Friday, August 3, 2018

The challenge of being a political party as well as a movement

The Democratic Party Picked an Odd Time to Have an Identity Crisis by Thomas B. Edsall. Usually enjoy Edsall. The thinking man's democrat. Might not always agree with him but he forces you to sharpen and clarify your thinking with cogent arguments and relevant information.

This column is especially good. He frames his argument:
The Democratic Party is a traditional political organization dedicated to winning elections. It is also a social justice movement, the political home of societal change.

The party has often been further out front on these issues than the public at large — and than many of its own voters. This has empowered the Republican Party, from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, to capitalize on opposition to a range of liberal Democratic initiatives on immigration, busing, women’s rights, abortion, crime, gay rights, gun control, affirmative action and so on.

The Democratic Party’s commitment to newly ascendant — and often assertive — constituencies has alienated some middle and working class voters who see their own values and interests downgraded.

Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, voiced this critique in an analysis of the 2016 election:
The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation’s growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens’.
While whites are a declining share of voters, they still constitute 60 percent of the Democratic Party, according to Gallup. Data provided by Pew Research shows that whites were 74 percent of all voters in 2016.

David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, responding to my inquiry about the dual role of the Democratic Party, made a point related to Greenberg’s, but approached it from a different angle:
Many citizens can simultaneously take a liberal position on one or more individual cultural issues and still believe more generally that the liberal vision requires changing the country too much or too quickly.
Hopkins noted that
it is only natural that such massive social changes have caused anxiety, alienation, or anger among a significant proportion of the population — and liberals who fixate on the elements of their agenda that remain unfulfilled can sometimes be insensitive to the substantial degree of change that has already occurred over what is, historically speaking, a short amount of time.
The tension between the center and the fervent anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street wing of the party — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — has amplified intraparty conflict.

While some centrist Democrats and organizations with which they are allied view economic populists as an electoral liability, they are, among other things, crucial to keeping within the Democratic fold a bloc of voters who can drift in small but significant numbers to third-party candidates, like Jill Stein in 2016 and Ralph Nader in 2000, who arguably prevented Democratic candidates from winning the presidency.

While both parties are penalized for their internal divisions, there is some evidence that cultural and economic strains present particular challenges for Democrats.
It is tempting to excerpt most the column. Best to go over and read it.
Fiorina cited the results of the 2016 Voter Study Group Survey of 8000 adults to argue that Democratic elites have adopted a set of issue priorities that are significantly different from those of all voters.

The Voter Study Group identifies 15 percent of voters who fit into what it calls the Democratic-Independent Liberal Elite category. This is the cohort that has often provided leadership for the social justice movement within the Democratic Party. Members of this group have generally been younger, more liberal, better educated and more affluent than average voters.

When asked to rank issue priorities, there were some striking differences between these more liberal Democrats and the average voter.

According to the survey, issues that the Democratic elite gave much higher priority to than the electorate at large included gay rights, 61.0 to 34.3; gender equality, 68.7 to 35; and racial equality, 65.7 to 38.8.

Conversely, the issues given much higher priority by all voters than by Democratic elites included terrorism, 58.2 percent to 11.6 percent; crime, 57.4 to 18.2; taxes, 56.9 to 18.9; budget deficit, 50.7 to 5.3; religious liberty, 48.5 to 21.7; and immigration, 46.1 to 16.7.

To put it bluntly, there is a huge gulf between the priorities of the Democratic elite, which exercises significant influence over party policymaking, and the general public.
Edsall is good at ferreting out information and I think this VSG data is very interesting. It supports the contention that there is a widening gap between the party elite and the electorate. Oddly, the voter categories that the survey designers created omit a corresponding Conservative Elite. Perhaps because the conservative tent is so broad that that there is no "conservative" elite, merely "party" elite.

Regardless, the VSG data is a sharp profile on what the electorate is interested in versus the Democratic-Independent Liberal Elite (the survey' terminology).

Click to enlarge.

Let's focus in on the numbers a little more.

What are the top ten issues of greatest importance to all voters? In rank order:
Economy (identified by 75.7%)
Healthcare (71.4)
Jobs (70.4)
Social Security (64.9)
Education (58.6)
Medicare (58.2)
Terrorism (58.2)
Crime (57.4)
Taxes (56.9)
Poverty (51.3)
Using the survey's category of older conservatives as a proxy for Republican Party establishment, seven of these concerns are also on their list of ten most important issues; a reasonable correspondence. They match perfectly on two, overall voters and older conservatives both ranking Economy and Jobs as one and three respectively.

Liberal Elites only has four issues in common with the average voter. The single most important issue for all voters, the economy, is barely number ten on the liberal elite radar. Three traditional Democratic concerns fail to make the top ten, medicare ranked 11th, social security ranked 13th and jobs ranked 14th. The biggest discrepancy are the 7, 8 and 9 of the overall concerns, terrorism, crime and taxes which barely make it on the liberal elite radar screen at 21, 19, and 18 respectively.

Essentially older conservatives are a reasonably close match to the general public in the top ten list of concerns, differing more by degree (92% focused on the economy versus the general voter focusing 76%), rather than kind. They have similar prioritization of concerns with a difference in intensity whereas liberal elites have a substantially different list of concerns.

Overall voters agree with both liberal elites and older conservatives that the Economy and Health Care are in the top ten.

Not only are older conservatives better aligned with general voters as to what is most important but the degree of their interest is more aligned with general voters. Older conservatives have a 14.7 point difference in intensity of interest whereas liberal elites are further out with 21.2.

Anyway, interesting information to mull upon.

One final note.
While Republicans have clearly been pushed well to the right of center by their activist wing, the results of House and Senate elections in recent years suggest continued public reluctance to give Democrats control of Congress.
I'm not sure that is what has happened. The most rigorous analyses I have seen in the past year are all indicating that the Republicans have shifted right a marginal amount in the past couple of decades, either in terms of their past positions or in terms of the electorate at large. The real changes in the line-up have been in the Democratic Party moving sharply to the left of both their earlier positions as well as in terms of the electorate. And interestingly, the electorate has barely budged.

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