Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Why the Right-Wing Gets It--and Why Dems Don't

I am dismayed, my friends.

Almost every time a Democratic leader opens his or her mouth I am dismayed.

I am dismayed because there are two opposing political strategies being played out in America's politics with two vastly different philosophies--and it's clear that one side is definitely winning.  And it ain't our side.

I am dismayed because even most of the Progressives here in the liberal blogosphere don't really have a full grasp of the true nature of what is going on, or don't talk as if they do.  I am dismayed because the authors of wonderful books like Crashing the Gate and Off-Center mistake the realities of the Republican strategy.  

I know that these are bold statements--and they are not meant to offend.  They are meant as a wake-up call--and a call to action.  Let me explain to you what I'm talking about.

The conventional wisdom among progressives goes like this: The DLC-led Democratic party "triangulates" toward an elusive center, thereby making it appear weak, ineffective and unprincipled; the GOP, meanwhile, plays strongly to its base and rallies its reliable voters.  Progressives understand that the center doesn't matter: almost every election is about rallying the base to achieve voter turn-out.

We can see this thinking all over the place: in Crashing the Gate and Off-Center, and all over the liberal blogosphere.  From The Economist's View, we see an all-too typical encapsulation of this worldview:

The Dems are still trying to 'triangulate' - hold their base and play to the middle - which might work if the 'other side' wasn't playing to their base so strongly. So instead of winning over BOTH the middle and their base, the Dems get tepid support from both middle & base and their head handed to them.

There is also a corollary to this premise: that by playing too far to their base, they will alienate the unnerved middle of the country.  This is the sort of thinking mirrored in diaries like this one, which was on Diary Rescue--basically arguing that movements like Concerned Women for America will create an anti-GOP backlash.  It's the sort of thinking that says that the GOP will never overturn Roe v. Wade.

Both of these ideas are misguided--if not deadly wrong.  Allow me to explain why--straight from a Republican operative's mouth


On the contrary: the GOP knows that the middle DOES matter.  They know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.

By far the most enlightening thing I have read on the blogosphere in the past two months came from Republican Operative and founder of RedState.com Joshua Trevino, on Armando's and Trevino's new blog Swords Crossed.  In an incredibly instructive piece--and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing--Josh Trevino does us all the favor of introducing us to the Overton Window. The Overton Window, in my opinion, is basically the key to the Republicans' success over the past twenty years--and it comes straight from the Republican think tanks.  I am posting more of this piece than perhaps fair use allows--and my apologies to Armando and to Joshua Trevino for doing so (please email me if you have a problem, guys!), though I hope this will draw more attention to Swords Crossed.  At any rate, the piece goes as follows:

As some may know, I work at a free-market think tank, and as such, qualify as a full-fledged member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. While places like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and others are justly famous for their national-level work, it's the network of state-level think tanks that are, to my biased mind, the unsung heroes of the movement.

So, with that being said, and mindful of my business-related absence for the latter half of this week, I'm going to share with you a little strategizing exercise from the bowels of the VRWC.

The mission of a think tank is to introduce ideas into public discourse and normalize them within the public discourse. The steps an idea takes to full legitimacy are roughly as follows:







No namby-pambying.  This is a systematic, no-nonsense approach to political ideas and discourse.  To continue, after skipping a bit:

One useful tool is the Overton window. Named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy who developed the model, it's a means of visualizing where to go, and how to assess progress. Let's say, for example, that you want to make education as free and choice-based as it can possibly be. Let's start by developing a continuum of educational states, from the desired extreme of total freedom, to the undesirable extreme of total statism. It might look something like this:

--No government involvement in education.

--All schools private with government regulation.

--Voucher system with public schools.

--Tuition tax credit with public schools.

--Homeschooling legal.

--Private schools restricted.

--Homeschooling illegal.

--Private schools illegal.

--Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries.

Now, obviously, I violently dispute Josh's framing of this issue: when no public education is available, that's hardly freedom. That's a form of oppression.  As a homeschooler myself, I also disagree with the bulletin points of his continuum, but that's another story.

But the key thing to consider here for a moment is the systematization of these ideas and policies.  

To continue:

Now, back when Joe Overton drew up this notional list (which is meant to be illustrative, so don't get hung up on its particular accuracy), the range of actual, reasonable possibilities as perceived by the general public in Overton's state of Michigan were the items bolded below:


--No government involvement in education.

--All schools private with government regulation.

--Voucher system with public schools.

--Tuition tax credit with public schools.

--Homeschooling legal.

--Private schools restricted.

--Homeschooling illegal.

--Private schools illegal.

--Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries.


The bolded items, representing the politically possible amongst all conceivable options, are the Overton window. The idea is to shift that window in the preferred direction. In Michigan today, the Overton window looks substantively different:


No government involvement in education.

All schools private with government regulation.

--Voucher system with public schools.

--Tuition tax credit with public schools.

--Homeschooling legal.

--Private schools restricted.

Homeschooling illegal.

Private schools illegal.

Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries.


Do you see how this works?  Systematically, piece by piece, the GOP takes what had been considered impossibly radical positions and makes them worthy of consideration just by talking about them--and then makes what had been considered outside possibilities truly possible.  Now, I happen to believe that legalization of homeschooling is a good thing (though there should be oversight)--others may disagree.

But the important thing to remember is that the Republicans are carrying out this same exercise with every public policy debate today--from invading Iran to making birth control illegal to eliminating Social Security.  The once unthinkable becomes possible--and they don't care if they take some heat for it initially.

To finish:

Step by step, ideas that were once radical or unthinkable -- homeschooling, tuition tax credits, and vouchers -- have moved into normal public discourse. Homeschooling is popular, tuition tax credits are sensible, and vouchers are acceptable. (On the latter, they've been soundly defeated in Michigan of late, but the point is that they are a part of normal public and political discourse.) The de facto illegality of homeschooling, by contrast, has gone the way of the dodo. The conscious decision to shift the Overton window is yielding its results.

So there's your tip from the VRWC for the day. It's a methodology that could work for the left as easily as the right, although I'm not aware of a single left-wing think tank (and they are few) that operates so systemically. If you're of an analytic bent, and want to figure out where a legislative or policy strategy is heading, try constructing the scale of possibilities and the Overton window for the subject at hand. Change can happen by accident, true: but it is just as often the product of deliberation and intent, and it does all of us well to understand the mechanisms by which it occurs.

Amen, Josh, and thank you.  This is something that the Democrats still do not understand.  You win policy debates by crafting arguments for extreme positions--and then shifting the entire window of debate.  You do not win by trying to figure out which position is most popular among Americans right now.

When Concerned Women for America does its thing, that's exactly what they're doing.  They're taking some heat today, in preparation for tomorrow's very real policy battle.  They're priming the public to even talk about the idea of eliminating birth control.  And far from turning off moderate voters, they're going to sway them.  They're going to WIN moderate voters by playing to their base.  But playing to it with careful calculation.


And this stands in stark contrast to the Democrats: When the rightwing attacked the Democrats for promoting "Hillarycare", and the Democrats started to take some heat, we just slinked back into a corner and didn't raise the issue again.  To this day, we are afraid to talk about single-payer health coverage, for fear of offending the middle.

Meanwhile, the progressives among us insist that our leaders simply come out swinging in favor single-payer health coverage to rally our base--without priming the moderate voter for the idea in advance.

Both strategies will fail miserably.


Democrats and Progressives think that winning elections comes down to one of two alternatives: a) taking a principled stand of leadership; or b) listening to focus groups.

The truth is that we need to do both. It is not an either-or scenario.  We cannot achieve victory by playing to the base and ignoring the middle, nor can we win by playing to the middle and ignoring the base.  We need to do both--and the GOP understands this.

Remember that Frank Luntz is the master of the focus group--and that there's many an election they would have lost without him.

To win, we must take principled stands of leadership--using phrases and frames that are calculated to shift the Overton Window to our side.

To win, we must sway the middle by playing to the base--and we must understand that this is a difficult and heavily calculated process that requires time, money and manpower.

To win, we must realize the power of the Overton Window, and stop kowtowing to the antiquated thinking pits the Middle versus the Base.

To win, we must understand that there is no conflict between playing to the middle and the base--so long as our messaging is clear and well-crafted, and our positions are principled, memorable, and consistent.

It is time, in short, for an evolution in our thinking that matches the subtlety and genius of the GOP machine--wihtout its concomitant evil.  Thank you, Mr. Overton!

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos]


Blogger daveawayfromhome said...

So many people complain that the Democrats are pussies, and shis shows just how right they are. Moreso, in fact. I'll be linking this.

12:54 AM  
Blogger thereisnospoon said...

glad to hear it. Thank you.

2:45 AM  
Blogger DavidByron said...

You've written some good stuff on this. You mostly get it I think, however, what you are suggesting still sounds like the underpants gnomes in execution. You know what you want and where you start but there's no "how to".

The extremists on the Right are supported fully by their media and their mainstream. The "extremists" on the left are attacked by even progressives in the blogosphere (the nearest equivalent of their media operation). I for example could not post this comment at either dKos or MyLeftWing because I am banned by them because I am too "extreme" on the left.

Whether it's Chomsky or ANSWER or Ward Churchill or Cynthia McKinney you know it's true; the Democrats always piss on the left in America.

Take impeachment (now supported by the majority of ordinary Americans). Where is the support for the telling of this "unthinkable" / "radical" story by the Democrats?

So while I think you have the goal right, where is the "how to"?

6:59 PM  
Blogger thereisnospoon said...

the "how to" is simple. The activists and the blogs stand up and push the window. The Democratic Leadership makes a stand to make "popular" policies into "real" policies.

12:41 AM  

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