Balkinization  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who Won that Masked Election?

Stephen Griffin

NPR and other news sources are reporting a roiling debate in the Democratic party about what the election meant. As I understand it, there are at least two debates, although they intersect. One might be called "person vs. policy." Did voters select Obama primarily for his leadership qualities or for his policies? And if policy, which policies were crucial? Getting us out of a severe recession or longstanding problems like health care? The other debate is about ideology, one we often have after elections. Did voters shift left or does the country remain, as so many seem to think, "center-right?"

In addition, there are arguments about what might be called the preconditions for successfully advancing new domestic policy initiatives. Clinton adviser Elaine Kamarck has been arguing that rebuilding trust in government is one these preconditions. The political science evidence I'm familiar with suggests Kamarck is right. Marc Hetherington's 2005 book, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism is very convincing on this point. You might think of increasing political trust as the way to boost the signal of new policies that require cutting through the interference thrown up by opposing interest groups. And how to increase trust? Here's where the analogy to 1933 is on target -- by restoring basic confidence in the economy and the government's ability to handle the recession. But this also means complex domestic initiatives will have to wait.

As for ideology, there is a strange asymmetry operating somewhere. Apparently, elections aren't about ideology except when Republicans win. The empirical evidence I'm familiar with shows elections can't be ideological in the way the term is normally meant because voters don't think of themselves as "conservative" or "liberal" in the first place. If this is a relatively stable truth, however, then it applied with equal force to the 1980 election, the so-called "Reagan revolution." There was plenty of evidence in the 1980s that despite Reagan's political dominance voters hadn't changed their adherence to policies normally referred to as liberal. Whole books were written about this such as Right Turn, a 1986 effort by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers.

But Republicans didn't see it that way. They set the terms of a debate among elites which they won, claiming the 1980 election had vindicated their principles. They acted as if they had faith, and policies were granted to them. So why don't Democrats today emulate the Republicans of 1980? Instead of negotiating with themselves and debating what the election meant, they should seize the high ground and simply claim their principles have been vindicated. And if Obama is as adept as Reagan in picking the few right principles to turn into policy, it all works. Unfortunately, Democrats tend to define themselves by adherence to pragmatism rather than principle. Pragmatism seems to mean carving the election into thin slices and studying them at a microscopic level to see what policies might be acceptable rather than seizing the opportunity for a chance to lead the U.S. to a new place. It's a difference not only with respect to how the parties define themselves, but also about what political leadership means.

To get to the bottom line: of course the election was not about a dramatic shift in ideology. No evidence supports that this ever happens, at least in the way elites define the term. Effective leaders treat electoral success as an opportunity to advance new principles and ideas that will be confirmed by policy success. That's how a "revolution" can get off the uncertain ground provided by a close scrutiny of public opinion and into the history books as a truly new deal.




Comments:

Professor Griffin,

A thread not mentioned is that perhaps the Democrats didn't win this one at all so much as the Republicans lost it. I don't say that flippantly. The failure of the Democrats to do anything substantial since 2006 has lead many liberals and progressives to despair that the two parties really are just separate arms of the larger coporatocracy. If that is the case, that both parties serve the status quo, and Obama's selection of folks like Biden and Brzezinski and Lieberman would seem to support such a view, then there's no need to look for an ideological shift, because there's really no practical shift.

Now, if our interracial international intellectual President-elect manages, with the help of a Democratic Congress, to manifest any substantive measure of the liberal or progressive agendas, then there might be something to talk about. Get us out of Iraq. Undo the MCA, the DTA, HR3162 (the so-called "patriot" act), HSPD20/NSPD51, ad naseum, then we might have cause to speak of a shift.

On the other hand, what is the big idea behind parroting right-wing polititainment nonsense like "center-right". I mean, seriously, you understand that's just self-serving swill, don't you, worthy only of laughter and derision.
 

I agree with Robert. The priorities are clear enough:

Deal with the economy.

Get out of Iraq.

Bust the Bush crime syndicate and clean house, especially DOJ and DoD -- heads should roll in quantity, followed up by prosecutions.
 

The title of the cited book is specious. In the current lameduck administration's past 7+years in office, there have been ample demonstrations that the Massage in the Media has strong liberalism elements. However, the hype about Reagan is misplaced; his was a miasma of celluloidization of US politics, more communications arts by practitioners other than his own grade-B act, and less about vision from his chosen political party. The Democratic Party, by contrast, always has an ungainly appearance, even in victory, ever questioning its ambience, and incessantly polling its constituency for replication of outcomes. I think there will be great character from the newly elected administration, given its already known principals' records. It just looks funny because it is 'change'.
 

When thinking about this election, Heatherington is a good place to begin.

It is worth noting that Heatherington got his Ph.D. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin. This is notable for the present discussion because that was and is the home of Walter Dean Burnham, the principle articulator of Realignment Theory. Whether or not one accepts the precepts of Burnham's arguments, when we are discussing whether or not it is possible to say whether an election means something, Burnham is a great place to start. And Heatherington undoubtedly absorbed much of this.

Because Burnham is on record as claiming that 1968 was a critical election that marked the end of the New Deal era, and the beginning of a new one. This, even though 1968 did not fall under the prior existing definition of a critical realignment, where one party assumed control of all three political branches, to be held for at least 10 years. What was the 1968 election “about?” According to Burnham it was about a decline of trust in government. For support he relies on a study by John Aldrich and Richard Niemi, which used about 20 measures, and showed a rapid shift towards distrust in 1968. Given assassinations of King and RFK, the rapid shift to unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the rapid shift to unpopularity of LBJ, riots in ghetto's, and riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, this is at least plausible. After all, Nixon ran on not just a Southern strategy, but also a “law and order” strategy of opposition to the Warren Court.

When the dominant theme of the era is a distrust of government, the message of Reagan in 1980 resonates. Government, he said, is not the solution; government is the problem. This part of the message has been held consistently by Republican ideologues from then till now.

It is likely that the utter destruction of a political regime provides opportunity, and exactly what will be reconstructed may not be clear from the election. FDR began his New Deal with the National Recovery Act, after all. This was an attempt to create a sort of state corporatism, combining coordination of industry, labor, and government. The National Labor Relations Act only comes after the NRA was struck down. When Lincoln was election in 1860, it was clear to many that a war was likely. But few probably foresaw a war to end slavery not only in the territories, but in the South itself. A vote for Andrew Jackson in 1828 was a vote to end “King Caucus” in the House of Representative. I doubt it was clear to many that the Jacksonian vision included a mass party system fueled by the spoils system. On the other hand, the election of 1896 was clearly about sound money (Gold) and a national market system (at the expense of populist democracy), and the Reagan clearly advocated smaller government (though we did not get that).

There has unquestionably been a repudiation of the Bush administration, and also a repudiation of Republican rule in Congress. And exactly how this repudiation manifests into new policy initiatives will be determined by the actions of the Obama Administration and the Congress. But one thing is clear: there is a bigger role for government intervention in economic matters than was espoused in the Republican era that I believe is now passing before our eyes—thoroughly discredited. And the use of the military will have to be more judicious than we have seen in recent years. The canvas unfolding before us is not completely defined. But neither is it entirely blank.
 

you can say there has been no ideological shift, but, there is now a consensus that the government needs to better regulate the finance industry, provide healthcare, wrap up the iraq war, deal with the middle east and offer a robust domestic policy to deal with a recession.

they have overwhelmingly rejected the republicans.

obama has promised a bold domestic policy centered around green jobs, expanded healthcare, investment in infrastructure, partial nationalization of the banking and, maybe, the automotive industry.

if this doesn't represent an ideological shift towards reality and an expanded role for government, i don't know what Prof. Griffin expects to see when it happens...
 

Mr. Obama's campaign of tax cuts for 95% and cutting present spending to pay for new programs, and now his appointments of centrists to the key cabinet positions, pretty much tell you where Mr. Obama thinks the ideology of the country lays.

Geithner, Summers and Richardson for the key economic posts are the best choices a conservative could hope for from a Dem administration. It was no accident that the markets rebounded sharply this afternoon once the specter of a redistributionist anti-business administration started to lift.

IF this is the third Clinton administration when it comes to economic policy, the government has just sifted right in fiscal policy, if not in tax policy, after the spend thrift W years.
 

IF this is the third Clinton administration when it comes to economic policy, the government has just sifted right in fiscal policy

Or if one follows Occam's razor, one could say it's a shift back to the left. The Reagan-Bush years weren't exactly thrifty times, either, my friend.
 

Actually, i would say any move towards fiscal responsibility should be called a move leftwards.

http://www.lafn.org/gvdc/Natl_Debt_Chart.html

http://www.cedarcomm.com/~stevelm1/usdebt.htm

Why the republicans claim they are the party of fiscal discipline is beyond me.

leftward, ho!
 

Oh my!

Reportedly, Obama is set to appoint former Marine Commandant and NATO commander James Jones as national security advisor. Condi Rice begged Gen. Jones to be her deputy. What an outstanding choice!

You folks on the left better be very concerned when this conservative thinks that Obama is choosing a rather good cabinet.

If Obama listens to and follows the advice of the folks he is appointing, the next four to eight years may not be too bad at all.

Hell, I am liking "change" more and more.
 

Bart, are you gloating?

Didn't Obama say over and over that he was going to tap both parties for his cabinet? Why the sudden surprise?

If you want an effective government, that's the way the executive branch should be. Now, kindly share the secret with the monolithophilic RNC...
 

Longwinded much, Jonathan?

Bartistotle says: It was no accident that the markets rebounded sharply this afternoon once the specter of a redistributionist anti-business administration started to lift"

No doubt. I'm just preparing to be blindsided soon. Hope you're bracing yourself. Did Obama get smart overnight, was he just lying to get elected, is someone else pulling the strings? What the heck is going on here?
 

You folks on the left better be very concerned when this conservative thinks that Obama is choosing a rather good cabinet.

Well, Bart. Given that it was a very short time ago that you were referring to the President-elect as a "fool", given that a very short time ago you declared that the stock markets had "stabilized" (after a one-day rebound), given that after getting your ass kicked on election night you whined about taking a rhetorical beating from a few of us here even though you have an ignoble history of boasting about how brutal is the treatment of liberals at the 'milblogs' you're so fond of...

Given all that, maybe we aren't too much concerned about what clowns like yourself think.
 

Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention Bart's triumphal declaration that the left was "scared to death" of Sarah Palin.

Ho-hum.
 

Hell, I am liking "change" more and more.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 6:20 PM


Maybe it's time you admitted that all your pre-election predictions were completely idiotic.
 

You folks on the left better be very concerned when this conservative thinks that Obama is choosing a rather good cabinet.

Numbnuts, you thought we should have been concerned about Palin.
 

PMS_Chicago said...

Bart, are you gloating?

??? No, I am personally relieved that we do not appear to be en route to the second Carter Administration. Apart from Gen. Jones, this is hardly my ideal administration. It is just far better than the markets and I feared and so far appears to confirm that Mr. Obama does not believe that he has a mandate to "lurch left."

Didn't Obama say over and over that he was going to tap both parties for his cabinet? Why the sudden surprise?

I can care less about the partisan affiliation of the people the President elect appoints to is Administration. Rather, I am more concerned with competence and ideology. For example, Clinton's choice of the unimaginative Republican Bill Cohen as Sec Def was a singularly uninspired choice for Sec Def. IMHO, Joe Lieberman would be a better choice for any foreign policy post than Obama's pal Chuck Hegel.
 

It is just far better than the markets and I feared....

That's just because you bought the Limpballs/InsHannirty/SarahCuda/GOP spin that Obama was some kind of "socialist", nay, even "Marxist".

We can't be held responsible for your misperceptions and hallucinations; you'll have to deal with that yourself.

Cheers,
 

mattski said...
Well, Bart. Given that it was a very short time ago that you were referring to the President-elect as a "fool", given that a very short time ago you declared that the stock markets had "stabilized" (after a one-day rebound), given that after getting your ass kicked on election night you whined about taking a rhetorical beating from a few of us here even though you have an ignoble history of boasting about how brutal is the treatment of liberals at the 'milblogs' you're so fond of...


A man lacking the strength of character in general can hardly be expected to be consistent. Nobody so addicted to divisiveness could be long confused with a man of character. He espouses not conservative values so much as his own lack of them. Count only the number of times that and swiftness with which he cries "you people" to see that. As to his perceptiveness, just here he runs on the theory that killing turkeys causes winter when trying in vain to use the stock market swings to validate his latest howling.
 

PMS_Chicago said...

Bart, are you gloating?

BD: ??? No, I am personally relieved that we do not appear to be en route to the second Carter Administration.


Then again, I may have been early in my relief. As Sandy noted in a Saturday post, Team Obama is floating a trial balloon in the NYT suggesting that it will offer a monstrosity "stimulus bill" consisting of every single spending program he offered during the campaign to be financed through several hundred billion dollars in borrowing. This homage to Peronism is hardly comforting.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

The model of politics is adversarial not collaborative. This isn't news except to liberal intellectuals who've proceed from an ideal of "reason" that's ended up justifying little more than weak-willed passivity.

Democrats for years have refused to lead, which can best be described both as an acquiescence to the will of the people and as an acknowledgment that the leadership makes their money the same way the republican leadership does. The democratic party is not the party of working people but of a somewhat guilty elite unable and unwilling to see their way through the contradictions of leadership as service. Simply put It's not in the short term self-interest of the democratic leadership to represent the principles of the democratic base, and we have a limited history of noblesse oblige.

Between the liberal pretension that liberals are the good guys they pretend to be and Bart's assumption that people, himself included, are scum, there's plenty of room for observant skepticism. Return to an intellectual model where self-interest is less a moral priority than a vulgar and not quite reputable given and the democrats will be reminded how and why to stand and fight.

There are signs of this, and Obama is a part of it but only a part. The rank and file are more interesting than he is.
 

Refused to lead? Meaning what? Failing to do what you wanted?

There's a difference between being on the defensive and going AWOL.

This stuff just isn't nearly that simple: politics is BOTH collaborative and adversarial, much the way marriage or parenting is.

Equally, the people think what they think and do what they do -- how is anyone supposed to lead the Bart De Palmas of the world?
 

The model of politics is adversarial not collaborative. This isn't news except to liberal intellectuals who've proceed from an ideal of "reason" that's ended up justifying little more than weak-willed passivity.

I don't understand your brand of post-modernist gobbledy-gook. From my perspective you've got highly abstract linguistic structures occluding your vision...
 

Democrats vs Republicans
Yankees vs Red Socks
Prosecutors vs defense attorneys.
A lawyer wants to win. Interestingly enough in the heat of battle the question of whether his position is the right one -of his client's actual guilt or innocence- is secondary.

Nice guys finish last.
What is it you don't understand?

There's a necessary tension between politics and policy, but if the republicans operate on the perverse logic of "politics as policy" the democrats have often operated on the sincere delusion of "policy as politics" which has led them to the sinecures of comfortable failure.

Clinton was an exception to this and even the democrats didn't know how to handle it. He didn't run and win as a policy wonk he ran as a charmer and seducer. And of course his policies matched those of what once would have been a moderate republican.
Kerry's aristocratic preference for Hoyle won out over whatever anger he had concerning republican policy. Worst came to worst and he took his ball and went home. Clinton was greedy for power, and so is Obama, that's why they won. Do you know the story of how he had his first opponents thrown off the ballot?

http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/05/29/obamas.first.campaign/index.html

"Hardball" is another word for baseball.

When a politician can have a power base (and all the authority that implies) in the working class and the educated left then we'll have a seducing sleazebag socialist in power. The sooner the better, but I'm not holding my breath.

And please no more stupid questions
 

What stupid questions?

I'm not stupid and neither are you -- you're just too chicken-shit to give me an honest answer, mostly because you were just spewing bile and don't have one.
 

Nice guys finish last. What is it you don't understand?

If you could get past Bart's "Fascist" name tag and Bart could get past your "Socialist" name tag I think the two of you might get on swimmingly.
 

"you're just too chicken-shit to give me an honest answer,"

You've said the same thing in the past. And I'd given you an honest answer then as now. They may have been to blunt for you but that's a different matter.

And I didn't say decent human beings always lose, I said nice guys finish last.

Not the same thing.
 

Oh bullshit -- your insults and sour grapes aren't any sort of an answer to anything except your own infantile arrogance and self-absorption. It's pointless hot-air. What do you hope to accomplish with this nonsense?

Did you even bother to vote for Obama?
 

"Did you even bother to vote for Obama?:
I did not vote for a surge in Afghanistan. I did not vote for support for Israeli policy in Gaza. I did not vote for Robert Rubin or Larry Summers or Rahm Emanuel or Hillary Clinton or Richard Holbrooke. I did not vote for Brent Skowcroft. I did not vote for the continuation of the national security state. But I voted against McCain the only way I could: by voting for Obama.
Your narcissism is annoying.
 

Ha. My "narcissism" is purely a figment of your imagination. I'm human just like you, Barack Obama, and everyone else, even clueless sociopaths like Bart.
 

(NB, I am one of Professor Griffin's students, so take that as you will.)

It seems to me that the lack of "leadership" provided by the Democrat-controlled Congress was a tactical political decision designed to put Barack Obama into office by reducing the amount of trust the electorate held in the incumbent party. The calculations, it seems, were that the blame would be short-term while the political gains might be longer-term.

In and amidst all the partisan name-calling that seems to follow this blog's comment threads, there seems to be a mutual worry from both camps that the other side might just be right. Mr. DePalma might actually see, once the transfer of power is put into place, an electoral "revolution" become an ideological one as well; conversely, the Bartbusters might see the revolution less inclined to a Rooseveltian tack than a Clintonian one.

But hey, I may just be chicken-shit.
 

the Bartbusters might see the revolution less inclined to a Rooseveltian tack than a Clintonian one.

But hey, I may just be chicken-shit.

# posted by Rick : 1:27 PM


There might be some who feel that way, but not me. I'm just happy we are rid of the clowns that created the Disaster in Iraq.
 

there seems to be a mutual worry from both camps that the other side might just be right

The fact that Baghdad Bart has called Obama both a Marxist and a Clinton retread, he is going to claim he was right no matter what Obama does.
 

Well Rick, I've spent fully seven years working in opposition to the Bush administration in the belief that they were criminals in the same sense that the German Nazis were. From the start, I've understood that getting them out of office would be the easiest part of what needs to be done, and that the really difficult work would come after they were gone. My greatest hope for Barack Obama is simply that he is an honest, intelligent man who is open to reason. If he turns into the second coming of Bill Clinton, that will dissapoint me some, but even that will be a huge improvement over the criminality of the Bush gang.

And it's impossible for me to suppose that Obama's judicial appointments will disappoint me nearly as much as the neo-fascists and war-criminals that Bush put on the federal bench.
 

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