Polarization is not the problem. Extremist Republicans are the problem.

Centrism is not a solution. Democrats that stand up for their ideas are!

09 Jan 2018

An old politics-loving pal who I hadn’t seen in some years showed up at our house holiday party last December. We were catching up and chatting about the big, beautiful, and yuuuge blue wave that seems to be forming, but at some point she said: “No, I don’t think people should get involved with parties. We’re already too polarized.” Record scratch!

I should probably be better prepared for these kinds of conversations. I don’t even remember what I said, but it’s been rattling around in my head since then and this is definitely something that keeps coming up. A lot. I’ve torn this post up a couple of times and rewritten it over the past few weeks, (including tossing a couple thousand words overboard) but I think it’s pretty important so I’ve stuck with it.

I think comments like my friend’s indicate that while there’s a lot of shared agreement that something has generally gone terribly wrong in this country, we lack a shared diagnosis of what exactly that is. Getting that diagnosis wrong is driving a lot of people to seek the wrong treatment. If polarization is the problem, then disengaging from politics makes sense.

But if polarization isn’t the root cause, then that treatment might be counterproductive. So here’s the basic case for why I don’t see polarization as the biggest problem, and the basic logic for why I believe partisan engagement is the most effective thing you can do right now.

Republicans have Won A Lot and Dems have Lost a Lot. But, why?

If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to convince you that the current batch of Republicans are very, very extreme. Think about how far we’ve come: if Hillary had said during the campaign that Trump was going to appoint the CEO of Exxon to be Secretary of State, the press would have laughed at her. But, here we are.

This is a pretty extreme energy policy.

Republicans don’t run on their extremism, but they’ve absolutely mastered strategies for winning elections that have little (but not nothing) to do with their policies:

  • Wedge issues like race, immigration and reproductive freedom.
  • Rigging they system with money, gerrymandering and voter suppression.
  • Outstanding - like, scary good - marketing.

In the 2016 race, Trump’s campaign spent a little over $70M on Facebook ads. Clinton spent around $11M. And Trump spent vastly less on broadcast TV ads, but they were better and more persuasive. If your message and positioning is strong, you don’t need to spend as much! Look at this closing ad. Mercy. It’s so good. I disagree with almost every single thing Trump has done from the moment he set foot in office, but this ad almost made me want to vote for him!

This ad combines powerful storytelling combined with substance. What he said he wanted to do in the election (drain the swamp!) has been the opposite of what he’s done since he was elected. (giving the alligators all the money) But the message was perfectly clear from this.

These two images tell the story of how Clinton lost. Sorry for the production values on the message box; I sketched it out the day after the election. Try to enjoy its authentic low fidelity:

My lo-fi, day after message box for Clinton vs Trump.

That's what a $1B oops looks like.

This isn’t just a problem at the top of the ticket. Democrats lost over 1000 seats under Obama, including congress and state houses. How this happened was a combination of the racist, Tea Party backlash to Obama’s presidency, multiplied by a nearly-complete abdication of leadership by two successive DNC chairs, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Tim Kaine, who scrapped Dean’s 50 state strategy in favor of focusing almost exclusively on large donor fundraising.

So, how do we fight back? The good news is that changes are starting to come from the top. There are donors that are frustrated with the Dems inability to market themselves and the deeply broken process that has resulted in a cornocupia of limp candidates. But change needs to come from below, too, and you can have an impact on it.

This is the age old debate inside the Dem party: do Dems need to tack to the center to win? Since Trump’s election, a variant of this has played out, framed as whether Dems need to appeal to the white working class voters, or if they can win by appealing to the “New American Majority” (usually defined as young people, unmarried women and nonwhite voters). And you see this same question reflected in narratives around recent history. In one version of history, Democrats took the house back in 2006 due to Rahm Emmanuel’s courageusly pro-business leadership at the DCCC. What what really happened was that the horrors of the George W Bush presidency recruited a huge wave of activists, who proceeded to get involved everywhere around the US and lifted Dems into office, often in spite of the DCCC’s incompetence, meddling and money-obsessions.

I’m not going to attempt to settle this debate in this post, although I will say there’s research coming soon that I think is going to be fairly decisive. But some basic common sense is pretty clear:

You win by defining a worldview and making an argument that your ideas are better and that your team deserves to hold power, and by doing what you say you’re going to do and delivering results. You win by coming up with ideas for the economy that will work in East Oakland as well as they do in Ohio. In 1992, the Republicans ran on the Contract for America and put a full-page ad in TV Guide with a tear-out postcard asking voters to hold them accountable. (I learned about this on David Axelrod’s podcast interview with Ed Gillespie, which is really worth a listen, and I am still fully amazed by this fact) You win by telling stories that make sense to people. This is both the simplest thing in the world in politics, and the hardest.

Here’s a way to visualize this. This kind of diagram is based on two posts on this topic over the past few years, neither of which I’m going to link to because one is super wrong, and the other was right but apparently entirely unpersuasive for various reasons:

This says 2018 but it's remarkable how stable this pattern has been for my whole life.

Guess what this strategy of actually running on the GOOD IDEAS in the blue zone there does? It dissovles the white working class vs New America Majority question, because as shocking as this may be to some Dem pollsters, our brains all respond to peruasive ads in very similar ways, and good ideas lead to better outcomes for people! Big corporations have figured out how to run good, antiracist ads. It’s not EASY to make these ads, but it’s not impossible either. Dems can figure it out. I’m sure of it.

But Dems need to deliver on substance, too. The battle for the DREAMers has been an example of how Dems can both preserve norms and fight for the people they nominally represent. For one, they’re stopping families from being ripped apart, and putting at least a small check on the emerging police state that Trump is trying to build (which, in fairness, has been around for a long time and was not significantly dismantled by the Obama administration):

(Trigger Warning: Please take care of yourself and skip this video if you are triggered by children and parents being separated. Take my word for it, it's very powerful.)

For two, they stood up for normal Senate rules, which requires budgets to go though normal order and 60 votes to pass. The GOP had already pushed the norms hard by passing them under reconciliation move that only required 50, but they couldn’t do that again. Dems control 10 of those votes, so Republicans needed them. Republicans needed to compromise, and Dems were able to stave off the most draconian budget cuts, force the Senate to vote on it. They have not yet been able to move Paul Ryan’s extremist leadership in the House, where he is still governing using the rules set up by convicted serial child-molester Dennis Hastert, but at least they’ve made that crystal clear. It may take an election to do that.

What do YOU want?

Forget, for a second, what you think everyone else wants or what it will take to win. Think about what you want. You can use my list here as a starting point. This is your basic anti-suffering, pro-civilization-surviving, anti-kids-dying-at-higher-rates-than-anywhere-else, anti-greed, anti-militarism, people-over-things, solidarity-based society agenda.

This isn’t my whole list, but it’s a start. In Venus Shrugged, I call this Democratized Capitalism, but it’s not so different from social democracy. It is very hard to get lefties to agree on what they call things! It’s one of our greatest weaknesses, but I’ve come to the conclusion this failure to converge on persuasive language stems from our strong beliefs, so in a way, it’s a strength. Whatever you want to call it, here’s the list:

  • Strengthening and updating the safety net to reflect the realities of the new economy. (Updating does NOT mean privatizing - it has to look like some variant of Nordic-style flexicurity, portable benefits, etc)
  • Creating good jobs and turning the tide on inequality not just by raising the minimum wage and providing basic income, but by democratizing power in workplaces via unions, employee ownership, and co-ops.
  • Going beyond just ending college debt: big public investments in art, education at all levels, and basic research.
  • Demilitarizing the police and the border.
  • Further decriminalization of weed, and potentially other drugs, and aggressively providing treatment starting with the opioid crisis.
  • True energy independence, built on renewables.
  • Vigorous, immediate, job-creating action on climate change and strong environmental protections.
  • Decreasing spending on weapons systems and the incredible amounts of Pentagon waste, while increasing care for veterans.
  • Vigorous action on gun safety and massacre prevention: gun insurance, background checks, training requirements, enforcing existing laws around domestic violence.
  • Real policies to help families: guaranteed family leave, shorter work weeks.
  • Aggressive action on housing and transit.
  • Privacy protection, limits on surveillance and potentially at least, regulation of communications platforms like Google and Facebook.
  • Getting the costs of life’s basics under control. Health care, housing, school and retirement shouldn’t be available only for the rich.
  • Some kind of transitional path away from the grotesque waste in how we pay for our health care system.
  • Protecting democracy: expanding voting rights, knocking down barriers to participation.

Good news! That’s totally a winning agenda. It may be a bit past where some of the Dems are at, but even if they pick a couple of those issues to start with, that’d be a fine start. And while we’ve seen how American voters are susceptible to manipulation, they also have a strong sense they’ve been sold a bill of goods by Trump and his cronies. They know that looting the treasury to firehose money at the rich won’t make out country better, even if it does pump up the stock market briefly. There’s a vocal minority that hates immigrants, but far, far more pople that know that heartless crackdowns on immigrants won’t make our country stronger or preserve jobs. And they for sure know that racist rantings at football players kneeling before the flag protesting inequality and police violence isn’t actually going to solve any real problems.

And keep in mind that 100% of the discussion of those issues is happening in the blue, GOOD IDEAS zone in my political spectrum drawing. It’s not happening in the center, and it is for sure not happening in the BAD IDEAS zone on the right.

Is American Democracy Toast?

There’s been a lot of posting of ope-eds and talk about Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s new book, How Democracies Die. This excerpt of it, sort of the bottom line, is from Ezra Klein’s Vox summary:

The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.

But that’s not quite right. Or at least, it’s not quite not quite right, because it’s arguable that a lot of big cities have made pretty good progress on building that kind of system, and here in California we have at least started to lay the foundation for exactly that kind of mulit-ethnic democracy with a functional and inclusive economy at the state level. We’ve only started to put down the foundation - hi there, 20% poverty rate, rampant homelessness, ongoing police accountability problems, carbon emissions that are still way too high, and so on - but at least we have some measure of agreement on what the real problems are, and, post prop 187, that they’re not going to be solved by blaming brown people.

Even better news is that this is also a possible future scenario for the US, which I’ve been calling the Phillips-Lux-Leyden hypothesis. This scenario is laid out in Steve Phillips book, Brown is the New White, Mike Lux’s article, Darkest Before The Dawn, and Pete Leyden’s series of posts, California Is The Future. You should read all of these things! But here’s a summary in a few sentences:

Underlying demographic changes are creating a more diverse country. The Tea Party and now Trump are the backlash to this reality, but lots of times in America’s history, big progress has followed difficult times. A resurgent, diverse and progressive left are starting to build power and lift up elected leaders that are more reflective of that diversity. This new more reflective leadership isn’t sure of it’s agenda yet, but there’s rough agreement that the big problems are - building an economy that works for everyone and not frying the planet - and that racism is the single biggest barrier to these goals, but that we have an opening to make real progress on tackling these problems.

If you want to be immersed in a fictional taste of what this future would feel like, give part 1 of my novel Venus Shrugged a try. (and the more you share it on social media and write reviews, the faster I will get Part 2 edited!)

This Phillips-Lux-Leyden situation is only an opening. If too many people cling to nonexistent bipartisan chimeras, it’s not going to happen. Racism is really strong, and lots of voters are open to being manipulated by it. And if the discussions around these issues on my various feeds are any indication, letting go of the belief in bipartisan cooperation as the absolute paragon of political engagement, despite all evidence to the contrary, is not going to be an easy thing to shift.

It’s a really good time to get involved.

In my political spectrum drawing, see the little people surfing on the arrow, and the little dollar signs? This is where you come in.

Any time is a really good time to get involved, but right now is a particularly good time. If you’re in a red or purple state, get involved in a campaign, or better yet, the party. I love the work that groups like Indivisible are doing, and I realize I sound like a fossil saying this, but: I’ve now lived through a couple rounds of seeing organic, internet-led groups - almost always primarily led by white people - rise and fall. And I’m convinced that if you want to make lasting change, the way to do that over the long term is to join the Democratic Party and work to make it better. Politics is exciting and fun and the party is a great way to participate. It’s currently a bit hard to do this than it ought to be! I have some ideas about fixing this that I hope to be able to talk more about soon.

But in the meantime, there’s another thing you can do: a big barrier to Dems that are willing to take a stand is money. This is starting to shift a little at the institutional level, but not quickly enough, so small donations to good democrats are going to make a huge difference this year. If you don’t personally have money, get creative: hold a bake sale and invite the media. I know a lot of us don’t want to seem all political, but sharing things on social media can be helpful. And as for where to put your money, it’s currently way too hard to figure that out, even for total election geeks like me. But stay tuned to Always Forward, because we are working on some tools that will make this at least a bit easier.

And keep dreaming about what you want. It won’t be easy, but we we have an opportunity this year to take a big step in building a country where we can have nice things.

Bonus Video

So good, via RedwoodGirl on the Twitters.



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Oakland, California.