Monday, November 10, 2014

An Effective Political Strategy

Well, yeah, but who knew it
would work out this well?
Republicans won the 2014 mid-terms in overwhelming fashion. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of thought, speculation and agonizing over the reasons for this victory, and what Democrats might have done differently to achieve better outcomes.

I'd say two things. First, Congressional races are fundamentally different from national races. They involve much smaller constituencies, and those voter populations are arranged in a much different manner. The Obsolete American electoral system was originally designed to balance political power between the rural farmers and those in the cities. This has, over time, resulted in a deep imbalance in representation, with the smaller rural and exurban populations having a greater voice than the larger, more diverse urban populations.

But the main thing to think about isn't structural politics, or Democratic political strategies. It's more important to realize how successful Republican political strategy was, and to think about what that means for American democratic political system in the future. It has always been a temptation to the party out of power. Obstruct everything. Do everything you can to make sure that government can't solve any of the nation's problems, and intervene at every level to be certain that government doesn't help anyone or accomplish anything good. Use political power to trash the economy and then roll back unemployment benefits. It's tempting, but no party ever adopted it as an organizing strategy because the assumption was that voters would punish the party for making things worse.

Then came Mitch McConnell, and his post-election epiphany. After Obama's election, McConnell took the position that if they obstructed everything the new President tried to do, and prevented him from improving the economy or making anyone's lives better, the public would blame HIM - and by extension, the Democrats - for their unhappiness with the political leadership. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened. The result of six years of sabotage and vandalism on a grand political scale is the Republicans find themselves in their most powerful position in decades. They know they are unpopular, but their actions as the minority party in divided government made the status quo even more unpopular, and while everyone in the US is well aware of who the President is, surprisingly few of them know which party controls the houses of Congress, or even what Congress has the power to do.

Much of what has allowed the wealthy and the corporations to take complete control of the electoral and political system can be attributed to that alone. Americans are the ultimate low-information voters. They don't read, they have no understanding of how their own system is supposed to work, and they are very often simply misinformed by media outlets that can't or won't tell the truth. So they believe that the president has substantially more power than he does, and they hold him responsible for "not getting things done". The Republican party exploited this fundamental weakness, intentionally breaking the system of governance and then reaping the political benefits when the people predictably misdirected their anger.

Of course, the genie's well and truly out of the bottle now. The practical experiment in cynical, destructive politics has been run, and the results are there for all to see. Now, faced as we are with at least another decade of divided government, if one assumes the Democrats learn the lesson on offer, the chances for improvement in American quality of life are essentially null. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have a choice to make. Should they 'turn the other cheek', accept the role of the 'adult in the room' and try to govern within the constraints of what the Republican majority deems acceptable, or should they emulate the 'McConnell Doctrine' and just block, interfere, cripple and obstruct everything the Republican congressional leadership tries to do?

That question leads to another - if the Democrats lend support to whatever legislation can be passed that Obama might sign, will those same voters then see it as a revitalized Democratic President working with congress, or would they instead see it as the Republicans providing political and governmental leadership in a vacuum left by feckless Democrats? What you'd like to see mostly depends on what you believe is good for the country - my great concern is that Obama will sign odious Republican legislation in the name of 'governing' - so a robust Democratic minority obstructionist regime seems like the right approach to me.

But the real lesson is don't listen to the conventional wisdom, and don't listen to the media, who live in an alternative reality where the Republicans aren't barking mad anarchists, vandals and neo-fascists. Think about what you want, what you can get and what might be just a couple years away. You're going to have to live with a system that is broken at a fundamental level, and any effective political strategy is going to have to work within that framework.

1 comment:

  1. I'd say the lesson is you can't motivate the Democratic base by running Republican-lite candidates and pushing Republican-lite messages.

    But the Republican wing of the Democratic party is determined not to get that message. Their corporate payola depends on their failure to get it.