Monday, November 15, 2010

A Swing & a Miss

Thoughts on the Beyond the Ballot Conference by a Traditional, Just-Left-of-Center Southern Democratic Voter

First of all, the many thanks to the Bipartisan Policy Center for putting on a great conference. The panels were smart and to the point, the moderators asked probing questions, the panelists were all expert-level analysts in their field, and questions from the audience were (for the most part) outstanding inquiries that were handled, moderated and answered well by the folks on the stage. This was an incredibly educational experience, and one that was made accessible to more than policy wonks or political hobbyists; there was a lot of complex material covered in a short amount of time, but it was presented in a way that made sense.

I hope they will host this conference in New Orleans every year.

I was also glad to see that there are folks with clout in Washington seriously addressing the structural issues of our current government dysfunction, especially the problems with the way our nation currently gerrymanders political districts and how Washington’s schedules diminish the professional atmosphere of government. The tone of the whole conference was collegial, professional and civil, exactly the things that don’t seem present in our larger politics and media today.

That being said, I do have some serious critiques.

“Beyond the Ballot” was billed as “brining the Beltway to New Orleans,” and they absolutely delivered on that. While there were a few notable exceptions, this was an insider’s conference. Now, make no mistake, it was supposed to be that way, and that was the billing. But that’s an awful lot of ex-Clinton and ex-Bush aides in one room. Furthermore, the overwhelming demographics of this group (mostly middle-aged men of Caucasian or Jewish ethnicity) just goes to show how monolithic political thought still is from that standpoint.

Now, I get that politics these days are overwhelmingly partisan in needless or hyperbolic ways, and I get that such can wreck the functionality of our governing and information institutions. But I also wonder how much worry over “bipartisanism” is just a macro fear of changing demographics? With changing demographics come changing politics and methods of communication.

Civility and principled partisanship are not mutually exclusive. I’m very glad Paul Begala made this point. At some point, you have to wonder how much of the conference was talking about partisan politics and how much of the conference was talking about civility. Bipartisanship does not always mean compromise on “principles.” It damn sure doesn’t mean “let the Republican or conservative panelists say whatever they want while the Democratic or liberal panelists concede points.” There were several moments where this was infuriating, because in our current political atmosphere, “bipartisan” has somehow come to mean one side “compromising” while the other side refuses to do so.

Luckily, there were a few panelists who refused to concede the conversation.

One notable concession was leaving the following narrative unchallenged: “Polls show that independent voters are closer to the GOP on principles and issues.” I would posit that polls show independent voters closer to GOP on GOP marketing.

Because while they’re important, “the wrong direction for the country” and “the government doing too much” aren’t principles or issues. When the polls get more specific, like extending the Bush tax cuts or repealing and replacing the Health Care law, independents line up with stated GOP positions at only 51%. When plurality is questionable within the margin of error, that doesn’t a mandate make.

Now, the polls examined at the BTB conference did show massive swings in independent voter support – waves for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, Republicans in 2010. What was never examined (at least while I was in the room) were the marketing strategies and political narratives that got the independent vote (which was stable, and nearly even, from 1992 to 2006) swinging in the first place. A cratering economy can do that. What was examined was the erosion of trust in either party to handle the economy.

Which I found surprising, considering the demonstrable nosedive we were in at the beginning of the Obama administration has been replaced by a steady economic uptick since bottoming out in those first few months. That voters would blame Obama and the Democratic Congress for an bad economy when said economy is in better shape in every possible way than when they found it is a testimony to how important marketing, advertising and narrative are to our culture and political discourse. Of course, as it was noted, the voters in 2010 were very different, demographically, from voters in 2008.

One audience member did effectively ask why the voters voted for Obama before voting against him. He didn’t phrase it that way, but he got raucous applause anyway.

Critique of the current President was ample, and that was the only place I heard discussion of marketing and narrative. Polls indicate: Voters thought he spent too much time on health care and not enough time on jobs. Voters did not like the bailout, the stimulus, or the automaker bailout; even though all of them have appeared to work, without outright nationalization as feared, voters are punishing those they feel are responsible. Analysts indicate: The President didn’t adequately tie all of these programs to job creation. The President ran on health care, made health care the priority, and then left it to polarizing figures in the Congress to argue about it for months. Can’t argue with any of that.

The concession came when a Republican pollster stated “voters elected Obama to change Washington, not to change America.” Zing! And no one challenged that.

Look. America has changed. America is changing. Fundamentally. One very good point made during the conference is that the American people are dealing with fundamental failures in almost all of our cultural institutions: government, business, education, religion and even sports. The only national institution in which people have faith is the military, and that’s not a very stable place to be as a nation.

That’s what is creating so much fear and uncertainty. The President is an embodiment of that change, but is not the source of it. Government can recognize and respond to these changes, or it can stagnate. Unfortunately, our history indicates we will choose to stagnate for as long as possible before something terrible will force us to accept reality. (Please see also: 1850, Compromise of; US racial History, 1877 to 1965)

Even with all the fear and uncertainty and change, America is not changing in the way the right wing, Tea Party and the GOP claim it is. These points were never challenged. As a matter of fact, there was a great deal of deference to the Tea Party.

The idea that politicians and the media are the institutions demonizing the Tea Party is a cognitive disconnect so deeply held I start to lose faith that this nation can survive it (until I read some history where we have, in the past, because people stopped putting up with crap). Folks, let me make this clear: the Tea Party needs no help demonizing itself. They do so whenever they are in front of the camera, the microphone, or communicating in any other way.
I wish we had an actual movement in this nation expressing libertarian, foundational views of this republic; I’ve long held that I may not agree with Ron Paul or Paul Ryan on the issues, but they are legitimately held positions that represent a legitimate understanding of history and economics, and represent a competing vision for this country’s future. I think there are some individuals who consider themselves “Tea Partiers” who believe that they are doing something similar.

The Tea Party I have seen is not that, however. In their own words, it has morphed into a Christianist, xenophobic and intolerant movement that supports high spending, government violation of civil liberties, religious oppression, endless war (Iran is next!), subsidization of the uberwealthy and unilateral foreign policy. Once they have enunciated those positions, they turn around and posses the historical amnesia to dismiss hard-fought American social advancements, and ascribe tyrant status to President Obama and Democratic members of Congress for “controlling every aspect of our lives” in ways that the government has done for decades, if not centuries. These aren’t new arguments, by the way.

Remember what the Tea Party explicitly thinks and states about people like me.

So color me surprised that so much was said about the Tea Party at a bipartisan-topic conference without mentioning any of that. Instead, there was a deep level of respect demonstrated as if the Tea Party has exhibited some sort of monolithic, coherent policy positions that Washington Republicans and Democrats must now take into their political calculus. The Tea Party wants things, and they want to oppose everything about President Obama. How will they react in the next two years if they don’t get what they want from the GOP or if the GOP attempts to find common ground with the President (it is possible)?

One of the things that was mentioned was "letting the air out of the tire" or "relieving the pressure" - that pressure being voter anger at government, specifically Tea Party anger - and how the GOP would A) try to do that to reestablish a type of order or B) try to keep the voter anger going and leverage it against the President. Of course, both come with risks and rewards. On the one hand, doing what the Tea Party wants might lessen the number of primary challenges to GOP incumbents. On the other hand, you've got to keep the base involved.

Of course, we've seen which track was taken over the past several years. Even if they didn't want to talk about it at the conference, I think we already know which direction they'll take. And that direction does not lead to more bipartisan solutions.



Dante said...

"That voters would blame Obama and the Democratic Congress for an bad economy when said economy is in better shape in every possible way than when they found it is a testimony to how important marketing, advertising and narrative are to our culture and political discourse."

I call bullshit:
Unemployment Rates from Bureau of Labor Statistics
Year Qtr1 Qtr2 Qtr3 Qtr4 Annual
2000 4.0 3.9 4.0 3.9
2001 4.2 4.4 4.8 5.5
2002 5.7 5.8 5.7 5.8
2003 5.9 6.2 6.1 5.8
2004 5.7 5.6 5.4 5.4
2005 5.3 5.1 5.0 5.0
2006 4.7 4.7 4.6 4.5
2007 4.5 4.5 4.7 4.8
2008 5.0 5.3 6.0 6.9
2009 8.2 9.3 9.7 10.0
2010 9.7 9.7 9.6

That you would even try to claim the economy is better now than two years ago despite the wretched unemployment figures is its own testimony to how important marketing, advertising and narrative are to our culture and political discourse.

I do agree that marketing is very important but I do not share your displeasure over marketing. Marketing is how ideas get out there. The Democrats didn't market health insurance reform or the bailouts effectively. We got a lot about health care's affordability without much on why the comprehensive bill as it was written would be effective, especially absent was why it would be more effective than separate bills addressing distinct issues. The bailouts weren't explained at all. We were given threats like there would be massive foreclosures and automakers would go bankrupt if the stimulus bill wasn't passed but that stuff happened anyway. I think the Obama administration thought they wouldn't have to sell stimulus since it was an extension of Bush policy. Someone didn't bother to check Bush's polling numbers around that time.

But yeah, you need marketing. It's how you express your ideas and get other people to actually listen to them. It can be misused, but it can also be used appropriately and still be effective. And it's not like Republicans have always been marketeers. Just look at that whole 1996-1998 mess in Congress. Republicans thought they could stop selling their ideas because they now had a majority in Congress. Sound familiar?

Mavric said...

I call bullshit on your bullshit:

While unemployment is one economic indicator, it is generally lagged, taking about two quarters to reflect the actual state of the economy. By that measure and your statistics, President Obama walked in on 9.7 an his policies brought us down from 10 back down to hover @ 9.6. In the comming months, I expect that number to drop further, though not as dramatically as it jumped up under President Bush (from 6.0 to 8.2).

I don't believe marketing in and of itself is a bad thing, but when people arive at an opinion, then look for statistics to support their position, it often leads to inaccuracys. In the blogosphere, with tens of friends gleefully waiting to "help" if you don't check your stuff, it leads to fun posts. In the media, once a story has gone to press, the accused rarely has the chace to rebutt.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

"Unemployment Rates"

Yes, we currently have high unemployment. This comes 24 months after the economy was in demonstrable freefall. The nation was hemmorhaging jobs, trillions of dollars evaporated, banks overleveraged on real estate were shutting down at record pace.

At some point in the last 24 months, that trend bottomed out, and the economy began the long, slow crawl back up. Whether this has to do with actual Democratic policies or not is a different question, but what is a demonstrable fact is that the economy is more stable and is growing (albeit slowly).

Compared to what the situation was just 24 months ago, that is a huge turnaround.

And yet, the political marketing of the GOP has been able to blame all of the economic troubles on Democrats. I find that amazing.

I absolutely agree that "marketing is how ideas get out there", and I've long said that the Democratic membership's inability to even try to market health care and the stimulus spelled political doom. I have no problem with "marketing" per se, and I envy the ability of other political factions to do it.

However, marketing should not be confused with investigation and rigorous examination of fact. Marketing can create imaginary problems to sell false solutions; marketing can make people needlessly and clinicly insecure; marketing creates a brand identity that transcends rational thought.

One reason I don't trust the GOP or the Tea Party is because they have blatantly done all of those things bigger and better than anyone else in recent years. They didn't win this election on policy or issues or even facts, they won this election with savvy marketing.

And while I must respect their ability to do so, I do not have to then accept their marketed version of policies or issues as what they actually represent or even as facts to be entered into the public debate.

jeffrey said...

How soon do you expect our miraculously rescued corrupt finance-based economy to (strike)trickle down(/strike) translate into a turnaround in unemployment? I wouldn't hold my breath.

I'm sure you're paying attention to this tedious argument over whether the current unemployment situation is a "structural" or "cyclical" problem.

I think we're really beyond having to figure that out. Our rulers decided a long time ago that they could make more money faster in an economy where wealth isn't actually created through the production of goods (and even services) but instead through the speculative valuing and trading of assets.

For those of us who rely on work rather than ownership for our livelihoods, there is less and less for us to do in such an environment. If you want to call that "structural" unemployment or underemployment then that's what it is.

As Ezra Klein points out here this still means that short-term policies like extending unemployment insurance benefits are appropriate choices for alleviating some of the effects of structural unemployment.

But, in my opinion, getting to an economy that creates real wealth for real people many many more fundamental changes in trade policy and in support for workers' rights to organize for starters. It also would require serious reform of our financial system and a health care law that kills rather than props up the corrupt insurance industry the way Obamacare does.

But we're not getting any of that any time soon. And the reason we're not getting any of that doesn't have anything to do with hyper-partisan incivility.

Quite the contrary, in fact. It is the "structural" bi-partisan consensus of the past 30 plus years that prevents these necessary changes from ever becoming a possibility.

Last night I watched Olbermann talk with Chris Hayes about the possibility of filibuster reform and they inadvertently hit on a truism about our two party politics.

HAYES: I think that‘s right. I think there‘s two things. I think there‘s a cultural distinction between the Democratic and Republican caucus and their ethos. I mean, Republicans tend to be maximalists. Democrats tend to be incrementalists. We‘ve seen this manifest itself in all sorts of way, particularly since 1994 and going through and the way that the different senators conduct themselves, particularly on the Senate side.

I think Hayes is right about the "cultural ethos" of the two parties but he doesn't explain how it works. Here's what we're actually seeing.

When Republican "maximalists" are in power they're very good at making the most of the slim majorities that put them there to reach for shockingly regressive policy enactments such as the so-called "Bush tax cuts" Later when Democrats are elected by slightly less slim majorities, it's their job to "incrementally" ease these shockingly regressive policies into the permanent realm of the new normal through "reasonable compromise".

And that's how bi-partisanship works in Washington. And it's what the Carville event was created to celebrate.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

A turnaround in unemployment

I expect we will return to 5-6% "unemployment" within the next 2 to 4 years.

But as I've said often, these figures are unsustainable types of "employment," where real earnings aren't high enough to keep up with cost of living expenses. I think a lot of folks will have jobs that are merely vehicles for credit applications and paying off interest on debt accrual. I see it as a sort of optional serfdom.

People are angry about that situation, as it stands, which has translated into voter anger. That anger is not likely to abate while those fundamental economic issues continue to exist.

The purpose of this excercise is to examine how that voter discontent and economic stagnation translates into our politics.

Because I didn't see the Carville event "celebrating" the broken version of "bipartisanship" our nation currently employs. There was genuine concern that something is deeply wrong.

These panels of experts used their considerable talents to examine what that was, and are trying to find answers. I just don't think they have an adequate grasp on the questions just yet, and too much truth and too many facts are still thought to be negotiable.

bayoustjohndavid said...

I agree with Jeffrey. Put another way, Democrats have won short-lived tactical victories by occasionally capturing the center, Republicans have gained the strategic advantage by moving the center. Of course, that was made possible by well-funded think tanks that have helped distort most Americans' understanding of History and Economica, but it would have never happened if conservative leaders shared liberal leaders fear of extremism.

That brings me to the WTF reaction I had to one point in this post:

" I’ve long held that I may not agree with Ron Paul or Paul Ryan on the issues, but they are legitimately held positions that represent a legitimate understanding of history and economics, and represent a competing vision for this country’s future"

Huh? I'm old enough to remember when conservatives, at least mainstrean conservatives, said that unions were necessary at one point, but had gained too much power , that the reforms of the Progressive Era and New Deal were necessary but had gone too far. Now, even some mainstream conservatives say that we didn't need those reforms at all. It would be impossible to hold those views without willful ignorance of American History. Rand Paul thinks America a hundred years ago was all "Little House on the Prairie" and not at all "The Jungle," and he ignores the role of the government in putting that house on the prairie. The same seems to hold true for Paul Ryan.

Don't get me wrong, tribalism doesn't seem to work as well for liberals as for conservatives, but the small government, free market myhts that conservatives push need to be challenged. If liberals, or slightly left-of-center progessives, had the balls to say that the free market response to the industrial revolution was to build the Triangle Shirt Factory and the free market response to globalization has been to build triangle shirt factories in Asia, they'd have a lot more relevance.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Yes, there are a lot of distortions and fabrications and intentionally misleading interpretations of American economic and cultural history by many, many right-wings. Libertarians, especially, seem to have a knack for historical amnesia and utopianism.

However, I have listened openly to folks like Ron Paul (not to be confused with his Senator son) and Paul Ryan because you have to listen to what people are saying if you want to respond in an effective way.

Ron Paul consistently mentions how expensive American intervention overseas is. Paul Ryan has enunciated, through his Road Map, a coherent, if disagreeable, economic vision for the future of the United States. From what I've seen of these two, they aren't trying to refight battles of the past (wisely so). They don't need to.

One of the biggest Democratic disadvantages is that they assume settled policy is already settled, and that the voting population automatically agrees with settled policy. It is as if this nation acheived some things once upon a time and now all we have to do is protect those things. It doesn't work that way.

The GOTP has figured this out, the Democrats have not.