That Boring Issue!

When I first read the Stan Greenberg piece that we are talking about here at PA this week and next, I immediately understood how much pushback he’d get for the suggestion that actual voters–especially non-college educated voters–actually care about campaign finance issues. This is not, to put it mildly, the accepted view. Just yesterday, the New York Times/CBS News poll showing widespread hostility to unregulated campaign contributions was immediately dismissed by some observers because it did not show that these concerns rose to the level of changing voting decisions. Here’s Greg Sargent:

In fairness, the poll reached this conclusion through an open-ended question that asked people to name the single top issue, so who knows how much this means. But even some reform-minded Democrats have lamented the difficulty of turning campaign finance it into a motivating issue.

That’s true, but just because politicians–many of whom are ambivalent about this issue because they are benefiting from the current system–haven’t figured out how to make it relevant on the campaign trail doesn’t mean voters don’t care about it. Moreover, money-in-politics isn’t so much a discrete issue as it is a reality that influences how voters think about other issues. That’s precisely what Greenberg is saying.

So at my TPMCafe column this week, I used Stan’s analysis to argue that the sequestration of political and government reform as boring “process” issues that distract from the real issues like the economy has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a huge lost opportunity for progressives. We can continue to blame the antipathy towards government of potentially progressive voters like the white working class on racism, ignorance and Republican disinformation until the cows come home, and there’s some truth to it. But that means putting aside legitimate concerns about corruption and sheer incompetence–much of it very self-consciously promoted by conservatives for this very purpose–that make it hard for voters to believe government is “on their side,” to use the campaign cliche, or is capable of delivering on progressive promises.

What Greenberg is telling us is not only based on empirical research: it also just makes sense. A lot of progressives don’t much want to hear it–especially the finding that “streamlining government” is a threshold demand of white working-class women–but hammering away at people redundantly that you want to do this and that for them just won’t work if they don’t trust the mechanisms by which these achievements will be accomplished. Fixing politics and government is the right thing to do for a million reasons, and it may be the first thing to do in building an enduring progressive majority.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.