Political elites justify polarizing decisions with self-fulfilling prophesies
There’s a theory I’ve heard articulated somewhere that McConnell is actually the most brilliant politician his generation produced, in that he’s able to use razor-thin majorities to facilitate grossly partisan outcomes and then weather the backlash with minimal losses and no policy rollback, only to do it all again when he has another brief window.
Not sure I buy it in terms of brilliance; but I think it speaks to the “polarization is a choice” part of this. A lot of the elites of both parties are true believers and they use power in ways that are ideological when they have it. That prevents the formation of a durable New Deal-esque coalition because such a commanding majority needs to be an ideological big tent.
I've seen many Democrats on Twitter starting to get angry about Biden getting no credit for his economic focused messaging which they perceive as "moderate" because it focuses on kitchen table issues. I think this column gets at what it means to be perceived as moderate - you need to say something in the language of the other side. Trump 2016 clearly came out for gay rights and protecting social security/medicare in language Democrats used, and I think that got to left leaning independents in a way that swung meaningful numbers of votes his way. Just talking kitchen table stuff is not speaking in the right way to the right voters to be perceived as moderate (anymore).
What could Biden say or do that would be immediately understood by right leaning independents in their own language? I think there could be something on the border/asylum topic (press conference at the border highlighting the policy change requiring presentation of asylum seekers at ports of entry with a backdrop of border patrol officers?).
Interested if you all have other interpretations?
It's not crucial to your thesis, but I disagree that Hillary Clinton was popular leading up to her 2016 run. There's a Pew chart in this article: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/05/19/republicans-early-views-of-gop-field-more-positive-than-in-2012-2008-campaigns/
She was popular with Democrats, if that's what you mean, so that gets her through the primaries... But Republicans always really disliked her and she was not "general election" popular. Remember all that Benghazi fun, and how down people were on "Clinton baggage"? And at that link you see young Dems with only 65% approval for her in 2015...
I'm still on board with the classic "O'Malley would have won" SB argument, that Hillary brought some distinct negatives that pushed Trump over the line. I even go further, and though I voted for her, I think her distinct weaknesses as a candidate are partly to blame for the toehold both the Bernie Sanders crowd and the Trumpsters were able to get in the late 2010s - both movements I quite dislike personally (as a more classic Bill Clinton/Obama liberal voter).
Trump ran as a working class Tory, he won as a working class Tory, and then he handed the fruits of victory to Paul Ryan and the Zombie Reganites. Why? He single handedly smashed the Republican establishment. He showed everyone how little appeal small government austerity has. He built the foundation of a coalition that could have passed major legislation with bipartisan majorities and survived three terms or four. For some reason he did not appreciate the extent of his political insight and the scale of his political accomplishments and so he caved to the establishment. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Excellent stuff today, top Yglesias! Structural analysis is great. I use it all the time! But we have to remember that it’s just a model, an analytic simplification, a heuristic metaphor. It’s a way to simplify the ideas and actions and behaviors of many many people so we can make some sense of the big picture. But it can’t be our sole lens. We must zoom in every once in a while. A straw can sometimes break the camel’s back, or tip the scale.
In my professional life, I’m a hard core math person. I offer this in contrast to what I’m about to say. I think that vibes, mood, momentum, and a general zeitgeist are real and important in politics. I think voters (people) use a lot of motivated reasoning to justify what they want to do, and that gives outsized importance to small moments that can be used as evidence.
So much of the Obama campaign was about creating social permission to vote for him by lowering polarization. David Axelrod has run this campaign multiple times and it’s very effective. So, I agree polarization is a choice.
At the same time I absolutely don’t believe that you could switch Dukakis and Clinton and get the opposite results due to structural factors. There’s just no way Dukakis has the credibility with Southerners and personal charisma to pull it off. Obama had great timing, a great campaign, but also incredible charisma. Real artists made giant posters of his face and put them everywhere. I personally know some one that saw Obama get out of a car in DC, decided he would be President some day, and quit his job to go work for him. Hillary Clinton is not the same. Trump is closer. AOC is closer, if she carefully managed her career to reach that goal. Another vibes thing, I realize. But people are animals.
I think it's really worth focusing on how the Democratic Party is moving to the left on issues because staffers and political insiders are being pulled left in arguments in the Beltway Bubble--not by and large by electoral forces. Dave Weigel recently had a piece looking at the lack of progressive challengers to incumbent Democratic politicians, as well as the win of the normie Democratic candidate in the Rhode Island special election. The insurgent wins of an AOC give outsized coverage in the media, because they are disproportionately drawn to the stories that get the clicks that online liberals are interested in.
Its very similar to how the Democratic Party moved left on Hyde not because of electoral gains in the party, but because the 2010 wave destroyed a lot of more moderate Democratic incumbents on the issue of abortion, and the 2012 gerrymandering locked them out of a comeback. Abortion advocates had an era of making progress in moving the Democratic Party on the issue because their internal opponents in the party were gone. Then we see Dobbs happen and the groups suddenly rediscover the need to soften the messaging once again.
So much of this boils down to people who want to win and gain power to do things, versus people that want to be ideologically pure. Matt is clearly someone who wants to win, and it regularly deranges the purists--especially in a case where Matt names a specific that is not so much deemed too small to matter, but is one that *really* crosses their lines, no matter how unpopular it might be.
I'm struggling with this concept of "moderation". Trump was never a moderate, he just never had any commitments to anything beyond his own ego. Willingness to say anything isn't moderation it's extremism that's obfuscated by incoherence. Similarly, Joe Biden is probably the biggest partisan hack to ever hold the office. His entire career has been an exercise in staking out whatever happens to be the center point of the party any given moment. He's not a moderate either, he's gone from way to Obama's right, to way to his left because that's what the party did. He's committed to advancing whatever party line is in front of him, no matter how smart or dumb, legal or illegal, whatever he personally believes or not. He doesn't yell about stuff like he did when he was younger, but he's still happy to stage it perfectly extreme positions if that's what he thinks the party wants.
Actual moderation comes from humility. The willingness to recognize that other people have as much right to their ideas as you do. Moderation means not imposing one's will, or the will of one's party on the people who disagree with you. It means deferring to the legislative process. It means respecting constitutional limits. None of these people have any commitment to anything like that.
One of the ways you can convince an old school football guy to see the wisdom of analytics is to ask them what choices they are worried their opponents will make. If someone thinks punting on 4th down is the best way to go asking them "When your opponent decides to go for it on 4th down how do you feel?" It can put into perspective what the optimal decision is.
By the same token if you asked wonks on both sides "How would you feel if your opponents stopped nominating "wackos" and start nominating "normal competent people"?" most would say some variation of "terrified".
The trick here is that "normal competent people" means very different things to the different sides of the political spectrum so one litmus test for a moderate candidate is appearing "normal" and "competent" to their political opponents.
Matt writes: "Perhaps the clearest example of this is Donald Trump, who on Election Day 2016 was seen as a badly flawed candidate with a moderate ideology — more like Clinton, Gerald Ford, or Bush the Elder than Obama, Reagan, or W." Who is doing the seeing? Matt drops in a chart from FiveThirtyEight which came from On the Issues. As 538 explains, "When you totaled up Trump’s ideological score on economic and social issues from the website OnTheIssues — which assigns an ideological grade to politicians’ statements and votes on a scale that we’ve converted to go from -5 (very liberal) to +5 (very conservative) — he came in at +42.5." The numbers in that chart do not reflect public opinion or knowledge. They reflect how data journalists assigned arbitrary numbers to events they interpreted as "conservative " or "liberal", then ran them through a bespoke formula and wrote down their results. That chart is not evidence that voters in 2016 believed Trump was a "moderate."
If there's a reason to be down on Biden in 2024 it's his choice to move towards many Progressive positions on policy, tarnishing his more moderate image. In 2020 Biden was rightly viewed as the more moderate candidate (and this was based on an image Biden spent decades cultivating) and since entering office: Biden has spent nearly three years now damaging his brand. Many Republicans I know will say: "I liked the old Joe Biden, I dislike the new one who caved to all the Sanders people in his White House" and they mean it. Some think he's too old and senile to stand up to them, some just think he changed.
Either way, I think one of Biden's best pitches is when he made a speech and asked the audience if he really looked like a guy who opposed the police and had sympathy for rioters? While I don't think that reversed Democratic losses: I do think it stemmed the tide. Why? Because Biden has a long history of supporting police, a long history of opposing rioters, and had a bunch of Progressives griping about how he supported an evil crime bill during the Clinton administration.
Biden getting a little feisty with Bernie Sanders in that last debate helped him, and sadly Biden does not have many chances to burnish that idea between now and Nov. 2024.
Ultimately, real polarization isn't about having very different views about policy -- it's about hating and feeling disliked by the other tribe/party and this happens mostly via culture war issues (so u think ppl like me are inherently bad/racist/sexist/transphobic vs. so you think ppl like me don't deserve equal respect)
And Trump himself is a walking culture war issue.
It didn't matter when he did kinda moderate things his very attitude and behavior offended college educated liberals to the bone and the right loved him *for* that. He could have expanded Obama care and increased immigration and I'm not sure he wouldn't still have increased polarization.
Seems wrong to just keep saying "Trump ran as a moderate" when his signature campaign promises were to build the wall and ban Muslims. The first thing to tank his popularity was following through on the Muslim ban. Maybe specify that he ran as a moderate *on economic issues*.
Totally agree. I think the missing piece here is that moderate Dems need to more effectively fight the intellectual battle with Leftists who preach a simplistic ideology with bad guys and good guys. Losing the intellectual battle to Leftists on Twitter and on college campuses really does leave Dems with a vulnerable left flank, and indeed Leftists have shown themselves utterly, cravenly willing to desert at the worst times, consequences be damned.
The people running Hilary’s campaign did the country an extreme disservice. There were so many mistakes. Assuming the “handoff” from Obama. Underestimating Trump and his followers, not being tougher during the debates, not controlling the narrative on the email thing. Too much reliance on polling. Most of all, not showing up in Wisconsin. I don’t think left/right policy or even likeability had much to do with it. They just misread the public and ran the wrong campaign. Bad politics.