Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Political converts and genuine swing voters

The Trump campaign has given us the last round of hashing out the question the relationship between racial and national bigotry and conditions of economic distress. This is a perennial dilemma for left and center-left politics: how to assemble an effective electoral coalition that defends civil rights and civil liberties, equal rights for women and prolabor policies.

Kay Whitlock gives us her take on the current version in The Transformation of a Goldwater Girl: Why It Matters in the Time of Trump Political Research Associates 09/19/2016. Hillary Clinton has often described herself as a one-time "Goldwater girl" in the 1964 Presidential election. So that makes a catchy item in a headline.

Whitlock is offering a general perspective on how liberal Democrats can approach winning over Republican-leaning white voters who are vulnerable to racist/xenophobic political appeals from the Republican Party.

The left, in which I include the New Deal/Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, looks at the dominant neoliberal ideology of limited (domestic) government, privatization, deregulation and weakening of organizaed labor as Herbert Hooverish, or worse. And they are right in that judgment. These policies reduced opportunities and lower the standard of living for the majority and facilitate an ever-greater concentration of wealth and power that is a continual threat to democracy. So in terms of the way economic policy affects the general well-being of the vast majority, the left has good reason to argue that for most people, most of the Ninety-None Percent, in other words, supporting Republican economic and social policies is supporting policies that damage their won real, material interest.

But only in sterile econometric models to economics drive political behavior in a rational way. And the conventional assumption in economic models is that all market participants are making rational decisions based on a correct understanding of their own needs and a full knowledge of all their options. The fact that such conditions do not pertain in the real world don't deprive such economic models of all value. But if one makes such an assumption about voting behavior, it becomes impossible to see political choices as anything other than the ongoing clash of rationally-calculated interests. Such a radical assumption effectively eliminates the possibility of anyone being deceived, or conned, or even swayed by political slogans or advertisements.

John Kenneth Galbraith used to refer to such assumptions in the field of economics as the people in the economic department never talking to their colleagues in the marketing department.

Part of the conservative schtick for a long time has been to redefine the concept of an "elite" to be not billionaires and investment bankers, not plutocrats and Wall Street, not robber barons or industrial monopolists, but rather college professors and teachers' unions, government "bureaucrats" and liberal politicians, tofu eaters and conservationists. George Wallace used to sneer at "pointy-headed intellectuals" who rode bicycles. I've never understood what the pointy heads were about. Or why bicycles were elitist. I need to try to look that up someday.

But part of the standard dialogue on this question is one of which Whitlock provides an example:

I’m not suggesting we appeal to the Right’s lay supporters on the basis of economics and class alone. We can’t excuse or minimize the enduring emotional power and elastic utility of overt and coded appeals to White identity. But we also can’t simply write these people off as “tools,” “idiots” or “morons,” and expect them to miraculously disappear or instantly reverse course based on sudden insight. (“Oh, damn! I’ve been voting against my own interests! I need to stop doing that!”) Without actual engagement, these communities will continue to gravitate towards leaders who scapegoat communities of color, queers, Muslims, and immigrants. Some other demagogue will always be on hand to tap into this reservoir of racism — usually blended with legitimate economic grievance — and another right-wing populist crusade will commence. [my emphasis]
This way of framing the issue implicitly assumes that actual progressives and liberals are the snobs that stock Republican propaganda accuses us all of being. And snobbery does come in all shapes and sizes. White Mississippians in the 1960s who supported segregation and despised civil rights activists could be heard to disapprove of white who used what we now call the n-word. Because that was low-class, you see, and respectable whites said "Negros" or "colored people" or "nigras."

Maybe it nothing, but it bugs me that in Whitlock's piece that "white" is capitalized, as in the passage just quoted.

Those things aside, she does have a realistic point. Part of the problem with the general acceptance of neoliberal ideology, both economic and political, is that Democratic politicians largely abandoned the Keynesian economics and support for robust social programs that defined the party during the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. And it has been particularly destructive to the Democrats' appeal and its ability to frame public issues in more of a New Deal sense. President Obama's endless talk about the importance of reducing the budget deficit and his repeated proposals for a Grand Bargain that would have cut Social Security and Medicare benefits are good examples of Democrats' framing issues in conservative terms. His advocacy for Social Security cuts was particularly damaging.

What I'm saying here is that even in marketing terms, the Democrats need more than better commercials or catchier slogans. Although Hillary could surely have picked a snappier one than "Stronger Together." The Dems need to create situations in which they are seen to be seriously fighting for programs like increases in the minimum wage, workplace safety, and better protection of union rights and even measures which encourage the formation of union. The Republicans in the House of Representatives voting dozens of times to "repeal Obamacare" was silly on more than one level. But it did give them an opportunity to appear to their voting base as people who were fight what passes for the Good Fight on that side. Democrats, including Democratic Presidents, need to relearn the value of fighting for something that's both popular and good policy and losing, then coming back to try again. Done right, it can be used to mobilize financial and political support and to define the way the issues are discussed in the public discussions.

Whitlock's description of her own political history is interesting in itself. We can generalize about how political attitudes evolve. But ultimately they all are generalizations from individual stories.

But her personal evolution doesn't necessarily offer relevant general lessons for the effort to persuade Republican-leaning voters. Because in 1964 when she was a "Goldwater girl," she was in the ninth grade according to her account, i.e, 14 years old. But her conversion experience to more liberal-left thinking seems to have largely taken place when she was still in high school:

One teacher said that if I could draw on credible sources to back up my arguments about Vietnam, and the history of French and American presence there, he would, every day for a week, announce before the class that I was right and he was wrong. After sequestering myself in the public library for many hours, I came away with piles of research that refuted my beliefs. But my teacher didn’t laugh at me. Rather, we sat together one day after class, and I talked to him about how much it meant that he took me seriously. When I could so easily have been a symbolic representation of everything they held in contempt, my classmate and these teachers looked more deeply and, with no guarantees, reached for the most human and the best in me. And at some point, I started to reach back. ...

It’s excruciating to feel your own edifice of defense begin to crumble, to see your own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors in a clearer, harsher, light. But those three teachers and that classmate made it possible for me to come through it without feeling so cornered that I had no choice but to hit back out of anger and shame. What could have been only mortifying was instead mortifying and transformative, within a context of building genuine, trustworthy relationships.

This is why I think it’s so important to try, as progressives, to compete for the part of Trump’s audience that may be reachable. People didn’t write me off. I must do the same.
But I wouldn't want to minimize the importance that aspect of her experience. Because 18 is legal voting age in the US now - it was 21 in 1964 and 1968 - and initial partisan alignment when a person starts voting is often enduring. But political evolution does take place. As one of my favorite sayings goes, only idiots never change their minds.

One concern I have about discussions like this is that they sometimes wind up obscuring the differences between habitual partisans and swing voters. Huge party alignments can and do take place, like the realignment of Southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party as a result of the Republicans' Southern Strategy. But every situation has its own peculiarities, of course. And in much of the South, one-party politics was the norm until the 1960s or even the 1970s. So the real political/ideological decisions were made among the factions of the Democratic Party. We could view the Southern Strategy process also as incorporating the more hardcore segregationist wing of the Southern Democratic Party into the Republican Party. A change in parties for them didn't necessarily mean a change in ideology. In a real sense, the political outlook of the Southern Democrats in the 1960s has long since become the dominant ideology in the national Republican Party.

And the factors on which swing voters make their political decisions are a different combination from those on which partisans make theirs. For instance, I was sometimes dismayed this year to see that loyal Democrats whose sympathies on issues seem to be more with the New Deal wing of the Party rather than the corporate wing were dismissive of the Sanders campaign, seemingly assuming that the Democratic-vs-Republican contest in November was the only won that really mattered.

You can see some of the same kind of party loyalty at work on the Republican side, as well. For instance: Peter Montgomery, Conservative Evangelicals Debate Whether Christians Should Support Trump Right Wing Watch 09/17/2016.

But among swing voters, there is some segment of likely voters who are white and who aren't particularly bothered by Trump's racism and xenophobia against African-Americans and Latinos but who find his economic nationalism and opposition to corporate-deregulation "trade" treaties like TTIP and TPP attractive. Plus, we've had a Democratic President for eight years. And some swing voters, many of whom could be accurately called "low-information voters," may be operating on a vague sense the some kind of change is needed.

The Democrats don't have to convince those voters to give up all their racially prejudiced or xenophobic views. But they can convince much of that group that the positive things the Democrats and Hillary Clinton have to offer are more attractive that the white racist and xenophobic alternative Donald Trump and the Republican Party are offering.

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