Despite the fact that there are more conservatives than liberals in America, a new report says Democrats have a chance in coming elections if only they'll take the simple step of giving up their entire worldview.
Not their policies and principles, mind you: just their attitude.
Elaine Kamarck and William Galston are two very practical academics who helped give a scholarly, analytic framework to Clintonism and the New Democratic movement in an influential paper published in 1989. They have struck again with a rather ingenious report called "The Politics of Polarization." Every Republican who wants to fall asleep happy should read it at bedtime.
Unlike the hyperbolic caricature of polarization peddled by John Edwards' "Two Americas" or pollster Stan Greenberg's book, "The Two Americas", Kamarck and Galston rightly argue that just a fraction of America is really polarized — a fraction that happens to include active partisans and political professionals. And they understand just how much this schism leaves moderates "feeling frustrated, unrepresented and alienated from political life."
(The authors say this distaste for politics as usual "has created an opportunity for a political leader — from either the center-right or the center-left — to capture the hearts and the votes of the vast legion of moderate voters." Sounds like John McCain to me, not a big help to the Democrats.)
Kamarck and Galston show with fabulous clarity that the polarization so widely noticed is absolutely not reflected in the basic ideological make-up of the American electorate. This is how Americans identified their political philosophy from 1976-2004:
So the basic ideological composition of the electorate hasn't changed much at all in 30 years.
What has completely changed is the rigidity of voting behavior within that spectrum. Liberals are substantially less likely to vote for a Republican than they were 30 years ago; and conservatives are far less likely to vote for a Democrat. (You see that in a Congress that has fewer moderate to liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.)
Since there are more self-described conservatives than liberals, Democrats must win much more of the moderate vote than Republicans. They are very bad at that. To win a presidential election, the Democrats have to essentially bat well over .325 and Republicans just need the basic .275.
The greatest predictor of voting behavior in America now, by far, is religiosity. People who go to church, temple or whatever, more frequently are much more likely to vote Republican. If religiosity in America grows through immigration or organically, the Democrats will be in even worse shape.
These are the boxes Democrats find themselves in — or at least some of them.
Kamarck and Galston believe that even more lethal than these patterns of voting behavior are patterns of Democratic thinking — called myths by the author. There are four of them.
The "myth of mobilization" clings to the idea that Democrats can win if they just energize their base enough to bring them out in record numbers. Moveon.org and Deaniacs were recent manifestations; we've seen why this is a myth — there are more conservatives than liberals.
The "myth of demography" argues the country will become more Democratic as it becomes more female and Hispanic; the only problem is that Democrats have suffered their greatest erosion among married women and Catholics.
The "myth of prescription drugs" hopes — and little more — that Democrats can win by avoiding social issues and national security, pushing only the "mommy issues" — health care, education and job security.
The "myth of language" is my personal favorite. It holds that all the Democrats need to do is repackage their positions in alpha-male language and use more God-talk.
Certainly these myths describe the Democratic Party that nominated John Kerry, the party that is now led by Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi in the House. Not a great sign.
The authors also bluntly note that the Democratic Party has been inept at selecting presidential candidates that have personalities and images the voters like (Dukakis, Gore and Kerry). In their view, the party has been stubborn and snotty on this, though they have no recipes for reform that might lead to the nomination of another, say, Bill Clinton.
What seems remarkably clear from this report is that the nomination of, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the worst conceivable move for the party, despite some recent symbolic moves toward the center. Probably 75 percent of the people who read newspapers and news sites in America came to the same conclusion months ago. So I'm betting she gets the nod.
Dick Meyer was a political and investigative producer for CBS News and is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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