Cognitive behavioral therapy for Democrats
Some activists are more interested in displaying their righteousness for the benefit of their peers rather than winning.
I agree with most of this, but I think the problem is deeper in that, over the past 5 years, a substantial part of the progressive movement has increasingly not just failed to have the fact that the the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn’t go to college and lives in an unfashionable suburb in the front of their mind, but to actively seek to do things that aggravate someone fitting the profile of the median voter for very little practical gain. (See, e.g., anything involving pronouns -- even the vast majority of LGBTQ individuals use traditional pronouns, so you're talking about trying to get 99%+ of the population to rethink the manner in which they've been speaking on a daily basis for basically their entire lives for the sake of making a fraction of 1% of the population more comfortable.)
FWIW, I think that our public health community would have done well to put up that Post-It Note(R) in the last twenty months or so. For example, a lot of smart highly educated people thought it was important to suspend the JNJ vaccine because there were six serious adverse events out of seven million injections. They (and a lot of academic physicians) thought that adhering to the "process" would boost the credibility of the vaccines. I think the median voter, a bit short on statistics training, heard instead that "six adverse events out of seven million is a good reason to suspend a vaccine." Vaccinations literally peaked the day of the suspension, and fell like a stone in the months thereafter, which clearly was the opposite of the reaction anticipated by the FDA. I think we would have had a better outcome if more people at the FDA and CDC had grown up spending their summers on the Gulf coast or the beaches of Lake Michigan rather than the Atlantic coast, or at least reminded themselves that the median American lives far outside their assumptions.
I think this post makes some important points, and I think also probably underestimates the demographic disconnect. I'm a 50 something white guy but with loads of prestigious degrees. But college was essentially nondenominational back then, and I find I have much more in common with people my age regardless of college experience than I do with the woke-brainwashed ideologues that constitute the media elite. I also predict that Asians, Latinos and a non trivial percentage of Blacks would desert the progressives in a heartbeat if the Republicans could just turn down the racism. But that's a topic for another day. The overall message is that this country is not receptive to the progressive message, nor will it be for the foreseeable future.
I agree with Matt that it's pretty astounding how much Democrats message as if they don't know who the median voter is. If you listen to Dem candidates and read any mainstream (non-Fox) media, you'd think that for the Democratic establishment, the issues facing "people of color" in any country on earth are more important than the issues facing the median 50-year-old white voter in the U.S. That's just bad for winning elections.
I wonder about two things, though. First, how much of this is the incentives of Democratic political operatives rather than forgetting who the median voter is? I could imagine that if you're a staffer for a Democrat, you could be socially punished in some way for expressing too much concern for the median voter.
Second, how much of Republicans' success is due to negative (rather than positive) polarization? I don't think swing voters who went for Trump really thought Trump cared about them. However, he did rail against the New York Times, MSNBC, etc. (i.e., the people who constantly talk down to the median voter). If the problem is negative polarization, the Democrats might not solve the entire problem by acting like they care about the median voter. They'd need to speak out against coastal elites to a greater extent, which is probably impossible given funding constraints.
Seriously Matt. Just call me.out by name.
I am that 51-year old white middle class non-college educated suburban voter?
What do you guys want to kmow?
Great post. This is the problem in Texas- Dem candidates running for local and state positions must now answer for extreme left rhetoric propagated by activists thousands of miles away. It’s an easy layup for the GOP and local Dems got trounced in 2020. If you want Beto to win next year, the extreme Dem activists need to tone down the anti-capitalist, anti-police, etc rhetoric and offer something approaching a positive view of our country. Texas can definitely turn blue—but it won’t be the same blue as Portland and that’s ok! It would be a win! Yet when you mention that, the conversation you are having with your own political side (!) just morphs into a brow beating about how backward Texas is and blah blah. It’s purity or nothing.
It isn’t just legislation where Dems are missing the median voter. To me it’s fascinating watching this French sub thing. I had a great conversation with a median voter yesterday who pointed out how Trump would be taking victory laps on this and how he felt like waving the flag too, but the skew of CNN and NYT is that we hurt an ally. Doesn’t matter if you think that way, the median voter wants to flag wave and this deal shows a toughness against China and a win for US interests. Trump would be hollering it but liberal editorials are worrying over things the median voter doesn’t agree with. The median voter will back Biden but does think he’s weak on defense. Maybe it isn’t Joe’s style to gloat but that photo of Macron poking his finger in Joe’s face was splashed all over right wing sites for weeks. The lede this weekend should have been that photo with a caption like Don’t Poke Joe. Don’t let opportunities go to waste.
My structural take is that American political parties are super-weak (the weakest of any party in the developed world!), and activist groups are really strong, and there's a societal tradeoff between how strong your parties are and how strong your activist groups are. And the activists- many of them single-issue groups- frequently can't think about or just don't care about what will ultimately help Democrats win elections more. They're frequently fanatics- they're frequently foaming at the mouth. Everything is black & white, good & evil with them. So they can't parse Matt's advice here, even if (ironically) it would actually help their causes in the long run.
I think we should have weaker activists & stronger parties. Which to varying degrees would mean rolling back Citizen's United (so that they stop funding candidates outside of the party structure), giving the parties more money to distribute to candidates *if they're good*, and making the primaries more controlled by the party so that any random yahoo can't run & win. But all of the activist groups will fight this- and worse, we're in the middle of a big populist supercycle, so 'making the Democratic (or Republican) party stronger' is uh not exactly a popular idea. Putting our primaries more under the control of the parties *like every other democracy on planet Earth* is not going to go over real well. So I throw up my hands and accept failure, for now anyways
Yes to all of this. I worked in Dem policy circles in the 90s and can validate what Matt says--normies did not obsess over what Washington was doing, let alone esoterica such as reconciliation or cloture. But nobody had to say that, it was totally obvious, as was the fact that people who wanted serious movement on progressive issues should keep quiet during elections so that progressive candidates could talk to median voters and win.
I used to think that, based on many years of working in DC, I knew a lot about politics. In the mid-2010s, I watched what was going on and realized I didn't know anything about politics. Now, having spent most of the pandemic around the Grand Rapids MSA, I feel like I could set up a consultancy to school people currently involved in politics about the median voter.
I think this problem is taken to its extreme in local politics in progressive jurisdictions. In these places the left doesn't even seem to care to try to win elections at all. Portland is the city I'm most familiar with, it has an extremely milquetoast establishment mayor. Progressive groups tried to beat him but lost in 2020 (fine) but instead of reevaluating how to get above 50%, they simply turned around and started a recall. It is also commonplace for many on the left to basically blame voters for being insufficiently progressive.
The result is you end up with a mayor/city government that is way to the right of what people would tolerate if progressive forces were aligned and fielding solid candidates. The constant protests and vociferous objections from the left don't succeed in winning power but they do succeed in making the city government unpopular and make it so nobody who has higher ambitions runs for city office.
I feel like city politics in most progressive cities would be a lot healthier if you had some local progressive parties that fielded candidate slates to challenge the establishment... for all their flaws NY and SF progressives do manage to give the voters in those cities a real choice in every election.
Absolutely 100% on everything until the last paragraph.
On the prescription drug plan, this is a very specific proposal that may well have some serious problems. Where did this proposal come from? Has it been discussed or studied? There are legitimate concerns about incentives for drug development.
Yet,.. when a member says "wait, is this really a good idea?" they are smeared. But it's a good question. I want drug prices to come down too...very much so. But it's tricky. I don't have confidence that this is the way to do it, and there could be real harm done over time. But we are in "Pharma bad" mode, instead of figuring out how to make pharma work for us, rather than the reverse. I want cheaper meds but lots of innovation as well.
I generally agree with the message of today's post.
But I want to flag one particular way of mis-hearing it that I think leads to familiar errors.
MY says, "pay attention to the median voter -- they're not like typical journalists and Dem activists."
Journalists and Dem activists: "It's time to dust off our pith-helmets and go on a Cletus Safari! Let's go talk to the most retrograde mouth-breathing Ditto-Head Magats, and pretend to understand and appease them!"
We need to distinguish between Reachable Median and Unreachable Cletus. And not waste any time on Cletus. Doing so is not only futile, it is also condescending and alienating to Reachable Median.
“Who are we centering here?" is the key question. I think that with current Democratic staffers, even if they are clear on who the median vote is, if framed this way, will choose to center someone else.
That runs through both wings of the party. Your more centrist Obama/Hillary staffers will choose to center women and minorities. Your more progressive Bernie/Ayanna Pressley staffers will choose to center on the economically disadvantaged.
In either case, to choose to center on the traditionally empowered over the oppressed is an original sin. Moral righteousness dictates that you do not do so, even if that means you lose!
And that drives me up a wall.
On the other hand, history has shown us that Democrats who have a "just win" mentality are dangerous, even if they are marginally better than Republicans. Bill Clinton's 8 years comes with a laundry list of decisions that at worst are foundational to the problems of 2021 or at best kicked the can so hard that it's only now coming out of orbit. Financial deregulation, the crime bill, Internet governance, you name it and Bill Clinton took the easy way out from a political perspective over doing the smart thing that might be difficult. He won, but what's the point of winning?
So where does that leave us? With a GOP that must be held out of power, with a progressive wing that can't get over themselves enough to actually win, and with a middling centrist faction that can't properly use power for fear of losing it.
I agree with the main thrust, with a caveat: its not 1992 anymore. By which I mean, it seems like a lot of people who focus their gaze out of the liberal urban coasts are also still assuming that today's 50 year olds are responsive to baby boomer cultural markers, as they were in 1992. Today's 50 year old was born in 1971, and grew up with punk, hair metal, hip hop, and graduated college as the Cold War ended. Elon Musk, Kid Rock, Amy Poehler and Regina King were all born in 1971. Tupac was born in 1971; Kurt Cobain was born in '67! The "old stand-bys" of moderation - non-critical patriotism, deference to age and class, "I smoked, but I didn't inhale" - no longer apply. At all. The median voter, at 50, is still young enough to want to be cool. A Reaganesque, white-picket patina over working class economic issues git the job done in 1992, because thats what a 50 year old wanted then. They don't want anything quite so airbrushed now. They won't be scared off by blunt talk about drugs, sex, and race, which seems to be what many elected "moderates" believe.
I started Cognitive Behavior Therapy a few months ago to deal with grief and depression. So much of it is obvious platitudes which feel very Stuart Smiley-ish but the whole paradox of common sense is that it isn't very.