the real Republicans, the people whose asses fill the seats of power (and most who are behind that seat), otherwise known as crony capitalists. These are the people who were the real motivating force behind the seemingly unnatural coalition of the other two groups (one chosen for its laughable gullibility, the other for its absurd coincidence of policy goals). They explain such odd events as the prescription drug benefit, the airline bail out, the farm bill, the invasion of Iraq, and the bankruptcy bill. The third line is for them.

The Democrat counter to this triplet: “low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military,” is to turn the two support groups against each other from our perspective, and nullify the third. The appropriate counter triplet is then: “For family resources (id est healthcare education retirement), for diversity in American culture (id est gay marriage and stem cells), and against crony capitalism,” This, I believe, conforms to Matt’s conditions of being acceptable to the left and repulsive to the right at least as much as the Republican triplet is repulsive to the left. The first part is for the family values people who really should be concerned that family time is being destroyed by the rat race economy. The second line is for the libertarians who should be concerned that the intolerance of the Republicans will drive the creative talent that has been the engine of American growth overseas or underground. The third part is the bogeyman.

Posted by: TheJew | Jul 19, 2005 1:47:15 PM

The Repubs learned their political framing/dialogue at the knees (quite literally) of the US advertising/marketing industry. And they deploy what they learned well indeed.

One way to tell a Dem from a Repub is in their reaction to media advertising.

Example: Comcast runs ads saying cable internet is 5 times faster than DSL. Repubs respond to this, because the message is clear in differentiation - wow 5 times better!

Dems would respond by saving, yes the maximum (peak) throughput is 5x, but the line is shared and average transfer rates are very similar to DSL, which isn't shared, and often cheapter. Dems would also argue that 'the last mile' of connection should be open to competition to encourage innovation, and would regulate cable just like DSL. The Dem message is true, but complicated. The user must think to know real value.

Well the Dems are right, but the Repubs won the debate. So cable is unregulated (mostly).

Summary: Repubs have simple messages (that often distort reality), like advertising, but are effective when repeated often and consistently. Dems have more complex messages that reflect reality better, but are not so good for packaging in nice sound bites.

I'd hate for the Dems to learn the advertising stuff TOO well, for the essence of who we are would be lost. On the other hand, the Repubs are winning the advertising war.

Although I hate to admit it, the simple, positive message of the Repubs works, especially when combined with a simple, negative, distorted or wrong message about their adversaries. Rove is just 'Madison Avenue' brought to your mind and polling place for politics.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 19, 2005 1:50:19 PM

The Progressives talk about framing NOW because we believe our current approach of "our ideas are just better and people ought to understand that" doesn't work.

Well, that's because your ideas aren't really better and people just don't like your ideas.

We've tried the honesty approach. People don't respond to it. It needs a nice, shiny package with a bow on top for anyone, including the mainstream media, to give it attention.

Ah, how we are getting to the heart of the matter. If you can't sell shitty ideas, then FRAME, FRAME, FRAME. This poster simply reiterated my contention that framing is how you try to fool the public into buying into your ideas after they have been soundly rejected by the voters. Just another reason why the public perception of Democrats is a party of WEASELS.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 19, 2005 2:33:20 PM

Hm ! And Bush poll numbers are soooo good.

Posted by: opit | Jul 19, 2005 8:40:47 PM

"This poster simply reiterated my contention that framing is how you try to fool the public into buying into your ideas after they have been soundly rejected by the voters."
How are those private accounts coming along? Oh, now they are called personal accounts? Well, that is much more acceptable then.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Jul 20, 2005 11:32:32 AM

I still think free market is a really bad way of phrasing it, simply because it seems to indicate that markets without any government intervention. I believe in regulated markets. I believe in markets as a tool, being harnessed properly.

But there is a fairly large number of people who seem to think that, in theory, free markets work best. And by free markets, they mean Hayek. We keep repeating their words. I'm not saying that Lakoff is the key to victory, but this is one frame we need to drop if we want to move anywhere on healthcare.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Jul 20, 2005 1:03:01 PM

Wrong Zim. The welfare state has been enacted and Democrats are the ones defending it. YOU try taking it away and see how the voters react.

The only reason YOU win is because the Republicans are good at lying while the Dems horrible at it.

Your side lost a very long time ago.

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 20, 2005 3:56:39 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 17, 2007 2:50:39 AM

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