Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Question for Liberals

I've been pointing to the reluctance of Democratic Senate candidates to run on many liberal issues; Rachel Weiner has a WaPo story today about how poorly some liberal candidates have been doing in House primaries.

Of course, there's no shortage of stories about conservative victories in Republican House and Senate primaries. One can take this too far; it's not even close to true that the more conservative candidate regularly wins Democratic primaries. But still, there does certainly seem to be a difference. I've talked about the consequences...I think on balance it does lose seats for Republicans, but make them more reliable votes when they do win. But the question is: what's the explanation for the difference?

Note: I don't think the same is true for presidential nominations, for whatever that's worth.

15 comments:

  1. I think a large part of it is the gap in ideological self-ID. There are many more people who identify as conservative than liberal, so running as "the most conservative candidate" is a good way to win a GOP primary. I think the ideological appeal might come first--that is, primary voters think of themselves as conservatives more than they're attached to most actual issue positions. People might not know what their exact stance is on whether an individual mandate is acceptable; but once they hear that opposition is the "conservative" option, they endorse candidates who oppose the mandate. The same trick isn't available for Dems because running as the most liberal candidate isn't a surefire winner in the same way. This could be totally confused, though; it's a tough question.

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  2. I agree with Dan and also I wonder if the self-ID gap is compounded by the fact that the segment of self-ID liberals for whom voting for the most liberal candidate would be instinctive just doesnt participate in electoral politics with the same frequency as their conservative counterparts. They would skew much younger than their conservative counterparts and also might have an age-independent antipathy towards authority/institutions that repels them from voting. This is just conjecture, but it could be part of the story.

    I also think it has to do with the information-deficit for swing voters and how conservative messages/branding tends to play better to low-info voters than liberal messaging/branding. Some random low-information swing voter may not think of himself as a conservative, but when he hears that a candidate is "the most liberal" he automatically thinks peacenik/spendocrat and other things that make him wanna vote for the other guy. So Dems just avoid running on that label. Meanwhile on the other side, every candidate for dog catcher or comptroller or the school board orders up yard signs with "true conservative" in at least as big a font size as their own name.

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  3. I think it's about getting picked for the team. Republicans are team players, right? If you want to appeal to the sense of "team," you stress words that Luntz and his focus groups have been hyping forever. It makes a candidate "sound Republican," but if you get elected, so what?

    Drew, what you should recognize is that there is no rational connection between someone being a peacenik/spendocrat and therefore automatically unelectable. However, if you're really a peacenik, by definition you aren't fighting for your group. So you're off the team.

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  4. I'm not sure I understand the question (the difference between what?).

    I think it's pretty clear that during tough economic times, policies that can be ridiculed as "big spending" aren't likely to get much active promotion on the campaign trail.

    Here in Maine, we just selected the most liberal candidate; the R's selected a really hardcore candidate; and Angus King will be the next senator.

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  5. Democratic politicians view politics mainly as a job. Most have been running for office or serving in office most of their adult life. This leads them naturally to prioritize winning elections and staying in office over ideological goals. If that means a certain amount of hippie beating or pandering to corporate interests who fund their campaigns, then that's what they'll do. Democratic voters want their Congressmen to enact new progressive laws. A law that is 50% or even 25% of what they want is usually an improvement over the status quo, so they are content to let their politicians compromise in the hopes that over time more and more of the policy they truly want will become law. As long as a Democratic politician is not being completely obstructionist of the progressive agenda, the Democratic electorate is largely content to keep sending him back in the knowledge that that politician is incrementally helping bring about the progressive change that is wanted.

    Republicans often come to Congress for a few terms then leave. They run to defeat incumbents who they view in apocalyptic terms and enact policies they fervently believe in. They are quite content to leave Congress and government -- both of which they despise -- and become lobbyists, Fox News contributors, conservative think tank hacks, etc. Their voters don't want new laws passed. They want old laws destroyed. That leaves a lot less room for compromise and forces Republican members of Congress to themselves be extreme to keep being sent back.

    Obviously this is painting with very broad brushes but I think it is fundamentally true for a large portion of Congress.

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    1. shout out to Ron E. ! I do agree that the basic self-identity of actors that he identifies is indeed responsible for 50-80% of the ideological mushiness of D.'s that Jonathan is questioning.

      And spinning off Drew's comments, to account for a lot of the remaining 50-20% of the observed phemonenom, the people who tend to gravitate towards the "the most liberal position" are constantly having their attention taken away by the myriad siren songs of distractions like third-party-ism, defeatism & pessimism, Leninist/Ungerist "it has to get worse before it gets better" leftist infantilism, any huge number of positive and/or negative cultural diversions and any huge number of positive and/or negative personal diversions. Our side is just so much more interesting in human and cultural complications than their side is.

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  6. Jonathan Haidt captured something essential when he said that liberals don't care about group loyalty they way conservatives do. I also think that the far left likes either charismatic leadership or anarchy--looking at downballot sounds too much like "working within the system" for the most hardcore activists (their attitudes are a more important intangible than their limited effect as a voting bloc suggests). Tea Partiers succeeded to the extent that they didn't see the system itself as too corrupt to work within, and didn't see the average Republican voter (as opposed to politician) as an enemy.


    And if the far left defines itself as outside the system, that makes the center left "conservative" establishment types, by definition.

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    1. OWS is the canonical example here. Despite their opposition to electoral politics today, I don't think for the typical supporter that would alaways be the case. It would be more like Nader in 2000, John "Anyonebutbush" Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008 (though they may not have been super enthusiastic until Election Day), and now back to a pox on both houses stance. Obviously they have never owned the Democratic Party but they would be key to any insurgent movement--or at least their support would be a bellwether of overall enthusiasm for it.

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    2. Will -- where is this far left of which you speak?

      OWS is a grass roots movement born of frustration and de facto political impotence. That does not make them any kind of left.

      And back on topic, I'm quite sure I do not at all understand the question.

      But I'll venture that on the left there is no unifiable and easily mobilized block that is even vaguely comparable to any of the tea party, religious right, moral majority, or authoritarian followers (among whom there is a huge overlap, I have no doubt.)

      OTOH, I know quite a few progressives who will sit out this election because they HATE Obama.

      JzB

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  7. The explanation for this is bound to who makes up the marginal voters for each party. If you compare the liberal/moderate/conservative split of voters in general election (based on self id in exit polls) to the same split among the general adult population in the same year, an interesting pattern emerges. Liberals vote consistently in about the same proportion as they are in the general population. This is definitely not true for moderates and conservatives. Conservatives are generally under-represented in the electorate, except when Republicans have a big year. In close elections, moderates are slightly over-represented. In Republican years, moderates are slightly under-represented. In Democratic years, moderates are substantially over-represented.

    The lesson here is that Republicans need to activate those marginal conservative voters. Democrats, on the other hand, have to appeal to moderate voters to win. This pulls both parties to the right.

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  8. I believe this question is not only very important but it's answer at the heart of the misunderstanding of so many on the left about the democrats.

    It's because the two parties are not playing the same game. It's like one party has it's thumb down always and the other has a range of approaches to dealing with public policy. One can just say no, and no, and no while the other needs to solve and accept that no solution is without faults and without things the other side will use to hammer them with.

    The two parties aren't mirror images of one another. They are fundamentally trying to do different things (not opposite but different).

    The Republicans are the rejectionists. They are against. They are for tearing down. That's not so complicated, it's easier to rally around, and the lines are crystal clear. You work with someone who is in favor of the system like a Democrat, bye-bye. You support responsible efforts to avoid a debt-ceiling debacle, bye bye, your protecting the system. So a GOP voter is very clear what is and isn't okay.

    The Democrats on the other hand face vastly less clear lines. They are in favor of using the government to solve problems. But how? And at what price?

    How do they balance the costs and the risk that their policies won't work or that they will have unintended consequences. Trying to govern and trying to tear down the government just is not comparable. And that plays out in nominating candidates.

    It's like comparing the Bolsheviks to the Kerensky government. You are either a Bolshevik or you are not. Not true on the other side. One can and wants to be ideologically coherent. They are against the system. The other is wrestling with ways to govern and address issues as they come up.

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    1. I'd agree with some of this, but plenty of what the GOP wants and supports is about making the government work more effectively for their supporters and coalition (just like with the Democrats) -- it's not all about rejectionism and tearing down the government. This is actually a pet peeve of mine, why I've never liked the simplistic language of "de-regulation." A lot of what the GOP wants is revision of regulations in the interests of certain groups or for purposes different from the Democrats': it's not really always or even mostly about more vs. less regulation in some one-dimensional, straight quantity sort of way.

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    2. I think it depends what you mean by what the GOP wants and who one focuses on. The folks driving the purity test are generally against. And the rhetoric and energy is mostly against. Now yes, in practice they might desire alterations in regulation. But if you're telling me, for example, in a debate between two Republicans vying for their party's nomination, one made your argument and the other argued one should just abolish the agency overseeing the regulation, my bet is in the vast majority of examples the candidate arguing for abolishment would be much more helped than their opponent from this difference.

      You are talking a bit more from the perspective of a wonk looking at things from inside our legislative bodies. And from that perspective things may look as you say they do. I don't think they do elsewhere and it's elsewhere that's driving the GOP. I mean even Orin Hatch is vulnerable so that should say something. Thanks for your response.

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    3. I think it depends what you mean by what the GOP wants and who one focuses on. The folks driving the purity test are generally against. And the rhetoric and energy is mostly against. Now yes, in practice they might desire alterations in regulation. But if you're telling me, for example, in a debate between two Republicans vying for their party's nomination, one made your argument and the other argued one should just abolish the agency overseeing the regulation, my bet is in the vast majority of examples the candidate arguing for abolishment would be much more helped than their opponent from this difference.

      You are talking a bit more from the perspective of a wonk looking at things from inside our legislative bodies. And from that perspective things may look as you say they do. I don't think they do elsewhere and it's elsewhere that's driving the GOP. I mean even Orin Hatch is vulnerable so that should say something. Thanks for your response.

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