Rage Machine Vs. Turnout Machine

Demography isn’t destiny (or else African Americans would still be voting for the party of Lincoln), but parties and candidates must exercise persuasive agency, lest it become so. By that, I mean they must actually propose policies that address the concerns of a majority of Americans, effectively cutting across demographic categories, rather than cordoning them off. Republicans today fatally conflate identity with interests and values. For the white male base of the Republican Party (which Romney carried in a 65-32 landslide), and the white vote over 65 (pro-Romney, 61-39), affirmation of identity rests on the exclusion of, and anxiety about, various “others” in contemporary, cosmopolitan America. The party has trapped itself in a demographic and ideological cul de sac. The differences between these men and older Americans, and various cohorts of women, minorities, gays, young people, and those with advanced degrees must be accentuated in order to both, at once, stoke and soothe the base’s festering worries. Evangelical Protestants (26% of the vote this year) and right wing Catholicism focus particularly on opposing the social claims of single, sexually active women and gays.

By contrast, Canada’s Conservative Party, in a country without a powerful, reactionary religious movement, has much more effectively and consciously sought the support of that country’s many groups of newer immigrants, and has avoided trying to create a moral panic about same sex marriage (legal in Canada) or abortion (almost entirely unrestricted). The national single payer health insurance system, established before the more recent wave of Canadian immigration, probably mitigates fear of “foreigners” taking away an “earned” entitlement from the deserved older generation of whites. The right to health insurance is a guaranteed benefit of an already fully instituted social insurance state that does not, therefore, drive a wedge between various constituencies.

In the US, any possibility of the GOP appealing to the economic interests of most white men, as opposed to massaging their beleaguered sense of identity, must be subsumed to the antithetical economic priorities of the GOP’s plutocratic donor class. In short, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brother are ardent rent seekers from the federal government, union haters and tax avoiders, while promoting the demolition of social insurance for the 99.9%. They do not share most of the same economic goals as the guy wearing the “Put The White Back in the White House” t-shirt at a Romney rally. Yet rage and paranoia paradoxically bind these billionaires and white male small business owners and contractors: see, for example the Adelson owned newspaper in Israel’s headline after Obama’s victory, “Socialism Comes To America.”

The historian Steven Fraser has called the modern Right’s proprietary and gendered authority over both the workplace and the family unit, “family capitalism.” Family capitalism is a shared value system of both the billionaires and the base. Other historians have described a similar symbiotic relationship between the slaveholding Bourbon aristocracy and working class white men of the antebellum South (yes, I am seeing a social parallel between cohesive reactionary political movements. But, no, I’m not comparing the evils of chattel slavery to the positions of the Republican Party.) Bridging the gap between the rich and the ranks is the professional activist class that puts forth lunatic politicians like Steve King and Michelle Bachmann, and the conservative entertainment complex of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge.

The three rings of this circus—the paranoid billionaires, the activist and media crackpots, and the resentful elderly and white men (and, frequently, their spouses)—are tied so tightly that it would destroy the party if the links were broken. These linkages and the overweening fear and rage that drive the Republican base are revealed in this Washington Post profile of the Runions, a retired Florida couple, bitterly disappointed in the wake of Obama’s reelection.

In short, the Republican Party is stuck between the revanchist cultural anxiety it needs to sustain its white male and elderly base, (which is actually encouraged and shared by its paymasters), and the inexorable erosion of that base. Any efforts to appeal to new immigrant groups of Latinos and Asian Americans (also carried 3-1 by Obama), let alone African Americans, will come up against the fears of the base that the country they knew is fast disappearing. To affirm the base’s cultural anxiety is to simultaneously denigrate the dark, lazy (John Sununu’s description of the president), moochers, criminals, and degenerates. Even a bland, representative business chieftain like Mitt Romney couldn’t run a technocratic, Mr. Fixit campaign at a time of slow economic growth. He needed surrogates like Sununu and bogus issues like Obama’s gutting of the welfare rules to make sure that the resentful stayed resentful. Other moderating voices of intellectual conservatism, like David Brooks or Ross Douthat, have more influence with their liberal friends than they do with Mitch McConnell or John Boehner—or certainly with Emma and John Runion in Florida.

No easy solution to this dilemma would appear forthcoming. The country badly needs a responsible, center right party, along the lines of the Canadian conservatives and almost every other center-right party in the world, led by a sober business class. When a party wins a landslide of the majority white vote, however, and still loses, it is in trouble. It’s especially in trouble when the one sector of the white vote that consistently supports Democrats—college educated women—is growing, and is, especially, appalled by the routine misogyny that Republicans employs to attract its traditionalist, white male base. Republican candidates who find a twisted silver lining in rape do not help the GOP’s outreach efforts to women voters.

For the Democrats, however, favorable coalitional activism must still translate into actual political power, and it must do so by navigating the most irrational, partisan, voter unfriendly election system in the advanced world. This is where the Obama campaign excelled. Although some analysts are arguing, probably correctly, that overall turnout is down this election from 2008, that was not the case in the eight out of the nine contested, swing states (excepting New Hampshire). The Obama team’s get out the vote and voter registration effort were really a remarkable thing to behold. In Ohio, the black vote increased from 11% of the total in 2008 to 15% in 2012. That’s is 3% above the state 2010 census count of 12%. You can see numbers like that studded all over the country. Even feckless youth (18-29 year olds)—not so feckless under the friendly lash of Obama for America (OFA)—increased its national share of the vote from 18% to 19%. 87% of the registered voters in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee voted, up from an already high 80% in 2008. These are not accidents, as a Marxist might say, but the result of brilliantly conceived and intensive organizing.

This raises the question of why Democrats and the Obama team can’t keep this kind of organizing operation going during non-presidential periods. Imagine if such an effort had been undertaken to engender support for Obamacare or reproductive rights or Wall Street regulation. Imagine it being used to increase turnout during the midterm election, which see a one-third drop off of voters, disproportionately the very young/black/Latino voters that OFA so assiduously cultivated in 2008 and 20012.

As Matt Yglesias tweeted on election night, “GOP will come roaring back in two years, when Democrats’ marginal voters once again refuse to recognize importance of midterm elections.” This would have the result of damaging the ability of Democrats to implement policy. Despite the GOP’s overall problems, it will likely retain control of the House for the rest of the decade. That’s because it swept the 2010 midterms, even at the level of state legislatures, which enabled it to control our idiotic, mostly partisan redistricting process.

An, um, skewed midterm electorate would also feed the delusion of many conservatives (which, in term, sustains this delusion with the media) that mid term electorates, which are 80% plus white, represent a “center-right” nation opposed to leftwing extremism (This is a favorite trope of Charles Krauthammer, for example). No, they represent a shrinking Republican base disproportionately influential when Democratic cohorts don’t turn out to vote. The country is not coherently “liberal”, but neither is it “conservative” in any coherent way, either. Unless you assume that only Republicans, especially mid term Republicans, represent America.

Liberal and Democratic activists will do well to recognize that they must work to reap the maximum political payoff from their organic connection to the cosmopolitan, culturally diverse America of the 21st century. This will require them to put organizing muscle into the purple and red states during the non-presidential cycles. The modern Democratic Party is much less homogeneous than the GOP, and its lacks the GOP’s near parliamentary level of party discipline. This lax party discipline can prove costly to liberal goals, as when a sufficient number of Democrats joined with Republicans to pass George W Bush’s regressive tax cuts. 34 House Blue Dogs almost sank Obamacare. There are various structural and historical reasons for the differences between the modern parties, and the very fact that the Democratic party is, in fact, far more porous than the GOP makes its greater ideological opportunism inevitable.

So there’s a very big difference between the “leftwing of the possible” in Vermont, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin than there is in Missouri, Indiana, or North Dakota. Stipulating for that, the Fox fed fantasy that abridged mid term electorates represent the “real” America will continue until Democrats put as much energy into electing Senators and House members (and the state legislators who control redistricting) as they do to electing charismatic presidents. However, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have the ideological and institutional leeway to appeal to the electorate both horizontally (proposing policy solutions to shared issues and problems that cut thru most or all demographic cohorts) and vertically (proposing policy solutions that address particular problems of discrete demographic cohorts). Although, in the recent past, it sometimes seemed as if the Republicans would never lose an election if they fueled white male resentment, it turns out that in the United States of 2012, it is a tremendous advantage not to be strapped to an always running rage machine.