Political Animal


November 09, 2012 12:50 PM Rage Machine Vs. Turnout Machine

By Rich Yeselson

Demography isn’t destiny (or else African Americans would still be voting for the party of Lincoln), but parties and candidates must exercise persuasive agency, lest it become so. By that, I mean they must actually propose policies that address the concerns of a majority of Americans, effectively cutting across demographic categories, rather than cordoning them off. Republicans today fatally conflate identity with interests and values. For the white male base of the Republican Party (which Romney carried in a 65-32 landslide), and the white vote over 65 (pro-Romney, 61-39), affirmation of identity rests on the exclusion of, and anxiety about, various “others” in contemporary, cosmopolitan America. The party has trapped itself in a demographic and ideological cul de sac. The differences between these men and older Americans, and various cohorts of women, minorities, gays, young people, and those with advanced degrees must be accentuated in order to both, at once, stoke and soothe the base’s festering worries. Evangelical Protestants (26% of the vote this year) and right wing Catholicism focus particularly on opposing the social claims of single, sexually active women and gays.

By contrast, Canada’s Conservative Party, in a country without a powerful, reactionary religious movement, has much more effectively and consciously sought the support of that country’s many groups of newer immigrants, and has avoided trying to create a moral panic about same sex marriage (legal in Canada) or abortion (almost entirely unrestricted). The national single payer health insurance system, established before the more recent wave of Canadian immigration, probably mitigates fear of “foreigners” taking away an “earned” entitlement from the deserved older generation of whites. The right to health insurance is a guaranteed benefit of an already fully instituted social insurance state that does not, therefore, drive a wedge between various constituencies.

In the US, any possibility of the GOP appealing to the economic interests of most white men, as opposed to massaging their beleaguered sense of identity, must be subsumed to the antithetical economic priorities of the GOP’s plutocratic donor class. In short, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brother are ardent rent seekers from the federal government, union haters and tax avoiders, while promoting the demolition of social insurance for the 99.9%. They do not share most of the same economic goals as the guy wearing the “Put The White Back in the White House” t-shirt at a Romney rally. Yet rage and paranoia paradoxically bind these billionaires and white male small business owners and contractors: see, for example the Adelson owned newspaper in Israel’s headline after Obama’s victory, “Socialism Comes To America.”

The historian Steven Fraser has called the modern Right’s proprietary and gendered authority over both the workplace and the family unit, “family capitalism.” Family capitalism is a shared value system of both the billionaires and the base. Other historians have described a similar symbiotic relationship between the slaveholding Bourbon aristocracy and working class white men of the antebellum South (yes, I am seeing a social parallel between cohesive reactionary political movements. But, no, I’m not comparing the evils of chattel slavery to the positions of the Republican Party.) Bridging the gap between the rich and the ranks is the professional activist class that puts forth lunatic politicians like Steve King and Michelle Bachmann, and the conservative entertainment complex of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge.

The three rings of this circus—the paranoid billionaires, the activist and media crackpots, and the resentful elderly and white men (and, frequently, their spouses)—are tied so tightly that it would destroy the party if the links were broken. These linkages and the overweening fear and rage that drive the Republican base are revealed in this Washington Post profile of the Runions, a retired Florida couple, bitterly disappointed in the wake of Obama’s reelection.

In short, the Republican Party is stuck between the revanchist cultural anxiety it needs to sustain its white male and elderly base, (which is actually encouraged and shared by its paymasters), and the inexorable erosion of that base. Any efforts to appeal to new immigrant groups of Latinos and Asian Americans (also carried 3-1 by Obama), let alone African Americans, will come up against the fears of the base that the country they knew is fast disappearing. To affirm the base’s cultural anxiety is to simultaneously denigrate the dark, lazy (John Sununu’s description of the president), moochers, criminals, and degenerates. Even a bland, representative business chieftain like Mitt Romney couldn’t run a technocratic, Mr. Fixit campaign at a time of slow economic growth. He needed surrogates like Sununu and bogus issues like Obama’s gutting of the welfare rules to make sure that the resentful stayed resentful. Other moderating voices of intellectual conservatism, like David Brooks or Ross Douthat, have more influence with their liberal friends than they do with Mitch McConnell or John Boehner—or certainly with Emma and John Runion in Florida.

No easy solution to this dilemma would appear forthcoming. The country badly needs a responsible, center right party, along the lines of the Canadian conservatives and almost every other center-right party in the world, led by a sober business class. When a party wins a landslide of the majority white vote, however, and still loses, it is in trouble. It’s especially in trouble when the one sector of the white vote that consistently supports Democrats—college educated women—is growing, and is, especially, appalled by the routine misogyny that Republicans employs to attract its traditionalist, white male base. Republican candidates who find a twisted silver lining in rape do not help the GOP’s outreach efforts to women voters.

For the Democrats, however, favorable coalitional activism must still translate into actual political power, and it must do so by navigating the most irrational, partisan, voter unfriendly election system in the advanced world. This is where the Obama campaign excelled. Although some analysts are arguing, probably correctly, that overall turnout is down this election from 2008, that was not the case in the eight out of the nine contested, swing states (excepting New Hampshire). The Obama team’s get out the vote and voter registration effort were really a remarkable thing to behold. In Ohio, the black vote increased from 11% of the total in 2008 to 15% in 2012. That’s is 3% above the state 2010 census count of 12%. You can see numbers like that studded all over the country. Even feckless youth (18-29 year olds)—not so feckless under the friendly lash of Obama for America (OFA)—increased its national share of the vote from 18% to 19%. 87% of the registered voters in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee voted, up from an already high 80% in 2008. These are not accidents, as a Marxist might say, but the result of brilliantly conceived and intensive organizing.

This raises the question of why Democrats and the Obama team can’t keep this kind of organizing operation going during non-presidential periods. Imagine if such an effort had been undertaken to engender support for Obamacare or reproductive rights or Wall Street regulation. Imagine it being used to increase turnout during the midterm election, which see a one-third drop off of voters, disproportionately the very young/black/Latino voters that OFA so assiduously cultivated in 2008 and 20012.

As Matt Yglesias tweeted on election night, “GOP will come roaring back in two years, when Democrats’ marginal voters once again refuse to recognize importance of midterm elections.” This would have the result of damaging the ability of Democrats to implement policy. Despite the GOP’s overall problems, it will likely retain control of the House for the rest of the decade. That’s because it swept the 2010 midterms, even at the level of state legislatures, which enabled it to control our idiotic, mostly partisan redistricting process.

An, um, skewed midterm electorate would also feed the delusion of many conservatives (which, in term, sustains this delusion with the media) that mid term electorates, which are 80% plus white, represent a “center-right” nation opposed to leftwing extremism (This is a favorite trope of Charles Krauthammer, for example). No, they represent a shrinking Republican base disproportionately influential when Democratic cohorts don’t turn out to vote. The country is not coherently “liberal”, but neither is it “conservative” in any coherent way, either. Unless you assume that only Republicans, especially mid term Republicans, represent America.

Liberal and Democratic activists will do well to recognize that they must work to reap the maximum political payoff from their organic connection to the cosmopolitan, culturally diverse America of the 21st century. This will require them to put organizing muscle into the purple and red states during the non-presidential cycles. The modern Democratic Party is much less homogeneous than the GOP, and its lacks the GOP’s near parliamentary level of party discipline. This lax party discipline can prove costly to liberal goals, as when a sufficient number of Democrats joined with Republicans to pass George W Bush’s regressive tax cuts. 34 House Blue Dogs almost sank Obamacare. There are various structural and historical reasons for the differences between the modern parties, and the very fact that the Democratic party is, in fact, far more porous than the GOP makes its greater ideological opportunism inevitable.

So there’s a very big difference between the “leftwing of the possible” in Vermont, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin than there is in Missouri, Indiana, or North Dakota. Stipulating for that, the Fox fed fantasy that abridged mid term electorates represent the “real” America will continue until Democrats put as much energy into electing Senators and House members (and the state legislators who control redistricting) as they do to electing charismatic presidents. However, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have the ideological and institutional leeway to appeal to the electorate both horizontally (proposing policy solutions to shared issues and problems that cut thru most or all demographic cohorts) and vertically (proposing policy solutions that address particular problems of discrete demographic cohorts). Although, in the recent past, it sometimes seemed as if the Republicans would never lose an election if they fueled white male resentment, it turns out that in the United States of 2012, it is a tremendous advantage not to be strapped to an always running rage machine.


  • neil b on November 09, 2012 1:02 PM:

    Wow, this is about the best rundown, and read, I've seen around for awhile.


  • Peter C on November 09, 2012 1:02 PM:

    "The country badly needs a responsible, center right party, along the lines of the Canadian conservatives and almost every other center-right party in the world, led by a sober business class."

    Why the hell would we need this??? Don't these people have plenty of power outside of the Government sphere?

  • Elie on November 09, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Apparently that link has been removed...

    The problem for the Republicans is that they don't actually believe their own conceptual framework and therefore have no effective ability to argue for it using rational and logical arguments that would appeal to a broad population. That is why they have to keep wrapping the veneer of tribalism and fear around the core message -- they know it won't be appealing enough to convince most people just from its content alone. No, the conviction must be buttressed by whether you "get" the real underlying message of their exceptionalism and the dominance of their ideals.
    To me it is inevitable that it will be fractured. Just when. I also believe that this defeat puts them in worse shape than they have ever been since they embarrassed themselves so badly by showing their underlying incompetence as business people who use modern tools. It was very very clear to everyone here and all over the world -- that is not the case. If the Republican Party cannot commit to the future and to modernity, this is just the beginning of many more defeats.

  • Bokonon on November 09, 2012 1:25 PM:

    Rage is a terrific motivator, and may be a great way to hold together a disparate coalition of interests, paper over differences, energize your followers, and turn out their vote.

    The problem is ... once you have stoked up this level of rage, it is almost impossible to reason with it or work with it, much less change course. It becomes self sustaining.

    And that hurts the entire nation. You can't have rational policy making, let alone any sort of well functioning republic, if 30 to 40 percent of the voters are so alienated that they want to demolish the existing order and punish the rest of the nation.

    Consider the example of France prior to World War II ... consuming itself from within with vicious polarization and infighting while Nazi Germany turned into an existential threat right across their border.

  • c u n d gulag on November 09, 2012 1:32 PM:

    If Democrats want to see a greater turnout in the '14 election, then the Liberal Senators and Congressmen, who were the only group that actually INCREASED in number, need to start pushing President Obama into a more Liberal agenda.

    I just watched his speech, and he seemed to take a smart tack - keep the middle class tax cuts, and increase on the top 2% - but still be open to discussion and compromise.
    He said he will not make students, seniors, and the middle class pay the entire deficit down.

    And the signals are, SS isnt't affected, and the cuts being sought on Medicare and Medicaid, seem to be on the providers parts, and not on the consumers. But, we'll see.

    We live in interesting times.

  • Mark on November 09, 2012 1:33 PM:

    The country already has a responsible, center right party, they're called Democrats. What the country really needs is a center left party

  • Frank Wilhoit on November 09, 2012 1:34 PM:

    By a "sober business class", I take it that you mean a business class that is willing to pretend that it is accountable?

  • CalStateDisneyland on November 09, 2012 1:42 PM:

    That was very interesting and deserving of more than just another blog entry.

  • Rich on November 09, 2012 2:09 PM:

    Nice comparison with Canada. And, yes, it's all about the South and an approach to capitalism rooted there that easily jumps to Wall Street and fortunes built not on real labor or products but on buying & selling someone else's businesses without much understanding of the fundamentals of those businesses.

  • srw3 on November 09, 2012 2:26 PM:

    we have a center right party now. its called the democrats.

  • bdop4 on November 09, 2012 2:31 PM:

    If Dems want to keep the base inspired, then it needs to achieve some inspirational goals: true filibuster reform, no "grand bargains" on deficit reduction, and a bold stand on making economic recovery and job creation the no. 1 priority above everything else.

    You want to energize voters? Give them a decent paying job with benefits and you will earn their support and loyalty for decades to come. That's how FDR did it.

  • rk21 on November 09, 2012 2:39 PM:

    Blacks, latinos,Asians, women, young people vote for democrats. They have all been labeled moochers. There is another group, scientists of which only 6% identify as republicans. I wonder how republicans will explain that.

  • Rick B on November 09, 2012 2:56 PM:

    Good post, Rich.

    My question is whether or not Democrats will recognize the power of the GOTV operation and put it into place in 2014. I'd especially like to see it operate here in Texas.

    Texas, I am told, has low turnout among minorities largely because of the combined traditions of Southern Plantation control of the electorate together with the Mexican Patron tradition. But Whites are no longer a majority here, and well over half the population now lives in large urban areas which are not as easily politically dominated by long time politicians the way small towns are. The gerrymandering placed a few minority congressional districts alongside a lot of conservative white-dominated districts.

    A strong GOTV operation might break that pattern up.

  • ejcarrig on November 09, 2012 3:00 PM:

    We could use one new party. Many Americans who voted for Obama are concerned about an expanding Federal government. They ran from the religious right (and its disregard for women's rights), Romney's shape-shifting, and Ryan's half-baked ideas. We need a movement focused on solutions. To reduce CO2, improve education and infrastructure, and create jobs requires recommending specific, local strategies and winning local hearts and minds. To do that, we need an easier way to participate, solve problems locally, and hold politicians accountable. @10, www.at10us.com, is charting that path.

  • Eddie on November 09, 2012 3:09 PM:

    The link the the post article doesn't work.

  • bos[n on November 09, 2012 3:15 PM:

    Good summary. Wish Dems would take heed.

  • Ron Mexico on November 09, 2012 3:16 PM:

    First, thanks to Rich for combining an attention to numbers with an attention to message and policy (as they appear in campaigns) in such a thought-provoking way.

    I agree with the focus on redistricting, but part of the problem with redistricting is that as a partisan you have a number of unappealing choices that to not exist with the electoral vote. Either you have a smaller number of very safe districts, and a party controlled by long-standing members who are increasingly radical (or, perhaps, who have reached some kind of natural limit to the ability to shift the "center" of a political debate); or you have a large number of less safe districts that create a big-tent party divided against itself. Getting D+25% in Miami/Dade benefits a Democratic presidential candidate, but provides little benefit to most Representatives or state legislators, who would generally rather "share" some of those voters with another district so the party can potentially garner more seats.

  • kmb on November 09, 2012 3:56 PM:

  • Doug on November 09, 2012 3:57 PM:

    Excellent article! The natural course of time will break the three rings, the question being how much damage this country will suffer until that occurs.
    Part of the problem with lower Democratic turn-out during off-year elections is, I think, that the purpose for which one is voting during those elections may differ from Presidential election years. During the latter, the voter is helping to choose, assuming their candidate wins, the leader of the entire country; during off-year elections, the voter is choosing someone to represent his/her Congressional district and there IS a difference.
    The other problem is that during a Presidential election every vote counts. Whether or not one's candidate carries your district, your vote gets added to the total vote for that candidate from your state; IOW, gerrymandering has little effect on Presidential voting and the ability to energize voters to get out and vote for state-wide candidates becasue they know that in these cases their vote DOES count.
    I see no need for the Democratic Party to expend equal effort in EVERY CD in 2014. Rather, we should focus our efforts on keeping those seats we currently hold and go after any and all Republican-held seats where the difference is less than, say, 10%. I wouldn't think that would be beyond our capabilities.
    Again, an excellent insightful article.

  • Jon on November 09, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Great article.

  • TCinLA on November 09, 2012 4:39 PM:

    Excellent analysis!

    It just killed me in 2009 to watch the Obama campaign shut down OFA just after the inauguration, just before the creation of the astroturf "Tea Party." Had OFA still existed and used the enthusiasm of people in all states, not just the swing states, 2010 would not have happened as it did. Hopefully they learned their lesson and OFA will continue this time.

    I have been telling Democrats for 50 years that if they want to win they have to be as committed as The Enemy is, and that means VOTE IN EVERY FUCKING ELECTION!

    We got redistricting reform in California, took it out of the hands of the legislature, and the result is a 2/3 Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature, meaning the damn Republicans are now Officially Irrelevant and California can now get its economic house in order without all the Republican bullshit and shenanigans.

    The 2014 campaign has to start NOW.

  • TCinLA on November 09, 2012 4:51 PM:

    Regarding that WaPo article: Those two are about as ignorant as the little Georgia bimbo who tweeted she was moving to Australia because "their president is a Christian and supports what he says..." Which 1,500 Australians educated her to the fact that they have a Prime Minister, not a President; she's a woman who lives with her hairdresser boyfriend; she's an atheist. And they have national health care and register all guns.

    Republicans will have to stay here - there's no other English-speaking country in the world that would let them in.

  • shivas on November 09, 2012 5:18 PM:

    More women voted than men and Obama got more of the women's vote than Rmoney.I think this is a big factor. All this war on women stuff drove women to the polls to protect their key interests, jobs, access to health care, and reproductive rights.

  • dleslie on November 09, 2012 6:40 PM:

    Michele Bachmann only won her seat by a few thousand votes. She was within a hair of falling below the total that would trigger a state financed automatic recount. This happened even though her district was gerrymandered to be even more conservative than in previous elections. Democrats should contest every seat they can, not just those they think are close.

  • jhm on November 10, 2012 7:08 AM:

    I'm pretty sure this is nonsense, but I wonder if the Democratic party might bifurcate into center-right and left blocs. By this I mean some actual separation, not loose coalition. It might hasten the transition of the GOP into a rump collection of bottom of the barrel troglodytes. Yet still leaving them a party to call their own.

  • Steve on November 10, 2012 3:25 PM:

    Fascinating Maps on how the USA voted by county...


  • Jess on November 10, 2012 8:47 PM:

    "Republicans will have to stay here - there's no other English-speaking country in the world that would let them in."

    Too bad for the rest of us.

    PS - c u n d - hooray for Dutchess! I didn't even know until after the election that our guy was gay! Bonus!

  • Matt on November 10, 2012 9:13 PM:

    A thoughtful article.

    The catastrophe that was the 2010 elections is, I hope, a lesson for Democrats that these elections matter. While Obama executed an excellent reelection campaign, I continue to feel that using the data generated in 2008 to influence the midterms and refine their analytics was a huge missed opportunity. We are, unfortunately, stuck for the rest of the decade with a number of GOP-generated redistrictings that will hobble the party for the rest of the decade.

    If the President wants to leave a lasting legacy to the party for the future, it would be to make its reelect data available to Democratic candidates and to train party activists and professionals who were engaged in other campaigns on their techniques. At the same time, where possible, Democrats should try to pass ballot initiatives to overturn some of the disadvantageous GOP maps. It is incredible that an initiative to do just that in Ohio failed this year despite the President having won the state.

    And, it is absolutely correct that the "leftwing of the possible" varies from state to state. If that means working to get conservative Democrats elected, so be it. The one vote that matters most is the first one they cast: who becomes Speaker of the House.

  • liz on November 11, 2012 8:13 AM:

    The points you make are true. But why does this read like a political science paper at an ivy leagues school?
    Nobody wants to work through scholar-speak to get to the meat.

    Plain English next time please.

  • Dan on November 24, 2012 4:49 PM:

    A small portion from: POLITICAL ANIMAL
    (My comment)
    Most of the piece was useless not taking into account that the media fans a Conservatives views into a "raging" political firestorm. Conservatives know the entire electorate will never fully embrace their values but they will be honest about possessing these values and there should be no issue with this. :)


    Rage Machine Vs. Turnout Machine

    By Rich Yeselson

    Liberal and Democratic activists will do well to recognize that they must work to reap the maximum political payoff from their organic connection to the cosmopolitan, culturally diverse America of the 21st century. This will require them to put organizing muscle into the purple and red states during the non-presidential cycles.

    My comment:
    Non-presidential means no Electoral College. You have to deal with reality of sell-out Reps and Congress.

    The modern Democratic Party is much less homogeneous than the GOP, and its lacks the GOP’s near parliamentary level of party discipline. This lax party discipline can prove costly to liberal goals, as when a sufficient number of Democrats joined with Republicans to pass George W Bush’s regressive tax cuts. 34 House Blue Dogs almost sank Obamacare. There are various structural and historical reasons for the differences between the modern parties, and the very fact that the Democratic party is, in fact, far more porous than the GOP makes its greater ideological opportunism inevitable.

    My comments:
    Unfortunately Liberals / Democrats aren't able to fill busloads of people (non English speaking immigrants and interpreters) every two years all over the country in every state. Not just a few battle ground Electoral College states. It gets rather obvious that something is very wrong. Maybe in light of of the audacity of Obama's twisted political hopes they actually will have the buses ready in 2014.

  • Dan on November 24, 2012 5:19 PM:

    In a nutshell:

    Liberal / Democratic / Many Republicans:
    No absolutes, whatever for power to do what feels good give me my entitlements.

    Conservative - Absolutes / boundaries: It hurts, is not popular. You can not legislate these values.

    Food for thought- Who / what will stop the tyrants/ Extremists?

    Liberalism? Relativists? Postmodernists? ...... NOT!

    Those who say "None Shall Pass" with a clear conscience will hold the line come what may.

  • zandru on February 19, 2013 12:52 PM:

    Dan's post indicates why it's so difficult to bridge the divide between the left and the right these days. Those random word-trios are eminently meaningful to him, and seem to outline a very simple world.

    His "Democrats" have no "values" or "principals" and do whatever "feels good". His "Republicans" are grounded in some kind of "absolutes" and have no hesitation about inflicting pain.

    Not mentioned is exactly what are the "values" that are so critical? Why is it so desirable that folks suffer, instead of working toward a better, more pleasant life?

    If you believe in democracy, why the obsession with "tyrants"? And what is this "line" he wants to "hold"?

    Seems like all this is stuff arising out of the gut, largely bypassing the brain. Dan, every crawling and slithering animal on the planet has a gut. The ones running the show do it using their heads.