Democrats and the 'world domination' theory of politics 

Glenn Greenwald has a scathing post up about the Arkansas primary and what it says about the Democratic Party:

"What's going on here couldn't be clearer if the DNC produced neon signs explaining it.  Blanche Lincoln and her corporatist/centrist Senate-friends aren't some unfortunate outliers in the Democratic Party.  They are the Democratic Party. The outliers are the progressives. The reason the Obama White House did nothing when Lincoln sabotaged the public option isn't because they had no leverage to punish her if she was doing things they disliked. It was because she was doing exactly what the White House and the Party wanted. The same is true when she voted for Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, serves every corporate interest around, and impedes progressive legislation. Lincoln doesn't prevent the Democratic Party from doing and being what it wishes it could do and be. She enables the Party to do and be exactly what it is, what it wants to be, what serves its interests most. That's why they support her so vigorously and ensured her victory: the Blanche Lincolns of the world are the heart, soul and face of the national Democratic Party."

Greenwald goes on to suggest that the primary distinction functioning in modern American politics is not Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, or even left vs. right. Rather, Greenwald suggests that -- and proposed that the Arkansas run-off demonstrates -- the primary distinction in American politics is insider vs. outsider, vis-a-vis the Washington establishment.

There is, I think, a lot of truth to what Greenwald is saying here, but contra to his conclusion, I would offer that there remains an important ideological distinction that strongly influences the practice of American politics. That distinction is captured in what I would call the "world domination" theory of political strategizing and it plays out in terms of how buys into the notion of a world domination approach to their political strategies and who does not.

First of all, I should note the difference between the 'world domination' theory and the kind of centrist/triangulation/third-way political theory that was operative and popular in the 1990s. The triangulation of politicians like Bill Clinton and the third-way approach of folks like Tony Blair were an important -- nay, vital -- precursor to the current world domination approach. Under either variation, the political calculus looked something like: take the most liberal of liberal approaches to a particular issues, then take the most conservative of conservative approaches to that same issue, and what you should do is choose the course of action that most accurately falls in center of those two approaches. The idea being that by applying a sort of "golden mean" rule to political practice, you would not only come up with the most sensible -- or "moderate" -- course of action, you would also capture the greatest number of supporters for your course of action by incorporating some liberal ideas and some conservative ideas.

This kind of centrism actually worked quite well in the 1990s, as is highlighted by the length of Blair's Labour Party rule in Britain and the continued popularity and political pull of Bill Clinton (most recently on display in the primary of our examination). But in the twenty-first century landscape we now find ourselves, this kind of triangulation is literally political death. Not only does it rub voters the wrong way, but in both the US and the UK it has been shown to be fundamentally flawed. One need only look at the economic woes of each country and note how many of those woes hearken directly back to each respective leader to see just how lacking the triangulation approach politics really is.

In some circles, now President Obama was accused of just such triangulation. But for the most part, Obama's opponents were satisfied to attempt to label him a raging liberal or an unrepentant socialist. Contrary to some degree of popular opinion, Barack Obama as president has proven himself to be neither of those things.

If President Obama is guilty of anything, it is of trying to take Bill Clinton's triangulating centrism and refine it. What he has refined it into is the world domination approach.

The world domination approach let's go of the idea that courses of action are to be decided on an issue-by-issue basis and rather attempts to weave a grand unifying narrative by way of political coalition building. Such a narrative under the hospices of such coalitions will have a staying power that the changing of times will not be capable of tearing asunder. And so, the Obama administration has been engaged in just this type of narrative and coalition building, attempting to bring the progressive/liberal wing of the party together with the blue dogs to create one Democratic army -- not unlike Reagan's three legged stool approach.

However, in Obama's version of the Reagan revolution, the focus hasn't been so much on defining common goals on which each segment of the Party can agree and for which each segment can strive towards achieving. Rather, the focus has been one of assuming a chameleon effect: appearing to back the goals of the Blue Dogs when talking to Blue Dog Democrats, appearing to share the values of liberals when talking to liberals, appearing to laud the ideas of progressives when talking to progressives. There have been enough carrots dangled from enough sticks to entice enough different factions into close enough proximity to form a functional coalition.

The overall goal in this has been to pull enough of a majority of the country together in order to realize a future of competing -- and sometimes outright contradictory -- values. Most importantly, the goal of the world domination theory of political strategizing is to secure one's own base, while at the same time pulling a majority of support from that ever growing and always tantalizing swath of independent voters. If all of the staunch Democrats and a majority of independents are hip to your program, what's to stop you from doing everything you want to do?

This is where the theory -- and Democrats' efforts -- start to fall apart.

There is, of course, more than sufficient evidence to whet the appetite of Barack Obama and other Democrats about the possibility and need to lure independent voters to their side. A pervasive belief that a burgeoning pool of independent voters is the key to fulfilling any set of political aspirations runs through most analysis. Indeed, the latest polling from Pollster.com indicates that self-identifying independent voters (35.3%) out number both Republicans (25.2%) and Democrats (33%).

Consider that for a second. A pool of voters that out numbers both major parties. Who wouldn't want to win those voters over?

Unfortunately for President Obama and the Democrats the independence of those voters isn't quite so sure as it is often made out to be. At the Monkey Cage, John Sides delivers a devastating critique of what he describes as the myth of the political independents:

"But here is the problem: Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter (here). When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the “independent leaners.

The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.

The significance of independent leaners is this: they act like partisans. There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans."

Indeed, when we start to drill down on the data provided by some of the selected polls aggregated by Pollster, we see that Sides' analysis is born out. In the Pew Research/National Journal poll, of the 36% of the so-called independents, all were identified as either Democratic or Republican leaning (split right down the middle at 13% apiece). In the listed NBC News poll, of the 41% of respondents who identified as independent, only 14% identified as "purely independent". 12% of "independents" lean Democrat and 15% lean Republican. And in the AP-GFK poll, of the 25% identified independents, only 2% don't lean either Democratic. 10% identified as leaning Democratic and 13% identified as leaning Republican.

In each instance, we can see that Sides is quite correct, the number of truly independent voters is very small. And as Sides demonstrates quite convincingly, the rest -- those that are "leaners" and not "pure" independents -- tend to vote quite predictably along the partisan lines towards which they lean.

So for all Democrats' efforts, the share of truly independent voters for which they are effectively fighting is mind numbingly small. Most of the independents that politicians and pundits talk about being the key voting block in the country have already, before the debate has even started, largely made up their minds and those they might expect to be able to win over have already been won regardless of what they do.

This is a lesson that Democrats conservative and Republican counterparts seem to have learned, at least of late. I'm not suggesting that the purity tests of movement conservatism are, necessarily, the best or most logical course of action for the GOP. Indeed, I think that the experiences of people like Bruce Bartlett and David Frum speak to the danger that this tendency holds in terms of the loss in critical capacities of a movement and tendency towards insularity and cocooning that become encouraged.

But what conservatives and Republicans have learned is in their best interests -- a lesson that Democrats and their world domination approach to politics seem to have yet to learn -- is that their efforts are best placed not towards trying to woo moderate voters from the center by watering down their message, but rather focus on creating the best kind of conservatism possible. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, conservatives have chosen rather to be exactly who they are and to focus on making strong arguments. Formulation of that, wins voters over based not by dangling carrots in front of them, but by changing their minds.

In other words, conservatives and Republicans are primarily concerned with being conservatives and Republicans. And this seems to be an approach for which voters are prepared to now reward them in November. Democrats would do well to learn from this example.

The world domination approach to politics that is championed by Barack Obama and his fellow Democratic leadership is ultimately as doomed to failure as its third-way, triangulating-centrist predecessor.

Why?

What voters want, increasingly, is to know for whom they are voting and that having voted for a particular candidate/party, they will live up to on the campaign trail.

If there is a balancing that takes place in modern politics, it is not by one party or one candidates trying to successfully walk the tight rope of promising one thing to one group, a completely different thing to a different group, and not being able to really deliver on either promise because of the contradictory nature of each. Rather, the balancing and juxtaposing push and pull that promises to make American politics so effective come from each party being precisely who they are and being the best that they can be. In so doing, each party thereby appeals to that proportion of the electorate that resonates with their ideas and values and represents those voters to the best of their ability. Then they participate in the debate based on these values in the most sincere fashion possible.

This is the picture of a healthy democracy, not the pallid visage that Democrats are currently working so hard to unsuccessfully maintain.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama talked about being open, and able to learning things from his political opponents. Indeed, for many this promise was the core of what was so appealing about the Obama campaign. Now President Obama would do well to make good on that promise and learn from conservatives and Republicans, that the world domination approach to politics is flawed. It should be abandoned in favor of he and Democrats focusing on the one thing they ought to be able to do best: be Democrats.

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Scott Payne

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