Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Reason Democrats Keep Losing Elections

Clive Crook of the Financial Times and the Atlantic Monthly nails it on the head:

Democrats speak up for the less prosperous; they have well-intentioned policies to help them; they are disturbed by inequality, and want to do something about it. Their concern is real and admirable. The trouble is, they lack respect for the objects of their solicitude. Their sympathy comes mixed with disdain, and even contempt.

Democrats regard their policies as self-evidently in the interests of the US working and middle classes. Yet those wide segments of US society keep helping to elect Republican presidents. How is one to account for this? Are those people idiots? Frankly, yes - or so many liberals are driven to conclude. Either that or bigots, clinging to guns, God and white supremacy; or else pathetic dupes, ever at the disposal of Republican strategists. If they only had the brains to vote in their interests, Democrats think, the party would never be out of power. But again and again, the Republicans tell their lies, and those stupid damned voters buy it.

If only the Democrats could contain their sense of entitlement to govern in a rational world, and their consequent distaste for wide swathes of the US electorate, they might gain the unshakeable grip on power they feel they deserve. Winning elections would certainly be easier - and Republicans would have to address themselves more seriously to economic insecurity. But the fathomless cultural complacency of the metropolitan liberal rules this out.

It will be hard. They will have to develop some regard for the values that the middle of the country expresses when it votes Republican. Religion. Unembarrassed flag-waving patriotism. Freedom to succeed or fail through one's own efforts. Refusal to be pitied, bossed around or talked down to. And all those other laughable redneck notions that made the United States what it is.

As a member of the overly educated and affluent cultural elite in that dread bastion of liberalism, San Francisco, I can tell you that Crook's assessment of Democratic attitudes is true. The middle of the country consists of "flyover states." Texans and southerners are violent, uneducated rednecks. And God forbid anyone impose the least restriction on abortion rights.

The problem is that the elites automatically make certain key assumptions that simply don't hold true for much of the electorate:
  • Economic issues are more important than social issues
  • Smart people should decide what's good for us
  • Religious faith is not a valid decision-making criteria
The bottom line is that if you truly believe that the kingdom of Heaven is more important than our life on Earth, each of those assumptions is dead wrong.

The minimum wage (which, by the way, is a *horrible* idea) doesn't condemn people to Hell, but premarital sex does.

Men of God are the best advisors on any issue, since they are more likely to show us how to do God's will than godless scientists and economists.

And if a major political party supports the right of misguided women to murder their unborn children, then it must be stopped at all costs.

Look, I'm sympathetic--I believe in voting on economic issues, which is why I generally vote Republican (back when Republicans stood for fiscal restraint), even though I loathe the social conservative movement.

But the bottom line is that the Democrats need to stop whining about how the world should work, and figure out how to win elections based on the realities on the ground.


Alex said...

I think your analysis is quite right. Although I would be interested in the distinction between the hardcore party republicans and those who will republican due to their socially conservative platform.

The first group is the one you see filling the internet with liquid stupidity, while the second group seems to be who you are suggesting the democrats could win over.

Independent said...


It’s true; the realities of the political ground war require pandering to Overall Consensus. It’s how the democrats can win.

-But at what cost?

• Overall Consensus cheered on a no name junior governor with deep rooted evangelical views on public policy to the 2nd highest rank in our government. What happens when your son or daughter is get’s spoon fed unsupervised intellectual garbage at lunch time.l What happened to the separation of church and state.?


• Overall Consensus has also allowed government secrecy and constitutional erosion to be at its highest ever.


• Overall consensus allowed our federal budget to soar toward 407B


• Overall Consensus watched Haliburton escape paying US taxes, as U.S. soldiers and taxpayers paid for no-bid contracts and endured overcharges.


• And lest not forget how we got here. Overall consensus allowed Bush's War. All predicated on lies. Today’s news: Alaskonomics



Political winds shift as the country shifts but no one should be so entrenched by political brainwashing as to not recognize when something is wrong.

The Right is great at getting out to the poles- but having let the aforementioned atrocities transpire is true political apathy. I can only hope we don’t get duped for another 4 years.

Retired Syd said...

I've been thinking about this post for days, it has really had an effect on me because:

1) I am a Democrat concerned with the less prosperous, disturbed by inequality, and wanting to do something about it,

2) My concern is real, and

3) I am totally guilty of the lack of respect for the objects of my solicitude (although I really need to go look that word up . . )

In particular, I am very concerned with the 47 million Americans that have no health insurance.

47 million voters would certainly be enough to swing this election (although some of these are children who cannot vote).

What this post has told me, is I need to let go. If these voters don't "have the brains to vote in their interests" as noted in your post--what can I do? The electorate will have spoken.

And I stand to gain from McCain's tax policies and be hurt by Obama's, so I walk away with money in my pocket if my side loses. What we call a win-win, right?

I can't quite convince myself that yet, but your post certainly did speak to me.

Foobarista said...

The problem is the Marxist "dialectic of materialism" undertone of the "What's the Matter with Kansas" thesis. Most people aren't impressed by politicians offering free lunches - even if they're hungry.

If people are seen as having a "false class consciousness", maybe the problem isn't "The People", but the pundit who has read Das Kapital one time too many.

alice said...

Excellent insightful post.

Reminds me of what Dr Phil says- do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

As an ex-liberal, religious (not Christian) political agnostic, I get annoyed by the common assumption that religion = being a moron. If Democrats can't understand the utter stupidity of middle America, the only other approach is to listen to them with increased intellectual humility. We're talking about a wide range of different views there, not a homogenous bunch of idiots.

As long as Democrats can't lower themselves to take those views seriously, they will continue to lose. And if they lose, they are failing all the people they say they want to help, which is appalling.

Anonymous said...

I like where this post started out, and in general where it was going. But then, at the end, you demonstrate *precisely* the problematic attitude & distorted perspective Clive Crook is criticizing.

If you think the explanation for Republican electoral victories is that these are people who believe "premarital sex condemns people to Hell" or that "Men of God are the best advisors on any issue, since they are more likely to show us how to do God's will than godless scientists and economists," you have a completely, utterly deluded view of what most people voting Republican are about. We're talking about the vast center, here, not the fringes. You might as well have also said they "hate gays," since that was such popular explanation after the last election, perfectly suited to make Democrats feel better about themselves. And just as false. The American center is just about the most tolerant, unbigoted, pragmatic, common-sensical, undogmatic population in the world (I remember reading about a study on this a year or two ago).

Even the assumption that they are voting predominantly on "social" *rather than* "economic" issues is skewed and condescending; as foobarista suggests, it's the problem with "the problem with Kansas": you're assuming that they don't have rational bases to believe, rightly or wrongly, the Republican platform *is* ultimately better for their economic interests. (As a capitalist, I'm sure you can't really believe that.)

So what your advice at the end seems to amount to is that Democrats should become, as it were, better anthropologists, going out in the field to study a strange tribe of people with peculiar beliefs and forms of reasoning that are not really "rational" (or not as rational as yours), but whom you might (sympathetically, benignly, with the best intentions) manipulate, get to vote for you, by speaking in the right "language" and condescending to show their (strange) values at least outward respect.

Sure you can try that-- but it doesn't sound very different from what the Democrats are doing now, and have been doing for over a decade. (Remember the deadly barb against Obama in Palin's speech: the problem wasn't what he said to the people in Idaho, but what he said about them, behind their back, to the people in San Francisco. Like in this very post-- it's how you talk about the great majority of Americans when you're talking "amongst yourselves.")

If you can't find a way to establish a real, authentic dialogue with other Americans who you treat and genuinely consider as genuine (not inferior) interlocutors, different though they may be from you, not underestimating their intelligence or rationality or ability to judge for themselves what is best for themselves, their family, and their country; then you'll always come off as phony. (And believe me, people can sense this a mile away.) Clinton is the only Democrat who has succeeded at this in recent memory. If you can't, it doesn't necessarily make you a bad person. But then you probably shouldn't get into politics-- for your own sake, as well as the people you would represent & govern.

By the way, I'm a pro-choice single atheist woman in a PhD program at Berkeley who lives in San Francisco... and I will be voting for McCain/Palin. (Though I probably won't be admitting that to anyone around me-- there's not much tolerance for something like that around here.)

Chris said...


I hope that you end up seeing this comment. I must say, I'm delighted to hear that there is someone in Berkeley who will be voting for John McCain. It's amazing how intolerant the proponents of "tolerance" can be. Both parties seem quite eager to support freedom, as long as people don't make choices that they disagree with!

I definitely did not intend for my post to denigrate social conservatives (though I disagree with their views). My assumption was that to beat some sense into the heads of the Democrats, I needed to speak their language and frame the discussion in terms that they understood.

My prescription is to stop whining and deal with reality...this doesn't necessarily mean patronizing one's opponents, but rather genuinely trying to understand.

While Bill Clinton was a master of convincing people that he "felt their pain," the fact is that after he did so, he went ahead and did whatever the heck he thought was best for Bill Clinton. The Democrats need to get beyond that if they want to be successful.

That means honestly looking within themselves and admitting that they don't know the answers, and that, God forbid, they just might be wrong about things.

It means having the courage to accept common sense limits on abortion rights, rather than vowing to fight on the barricades.

It means treating religion as a potential force for good and as a major contributor to happiness and productivity, rather than an evil that must be rooted out.

And it means realizing that maybe, just maybe, the people are smart enough to realize that trusting the government to provide for them is a recipe for tyranny, rather than freedom.

That being said, I don't believe if total value neutrality. I believe that there is a right and a wrong...but that which is which is not always readily apparent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the very thoughtful reply to my comment; I agree with everything you said. It's a tricky time for those of us (independents) who genuinely straddle both parties, not entirely comfortable within or outside either, when you have the media going on about a "culture war," and people on both sides lobbing grenades.

Ironically, I think this is an election year in which those divisions, in reality, have become less rigid & unbridgeable. When e.g. a majority of Americans are in favor of civil unions (if not gay marriage); when there was barely a trace of the religious right or its pet issues in the Republican convention; when you have Republicans nominating someone like *McCain* of all people & arguing that a woman need not give up ambition for family; I find the "culture war" cries rather hollow. But the fact that so many pundits have felt the need to raise the "culture war" flag, is, I think, yet another symptom of this post's theme.

It just occurred to me, but perhaps it's the narcissism of small(er) differences-- and the rage at Palin is not so much about her otherness, as her disconcerting closeness. Which is why so many people on the left have rushed to "other" her-- set her at a more comfortable distance/ difference. Just a theory. By the way, thank you for making the correction in the post above, re intelligent design. I think it hurts Democrats to spend so much effort attacking a figment-- which in the end most people won't buy (and will resent being deceived about)-- instead of the actual, flawed reality of the candidate herself. Not to mention the fact that, of course, their focus should be on McCain (and articulating the substance of Obama's vision).

Chris said...


I absolutely agree that the lower level of differences has accounted for the viciousness of the campaign. The same held true for the Democratic primary, where there was literally no difference between the candidates' policy positions.

Leslie said...

I think the Democrats vis a vie Obama realize now that they have to compromise to stay in power. They are on probation. I disagree that all Democrats are elitist snobs who don't appreciate middle American values. I think that is the number one talking point of the Republican party. How surprising that it didn't help them win the election.