Nov 11, 2010

The Mushy Middle and the Mendocrats

Adam Serwer has an interesting piece up on the shifting tides of electoral spleen.  Very much worth a read:
The last thing Democrats should do is indulge in public rituals of consternation and apology, promising to be more subservient to the interests of the wealthy and more deferential to cultural biases against Hispanics and gays and lesbians. There's already a party that does that.
Quite so, and this got me thinking. The R's have seemed to grasp something that D's have not: the country actually consists of two polarized extremes with a fairly confused middle.  Who wins the elections depends on which side's demographics have better turnout, and which way the middle swings.

Now, the vast majority of people have the memories of goldfish and no real political beliefs--which is to say that they have political beliefs but not political positions.  Who they vote for actually has no relationship to how the candidates' platforms and voting records line up with their own well-considered opinions--they don't have opinions, they have beliefs and gut reactions but not a consistent schema for choosing between mutually incompatible desiderata.  I see no other explanation for how every individual provision of the healthcare bill--like nearly every significant part of the federal budget--can retain substantial popular support, yet the thing as a whole be quite unpopular.

The extremes on either side of the political spectrum play a kind of demographic seesaw based on periodic factors (old people consistently vote in the midterms whereas young people are less likely to do so) and how much the out group is angry at the incumbent/how much the in group is enthusiastic/disappointed, but that--sadly--is the extent to which policy influences the polls.  Elections are largely decided by the middle, and the vote of the middle is essentially random.  Who has better hair?  Who had the better propaganda?  Who showed up in my hometown for a rally?  Heads or tails?  Am I happy?  Vote incumbent.  Am I not?  Vote against.  That those in power might just be trying to fix what those so recently out of power broke is irrelevant--memories of goldfish, remember?

This means that any given party will be in and out of power depending on the whims of the middle, but it also means that the whims of the middle have absolutely nothing to do with what the parties actually did while in or out of power.

The Republicans get this.  Every time they are in power, they do what they actually want to do.  This gets them what they want and costs them nothing: the election-deciding 'mushy middle' votes on factors that are essentially irrelevant to actual policy.  When they are out of power, they try to stop everything that the Democrats try to do.  One could argue that this costs them the ability to water down legislation through compromise, but granted the Democrats' ability to water down their own legislation preemptively, this is a small price to pay, and again costs them nothing at the polls because--and this cannot be repeated enough--the middle swings back and forth due to factors that have nothing to do with policy.

The Democrats fail to recognize this and seek consensus.  You cannot have a national consensus on policy so long as the electorate has no true policy positions, and you cannot have a legislative consensus so long as the Republicans are adamantly determined to get their way no matter what.  This costs the D's what they really want to do legislatively as they are "compromising" with people who will never compromise, and gains them nothing at the polls, because the middle has no true policy positions, and to the extent that governance influences election results AT ALL all that people see through the propaganda is not Republican obstructionism but Democratic waffling and indecisiveness.*

Republican policy is not particularly grounded in reality, but they have a far more shrewd grasp of political tactics in our modern mendocracy than the Democrats.  Their actual strategy--what they mean to accomplish with their tactics--is nihilistic lunacy, but they are far more effective at getting exactly what they want and preventing the other side from doing the same.

*In that sense, the national dialogue is more like a TV debate than an actual discussion.  The way to win isn't to actually know what you're talking about, or to want good things, but to look confident, to know what you want, and to be the first--and last--man talking.

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