Political Parties Suffer When They Don’t Listen, and So Does the Country

When voters are suffering, they will reject politicians who tell them their pain isn’t real and follow anyone who seems to listen

Ed Kilgore argues that my account of why many liberal politicians supported mandatory minimum sentences and other “tough on crime” policies left out one important motivation:

I remember graphically (because I worked for him at the time) when Zell Miller, who (lest we forget) had an early reputation as a reasonably progressive “populist”, came out for a “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law during the run-up to his difficult 1994 re-election campaign as Georgia governor. True, the provision only applied to offenders convicted of violent crimes, but the gambit was typical of the tendency of many Democrats to adopt mandatory minimum schemes to avoid being outflanked on the right on the crime issue.

Ed is a seasoned political observer and his observation rings true. I would like to take it one step further: WHY was it frightening for liberal politicians to be viewed as soft on crime? The correct answer is not “because conservatives had fooled the public into worrying about crime” but that crime had been increasing for decades and the public were desperate for politicians to respond.

As Mark Kleiman has noted, the American left lost on the crime issue starting in the 1960s and 1970s because it stopped listening to the public. The extraordinary surge of crime that began in the 1960s caused enormous suffering. And when Americans are suffering, they get very angry when politicians tell them their suffering is no big deal (“Many neighborhoods are as safe as ever!”), or is really due to something else (“We don’t have a crime problem, we have a poverty problem!”), or that the public should apologize for being upset (“Complaining about crime is just coded racism”). Americans who feel unheard often express their anger by voting for some politician — any politician — who seems to be listening. And when it came to crime, for many years most of those politicians were conservative.

Liberals were in shock on crime policy for a long time afterwards. They had been talking amongst themselves when they should have been listening to people outside the bubble. California Republicans made the same mistake when they decided to go anti-immigrant in the 1980s. The Tea Party is committing the same blunder right now as they plan out where they will store all the roses the public will supposedly buy them if the federal government is shut down on October 1. Failure to listen isn’t a left or right thing. Rather, it’s a thoroughly human weakness about which political parties should be constantly vigilant.

Perhaps the dynamic of political parties not listening until the suffering public rebels is an unavoidable part of politics in a democratic republic. It’s healthy insofar as it puts power in the hands of the citizenry, but it’s malign in that it can led to the adoption of some destructive public policies. Given a choice between submitting meekly to a political party that tells them to STFU and a bad policy proposed by someone who seems to be listening, suffering voters will go for the bad policy most of the time. Perhaps the lesson for the political class is that if you want good public policy, respond to unhappy voters by taking the cotton out of your ears and putting it in your mouth. If you don’t, they will find someone else who will.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

59 thoughts on “Political Parties Suffer When They Don’t Listen, and So Does the Country”

  1. Word.
    One reason I’m relatively soft on Clinton (another moderate Republican) and harsh on Obama is that Clinton reversed the Democrats’ failure to listen. He transformed the party from one dominated by insular elites to a party that deserves election in a democratic polity. He made the party fit to rule again, largely through a bunch of silly soft social conservatism (school uniforms!) that showed he cared.
    As a result of this necessary step, Clinton had little room to be progressive. But he made this room, and bequeathed it to Obama. Obama, like Clinton, understood that the US is a democracy and the Democratic Party must live with this. But unlike Clinton, he now had the room to be a popular progressive. He didn’t run with Clinton’s legacy.

  2. Notice that you’re not listening right now, concerning health care reform. You started on that course, lost an election in part because of it, went with the first draft of the ACA because you no longer had the votes to pass something again, and are now desperately pursuing a contradiction: On the one hand, claiming people will love it once it’s implemented, and on the other, desperately putting implementation off until you can get past another election.

    All because you’ve been ignoring the public telling you they didn’t want this, from day one until this moment. Always insisting that, sooner or later, the public would come around.

      1. So, I’m guessing I should read your comment as, “Since I don’t have any substantive rebuttal to Brett’s comment, I’m going to call for shunning him personally instead.”

        Nice tactic, bro.

        1. One day I will learn to close html tags. In the meantime, I deserve nothing but scorn.

        2. (Wearily) How often do we have to point out that the polled majority who dislike ACA includes a sizable chunk of the electorate who think it doesn´t go far enough? Kaiser, June 2013 found this was 8%. Subtract these from the antis, and ACA supporters (35%) narrowly outnumber true opponents (33%); add them to the supporters (reasonably so, when push comes to shove at election time), and you have a comfortable majority in favour of reform. And this is after a high level of ignorance about the far more popular measures ACA actually includes, sustained by a barrage of lies.

          1. For another decade, until you can switch over to wearily pointing out that the GOP, the Right and the Tea Party opposed it.

    1. Rick Perry just accepted $100M to implement parts of ACA. Tell me again who’s yelling? Do you really think he would do this if the people of Texas weren’t in his face?

      1. Well, I frankly don’t think there’s anything that the people of Texas could say either way that would stop Rick Perry from grabbing a big pot of free money for him to parcel out to his cronies and maybe wet his beak, too. It’s just how he rolls.

    2. Brett: Another way conservatives are not listening: A large part of the resistance to Obamacare is caused by the many liberals who don’t think the ACA went far enough. That’s correct – much disappointment with Obamacare comes from liberals who wanted EVEN MORE government intervention in health care. Thus, a LARGE MAJORITY of Americans are either satisfied with the ACA or feel that it should have entailed MORE reform. The furious disdain of ObamaCare on the right comes from a minority of voters. Conservatives like Brett tell other conservatives that Americans don’t want reform. They are wrong, and not listening.

      1. Polls on Obamacare, favor/oppose repeal.

        Yup, I’m sure that everybody who thinks the ACA didn’t go far enough would say they want it repealed.

        Part of not listening is not ADMITTING that you’re not listening. The listening begins only when the denial ends.

        Meanwhile, the implementation of this dog of a bill keeps getting put off until after the next election. That’s what you do with popular laws: Delay them until after elections, so that people won’t reelect you in gratitude for finally getting the full implementation. Right?

        1. And you keep ignoring that some of those who want repeal want it replaced with single-payer, whereas others who want repeal want either a return to the status quo ante or some form of unleash the free market reform.

          It’s not a binary YES/NO question. If you force it into that box, you get the answer you want, it’s true.

          1. Inherently, to repeal a law, is to replace it with the status quo ante, NOT with something new that didn’t exist before. That’s what “repeal” means. Somebody who thought Obamacare didn’t go far enough wouldn’t want repeal, that would, from their perspective, be a step in the WRONG direction.

            Now, you may argue that those who support obamacare were too ignorant to understand what repealing it meant.

  3. I wonder whether the public was really desperate for politicians to respond to the increase in crime. I doubt that the public would notice an increase or decrease in crime. It is just a statistic. The actual victims of crime do not constitute a large voting bloc.

    Rather, the public responded to the politicians’ demagogic and racist pandering about crime. If the public no longer responds as much to such pandering, it is because the politicians were too successful. By that I mean that the costs of being “tough on crime” have soared out of control; injustices such as grossly excessive sentences, the execution of innocent people, the use of long-term solitary confinement, and Fourth Amendment violations (including the police shooting pets, which people especially don’t like) have become legion; prisoners are on hunger strikes; and so forth.

    With that level of “success,” there is not much left for the politicians to pander about with respect to crime. With both Republicans and Democrats having proved themselves equally vile on
    the issue, their competition has largely ended.

    1. >> I doubt that the public would notice an increase or decrease in crime. It is just a statistic. The actual victims of crime do not constitute a large voting bloc.>>

      Henry, crime isn’t just a statistic, it’s a serious concern; it’s a strong generator of fear. The voters who were affected by the “just a statistic” weren’t just the victims; they included a large number of concerned citizens who read the newspapers and watched TV and were very concerned that they might be the next victim, or that their neighbor might be, or that their children might be.

      The Dems could have said “This is a complex problem. Crime involves many factors of both prevention and enforcement, and we need to address them all, not simply hire more cops.” What Keith has suggested, and I mostly agree, is that a common response was to downplay the problem, explaining it away as simply a byproduct of other problems … thus creating an impression they weren’t listening to a loud vox populi.

      1. I think this is true. Also, the perception influences behavior. If you worry about crime you’re nervous about going out at night and so on. Quality of life is affected even if you are not victimized.

    2. In terms of noticing, I had generally said that I had been the victim of attempted muggings once a decade but I recently noted that there had been no attempts in the oughts and so far not in the teens. So, for me, crime has gone down.

      I realize that is not much data to go on. What I am much more aware of is that when I first moved to New York, most conversations eventually turned either to cockroaches or to their mugging stories. I remember the particularly annoying bit of advice that you should always carry a bit of cash “to tip the mugger” so they would not get mad at you.

      Nowadays people talk about other things.

  4. As Mark Kleiman has noted, the American left lost on the crime issue starting in the 1960s and 1970s because it stopped listening to the public (not unlike how the left later lost the public education issue).

    Really? There was an education issue? Or was it just ginned up by the skimmer and grifter class? How did the left lose education as an issue, exactly?

    1. How did the left lose education as an issue, exactly?

      By having costs quadruple, while most people saw that their children’s opportunities with a high school diploma were worse than theirs had been.

      1. I don’t disagree that there was a lot wrong with the educational system but you seem actually to be suggesting that it really wasn’t so much the educational system failing people as the rise of finance and globalization failing people who wrongly attributed the causes of their unhappiness to schools instead of to the broader social and economic factors.

        1. That suggestion fits the facts pretty well. In which case, the right reapomse for liberals would have been to address the economic insecurity, instead of caving in to the plutocracy that created it.

          1. I’m maybe a little unclear about this, Mitch: Are you saying the appropriate response to the cost of education increasing year in, year out, at multiples of the rate of inflation, is that you should, somehow, cause incomes to keep up with this cost increase? Rather than maybe ending administrative bloat, or something like that, which might make the costs stop going up?

      2. I think it strains credulity to claim the cost as higher ed as in any way a “left” issue. The left was not primarily responsible for it, and is not perceived as being primarily responsible for it.
        We can argue about who and what WAS responsible for it, but I’d say the public perception is that this is some sort of “failure of America”.

        For K-12 I think there’s a minor “Democrats are responsible for crappy schools” theme, probably started with bussing, not helped by the occasional Teacher Union idiocy, and flared up as often as possible by Fox News telling us that kids are being taught some crazy nonsense like the History of China rather than how White Men Deserve to Rule; but I don’t get the feeling that this translates into a general feeling of “blame the left” across America (unlike Crime, where I think that really was the case).

        1. To clarify–I don’t think that the “Left” is blamed for high school costs. I think that high school costs and poor (perceived) outcomes make the left’s basic solution–spend more money, don’t change the institutions–very hard to get public support for.

  5. They need to _actively cultivate_ connection with the lived experience of real people, instead of building, reinforcing, and succumbing to structures that insulate them. This kind of feedback was always one of the major political functions of urban and state-wide machines, and of unions.

    The shift away from full-time, full-on organizations to big-money and special-interest financing of the whole political process and of policy discussion, and the shift to the advertising model of political campaigning, have been convenient for the interests and probably irresistible for the politicians, but are largely responsible for the consequences you point to. There is no longer any reliable input or feedback path for ordinary opinion in either electoral organization or policy choice, a direct result of no longer needing to organize the mass vote.

    1. i.e, they don’t know their public anymore and don’t need to know it because of the way politics has been functioning over the past couple of generations.

    2. This is an important observation Altoid. I wonder as well if the rise of polling/focus group technology also plays a role in making people in the bubble think they understand things better than they do.

      1. I think your observation about focus groups is also important. The use of focus groups to test market politicians is another way in which politics has transformed itself from being about, well, politics into a marketing campaign in which the politician is simply another product.

    3. I agree with you but I’d also add that the political culture has changed, too. People who went into politics in past generations generally seemed to have some pretty strong beliefs. And similarly, before mass media and political consultants, politics was more participatory in that you needed not just a paid campaign staff but lots and lots of people willing to volunteer to stuff envelopes, walk precincts to knock on doors, put up lawn signs and bumper-stickers. Those people were (and still are) the “base” of the party and a politician needed to keep faith with them and not just effectively triangulate to marginalize the base. You couldn’t win without an energized, enthusiastic base.

      Now, a significant number of Democratic elected officials are people without any sort of ideological commitment or connection with the Democratic heritage. They really see it as an opportunity for serious upward mobility (of which there was perhaps always an element) that is utterly disconnected from the interests or even the demands of the majority of Democrats. Congress and the Executive Branch are really seen as little more than a farm system for the real gold ring—whoring after the big corporate money, especially representing the financial sector.

      And I think you’re right that the political class has built itself a “village” that is insular and culturally very different from the rest of the country, just as it is economically insulated from the worries of ordinary people. It’s very troubling but I personally see no way to improve the Democratic Party until the Republican Party returns to be in Center-Right party instead of one in which the ideas of the John Birch Society are considered centrist.

      1. That participatory political style was exactly what the machines and unions used to do on a very big scale, and what some unions do today on a very much reduced scale. When that pattern was going strong, dealing with those institutions, relying on them, understanding them and the people who made them up, leading them, was the major path of political ambition for Democrats and allied small state parties (for some Republicans too, but they had other paths available). That was _really_ retail politics. It gave the whole structure constant feedback from the street. Not that there wasn’t a lot wrong with political machines, but that’s one constellation of things they really did right.

        And I do think Keith is spot on about how polling and focus-grouping contribute to the isolation of politicians and policy-makers. Peter Hart notwithstanding, I don’t think you can really know the people you depend on if you hire somebody else to spend a few hours with a small bunch of them or ask them very narrowly-circumscribed and carefully- (or carelessly-) phrased questions.

      2. I think people going into politics at the bottom still have some strong beliefs. But both parties have set up systems to filter out such people, who are seen as a threat because having principles sometimes leads to doing what you view as the right thing, even if it hurts you politically.

        But the big problem I see is that we’ve developed a self-perpetuating, distinct political class, who are sufficiently insular that they have views different from the general public. Even if they try to do the popular thing, they often screw up, because they do what’s popular in the political class, mistaking it for what’s popular in the general populace.

        1. Bingo!

          Phyllis Schlafly isn’t one of my favorites, but she sure got this one right:


          A few excerpts:

          The Republican Party is not dead, but it is bleeding from the mistakes and prejudices of the high-dollar Establishment that shrinks from dealing with the social, moral and job-loss issues that concern the grassroots.

          [Romney’s] speech writers should have listened to the participants in their own focus groups, one of whom said: “I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom.” And they could have gotten some advice from Rick Santorum, who said, “If all we do is focus on the job creators and not the job holders, we’re talking to a very small group of people.”

          Jerome Corsi, an astute political scientist, explains in his new book “What Went Wrong” how the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 changed presidential politics forever. Republicans will keep losing if they don’t learn those lessons and take the Party’s decision-making away from the big-money crowd and return it to the grassroots.

        2. I think that’s an excellent observation and it explains much that has gone wrong in recent years.

  6. “not unlike how the left later lost the public education issue”

    If this wasn’t going to be made more specific, it should have been left out. Waving in a general direction just leaves us, or at least me, confused.

    1. @JohnT: That was eliptical, sorry…blog writing. Education is not my area but the people I know who advocate or do policy analysis or both in that domain and come from that political perspective generally (though not entirely) feel it has gone from being a place where they once ruled to a place where they have lost on most battles for several decades, e.g., school choice, vouchers, bond/tax revolts, charter schools, NCLB and other accountability efforts. And the same dynamic occured to produce this, i.e., complaints about schools being met with “schools are fine”, “we don’t have a school problem we have a (fill in the blank) problem” or “People who complain about schools are right wing stooges” etc.

      1. I get that. What draws the comparison is the failure to listen and acknowledge even though the person fielding the complaint may be right, e.g. about educational outcomes having made historic gains in almost every dis-aggregated category. So getting tough on crime with harsher sentencing is simple to advocate, even if stupid and counterproductive, and it’s hard to come up with a short counter.

        What I’d like to know is whether any politician in the Western World found a way to resist these pressures, and sold a more flexible approach politically.

      2. I guess I am struggling to understand what the counter-factual would be. Simply acknowledging crime as a concern was likely going to be insufficient. Liberals would have needed a simple and highly marketable alternative to “get tough” if they wanted to win on this issue. I struggle to imagine something more popular than blaming criminality on criminals. If they disagree with the most popular policy available why would they want to get in a fight over this issue?

        1. HOPE Probation, 24/7 sobriety, swift and certain sanctions have been around a long long time, and could have been put forward as the alternatives to mass incarceration versus doing nothing (or providing only services and no monitoring to offenders)

          1. This reminds me of my reluctant stays at shelters on the Appalachian Trail. After a fitful sleep I would awake to find the mice had once again gotten into my trail snacks and eaten all the M&Ms leaving the peanuts and raisins for me.

            My point being I’m not convinced they weren’t offering, if not these very solutions, then solutions along these lines. It’s still a tough sell in the face of “lock ’em up” candy.

          2. As Mark has described, what they were generally offering was the idea that punishment is always cruel and that if we fight poverty and provide enough services there will not be crime. I think you have a hard time finding any politicians suggesting swift and certain as a policy framework until recently

  7. I think the public is concerned about violent crime. The issue is why are politicians still beating that dead horse when crimes rates have been falling for 20 years? I can think of lots of answers to that, but most really have nothing to do with actual crime rates.

    But while we’re on this topic, let’s take a look at one area f crime where the public is again leading, but politicians (and many policy wonks) are again ignoring public sentiment — the war on marijuana. Let’s start with medical marijuana.

    “Nearly nine out of ten Americans — including 80 percent of self-identified Republicans — say that marijuana should be legal if its use is permitted by a physician, according to nationwide Fox News telephone poll of 1,010 registered voters…”

    Then there is outright legalization.
    “In the Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, 52 percent support legalizing the drug and only 45 percent oppose legalization. While support has generally tracked upward over time, it has spiked 11 percentage points since 2010. The first public poll on legalizing marijuana, taken by Gallup in 1969, found a whopping 84 percent of the country opposed.”

    So the answer to Keith’s question is far more complex than politicians needing to listen to their constituents. These trends in how the public views marijuana are the result of solid demographic shifts that show no sign of abating. What year/decade/century will politicians start listening to voters on this? I don’t know, but along with much of the rest of the public, I’m tired of being told I’m a Woodstock refugee (got the album, too young for the event, and I’d rather the Woodstock nation persist than “Nixon’s the one” anyway).

    In fact, with a few minor edits, I couldn’t agree more with Keith’s sentiment that “they get very angry when politicians [and policy grifters] tell them their suffering is no big deal (“Most people busted with marijuana don’t serve time in prison”), or is really due to something else (“We don’t have a crime problem, we have a sentencing problem!”), or that the public should apologize for being upset (“Complaining about marijuana law is just coded Woodstockism”).”

    1. A lot of those shifts are relatively recent; it’s really been a sea change over the last 4-8 years on two major social issues; gay rights and marijuana. But older politicians involved in the “just say no” era have it bred into them that you can’t be soft on drugs – then you get tarred as favoring ‘acid amnesty and abortion.’ The newer breed (on both sides, but predominantly the Dem side) are more open. But 70 year old senators are not looking to take up this cause.
      Since the vast majority of this kind of enforcement is going on at the state level, that’s where the biggest changes need to be made, and it is (see Colorado and Washington). It’s building steam, but probably needs another 2-3 election cycles to start breaking through at the federal level. But a real concern should be if 2014, as an off election, leads to a counter-action that pushes things back. Sustained majority support over several election cycles will be a big deal, but it hasn’t quite happened yet.

  8. WHY was it frightening for liberal politicians to be viewed as soft on crime?

    The correct answer is because the right had effectively used tactics like the Willie Horton ad against the left. That is to say, not by fooling the public into worrying about crime but by dumbing down the conversation so that hard choices and realistic policy couldn’t be discussed.

    1. The first time that the Mass. prison furlough program was brought up in the 1988 Presidential campaign as a club with which to beat Michael Dukakis was of course when Al Gore mentioned it in a Democratic primary debate. Mr. Gore, I’m told, continued to be a figure of some relevance in national politics. As it turns out, this particular issue was not salient enough to swing the outcome within the primary season when most voters were largely committed party loyalists, but in a general election campaign in which 10-20% of the electorate was truly contestable it was unbelievably effective.

      As far as “realistic policy” in concerned, it is in fact quite realistic to not release violent felons in the middle of their prison sentences. Such a policy may or may not be advisable, but its not as if there is some gritty fact of life that necessitates one side or the other of the debate.

  9. “Perhaps the dynamic of political parties not listening until the suffering public rebels is an unavoidable part of politics in a democratic republic. ”

    In the mountain of crap that was Eric X Li’sTED hagiography of the CCP, this was the one point that rang true with me.
    It IS the case democracy corrects itself — eventually — and it is the case that other systems usually don’t correct themselves, even eventually. But it’s a damn shame it still takes democracy so long.

    However it’s worth noting that for at least some problems the slow turnaround occurs because it takes society a long time to turn around — civil rights, gay rights, etc. The point being that “democracy” narrowly construed as voting is not the entire machinery in play here, broader social communication in all its forms is also extremely important.

    If there’s any single message from both these situations (slow parties, slow public) it would seem to be that we’re all better off allowing for multiple voices to be heard.
    Inside parties this means no litmus tests and ideological jihads.
    At the state level it means none of this voter suppression crap (and, one can dream…, some sort of proportional representation).
    At the national level it MAY mean aggressive caps on the maximum size of media firms. (The newspapers appear to have made this irrelevant for themselves, but I’m still worried about TV. More precisely, I am not especially concerned about news coverage, rather about general tenor. When every TV show is owned by one of five companies, there’ll be certain subjects — most obviously related to equity and fairness, to inheritance, to the obligations and behavior of the .1% — which will simply never be touched.)

  10. Republicans were able to “listen” on crime because they were more able to ignore the racist elements of law enforcement and prison policy, and (like the voting public) didn’t much care about the social and environmental factors that led to increased crime. Democrats adopted rightwing views because those views were electoral winners – they didn’t adopt them because of a prior failure to listen.

    The salience of lock-em-up public policy was only going to decrease once crime started to decrease – and lock-em-up public policy wasn’t going to make that happen, so the liberals were screwed. The Democrats’ early failure to give in to bad policy didn’t lead to the necessity of embracing bad policy later on.

    For proper public policy, it’s better to actually get the policy right than to “listen.” Brett is basically right about the liberal view of Obamacare, but he’s wrong (and liberals are right) about Obamacare itself. Liberals know that the current popularity of Obamacare is relatively unimportant. Obamacare is going to rise or fall on its efficacy.

    Sure, to get elected, you have to get votes, and when the electorate is in an ignorant mood, you’re going to get ignorant policy. In a more sensible mood, people vote for the guy who lays out a plan to fix the healthcare system, and you get incremental improvements like Obamacare.

    Still, the folks who worked on (say) lead abatement rather than three strikes laws are looking pretty good right about now, and it doesn’t matter a bit that many people still sneer at environmental and social explanations for environmental and social phenomena.

    It doesn’t pass the laugh test to suppose that Zell Miller’s Georgia was really looking for sensible criminal justice policies, and would have voted for them had liberals only listened.

  11. The example of the California Republican Party’s turn toward anti-immigrant policy seems a poor one here – or rather an illustration not of the phenomenon you describe but of a different phenomenon.

    Had the demographics of California remained stable immediately before, during and after this period, this turn would likely have been highly effective and an excellent example of a party actually listening to its constituents. There was widespread unease about high levels of immigration among the people who had long roots in California. However the demographics of the state were by no means stable and the policy proved to be electorally disastrous given those shifts.

    So this example seems to be more one of a party failing to properly anticipate (largely predictable) changes in voter sentiment, rather than ignoring longstanding voter concerns.

    If you’re looking for instances of Republicans ignoring voter concerns a far better example, IMHO, is the party’s tone-deafness on the economic pain felt by the working class in 1992 and 2012. In both cases the Republican party largely lost because it failed to take seriously the degree to which lower middle class voters felt themselves to be under dire economic threat. This phenomenon does not in my view explain Republican losses in 1996 (hard to run a dud candidate successfully against a popular incumbent in good times) or 2008 (every generation or two a party is due to take a royal a$$ whuppin’; c.f. 1972, 1988 on the other side).

    P.S. As a sideline to this discussion, I will offer the thesis that the party that recognizes a problem is not necessarily the party that has the best solution to that problem. I myself tend to lean Republican. I think that on balance the consensus Republican policy wonk solution to the healthcare finance issue is vastly superior to the consensus liberal solution to the issue. However unfortunately in my view the Democrats take the issue of healthcare security and affordability very seriously while actual Republican elected officials tend to have very little energy for the topic. To be charitable to the other side, I think that Republicans have a much better track record on taking seriously the threat that an emerging Russia poses to the safety and stability of the world. But the Democrats probably have the much more pragmatic and effective approach to dealing with Russia.

    1. “Had the demographics of California remained stable immediately before, during and after this period, this turn would likely have been highly effective and an excellent example of a party actually listening to its constituents. There was widespread unease about high levels of immigration among the people who had long roots in California. However the demographics of the state were by no means stable and the policy proved to be electorally disastrous given those shifts.”

      The GOP was pulling down respectable proportions of the Hispanic vote, and could have easily dealt with this issue in a way other than they did. They did this because in the end too many racists have veto power.

      “…among the people who had long roots in California.”

      That gave me a laugh; that number is really, really small.

  12. Although you don’t spell it out, it’s hard for me to ignore the worst case. Democracy is viable only when it works. When it stops working we end up with someone who promises to drain the swamps and make the trains run on time.

    Much as it pains me to say it, a legitimate subtext in your post might well be that the country is running out of opportunities (time?) to get it right. No matter how great the people’s resilience at some point the consequences of continued political error become irretrievable. At that point choosing up sides regardless of the value to the country of the policies each side proposes becomes inevitable. Given the public willingness of a well publicized group of national and local politicians to threaten to ignore and thwart our democratic process we may already be there.

    1. As I said, you already have prominent voices (Eric X Li) making exactly that claim. Listen to his TED talk and the cheers that went along with it.
      Spine-chilling. The new face of Fascism wears a suit, has impeccable manners and mannerisms, and has a plan in place for converting the 1% around the world to this new and “better” way of governing.

  13. I have a fairly different read of these situations. They’re all about playing on the fears (real or imaginary) of the electorate; sometimes a political party can make hay out of it, sometimes it can’t. (Note that this strategy is not specific to conservatives, even though for the past decade and a half Republicans really have used it rather aggressively: the gay menace, the horrors of Obamacare, the impending national bankruptcy and/or hyperinflation, the War on Terror).

    The problem is not that all of these fears are imaginary — while some are imaginary, others are quite real — but that what parties generally offer in response to such fears is snake oil. The goal is rarely to solve the problem, but to milk it for maximum electoral benefit, which generally means keeping fears alive. And the biggest problem with the modern Democratic party is that they’ve taken a page out of Tony Blair’s playbook and have started selling rebranded snake oil in response to Republican efforts (“Democratic snake oil, with only 80% the human rights violations! Buy now!”). Both the current security state and education policy are examples of that kind of thinking.

    Obviously, this approach can backfire if the electorate isn’t scared (e.g., the sea change in public perception of same-sex marriage between 2004, when it kept George W. Bush in the White House, and now).

    And while a political party may not have a choice but to listen to the electorate, that doesn’t necessarily make reinforcing popular fears the right thing to do, just as the popularity of homeopathy shouldn’t require a doctor to prescribe homeopathic products.

    So, why “was it frightening for liberal politicians to be viewed as soft on crime”? Because Republicans had managed to convince a fearful public that being “tough on crime” was the superior and needed response. Thus, Democrats had to go into the business of selling that kind of snake oil, too. Same reason why Guantanamo wasn’t closed down even when Democrats had the House, the Senate, and the White House. Could the Democrats have avoided having to sign up for tough of crime by agreeing to compromise solutions? Doubtful; it hasn’t worked elsewhere, either. DADT didn’t prevent Michigan from banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions in 2004. There wasn’t much of a market for moderation after 9/11, either (to the point of it becoming more important to invade a country, any country, rather than pursuing a sane anti-terror policy). In a state of fear, decisiveness (or at least perceived decisiveness [1]) tends to win out over considered policy-making. Clear, simple, and wrong solutions become the order of the day.

    [1] The “Green Lantern Theory” is applicable to other areas of policymaking, too, such as crime-fighting.

    1. Thank you, Katja, for some common sense.

      There seems to be a lot of confusion between what is claimed politically to win elections and actual effective policy. Those are simply not congruent sets, although I realize there is that crusty old American belief/myth that being the winner determines moral validation. “Soft on crime”? Never seen that around here…except on ads in the political season, on TV.

  14. The politically motivated — politicians’ bases — have a funny habit of admiring those who’ll stick to their guns, denouncing those who bend with the wind, and even bouncing from office those who are too friendly to the other side. “He is a rigid ideologue. You are strong-minded. I am principled” — or something like that. We also admire people who lead and don’t just follow the masses, until we decide they’re out of touch. That’s just democracy at work.

    This reminds of a bit of folkloric newspaper wisdom: An editorial writer should be one step ahead of his readers, but no further. The rule of thumb surely works for elected officials as well.

  15. Brett,

    What I’m saying is that, on the whole, people who blamed their economic distress and worries about the future on teachers unions were simply mistaken about the root causes of their problems.

    The reasons why the children and grandchildren of white working class people (and, indeed, just about everybody else) will almost certainly have worse lives than their own, with fewer opportunities, isn’t because of greedy, incompetent teachers but rather because of larger economic forces, chiefly the rise of the financial sector, globalization and the breakdown of the social consensus or truce that had restrained the self-destructive impulses of capitalism since the end of the First Gilded Age.

    Thus, I believe that rather than throwing teachers and other public sector employees under the bus, the Democrats should have directed attention to the problems I described above and sought solutions outside of the neoliberal orthodoxy. Had they done so, the anger of the white working class would have been directed towards the true enemy, the Democrats probably would have won more elections and we might all be living in a better, more just and prosperous society.

  16. “isn’t because of greedy, incompetent teachers”

    Why, no. Never suggested this. “Administrative bloat” doesn’t suggest that the money is going to greedy teachers, does it?

    I think the field of education has suffered from a problem which is endemic in large organizations where there is not intense, organizational survival threatening competition: Administrators decide how resources get allocated, and administrators think administration is really, really important. So, left to their own, they allocate an ever increasing percentage of the pie to their own slice.

    And their slice doesn’t educate anybody.

  17. I think you’re getting sidetracked from the larger points of the discussion (and, indeed, with the point you yourself made earlier) about what happens when a political party loses its direction and its connection to its people.

    1. I think it would be fair to say that has happened with the Republican party. I also think it would be fair to say that you’d like the Republican party a lot less if it regained a connection to it’s base, since in most cases where it screws over it’s base, it’s by adopting positions Democrats like. This has been going on long enough that Republicans have a whole vocabulary to describe the phenomenon: “Going native”, “strange new respect”.

      For the longest time, Republicans were a powerless minority in Congress. Where they disagreed with their party’s base, they could express public support, be seen fighting the good fight, and lose the fight, and not be blamed because they didn’t have the numbers to win. Then a horrible thing happened in ’94: They ended up the majority!

      They tried playing from the same play book as usual, went in, fought the good fight, and then took a dive, and their base recognized what they’d done, because they’d had the numbers necessary to win. And they suffered terribly from the base at last understanding what was going on. They’ve been fighting off insurgencies from the base, trying to turn the GOP into a principled party, ever since. The jig is up, whether majority or minority, their base notices when they take a dive.

      If we had a free political system in this country, where third parties weren’t deliberately suppressed, the GOP would probably already have died, and been replaced with a party willing to represent it’s own base, and fight for what the base wants. As it is, we do not have a free political system, and the base has no choice but to try and take the party over. That’s the fight that’s going on right now in the GOP.

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